Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Goldwin Smith
Andrew Marvell (16211678)
[Born at Winestead near Hull, March 31, 1621; died in London, 1678. His poems were first collected by his widow, and published in a folio volume, 1681, but since that time about twenty-five new poems have been discovered. Mr. Grosart has published the complete works in the Fuller Worthies Library.]
ANDREW MARVELL was not only a public man of mark and the first pamphleteer of his day, but a lyric and satiric poet. As a lyric poet he still ranks high. His range of subjects and styles is wide. He touches at different points Herbert, Cowley, Waller, Dryden, and the group of Lovelace and Suckling. But his most interesting connection is with Milton. Of that intellectual lustre which was produced by the union of classical culture and ancient love of liberty with Puritan enthusiasm, Milton was the central orb, Marvell a satellite, paler yet bright.
Like Milton, Marvell was at Cambridge, and there, after making himself an excellent Latinist, he graduated, as Milton had before him, in rebellious Liberalism by a quarrel with the authorities of his college. During his student days he was nearly drawn into the toils of the Jesuits; but he broke loose with an energy of reaction which has left its trace in Fleckno, his earliest satire. He afterwards spent four years on the Continent, living for some time at Rome, where, like Milton, he steeped his mind in Latin literature and inflamed his hatred of the Papacy. In 1650 Marvell became tutor to Mary the daughter of Fairfax, the general of the Parliament, who had laid down his command and was spending his quiet days in literature, gardening and collecting books and medals at his manor house of Nun Appleton in Yorkshire. Here Marvell was in a special home of the Protestant chivalry of which Spenser was the poet. Spenser accordingly appears in his satires as the spokesman of English patriotism. The Hill and Grove at Billborow and Appleton House are memorials of the sojourn in the shades of Nun Appleton, and they bear no small resemblance to the compositions of Lord Fairfax. In 1657 Marvell was recommended to Bradshaw as Assistant Latin Secretary of the Council of State by Milton, who describes him in his letter as a man of singular descent, acquainted with the French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch languages, well read in the Greek and Latin authors, and one whom if he had any feeling of rivalry or jealousy he might hesitate to bring in as a coadjutor. Marvell did not at that time receive the appointment; but he was employed as tutor to young Dutton, Cromwells intended son-in-law, at Eton, where he boarded with his pupil in the house of Oxenbridge, a zealous Puritan who had been driven into exile, with his wife, by prelatical persecution, and had preached in the Bermudas. By Cromwell as protector, Marvell was made joint Secretary with Milton. The connection has left memorials in several poems, including that on the Death of the Protector, in which we find a little picture, vivid and true, of the great mans look and bearing, by one who had often seen them.
Where we (so once we used) shall now no more
To fetch day press about his chamber door,
From which he issued with that awful state,
It seemed Mars broke through Janus double gate,
Yet always tempered with an air so mild,
As April suns that eer so gentle smiled.
On the return of the Stuarts, Milton, the defender of regicide, was driven into retirement, where he had leisure to prove that a great man may throw himself thoroughly into the struggles, the feelings, even the passions of his time, and yet keep Art, serene and unimpaired, in the sanctuary of his mind. Marvell, far less compromised and by no means regicidal, remained in public life, and as member for Hull sat, a Roman patriot incorruptible and inflexible, in the corrupt and servile parliaments of Charles II. The poems of his later days were not epics or lyrics, but satires, levelled, like his renowned pamphlets, against tyranny and wickedness in Church and State; and he died in the midst of a fierce literary affray with Parker, the most odious of the Restoration prelates, not without suspicion of poison. To Milton he remained bravely true, and his lines on Paradise Lost are about the earliest salutation of that sun as it rose amidst the clouds of the evil days.
As a poet Marvell is very unequal. He has depth of feeling, descriptive power, melody; his study of the classics could not fail to teach him form; sometimes we find in him an airy and tender grace which remind us of the lighter manner of Milton: but art with him was only an occasional recreation, not a regular pursuit; he is often slovenly, sometimes intolerably diffuse, especially when he is seduced by the facility of the octosyllabic couplet. He was also eminently afflicted with the gift of wit or ingenuity, much prized in his day. His conceits vie with those of Donne or Cowley. He is capable of saying of the Halcyon:
The Garden is an English version of a poem written in Latin by Marvell himself. It may have gained by being cast originally in a classical mould, which would repel prolixity and extravagant conceits. In it Marvell has been said to approach Shelley: assuredly he shows a depth of poetic feeling wonderful in a political gladiator. The thoughts that dwell in a green shade have never been more charmingly expressed.
A Drop of Dew, like The Garden, was composed first in Latin. It is a conceit, but a pretty conceit, gracefully as well as ingeniously worked out, and forms a good example of the contrast between the philosophic poetry of those days, a play of intellectual fancy, and its more spiritual and emotional counterpart in our own time. The concluding lines, with their stroke of wit about the manna are a sad fall.
The Bermudas was no doubt suggested by the history of the Oxenbridges. It is the holy and cheerful note of a little band of exiles for conscience sake wafted by Providence in their small boat to a home in a land of beauty.
The Horatian Ode on Cromwells Return from Ireland cannot be positively proved to be the work of Marvell. Yet we can hardly doubt that he was its author. The point of view and the sentiment, combining admiration of Cromwell with respect and pity for Charles, are exactly his: the classical form would be natural to him; and so would the philosophical conceit which disfigures the eleventh stanza. The epithet indefatigable applied to Cromwell recurs in a poem which is undoubtedly his; and so does the emphatic expression of belief that the hero could have been happier in private life, and that he sacrificed himself to the State in taking the supreme command. The compression and severity of style are not characteristic of Marvell; but they would be imposed on him in this case by his model. If the ode is really his, to take it from him would be to do him great wrong. It is one of the noblest in the English language, and worthily presents the figures and events of the great tragedy as they would impress themselves on the mind of an ideal spectator, at once feeling and dispassionate. The spirit of Revolution is described with a touch in the lines
Though Justice against Fate complain
And plead the ancient rights in vain
(But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak).
Better than anything else in our language this poem gives an idea of a grand Horatian measure, as well as of the diction and spirit of an Horatian ode.
Marvells amatory poems are cold; probably he was passionless. His pastorals are in the false classical style, and of little value. Clorinda and Damon is about the best of them, and about the best of that is
Near this a fountains liquid bell
Tinkles within the concave shell.
The Satires in their day were much admired and feared: they are now for the most part unreadable. The subjects of satire as a rule are ephemeral; but a great satirist like Juvenal or Dryden preserves his flies in the amber of his general sentiment. In Marvells satires there is no amber: they are mere heaps of dead flies. Honest indignation against iniquity and lewdness in high places no doubt is there; but so are the meanness of Restoration politics and the dirtiness of Restoration thought. The curious may look at The Character of Holland, the jokes in which are as good or as bad as ever, though the cannon of Monk and De Ruyter have ceased to roar; and in Britannia and Raleigh the passage of which giving ironical advice to Charles II is a specimen of the banter which was deemed Marvells peculiar gift, and in which Swift and Junius were his pupils.