It’s a very happy 400th birthday to the literary love of my life, Andrew Marvell.
This seventeenth-century poet, politician and prose satirist has been a large part of my life for the past 20 years, and I’d like to take a moment to commemorate that journey.
It didn’t get off to the best of beginnings at the age of 17. Marvell’s lyric verse is challenging, and even having enjoyed Donne the previous year, Marvell was too much for me at A-Level.
But there was something in his work that mystified and captivated me, despite my inability to frame that within the boundaries of an exam question. Perhaps it was his ability to contain conflicting positions, or to hold ironies with perfect poise, or to appear both committed and detached simultaneously.
For a long time, I carried the frustration that I lacked the capabilities to express the story I wanted to tell. Yet, as I progressed through an undergraduate dissertation looking at ‘Direct’ and ‘Indirect’ poetry of the English Civil War, it seemed inevitable that the journey with Marvell would continue. I began a master’s project on the minor poet and dramatist, Thomas Jordan, but everything kept gravitating back to Marvell.
It was at that point that I began to understand the deeper roots of that stubborn fascination. There was so much frustration of his own – loneliness, loss, longing, and often failure – wrapped in such elegant (and sometimes caustic) verse. I’d had my own similar challenges and fears, and it became a very personal lens through which to read and understand his work.
Marvell was a deeply private person who seemed to recognise that solitude could be as harmful and counterproductive as it could be beneficial. Too much of any one extreme always seemed to send him into the arms of its opposite. These challenges manifest themselves through elusiveness, which compounds the mystery.
His garden verse, the dating of which is heavily debated, could mean entirely different things at entirely different times. The same texts would constitute very different poems in 1652 than in 1668. I find myself trying to determine whether ‘The Garden’ carries different meaning in these two periods sixteen years apart, or whether the poet’s circumstances change the meaning for us.
That is Marvell in a nutshell: this one poem has a remarkable transposition that allows it to speak for two different periods at the same time, driven by the compatibility of the circumstances and dilemmas that he felt himself experiencing in 1668 from sixteen years earlier.
It’s clever and confusing and curious. Some mysteries, you feel, are not meant to be solved.
The Critical Heritage
Discovering Marvell at the turn of the twenty-first century meant I intercepted a fascinating turn in scholarship.
Decades ago, Marvell’s life and works seemed to be conveniently connected. Not any more. We can no longer explain away his lyric poetry as the fanciful distractions of youth that emerged during periods of retreat before his opportunity arose in Cromwell’s government. Nor is it quite so easy, if we prefer to date some of the lyrics to a later period, to say that Marvell became a ‘lesser’ poet once his public engagements began.
Instead, the merging of poet and politician provides far richer insight into the mind of a man whose sense of duty and formidable work ethic may have proven the only escape from the pressures of privacy found in isolation.
The contribution I wanted to bring to the table was a darker view – one that encompasses desperation, alienation, and loneliness. Perhaps it reflects Robert Burton’s observation that ‘great Students’, ‘solitary by nature’ are ‘most subject to melancholy’. What if Marvell deliberately sought a public life – and, indeed, toiled as much as possible – to keep the distressing pressures of privacy at bay?
This, I believe, fuels a lot of the conflicts at work within his verse. Marvell’s poetic contradictions on privacy and enclosure seem to condemn himself and his characters to the thankless pursuit of something separated from the solitary life.
On the one hand, boundaries, limits, and enclosure are totally necessary when it comes to connecting with people intimately. Deserts of vast eternity are of no use (To His Coy Mistress); nor are permanent parallel lines that never meet (The Definition of Love).
On the other hand, for his pastoral characters such as Damon the Mower, Dorinda, and the nymph complaining upon the death of her fawn, their surroundings are made at least partly responsible for their inhibitions, naivety, and entrapment.
We have a poet bullied by life becoming the bully of his fictional world, writing a sequence of insular, trapped, and miserable lives that plead to be fixed just so he can let them suffer.
I find that more tragic and beautiful than I ever could have imagined. As melancholic as the years often felt writing my doctoral dissertation, I was always thankful for something so profound at the end of it.
Marvell at 400
What next for me? I’ve published in some great collections in recent years, but the tide now seems to be over.
I find myself watching from the sidelines, enthralled at the array of prestigious new studies and volumes emerging (Oxford Handbook, Texts and Readers), and slightly envious to be so detached from them.
I have an abandoned half-written piece on Marvell and failure that I’d like to take up again. I’ll always be somebody on the fringes rather than the centre – though, again, that’s classic Marvell.
But the future for Marvellians looks bright. 100 years ago, T.S. Eliot plucked Marvell out of near obscurity as a poet that seemed to capture the zeitgeist. Now, at 400, as Stewart Mottram has explained, Marvell still manages to be a poet for our times.
Goodness knows what Marvell would make of the current political climate. Perhaps it would seem like home from home. Nevertheless, the very ideas of toleration, Europhilia, and incorruptibility in the political class (as apocryphal as the testimonies may be), together with the slow shutdown of satire and dissent, make him as relevant today as he has even been.
Happy 400, Andrew Marvell.
The seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell received a mention in a recent Cosmopolitan article about Tinder. Would he really have approved of it, as its author claims? … More Would Marvell approve of Tinder? A response to Cosmopolitan
My recent work on Marvell and ekphrasis explores several ways in which the poet negotiates the transition between text and visual object to advance his personal and political poetics. Here, I consider how we might view ‘The Gallery’ in light of recent ekphrastic debates. … More A Brush with Ekphrasis: Marvell’s ‘The Gallery’
At the time of the year when we are drawn to reflect upon companionship, a look at seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell’s way of coming to terms with its absence. … More Epic Fail: Andrew Marvell’s Definition of Love
Writing the final chapter of my thesis has been traumatic. The internal negotiations that Marvell faced and the impossibility of choice he so often found himself with leave him trapped in a life that offers so little solace. … More Broken Dreams: Marvell’s Poetics of Privacy