BORN: 1621, Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire, England
DIED: 1678, London, England
Miscellaneous Poems (1681)
One of the last of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets, Andrew Marvell is noted for intellectual, allusive poetry that is rich in metaphor and conceit. His work incorporates many of the elements associated with the Metaphysical school: the tension of opposing values, metaphorical complexities, logical and linguistic subtleties, and unexpected twists of thought and argument.
The poems generally thought to be his best, such as ‘‘To His Coy Mistress’’ and ‘‘The Garden’’—both first published in Miscellaneous Poems (1681)—are characterized by complexity and ambiguous morality, which critics believe both define his talent and account for his appeal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Child of Turbulent Religious Times In the first half of the seventeenth century, England was a country divided along religious lines. The Anglican Church, the official Church of England, had separated from the official Catholic Church of Rome during the previous century.
In other English territories, however—such as Ireland—Roman Catholicism remained the prevailing mode of worship. Additionally, England itself became divided when a group known as Puritans, who believed the Anglican church had not moved far enough away from traditional Catholicism, gained support in the English Parliament. This ultimately led, during Marvell’s lifetime, to a civil war that resulted in the execution of King Charles I and the creation of the Commonwealth of England (later called a protectorate), ruled by Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was returned to power just eleven years after it was abolished, in 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne.
The son of an Anglican clergyman, Marvell was born in Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire. He received his early education at nearby Hull Grammar School and later attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1638. Marvell remained at Cambridge until 1641, though he left without taking a master’s degree. During the next four years, Marvell traveled in Europe, employed as a tutor. By the early 1650s he was living at Nunappleton in Yorkshire, where he was tutor to Mary Fairfax, the daughter of Sir Thomas Fairfax, retired commander-in-chief of the Commonwealth army under Oliver Cromwell. It was during his stay at Nunappleton that Marvell wrote most of the lyric poems that form the basis of his literary reputation.
Marvell next moved to Eton to tutor Cromwell’s ward William Dutton. In 1657 he was appointed Assistant Latin Secretary to the Council of State through the influence of his friend John Milton, who then held the post of Latin Secretary. Two years later, Marvell was elected Member of Parliament for Hull; from this point on he ceased to write lyric poetry, concentrating instead on political satire and polemics in prose. A dedicated, conscientious statesman, Marvell channeled all his energy and talent into his political career, serving in Parliament until his death. Although it has often been rumored that he was poisoned by his political enemies, it is now generally accepted that Marvell died of an accidental overdose of medicinal opiates.
An Enigmatic Life Much of Marvell’s life remains shrouded in mystery. He is not thought to have married, yet shortly after his death a volume of his lyric poetry was published for the first time by a woman claiming to be his widow. That the woman in question, Mary Marvell, was truly Marvell’s wife has yet to be either disproved or substantiated. More relevant to his poetry is the mystery of Marvell’s political convictions, more accurate knowledge of which, scholars believe, would do much to clarify obscurities in his work. Marvell lived during a tumultuous period of British history. Although he did not actively participate in the English Civil War, which broke out in 1642 while he was traveling in Europe, Marvell was deeply affected by the bitter fighting between the Royalists (primarily supporters of Anglicanism) and Parliamentarians (primarily supporters of Puritanism) and later by Charles I’s execution and Cromwell’s assumption of the Protectorate. Scholars have often attempted to determine where Marvell’s sympathies lay, but have been unable to definitively place the poet in either camp. Some suggest that this political inconclusiveness mirrors the indecision found in Marvell’s poems. Regardless, critics have emphasized that an understanding of Marvell’s life and poetry, particularly ‘‘An Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,’’ requires some comprehension of this politically volatile time.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Marvell’s famous contemporaries include:
Samuel Pepys (1633–1703): A Member of Parliament and naval administrator, Pepys (pronounced ‘‘Peeps’’) is most notable today for his diary, which he kept from 1660 to 1669. The diary provides a detailed account of daily life during the Restoration Period in England and documents the major English events of that decade: the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
Charles II (1630–1685): The crowning of King Charles II marked the beginning of the Restoration period, so named for the restoration of the English monarchy after
its abolition by Oliver Cromwell and the execution of Charles’s father, King Charles I, in the wake of the English Civil War.
Isaac Newton (1642–1727): Perhaps the best-known scientist in history, Sir Isaac Newton’s theories revolutionized mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, and optics. An eccentric genius, Newton’s theoretical work covered such fundamental concepts as the force of gravity and the physics of motion, and he is credited as the cocreator of calculus.
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662): Mathematician and religious philosopher, Pascal made his legacy felt despite his premature death—he was a child prodigy and was already producing influential treatises on geometry by the age of sixteen. His work on probability theory is generally considered a cornerstone of both economics and social science.
Rembrandt (1606–1669): The leading painter of the Golden Age of Dutch Art, Rembrandt was a painter and etcher of unequaled proficiency. His mastery of portraiture made him well known across Europe during his lifetime; his self-portraits create a fascinating chronicle of his life.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The sixteenth century saw the development of a brand of verse known as Metaphysical poetry, a forerunner of existentialism. Some of the better-known Metaphysical works include:
Ignatius His Conclave (1611), a poem by John Donne. The man perhaps most closely associated with the Metaphysical movement (a label, incidentally, that was only applied in retrospect), Donne, like Marvell, was not above mixing politics and poetry, as in this anti-Catholic polemic that mocks the Jesuit order and name-checks several prominent scientists of the day, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei.
The Temple (1633), a poetry collection by George Herbert. An Anglican priest, Herbert concerned himself mostly with religious themes in his poems—several have been turned into hymns. Nearly all of his poetry is contained in this volume.
Silex Scintillans (1655), a poetry collection by Henry Vaughan. Like Herbert, Vaughan was a Welsh poet, but his poetry initially focused more on the natural world and its beauty. After he met Herbert, however, he experienced a religious conversion and produced this volume of ‘‘sacred poems,’’ becoming a noted and respected poet in the process.
Works in Literary Context
Duality Marvell directly addressed the theme of the duality of spirituality and temporality in many of his overtly religious poems, including ‘‘A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure’’ and ‘‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body.’’ As their titles indicate, both these poems are discussions between the body and its pleasures on the one hand and the soul and its spirituality on the other, yet critics have remarked on an important distinction between the two works. In ‘‘A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure,’’ Marvell uncharacteristically and, many commentators believe, unsatisfactorily, resolves the conflict. In this poem, Pleasure tempts the Soul with such delights as music, beauty, wealth, and knowledge, only to be tersely rebuffed each time. This soul is indeed resolved; the result of the ‘‘debate’’ is a foregone conclusion. This has led many critics to prefer ‘‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body,’’ in which the tension between the two is greater and the resolution less clear. Not strictly a debate, the poem consists of the lamentations of both body and soul, interdependent yet compelled in different directions by their very natures. Commentators have noted that the body in this poem is not the wily tempter that Created Pleasure is, but rather an essential complement to the soul, and thus their eternal struggle is insoluble.
Ambiguity Political poems, such as ‘‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’’ and ‘‘Upon Appleton House,’’ have prompted much critical debate due to their ambiguity. ‘‘An Horatian Ode’’ in particular has invited biographical interpretation as commentators have attempted to clarify Marvell’s real attitude toward the political and social upheavals of the Civil War and Cromwell’s assumption of the Protectorate. Ostensibly a paean to Cromwell’s military and political victories, ‘‘An Horatian Ode’’ includes a moving and sympathetic description of Charles I’s execution that commentators have found disconcerting. An additional critical dilemma has been raised by subtle hints in the poem that indicate the poet’s belief that Cromwell’s base of power, founded as it was on usurpation and bloodshed, may have been inevitable but can hardly be praiseworthy. Ambiguities also abound in ‘‘Upon Appleton House,’’ outwardly a poem in praise of the retirement of Marvell’s benefactor Fairfax from the political arena. The extent to which this praise may be regarded as sincere has long been a critical stumbling block, as the rest of the poem seems to endorse the course of action and movement.
Works in Critical Context
Critical Legacy The history of critical assessment of Marvell’s work is one of shifting focuses and sharp reversals. During his lifetime and for generations after his death, Marvell was known primarily for his political career; he was lauded as an upright, incorruptible statesman, his name becoming synonymous with disinterested patriotism. Consequently, his prose satires and polemics, controversial and often severe attacks on government policy, were highly praised. Works such as The Rehearsall Transpros’d (1672), a satire against religious intolerance, and An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (1677), an attack on the absolute power of monarchy, were valued perhaps less for their literary merit than for the evidence they afforded of Marvell’s political views. His poetry, when it was considered at all, was judged to be clever and talented, but of secondary importance; throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Marvell’s reputation was that of a major statesman but a minor poet.
In the nineteenth century, critical opinion began to shift: critics of Marvell, though few in number, assigned his poetry a greater importance, while his prose works suffered a corresponding decline in popularity. William Hazlitt praised the ‘‘elegance and tenderness in his descriptive poems,’’ while decrying Marvell’s ‘‘forced, far-fetched method of treating his subject’’ in the political satires. Nineteenth-century commentators emphasized what they deemed his ‘‘Romantic’’ attributes: the theme of the mutability of earthly life in ‘‘To His Coy Mistress,’’ the description of nature and solitude in ‘‘The Garden,’’ and the sensitive portrayal of human emotion in ‘‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun.’’ In the twentieth century, critical appraisal of Marvell’s work has undergone a still more radical metamorphosis.
Although the satires continue to be generally censured for their heavy-handedness and crudity—considered of some historical interest, perhaps, but of negligible literary importance—the lyric poetry has come to be seen in an entirely new light, largely due to T. S. Eliot’s pivotal essay
of 1921. Eliot emphasized for the first time Marvell’s Metaphysical wit, the recognition of which has both enlarged and redefined subsequent critical thought. As Marvell is now seen to be closely allied to the Metaphysical school, so also is he viewed as a much more complex and rewarding poet, both thematically and stylistically, than had been previously assumed.
‘‘To His Coy Mistress’’ Many of Marvell’s poems once considered simple and straightforward are now believed to be suggestive of deeper themes; an example of this is provided by one of his most famous poems, ‘‘To His Coy Mistress.’’ For years, ‘‘To His Coy Mistress’’ was assumed to be a fairly representative example of the Cavalier carpe diem (literally ‘‘seize the day’’) love poetry popular among the courtier poets of Charles I and typified by Robert Herrick’s ‘‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.’’ Recent criticism, however, has revealed complexities and ambiguities within the poem, which most critics believe undermine the ostensible message; the suspicion of narrative irony and the curiously inappropriate imagery of the poem cast doubt on its true meaning.
The inherent ambiguity of this poem and others is now recognized as the key to understanding much of Marvell’s work. Many critics believe that the ambiguities are far more than clever devices and that Marvell’s recurring themes exemplify the nature of ambiguity itself. Indeed, such critics claim that underlying all of Marvell’s poetry is a unifying and omnipresent concern with a central ambiguity, the tension and duality of opposites, and that this is most often and most successfully expressed through his treatment of the duality of the body and the soul, the temporal and the divine. All these tensions, critics have noted, place the poems in a fundamentally spiritual or moral context, as each involves opposing human attributes or choices.
‘‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’’
Marvell’s failure to resolve the conflict he presents in ‘‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’’ is but one example of what many critics have seen as deliberate irresolution in his work. This intended ambiguity has frustrated some critics and impressed others with an appreciation of the poet’s control over every nuance of meaning and feeling in his poetry; the latter critics have contended that Marvell’s ambiguity is indicative not so much of indecision as it is of his recognition of the potentials and possibilities of both sides of an issue. The tensions found in Marvell’s poetry arise not merely from the usual Metaphysical attempt to reconcile opposites; as George deForest Lord has stated in his 1968 introduction to Andrew Marvell: A Collection of Critical Essays: ‘‘Ambiguity for Marvell is not so much a feature of style as it is a way of feeling, thinking, and imagining embedded in his sensibility and in his view of the human condition.’’