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Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)

Paul Oliver, who writes on the psychology of religious belief, has kindly written a piece for us about Andrew Marvell, who is buried in St Giles churchyard.

Andrew Marvell is the most famous of the trio of English Renaissance poets buried at St Giles’. That wouldn’t, however, have been my opening sentence if I had been writing a century, ago, let alone in 1820 or 1720. In 1748 Voltaire described Marvell as ‘fameux poète anglais’, but that isn’t at all how he was seen in England. (The inscription on his monument in St Giles’, erected in 1764, praises the ‘probity of his life and manners’ at some length but is silent on the subject of his writing.) There isn’t even much evidence that his verse was widely read during his lifetime: it was an age when poetry tended to circulate in manuscript before appearing in print, yet there isn’t a single extant manuscript copy of many of Marvell’s lyrics. It’s only since the Second World War that his work has become well known, largely thanks to T. S. Eliot’s interest in it, as a result of which it now has a place on all self-respecting reading lists of seventeenth-century English literature.

Although there are aspects of Marvell’s verse which remain enigmatic to this day (more anon), we do know quite a bit about his life. At the time of his birth his father was curate of Winestead in the East Riding of Yorkshire. When he was three, the family moved to Hull so that his father could take up the double post of Master of the Charterhouse Hospital, known locally as ‘God’s house’, and Lecturer, or preacher, at the church of the Holy Trinity, the largest parish church in the country. It seems that Marvell senior was what is best described as a moderate Puritan. As late as 1639 he was ordered by his bishop to read a larger portion of the Prayer Book service before his lectures than he had been in the habit of doing.

At the age of twelve Andrew migrated from Hull Grammar School to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a gifted classicist and in 1637 dutifully contributed Latin and Greek poems to a book congratulating Charles I on the birth of his second daughter. But the most dramatic episode of his undergraduate career occurred in about 1639, the year he took his BA, when an apparently successful attempt was made to convert him to Roman Catholicism: it’s reported that he fled to London, where his angry father caught up with him, rescued him from Rome’s clutches and insisted that he return to Cambridge. We know for certain that in 1641 he was thrown out of Trinity while preparing to take his MA (admittedly it isn’t clear why) and that he coped with this setback by spending the best part of five years travelling round Europe. We’re told that he used the time to perfect his knowledge of modern languages. But by being absent from the country then, he also avoided being caught up in the First Civil War. That’s unlikely to have been an accident, especially as he came home soon after hostilities ended.

On his return he threw himself into writing poetry. Lodging in London, he began to frequent Royalist literary circles. But it was a time when many were swapping sides, and by the middle of 1650 he had himself undergone something of a change of heart. Later that year he moved to Yorkshire to serve as tutor to the daughter of the Parliamentary general, Thomas Fairfax. Then, in 1653, he became tutor to William Dutton, Cromwell’s protégé and, briefly, prospective son-in-law. He had to wait, though, until 1657 for his first public appointment. That year he became assistant to his friend, and veteran propagandist for the republic, John Milton in his role as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (‘Latin Secretary’) to Cromwell’s Council of State. His new post placed him at the heart of government: one of his duties was to act as interpreter when foreign dignitaries visited.

Marvell’s loyalty to the English revolution was neither temporary nor half-hearted. He walked alongside Milton at Cromwell’s funeral in 1658. In 1659 he was elected MP for Hull on a Republican ‘ticket’: the voters knew of his existing commitments and didn’t anticipate any conflict of interests. (Being extraordinarily conscientious, he was re-elected twice.) After the Restoration, he wrote mainly anonymous satires, in both verse and prose, attacking corruption at Court and in politics. Samuel Pepys described one of these as ‘too sharp and so true’. Ironically, Charles II, ‘not a great reader of books’, was an admirer of The Rehearsal Transpros’d, a two-part satirical broadside published in 1672–3 in which Marvell advocated toleration for Dissenters. It was a period of feverish literary activity for him, cut short only when, in the summer of 1678, he caught a tertian ague, dying at his house in Great Russell Street on 16 August as a result of incompetent treatment. The bill for his funeral and gravestone was settled by the grateful Corporation of Hull.

Marvell’s most frequently read poem today is ‘To His Coy Mistress’, which contains the resonant lines ‘But at my back I always hear / Times’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’, a predicament most people can identify with. The couplet is part of a sustained attempt by the speaker to persuade his female addressee to give in to his amorous demands. But the poem is far from being an innocuous lyric in the carpe diem tradition. It doesn’t merely advocate accepting reality, it recommends taking up the cudgels against it:

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball:

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Thorough the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

It’s fighting talk.

The subject-matter and tone of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ preclude delicacy, obviously. For that the reader needs to go to poems such as ‘The Coronet’ (about Jesus’ crown of thorns) or ‘The Garden’. But Marvell was a political poet, too. Indeed, ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ has been called the greatest political poem in English. It’s also unusual in being a poem that we can date with some precision: on internal evidence it must have been written between late June and late July 1650, in the interval between Cromwell’s victorious return from Ireland after a brutal campaign against the alliance of indigenous Catholic Confederates and English Royalists and his departure for Scotland on a similar mission. As Commander-in-chief of the army, Thomas Fairfax had been due to lead the latter but had stepped down on the grounds that making war on the Scots would be justified only if they decided to invade England.

The ‘Ode’ presents Cromwell as a force of nature, ‘the Wars’ and Fortune’s son’, a superman with a divine mandate. But, halfway through it, the reader encounters this arresting evocation of the execution of Charles I:

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene,

But with his keener eye

The axe’s edge did try;

Nor called the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless right,

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed.

Not surprisingly, this passage has occasioned reams of interpretative comment. Many readers have taken its presence in the poem as proof of Marvell’s ambivalence towards Charles’s execution and Cromwell’s ascendance. Now there certainly are tensions in the poem. It ends, for example, by urging Cromwell to ‘march indefatigably on’ with his sword erect: it recognises, in other words, that violence begets violence. But the lines about Charles don’t argue that it was right or wrong to execute him. The most we can deduce from them with any degree of certainty is that Marvell regarded Charles’s famously dignified conduct on the scaffold as admirable, just as we can fairly assume on the basis of the rest of the poem that he regarded Cromwell as the man of the moment. More than that is speculation. At the same time, the poem seems to have been designed with a view to encouraging us to speculate.

This kind of intriguing interpretative dilemma is a common experience in reading Marvell. He constantly withholds the key that would unlock his thinking. Some have seen ‘To His Coy Mistress’, with its images of constraint and committed resistance, as a metaphor for the need for political engagement. This train of imagery is remarkably common in his poems, which might well point to the presence of a subtextual political agenda. On the other hand, it might merely indicate a fondness on his part for images of constraint and resistance. But because ambiguity is so common in his writing, it’s hard to think that it wasn’t intended: a sort of calculated disguise, not unlike the anonymity of his satires. The non-existence of manuscript copies of so many of his poems looks like another way of keeping their meaning to himself. Happily there’s nothing equivocal about the entry in the register recording Marvell’s burial at St Giles’ on 18 August 1678.

P. M. Oliver

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