The most contentious aspect of my doctoral thesis was maintaining that a poet of the mid-seventeenth century could somehow abstain from networking and print – the new popular forms of public – and instead write for himself alone.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) negotiated strategically with the medium of print and some literary networks at particular points in his career. There are relatively few manuscripts of his work and very few echoes of him to be found in the work of others.
To rub salt in the wound, Thomas Stanley, a likely patron of Marvell during the late 1640s, omits him from his verse ‘Register of Friends’.
It is always problematic to take the absence of circulation as conclusive evidence that little of it occurred. But it does support the case that the considerable gaps between Marvell’s published work are a clear ‘departure’ from public writing.
However much I argue the case, I can only implore others to understand this judgement. Sometimes, very rarely, I get an unexpected helping hand.
On the comparatively rare occasion that a private volume of art is discovered, I get a renewed sense of affirmation that talented artists can jealously guard their output – for whatever reason they may have chosen.
I recently came across the story of the late Vivian Maier, a reticent nanny whose photography during the 1950s and 60s lay buried in boxes until a keen historian bought a box of undeveloped negatives in 2009.
From that box, we uncover the life and work of a remarkable woman, who, like Marvell, was a shrewd and silent observer of her age.
She, like the Englishman several centuries before, never settled for one locale. She ventured into ghettos during the transformational civil rights era, determined to capture the full and complex tapestry of New York and other iconic American cities.
The artistry of this collection is exquisite in places. There is something particularly arresting about the secretive, tentative embrace of hands in one of the pictures. The distinct creases in the man’s trousers complement his ruddy, worn arms – undertones of life worn on the outside.
A child cries in fright while her guardian makes an exchange with an out-of-shot stranger. Perhaps she is scared of the camera – one more new and frightening encounter for those young eyes still adjusting to the bustle and fearsome nature of the city.
Another white child seems unnerved to be photographed as a black child polishes his shoes. Maier captures him looking both threatened and threatening at the same time, as a history of oppressive cultural heritage flashes right before his eyes.
Maier, like the poet, meant different things to different people.
She is remembered fondly by some, coldly by others. To some, she was a secretive woman who harboured no desire for publicity; to others, she was frustrated by her inability to forge her preferred career. She was either borderline obsessive-compulsive, or charismatic and good-humoured. One might be tempted to label her a ‘chameleon’.
Her collection answers some questions and raises others about a distinctly shady identity. To see what is written about Maier could speak equally for Marvell (as for many others, I’m sure).
It is sad as well as perplexing that the woman who had such a knack for capturing human moods and expressions in her photographs, and showed such tenacity and originality in making her work, should have passed her whole life without forming intimate relationships of her own.
Despite their different mediums and different epochs, the two have a similar approach to artistry. And when you put this idea of the private artist to today’s public, it really does capture the imagination.
In the case of Maier’s story, we get a wonderfully thoughtful and textured response of what it might mean to be private. Some of the best responses I found included the following:
She didn’t develop and see the end result so maybe that wasn’t the point. I wonder if the real motive for her was to fill an empty space. She couldn’t do it naturally so she used the camera to fulfill that basic human need to connect with other people in the only way she knew how.
I can’t help but feel like it is selfish of everybody to wish that they had known her or that she got the fame that she had “deserved” when she was alive. This, to me, seems like exactly what she did not want. She did not want to know all of these random people who just know her for her private work, and she did not want all this shallow fame that comes with it. It seems like she likes the art of street photography because it is so unassuming, and so fleeting. It is truly honest. I think she got exactly what she wanted. And I think, perhaps, that if she did in any way want the fame that comes with it, it would have taken away the honestly that we all so much love in her work.
Sereena Omar Karsou
At the height of a digital revolution, our response (or perhaps our opposition) to these traditional forms of public makes us well-placed to consider the same oppositions taking place centuries ago.
Suspecting a pro-private or anti-public stance still doesn’t provide all the answers we may seek, though.
Marvell was probably in his fifties when he penned a verse translation of the Second Chorus from Seneca’s Thyestes, which is steeped in the theme of retirement.
In calm leisure let me rest;
And far off the public stage
Pass away my silent age.
Thus when without noise, unknown,
I have lived out all my span,
I shall die, without a groan,
An old honest countryman.
Is this Marvell speaking for himself? The irony here is that he purposefully put himself back on the public stage after having left it behind for a good few years.
He became a Member of Parliament for Hull, caused a punch-up in Parliament, caused a diplomatic incident in Muscovy, and became a hunted man for his scathing satirical prose tracts.
For a man who may have mentally subscribed to the above lines, he certainly knew how to draw attention to himself in peculiar ways.
But his poetry may still stand as testimony to the private artist, just as Maier’s collection does. Some verse written for occasions shows no signs of distribution. We feel its honesty, its indecision, its profundity – and for all of that, its extraordinariness as a potentially private document.
Scripts, rolls of film, and the rest, are all at the mercy of the private box and the prerogatives of whoever discovers them. That’s another story. But I’ll always find gratitude for those who bring meaningful private art into the light.