Writing Lives: Marvell and Biography

Andrew Marvell Statue, Hull.

I’ve thought many times before that Andrew Marvell’s life and my own show distinct traces of overlap, and it’s never escaped me that this may be one of the reasons why I identify so closely with his writing.

Obviously, this fills me with an awful lot of trepidation. It’s a dangerous game to read literature that is not overtly cast as ‘life writing’ (personal letters, diary, etc) through the lens of biography.

One esteemed critic particularly noted (and pilloried) for this practice was William Empson, whose use of biography was brought to task by Frank Kermode and others. And it was the bravest feature of the recent Marvell biography, I thought, to try and situate poems in particular chronological moments, despite the difficulty in dating most of them.

Elusive Biography

On the face of it, the issue of biography seems like a critical subjugation of the sort demonstrated by Cleanth Brooks and Douglas Bush over the ‘Horatian Ode’. Brooks concludes his formalist reading of the Ode as follows:

Was this, then, the attitude of Andrew Marvell, born 1621, sometime student at Cambridge, returned traveller and prospective tutor, toward Oliver Cromwell in the summer of 1650? The honest answer must be: I do not know. I have tried to read the poem, the ‘Horatian Ode’, not Andrew Marvell’s mind. […]

True, we do know that Marvell was capable of composing the ‘Ode’ and I must concede that the fact may tell us a great deal about Cromwell’s attitude towards Cromwell. I think it probably does. I am not sure… that it tells us everything: there is the problem of the role of the unconscious in the process of composition, there is the possibility of the poet’s having written better than he knew, there is even the matter of the happy accident.

Despite a clear temptation to read the poem biographically, Brooks claims to opt out – not only because of his caveats, but also because he fears the poem’s ambiguity (ironically, one of the biography-favouring Empson’s favourite topics).

Marvell has rarely occupied a comfortable position within critical orthodoxy – particularly those of the later twentieth century. John Wallace’s Destiny His Choice (1968) long pre-dated the New Historicism of the 1980s. And thanks to Robert Hodge, Annabel Patterson and others, Marvell had already started to become a re-defined and decidedly political animal by the late 1970s.

Biography is an interesting and illicit barrier that somehow eludes that opposing set of critical values. In 1952, Kermode identified biography as one of the key ‘mistakes’ that had apparently led to flawed readings of ‘The Garden’, which marks it as a noisy distraction from his favoured formalism.

Autobiography & ‘The Garden’

If we peel the visceral layer further, however, to autobiography: that’s a more dangerous game still. It would be unthinkable to explicitly indebt critical assessment to our own personal biography – though I don’t think that stops us from trying.

Some have argued that it was the circumstances behind Empson’s unceremonious ejection from Cambridge that inspired some of his most controversial readings of Shakespeare.

The final chapter of my doctoral thesis, ‘The Poetics of Privacy’, has no choice but to address Marvell’s poetry and biography in some way. But it’s not straightforward.

Though Frank Kermode’s influential essay on ‘The Argument of Marvell’s Garden’ belongs in the distant past, there are many, I suspect, who respect these formalist principles.

‘The Garden’ must not be read as autobiography… ‘What was Marvell’s state of mind as he wandered in Fairfax’s Yorkshire garden?’ is a very bad question to ask, but it is obviously one which comes readily to the minds of learned and subtle interpreters; both Marvell and Donne have suffered greatly from this form of misapplied scholarship.

To Kermode, when the poem was written is not important. Though he’s liberating the poem from becoming forcefully ascribed to Nun Appleton in the early 1650s, which is no bad thing, he still finds problems with the very idea of dating it with contextual purpose.

It is comforting to reflect that the date of ‘The Garden’ is quite unknown, so that it cannot be positively dated to be the direct record of some personal experience at Nun Appleton. It could conceivably have been written much later. The pseudo-biographical critic is wasteful and deceptive…

That’s me told, then!

Ironically, Kermode does not object to intertextuality. The history of ideas, which he deals with fabulously, is key to the poem. Only, the literary Solitude, even over and above the Jouissance, is still (I would contend) a shadow of the reality of seventeenth-century privacy.

Though he determines that ‘The Garden’ ‘is not a contribution to philosophy’, how can we know that without seeking to contextualise the poem in light of John Evelyn and George Mackenzie’s debate on the merits of public and private life, for example, and determining what solitude might have actually meant to Marvell?

What did solitude mean to Marvell?
What did solitude mean to Marvell?

The deep, introverted and solipsistic nature of the subject surely requires us to consider how its subtleties and ambiguities read in both the early 1650s and late 1660s.

When Marvell was undertaking his deep contemplation of engagement and retirement in ‘Upon Appleton House’, would ‘The Garden’ represent the ultimate paradise? A desired but unsustainable state? An undesired and unsustainable state? Or maybe even a seductive or destructive enclosure act?

And what of the later period, when the themes of solitude and retirement were fashionable and a (perhaps purposefully) fatigued Marvell found himself at odds with the private life he apparently craved?

For Marvell, the garden is never an escape, I don’t think. He tries often enough to make it so, but it’s always lacking something integral to human necessity and he always rejects it in the end. It’s quite possible, lest we forget, that the poet’s time at Nun Appleton was cut short by time spent in Holland as part of Oliver St. John’s entourage in 1651 (read more).

He would quite happily live alone, it seems – but never lost to the world for too long. He has to linger on the periphery of life and activity. His poetics of enclosure, I would suggest, show that isolation is particularly dangerous to the internal drivers of human accomplishment.

Impossible Choices

It’s not only choice that inspires Marvell, Christine Rees notes, but the impossibility of choice. His verse is full of different kinds of enclosure that are sometimes beautiful but often disappointing.

And I wonder if, beyond the dated formalist / historicist wrangling, there lies a broader epistemological issue. Just as I support the precept of a sui generis model of authorship for the private writer, so I also believe that private poetry can bear a mark of biography. At the very least, we should not discount biography among the vast matrix of factors that determine reception, and understanding.

If it is perceived that we can never read into the mind of another, how can we ever reject any available option? Moreover, why should the private poem be excluded from the category of life-writing? We have the opportunity to consider it closer to the letter or the private diary – a medium that displays the self less ambiguously.

In typical Marvellian fashion, Kermode leaps from the extremity of one position straight into the hands of the opposite. We’re not to read it at all biographically, he says. But there’s plenty to be said for the plane of human experience, with its parallels and crossovers, and the rare (often unique) opportunities that we are granted sometimes to establish a rich and otherworldly familiarity with the psyche of our subject.

For all we know, Marvell intended his poems as a private diary, perhaps even to be destroyed before death. The fundamental problem is: we don’t know, and it’s unlikely that we ever will. So why do we bind ourselves in red-tape in our efforts to interpret such a mystery?

Empson apparently believed that ‘the price of the detached intelligence is painful isolation’. I don’t wonder it’s this kind of autobiographical thinking that drew him to the enigmatic Marvell, and I can’t help wondering if I’ve been heading the same way all these years.

This is dedicated to the precious few who know the truth of recent times and remain steadfast in their loyalty.


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