Marvell, Dryden, and the Horatian Ode

Burning Sword

In 1650, Andrew Marvell wrote ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ – perhaps the greatest political reflection in English literary history.

One of several enigmas about this poem is that it remained unpublished for over 30 years after it was written (and even then, it was quickly repressed). It’s difficult to say if it was written for publication of any kind.

Milton in the Long Restoration (Oxford, 2016)

Most scholars of early-modern studies are determined that it circulated in some way. The evidence, however, is thin at best.

No manuscript copies survive and there is no clear proof that any existed. All that exists is speculation.

The most recent instance of this appears in Milton in the Long Restoration (OUP, 2016), where Ann Baynes Coiro, one of the volume’s editors, determines that the Ode ‘circulated in manuscript’.

John Dryden appears to have known it, she says, while John Milton ‘would certainly have known it’, given an apparent echo in Samson Agonistes (1671).

Why Dryden? It doesn’t add up!

It’s funny how scholarly agendas switch. Most arguments supporting the Ode’s circulation are offered as evidence that the poem reflects a Republican stance in the early 1650s.

That’s not an easy sell, when the vitriolic and royalist-leaning ‘Tom May’s Death’ (also unpublished) followed only months afterwards.

But if we switch our gaze to the years after the restored monarchy, the terms of allegiance have evolved. Politics contributes to, then cedes to, the cause of wit.

Marvell and Milton’s past connections with Cromwell were well established – as were John Dryden’s. All three worked for Cromwell’s administration. All attended his funeral.

But Dryden wasted little time in courting for favour from the restored monarch, Charles II, and was recognised for it officially in 1668 – a move that underlined his disconnect from Marvell and Milton.

This sort of career posturing was nothing new; it had fuelled much of Marvell’s occasional verse in the late 1640s. So, in 1674, when Marvell makes his first named contribution in print for 23 years, ‘On Mr Milton’s “Paradise Lost”‘, he’s back to familiar grounds.

Having just witnessed The State of Innocence, Dryden’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, Marvell disparages the ‘Town Bays’ (the popular name for Dryden) in his commendatory poem to the second edition of Milton’s epic.

Steven Zwicker’s contribution to Milton in the Long Restoration argues that the ostracising of Dryden could have begun as early as Cromwell’s funeral in 1658, when Dryden was the only one of the three not afforded a grant for livery.

Equally, Dryden was the only one of the three to officially contribute to the trio of commemorative elegies for Cromwell. Marvell’s contribution was withdrawn at a late stage.

Was this in any way due to Dryden’s involvement?

Dryden would soon constitute further proof (as Marchamont Nedham and John Hall had done previously) that literary expressions of political allegiance did not always render a man’s career irrecoverable.

He announced himself as professional critic during the 1660s, with his Essay of Dramatic Poesy and subsequent Defence emphasising a division of style – notably rhyme – that distinguished him from Milton.

Both camps – Dryden and Milton – had their supporters. As Zwicker shows, while there is an aesthetic centre to this stylistic debate, it also had roots in other ideological causes: court against ‘country’; literary affinity; attitudes towards toleration; and so on.

Suspicions that Marvell’s commendatory poem contains slurs are heightened by its removal from a later edition produced by one of Dryden’s publishers, Jacob Tonson. Dryden’s admiration of Milton is allowed to breathe without the reductive mocking of Milton’s understudy.

So, the relationship between Marvell and Dryden isn’t exactly a warm one. That’s what deepens the mystery of the Ode.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

Does the Ode influence Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis?

This isn’t the first triangulation involving Marvell and Milton to have been explored. (Blair Worden has included Marchamont Nedham.) But the introduction of Dryden is important because the only plausible evidence that Marvell’s Ode might have circulated emerges in Dryden’s work. I cannot, for the life of me, work out why.

The below is from Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis (1667).


As when some dire Usurper Heav’n provides,
To scourge his Country with a lawless sway:
His birth, perhaps, some petty Village hides,
And sets his Cradle out of Fortune’s way.


Such was the rise of this prodigious fire,
Which in mean buildings first obscurely bred,
From thence did soon to open streets aspire,
And straight to Palaces and Temples spread.

I see Dryden’s prodigious fire resembling the Cromwell of Marvell’s Ode.

Burning through the air he went
And palaces and temples rent.

Dryden’s 213 also reminds me of the suspicion behind Cromwell’s modest upbringing in Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’. Cromwell emerges

from his private gardens, where
He liv’d reserved and austere
As if his greatest plot
To plant the Bergamot

Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time.

It’s not incontrovertable, but I accept it’s possible that Marvell’s Ode may have come to Dryden’s attention. But how? What on earth would have prompted Marvell to share his Ode with Dryden?

Perhaps it happened during the earlier stages of their working relationship. But as Zwicker notes, the potential animosities may have already set in by 1658. And in practical terms, if Dryden did discover the Ode at an early stage, why does he wait a decade to use it?

Perhaps talk of poetry revealed something, rather than assuming a show or circulation of some sort. Clearly, there are ways of sharing and/or circulating that don’t elicit any solid evidence.

Another interesting note here is the timing: Marvell’s appetite for stronger publication, absent through almost all of the 1650s and the first half of the 1660s, suddenly reappears.

We could take Marvell’s involvement in the amended 1665 reprint of ‘The Character of Holland’ (previously thought to be unauthorised) as a sign that his attitude towards publication and circulation was changing.

This could provide a rationale for some sort of ‘weak’ publication of the Ode in the mid-1660s and the emergence of the Advice-to-a-Painter poems that followed soon afterwards.

But – and the question can only depend on whom we believe to have seen it – why would Dryden be the privileged one? How does he get to see something that, as evidence would make me believe, nobody else had seen?

Cathedral Windows

Funny business, evidence.

Zwicker also believes that Marvell actively circulated his work, but his triangulation study only complicates things here by sowing Marvell’s allegiances closer to Milton and further away from Dryden.

It’s an interesting sub-cursor to my own debate, though, that Zwicker – like Coiro – is prepared to make statements based on supposition.

By 1658, ‘Marvell’s great poetry… was already behind him’, Zwicker states. It may even drive resentment towards the younger Dryden, he adds.

This alludes to an argument from the appendix of Andrew Marvell: Orphan of the Hurricane. Here, Zwicker and Derek Hirst propose that Marvell falls in with a literary coterie in the early 1650s, which elicits the majority of his lyric verse.

I don’t buy the case solely on those grounds. There’s an equally compelling case for a nexus of poetry and retirement that was growing in the mid-1660s through Katherine Philips, Abraham Cowley, John Evelyn and George Mackenzie, among others. I don’t see it as an entirely closeted interregnum concern, and there is little evidence to support that.

Not only this: some of Marvell’s most underestimated works, which can be convincingly dated to the late 1660s and beyond, extend the themes to which much of this private lyric verse associates.

I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer. It’s almost always about speculation, occasionally based on intertextual ‘echoes’ of varying persuasion. My own case, after all, speculates that the absence of evidence constitutes evidence of absence.

But it least it’s considering the available evidence in some way or other. To make definitive statements – as these contributors do – about circulation or similar, is cagey ground.

I hope this investigation shows precisely why.

Sources / Further Reading:

Ann Baynes Coiro and Blair Hoxby (eds), Milton in the Long Restoration (Oxford University Press, 2016), ch. 5, 9.

Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker, Andrew Marvell: Orphan of the Hurricane (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Nicholas von Maltzahn, ‘Marvell’s Restoration Garden’, Andrew Marvell Society Newsletter, 1.1 (2009).

Blair Worden, Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchamont Nedham (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Keith McDonald, ‘”Far off the Public Stage”: Marvell in Manuscript and Print, 1649-1665’, in Janet Clare (ed), From Republic to Restoration: Legacies and Departures (Manchester University Press, 2018), ch. 8.

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