Reading the Small Print: Marvell’s Horatian Ode

New material on Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ excites me more than any other subject. It is one of the iconic poems upon which every Marvellian faces his or her own judgement day.

Burning Sword

With the poet torn between admiration and horror at the unstoppable force of Cromwell, the poem walks such a tightrope that all commentary on it assumes a de facto measure of controversy before it even begins.

It was exciting, therefore, to encounter Michael Komorowski’s essay, ‘Public Verse and Property: Marvell’s “Horatian Ode” and the Ownership of Politics’, a précis of which was delivered at the US leg of the Oxford-Princeton Marvell conference last year. (I attended the UK leg, ‘Marvell and London’ in 2010). [1]

Komorowski discusses the Ode’s attention to private property in the legitimation of political institutions, which provides a fascinating precursor to the relationship between property and private conscience that Marvell explores in his verse on Fairfax’s grounds over the following years.

But one or two smaller details caught my eye along the way, which make for interesting discussion in their minutia.

The “Small Print”

The title of this piece in particular caught me rather off-guard, especially given my vested interest in the private nature of Marvell’s literary output. In what way is Marvell’s Ode ‘public verse’?

Mercifully, the essay did not unravel the privacy of the Ode – to which my thesis owes a fairly considerable debt. In fact, if I dare say it, Komorowski’s claims for the privacy of the poem are possibly overplayed.

“Some very limited circumstantial evidence suggests it may have circulated in manuscript”, he writes, clearly sceptical of the assertion.

Given the robust claims by Nicholas McDowell and others for a more ‘social’ Marvell, especially between the years 1647-1650, I am heartened to find support in my convictions for the private poet where evidence doesn’t exist for the dissemination of his work.

And yet, even I am unable to dismiss the strongest piece of evidence that the Ode may have circulated (albeit much later than 1650), which Komorowski seemingly overlooks. By far the strongest echo of the Ode, as George deF. Lord noted some forty years ago, comes in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis in 1667. [2]

We can’t lose significance of that year either. After a full decade of public silence, Marvell re-entered mainstream publication in 1665 with an abridged version of ‘The Character of Holland’. Soon afterwards, he was prepared to publish in scribal form (albeit anonymously) his caustic ‘Advice to a Painter’ poems.

So, perhaps the watertight grip over his works had loosened slightly; and if so, it would make sense that a colleague in office was involved, and that the result of any poetic influence was designed to rouse spirits against the Dutch. (Though why Dryden, I’m really not sure.)

Regardless of this, however, the echoes are not incontrovertible, and it would appear that the poem never left Marvell’s grasp long enough for a copy to be made.

Readers? What ‘readers’?

Marvell was a man of such extremes that even mere possibilities of circulation attract attention from scholars. Maybe it’s the ‘occasional’ nature of his publications that offers the most useful insight into his willingness to unveil at particular moments.

The ‘Ode’ in 1650 follows a small number of published poems that become increasingly disillusioned with print. In November of that same year, Marvell’s Latin poem written for Robert Witty’s Popular Errours argues that books (including his own poem) are worth nothing more than pipe-fodder to be incinerated.

Five poems written by or attributed to Marvell were printed between 1648 and 1650. Only one poem followed in the next 15 years. This is proven by practice, then, not to be a demonstration of the modesty topos but an enactment of the so-called stigma of print.

Did the Ode ever cease to become private before Marvell’s death? It’s difficult to say, although his career in manuscript and print offers plenty to suggest against it.

Komorowski’s conviction that it didn’t circulate, however, seems at odds with his assessment of the poem’s demands upon its ‘readers’.

Many critics, including Lawrence Hyman, Andrew Shiflett, Adriana McCrea, Cleanth Brooks, Nicholas McDowell, David Norbrook, and Nigel Smith, have either spoken of or made assumptions about the Ode’s ‘readers’, even though the evidence of circulation is so slender.

On this possibility, Komorowski cites Blair Worden, who described the Ode as “the most private of public poems” in 1987.

Worden’s fabulous essay is a great place to turn. But this specific quote is particularly interesting because of a small change Worden makes from the original version published in the Historical Journal three years earlier, which describes the Ode as “the most private of political poems”. [3]

Blair Worden - The Politics of Marvell's Horatian Ode

This subtle alteration of a single word, political to public, may elude many eyes, but it serves to highlight one of the most fascinating aspects of the Ode that is so often overlooked: the dichotomy of public and private that is enacted in voice and practice.

This public-speaking poem might have been written without any readership in mind and without any intention to ever release it to anybody else. To most critics, this is inconceivable – but it’s not for Marvell. As experts know, he’s a poet who is able to frustrate and perplex by making just about anything appear possible.


1. Michael Komorowski, ‘Public Verse and Property: Marvell’s “Horatian Ode” and the Ownership of Politics’, ELH, 79.2 (2012), 315-340.

2. George deF. Lord, ‘Absolom and Achitophel and Dryden’s Political Cosmos’, in Earl Miner (ed.), Writers and their Background: John Dryden (Athens, 1972), pp. 156-190.

3. Blair Worden, ‘The Politics of Marvell’s Horatian Ode’, Historical Journal, 27.3 (1984), 525-547; reprinted as ‘Andrew Marvell, Oliver Cromwell, and the Horatian Ode’, in Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (eds.), Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 147-180.

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