Karma Chameleon: A Defence of Nigel Smith’s Biography of Andrew Marvell

Like most Marvellians, I was both excited and nervous for the arrival of Nigel Smith’s new biography, The Chameleon.

Nigel Smith, Andrew Marvell - The Chameleon

There was a risk that the foundations of my doctoral thesis would end up incontrovertibly disproved. Fortunately, I escaped that outcome.

In January 2011, I attended the most important stop of the book’s promotional tour – the Andrew Marvell Centre in Hull – to hear Nigel present on it.

Now, having stumbled across a provocative review by Alan Altimont, the associate editor for the Andrew Marvell Society, I feel compelled to mount a defence. So it follows:


Recent studies of Marvell have further exposed his involvement in post-Restoration religious and political struggles, distancing him from the arbitrary label of ‘metaphysical poet’ and positioning him closer to Milton and Dryden.

But no biography or critical work has quite encompassed all of Marvell’s documented and undocumented elements. Pierre Legouis’ Poet, Puritan, Patriot (1926) introduced biographical details to an otherwise literary study. Nicholas Murray’s 1999 World Enough & Time falls shy of capturing Marvell in his full complexity. Nicholas Von Maltzahn’s groundbreaking Andrew Marvell Chronology (2005) is a timeline rather than a biography.

Combining Marvell’s life, thought, works and times together in a narrative is a strangely unedifying prospect. Smith’s chosen term ‘chameleon’ itself is a pantheon: not only of a poet that perplexes and frustrates as often as he delights, but also of an afterlife that has always seemed incomplete.

Perhaps Marvell tests the limit of our modern standards of biography. Writing this particular life – much like Marvell’s own work, ironically – ends up just as wary of the literary mechanics of the exercise as the exercise itself.

This is partly explicated by Nigel Smith’s chapter on ‘How to make a biography of Andrew Marvell’ in the new Cambridge Companion, a rare feature in such volumes. Biography outgrows itself in Marvell’s case: to the literary, the historical, and the psychological. These require something remarkable to make it work.

Altimont does not dispute that Marvell requires an ambitious biography, nor the benefits to be gained from its author’s inimitable knowledge. His own knowledge is highlighted by some fascinating observations, including an imbalance in the biography between the fatherly influence on Marvell and the female presence in his young life.

(I might raise a rueful smile that, with two sisters, two foster-sisters and a niece, I have every reason to believe in this rather acute piece of research about sexuality and attraction.)

“Cobbled Together”

Altimont’s main issue is the execution, which he regards as a great disappointment.

“It is a shame that Smith’s narrative skills do not rise to the level of his scholarship”, he says, finding umbrage with the borrowings from the 2003 Longman edition that embellish the poems. “The result is a book that, however painstakingly researched, feels cobbled together.”

Interestingly, for me, the editorial copy in the Longman edition often seems under-committed in its disciplined lack of critical judgement, almost as if it was initially written with biographical intent in mind.

We might say, then, that two wrongs don’t make a right. But The Chameleon targets well beyond Marvell fanatics, and ownership of the Longman edition is clearly never intended to be a prerequisite.

Altimont is notably pessimistic about this, and lays any failure of the ambition squarely at the author’s feet. (Yet, press reviews have embraced The Chameleon, and the volume has found its way onto the Guardian bestsellers list.)

Guardian Bestsellers 2010
Nonconformists all around!

The Chameleon performs the gargantuan task of merging the benefits of both biography and literary corpus together, for which the specialist reader must make reasonable allowances. Altimont bemoans the lack of “startling revelations”.

Presumably (for they are not mentioned), these are: the remarkable volte-face between the ‘Horatian Ode’ and ‘Tom May’s Death’ in 1650; the dating of ‘The Garden’ and other lyrics at 1668 rather than 1652; and Marvell’s sexuality, including the clandestine ‘marriage’.

But what can you do, shy of making the best sense of much that is confusing, inconsistent and controvertible?

Altimont himself pictures a Marvell “acting on his own inclinations so discretely that they remain as mysterious to us as they were to his contemporaries”. It would be far easier to stress privacy as a rational get-out clause. Smith is brave enough never to use it as an excuse.

Say again?

Marvell’s oeuvre is not huge, but he chose his words very carefully. Repetition, as proved by ‘chartis committere sensus’ in 1651 and 1676 and the reappearance of language from ‘The First Anniversary’ in the amended 1665 ending to ‘The Character of Holland’, is neither insignificant nor coincidental. His life and works are a web of interconnectedness that often spans the decades.

Consequently, the questions they raise are challenging to any chronological structure. It’s a problem that my work on ‘Marvell and Private Lives’ has faced, where biography sits just beneath the surface.

Repetition, another major umbrage for Altimont, is paramount in linking divergent incidents, thoughts and lines together. A biography of Andrew Marvell designed for multiple audiences requires broad historical context. It is hardly the greatest of crimes to present this digestibly.

Even as a Marvell enthusiast, repetition did not hinder my reading or insult my intelligence, so the degree to which this is presented as ‘concerning’ comes as a surprise.

Achilles’ Heel?

In fact, Altimont becomes so preoccupied by what he describes as Smith’s “stylistic Achilles’ heel” that he misses the greater issue at play – one which, I would argue, leaves the biographer more vulnerable.

Aside from his letters and those few published works that were both signed and dateable, Marvell himself offers remarkably little solid evidence. Nicholas McDowell, James Loxley and others have demonstrated the interworkings of poetic echoes that abound between members of literary networks. The remarkably few echoes of Marvell that feature elsewhere in the archive suggest a determined withholding of most of his own work.

This creates numerous challenges. The difficulty of dating much of Marvell’s verse with any great certainty makes Smith’s corroboration of poetry and biography a huge risk, and one that few have called attention to.

For me, it’s the right risk to take. The poems, for all these challenges, are evidence, whether we like this or not. Smith does not hesitate in using them to the full. The tangential elaboration on Marvell’s poems is necessary because the biography dares to give them chronological context. But I accept this approach is worthy of serious critique.

Andrew Marvell, The Chameleon, Signed
“With great admiration, and in friendship, and thinking of the next Marvellians”

It never escapes this blog that elements of Marvell’s life and my own throw up many uncomfortable parallels. I often believe that you ‘get’ Marvell via mental shades that should not be wished upon anybody.

Perhaps I leap to the defence of The Chameleon because the narrative convincingly presents much of the poet I recognise. The difficulties in presenting it are equally familiar and yet overcome with great colour and accomplishment.

4 thoughts on “Karma Chameleon: A Defence of Nigel Smith’s Biography of Andrew Marvell

  1. Keith, you might check out George Klawitter’s review, ANQ, 24.4 (2011), 264-276. You may not like it. Nor, perhaps, will you like my detailed comments on Nigel Smith’s essay in The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell. (Comments are now published on my blog, http://marvellscholar.wordpress.com/). I will say this, though: I hope my comments show why some scholars, especially us older guys, might object to some of the modern theory-based criticism.

    1. Thanks, Dr. Mark! I definitely appreciate the alternative view. I support modern critical interests and tangents that break free from the fixed categories that have rarely seemed to encompass Marvell satisfactorily. (Perhaps I could say more about where I thought this worked and failed in the Cambridge Companion on your own post).

      I wonder if my excitement with modern Marvellian criticism stems from the monographs of old becoming far too comfortable in making assumptions: that Marvell never married, for example, or that the poems to Villiers and on Tom May aren’t Marvell’s because they compromise a more comfortable political consistency. I don’t think that problem was unique to Marvellians, though. How Harold Love can say the Horatian Ode was meant to reach Cromwell’s hands is beyond me. Realising that too little is black and white with Marvell has pushed us to subjective and esoteric directions for illumination. And this, ironically enough, is likely to divide more.

      What I would say, though, is that encapsulating Marvell as a whole across a theme – while I enjoy its creativity – does risk neglecting what is so special about him. I miss the work of John Creaser in the Cambridge Companion, for example. My favourite critical works remain Rosalie Colie’s My Ecchoing Song and Warren Chernaik’s The Poet’s Time, so maybe there’s slight hope for me yet.

  2. Thanks, sincerely, for your thoughtful response to my review of Nigel Smith’s Marvell biography. As you might imagine, I especially appreciate your very positive comment on my discussion of AM’s childhood, etc. I don’t know that any of the review actually sinks (or rises?) to the level of the salacious, but in retrospect I will admit that my saying anything about the book is “lamentable” was histrionic. Mea culpa. It’s an indispensable piece of scholarship for Marvellians, and others, and is likely to remain so for years, as we both know.

    I do stand by my criticism of the writing & editing, though, school-marmish as this may seem to you. I wager we would concur on what would constitute an elegant reminder to the reader of a subject brought up earlier in a long and complicated text. The many passages I had in mind do not serve this purpose, or serve it so awkwardly that they annoy more than they assist. It is an aesthetic issue, secondary to content, but still very much within a reviewer’s purview. Like you, I enjoyed Smith’s readings of the poems, but I think he could have done even more to connect them to the life than the Longman commentaries do. Here, again, we must agree to disagree.

    Nigel Smith is a brilliant, hard-working scholar and a kind, unassuming person; I know him to be, by reputation, a generous and helpful mentor and colleague. He deserves our support and admiration, but I feel sure he expects and respects our honesty as well.

    Good luck in your work, which sounds very interesting indeed.

    1. And thanks to you, sir, for your incredibly gracious reply. I very much enjoyed the way you set up your review, and perhaps I should have added to mine how your piece inspired me to write at all. I really don’t know where I got ‘salacious’ from; provocative better suits, and it was an appealing quality to your piece. [I amend the prose accordingly]. Had your review merely dismissed the biography, I don’t think I would been driven to provide a polar opposite. So thank you, indeed, for a springboard, and for your time in response.

      Absolutely, I agree with you that the writing and production comes within the reviewer’s remit. To redress, three years ago, I remember seizing upon a miserly two typographical errors in a monograph merely to find a blot on the landscape that might validate an otherwise sparkling review.

      The impression I received from your review was that the consequences of the lapses of technique that you found were particularly severe, which I didn’t believe to be the case. Having read your response, I’m naturally much more comfortable (and in agreement) with your sentiment. And when I next read The Chameleon through again, I’m going to be acutely aware of repetition, and perhaps it will suddenly strike me where it didn’t before.

      Many thanks for your input, which has made this fascinating exercise all the more worthwhile.

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