Broken Dreams: Marvell’s Poetics of Privacy

It feels like the final chapter of my thesis, on Andrew Marvell’s ‘Poetics of Privacy’, has been a traumatic experience.

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The private internal negotiations that Marvell constantly faced and the impossibility of choice he so often found himself with leave a man permanently trapped in a life that offers so little solace and almost nothing except a desperate rush towards the end.

As Marvell makes clear in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and ‘The Definition of Love’, boundaries, limits and enclosures are absolutely necessary when it comes to connecting with people intimately. Deserts of vast eternity are no use, nor are parallel lines that never meet.

But the lack of intimacy in his own life generates its own sadness. So many of his efforts are futile; so many of his enclosures are poisonous.

  • In his 1650 poem to Robert Witty, he suggests that his own work should be included in a pyre of pipe-fodder.
  • He calls for the crown of ‘The Coronet’ to be destroyed.
  • The dewdrop of ‘On a Drop of Dew’ protects itself from the outside world and is only safe when its life on Earth is over.
  • A carefully chosen translation of Seneca’s Thyestes expresses the desire to pass away both unheard and unheard of. ‘The Garden’ prompts an annihilation of all that’s made – an literary suicide bomb.

For pastoral characters, such as Marvell’s Mower (Damon), Dorinda, and the complaining nymph, their surroundings are made at least partly responsible for their inhibitions, naivety and entrapment. When they seek (as Jonathan Crewe calls it) ‘strong pastoral’ – a surrounding and a narrative that changes to suit their dreams and desires – it never emerges. [1] Welcome to reality, fictional friends. You can explore every corner of the greater shell, but never escape from its imprisoning powers. (The Truman Show, perhaps?)

Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ fascinates Marvell because it tries to break the human pangs of loneliness arising from this very problem. Donne’s poem attempts to trivialise the impact of physical absence upon love by saying that it merely ‘doth remove the thing that doth elemented it’. Poor Marvell is too many steps behind, one senses. He would delight in being merely one of Donne’s ‘dull sublunary lovers’, if only he knew how. He rejects Donne’s flighty conceit in his ‘The Definition of Love’, I think, because it interferes with the integrity of human emotion.

It’s not easy to disregard the emotional root of what makes something begin. And this determines the sad, broken dystopia that emerges from Marvell’s pastoral. Just as Marvell’s own life cannot be rewritten, he refuses to rewrite the lives of characters that adopt the same struggles as he experiences himself. No happy endings here.

The poet bullied by life becomes the bully of his fictional world. Marvell writes a sequence of miserable lives that plead to be fixed just so that he can let them suffer. Poor old Damon the Mower, the epitome of adolescent vulnerability, finds his anguish spread over a sequence of poems that cover an unspecified duration. There’s enough to suggest that neither Dorinda nor Damon are as childlike as they seem; it’s an informed choice that pushes them towards self-harm and suicide when they believe they will never be happy.

Weeping willow tree in the grounds of the University of Hull
Life is what you make it, except in Marvell’s verse

The afterlife

This chapter has undoubtedly unnerved me because of how emotionally invested I’ve always been in this area. So much of what’s been written here over the years – the likes of ‘A Green Thought‘ and ‘Brands of Solitude‘ – has had this last chapter in mind. Dark recesses. Writing and worlds of longing, of loneliness, of lostness.

For long periods this year I’ve struggled to work out how to integrate much of this personally orientated material into the more frigid matrix of poetic analysis. And yet, as the story has slowly come together, it’s emerged more comfortably than I imagined. A thesis, as a life, fragmented into pieces, thoughts, moments of learning and recognition, somehow ends up forming a chronology by experiment, experience, and, to some degree, pure serendipity.

Writing Privacy has been a fabulous exercise, and it’s worked absolute wonders over the last two years. Some of the pieces here, especially the epilogues, are probably the most valuable I’ve ever written. But I’m inevitably driven to think about its future beyond the end of my thesis.

At one of our research forums at Leicester this year, my raising of blogging as a research tool was curtly dismissed as having no credibility. I’m convinced that viewpoint is soon going to change soon, and an article on the subject has since emerged from Victorianist, Rohan Maitzen, author of ‘Novel Readings’.

Academic research has become defined by depth and specialization; I have (re)discovered the value and pleasure of breadth and exploration. Academic publishing proceeds glacially; I have learned the stimulation of immediacy. Academic publishing is also insular; blogging reoriented me towards the fundamental purpose of scholarly writing: communication – or what we now more elaborately call ‘knowledge dissemination’.

Perhaps I sound like an evangelist for blogging as the ‘scholarship of the future’. I am not. I do not think every academic should blog, and I certainly do not think blogging should replace all the other ways in which we carry on our work as intellectuals and educators. Blogging will neither suit nor serve every academic nor every academic purpose. I am convinced, though, that academic blogging can and should have an acknowledged place in the overall ecology of scholarship. It does contribute – and should be recognized as contributing – to both the intellectual and the institutional goals of our universities. [2]

The shame is, though, that this site is glacial and insular, by choice and by necessity. And as for dissemination, I suspect the number of people that once visited here out of interest has long since been replaced with those who stumble across it by accident.

That’s just fine. I’ve never been obsessed with building an audience. But any blogger worth their salt needs to be popular and confident. There are blogging friends of mine who will promote just about every blog they know apart from this one. I think that tells me all I need to know.

Beginning of the end, then? Who knows?

Dedicated to a friend who would have written wonders on Marvell and suicide had fate allowed.


1. Jonathan Crewe, ‘The Garden State: Marvell’s Poetics of Enclosure’, in Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (eds.), Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property and Culture in Early Modern England (Ithaca, 1994), pp. 270-289.

2. Rohan Maitzen, ‘Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice‘, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17.3 (2012), 348-354.

One thought on “Broken Dreams: Marvell’s Poetics of Privacy

  1. This shows exceptional insight. Having been where you are, more or less, and having compared notes with other scholars, I know that it can be distracting and even corrupting to have to address others’ new scholarship when you’re just about to define yourself as a scholar by completing the dissertation. So I will refrain from pointing you towards material that you probably know of already, material that certainly does not contradict your work.

    When you have degree in hand, when you’ve gotten over post-partum depression (which is inevitable), drop me a line. I’ve nothing to correct. It’s just fun to share.

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