Twelve years to the day after King Charles I ascended the scaffold at Whitehall to become the first European sovereign decapitated by his subjects, and his son had the remains of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector during England’s republican decade and the man whom as much as any other was responsible for the regicide, exhumed from his tomb in Westminster Abby so that the favor could be returned. Interregnum signified dreary theocracy, when the theaters were closed, Christmas abolished, and even weekend sports banned. By contrast, Charles promised sensuality, a decadent rejection of austere radicalism. But if there was one area of overlap, it would be in issues of rapprochement, for though pardons were issued to the opposition rank-and-file, Charles still ordered the execution of 31 signers of his father’s judgement, remembered by the subject of this essay as that moment when the king had “bowed his comely head/Down as upon a bed.” Even the dead would not be spared punishment, for in January of 1661 Cromwell was pulled from his grave, flesh still clinging to bone, languid hair still hanging from grey scalp, and the Royalists would hang him from a gibbet at Tyburn.
Eventually Cromwell’s head would be placed on a pike in front of Westminster Hall where it would molder for the next two decades. Such is the mutability of things. Through this orgy of revenge, a revolutionary who’d previously served as Latin Secretary (tasked with translating diplomatic missives) slinked out of London. Already a celebrated poet, he’d been appointed by Cromwell because of his polemical pamphlets. After the blanket pardon he emerged from hiding, but still Charles had him arrested, perhaps smarting when in 1649 the author had described Royalists as a “credulous and hapless herd, begott’n to servility, and inchanted with these popular institutes of Tyranny.” By any accounting John Milton’s living body should have been treated much the same as Cromwell’s dead one, for he was arrested, imprisoned, and no doubt fully expected himself to be flayed and hung up at Tyburn. But he would avoid punishment (and go on to write Paradise Lost). Milton’s rescue can be attributed to another poet a decade his junior.
Once a keen supporter of Cromwell, but now the new government completely trusted this younger poet and his word was enough to keep Milton from the scaffold. Before the regicide he’d been a royalist, during Interregnum a republican, and upon Restoration a royalist again, all of which earned him the sobriquet of “The Chameleon.” That perhaps impugns him too much, for if Andrew Marvell understood anything it was fickle mutability, how in a mercurial reality all that can be steadfast is merely the present. A man loyal not to regimes but to friends. He was born on this day 400 years ago, he is among the greatest poets, and the relative silence that accompanies his quadricentenary speaks to his major theme: our eventual oblivion. “Thy beauty shall no more be found,” Marvell’s narrator warns in his most famous poem, and it might as well be prophecy for his own work.
“His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him… for our own benefit, not his,” writes T.S. Eliot in his seminal essay “Andrew Marvell,” published on this day a century ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Just as John Donne had been known primarily for his sermons, so too was Marvell remembered chiefly as a politician (he was elected as an MP prior to Restoration, a position he stayed in through his death), until Eliot encouraged critics to take a second look at his verse. By Eliot’s recommendation, Marvell was now understood as one of the greatest poets of the century, perhaps only lesser than his friend Milton. Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems that his “small body of highly wrought work constitutes English poetry’s most concentrated imaginative investigation of the conflicting demands of the active and the contemplative life, the self and society, the force of desire and the pressure of morality, the detached mind and the body embedded in its environment.” Perhaps Marvell deserves a little bit of rose or rue or laurel. Yet his quadricentennial passes without much of a mention, though presumably some other writers will (hopefully) consider his legacy today. A quick Google search shows that several academic societies are providing (virtual) commemoration, including a joint colloquium hosted by St. Andrews, and appropriately enough a Marvell website maintained by the University of Hull in his northern English hometown (which features this insightful essay by Stewart Mottram about Marvell and COVID-19). Yet by comparison to other recent literary anniversaries—for Milton, Mary Shelly, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, of course, William Shakespeare—there has largely been quiet about Marvell, even though Eliot once said regarding his poetry that a “whole civilization resides in these lines.”
Marvell published only a handful of lyrics in his own life, and while he authored examples of virtually every popular genre of the time, from ode to panegyric, country house poem to satire (though not epic), he stretched their bounds, made them unclassifiable and slightly strange. Having written across three major periods of 17th-century English literary history—during the Caroline reign, the Commonwealth, and then Restoration—he awkwardly fits within both of the two dominant traditions of that age, metaphysical and Cavalier poetry. “Was he classic or romantic, metaphysical or Augustan, Cavalier or Puritan… republican or royalist?” asks Elisabeth Story Donno in the introduction to Andrew Marvell: The Critical Heritage, and indeed such ambiguity threads through his verse and especially his life. This Hull-born son of a stern Calvinist minister who after dalliances on the continent possibly converted to Catholicism (tarred on return as now being an “Italo-Machiavellian”), who served kings and republicans, and who seamlessly switched political and religious allegiances.
The great themes of Marvell’s biography and his poetry are mutability and transitoriness; his verse is marked by the deep sense that as it once was, it no longer is; and as it is, it no longer shall be. “Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets. “A sanctioned social order can be ended with an ax, love is finite, we grow old.” With an almost Taoist sense of the impermanence of life, Marvell casts off opinions and positions with ease, and even his own place within the literary firmament is bound to change and alter. “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as Marvell astutely notes. A poet who has “no settled opinions, except the fundamental ones,” writes Schmidt, though his “political readjustments in times of turmoil have not told against him. There is something honest seeming about everything he does, and running through his actions a constant thread of humane concern.” Steadfast though we all wish we could be, Marvell is the poet of Heraclitus’s stream, always reminding us that this too shall pass. “Even his name is slippery,” writes Bates, “In other surviving documents it is as variously spelt as… Marvell, Mervill, Mervile, Marvel, Mervail. We are not sure how to pronounce it.” A convenient metaphor.
However Marvell pronounced his name, it’s his immaculate words and the enchanted ways that he arranged them that are cause for us to return to him today, a poet for whom his “charms are as real as they are hard to define,” as Schmidt writes. Marvell has no great drama in his oeuvre, no Hamlet or King Lear, he penned no epics, no Paradise Lost. Donne, one of his great influences, was more innovative, and George Herbert provided a more unified body of work. And yet in about six or so poems—”The Garden,” “Upon Appleton House,” “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” the sequence known as the Mower poems, “Bermudas,” and of course “To His Coy Mistress”—are among the most perfect in the language, all written around 1650, when the poet acted as tutor to the daughter of Lord General Thomas Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army before Cromwell. Schmidt argues that “Most of his poems are in one way or another ‘flawed’… [the] tetrameter couplets he favored prove wearying… Some of the conceits are absurd. Many of the poems… fail to establish a consistent perspective… Other poems are static: an idea is stated and reiterated in various terms but not developed… There are thematic inconsistencies.” Yet despite Schmidt’s criticism of Marvell, he can’t help but conclude that “because of some spell he casts, he is a poet whose faults we not only forgive but relish.”
It’s because of Marvell’s overweening honesty when it comes
to those faults, themselves a function of the world in flux, which is to say a
reality where perfection must always be deferred. In “The Garden,”
one of the great pastoral poems, he describes “The mind, that ocean where
each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find;/Yet it creates, transcending these,
/For other worlds, and other seas;/Annihilating all that’s made.” His “Upon Appleton House,” which
takes part in the common if retroactively odd convention of the country-house
poem wherein the terrain of a wealthy estate is described, contrasts the artifice
of the garden with its claim to naturalism; in “An Horatian Ode Upon
Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” he gives skeptical praise to the Lord
Protector (back from a genocidal campaign across the sea), where the “forward
youth that would appear/Must now forsake his Muses dear,/Nor in the shadows
sing/His numbers languishing.” Mutability defined not just Marvell’s
politics but his poetry; steadfastly Christian (of some denomination or
another) he gives due deference to the eternal, but the affairs of men are
fickle, and time’s arrow moves in only one direction.
History’s unforgiving erraticism is sometimes more apparent, and Marvell lived during the most chaotic of English centuries. When the Commonwealth that Marvell served collapsed, and Charles II came back from his exile in 1660, it was to triumphant fanfare in a London that was exhausted after years of stern Puritan dictatorship. Crowds thronged the streets wearing sprigs of oak leaves to welcome the young King Charles and the spring of Restoration. In the coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, the 30-year-old king is made to appear the exact opposite of priggish Cromwell; he is bedecked in ribbons and lace, tight white hose and cascading violet velvet, his curly chestnut wig long in the French style (as he would have picked up in the Sun King’s Court at Versailles) with a thin brunette mustache above a wry smile, a royal scepter in one hand and an orb in the other. If Cromwell was a Puritan hymn, then Charles was a baroque sonata by Henry Purcell. Marvell learned the melodies of both. His contemporary biographer Nigel Smith notes in Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon that the poet “made a virtue and indeed a highly creative resource of being other men’s (and women’s) mirrors.” What is espied in a mirror, it must be said, depends on what you put in front of it. Mirrors are ever-changing things. Such is mutability.
There must be a few caveats when I argue that Marvell’s fame has diminished. Firstly, to any of my fellow scholars of the Renaissance (now more aridly known as “early modernists”) who are reading, of course I know that you still study and teach Marvell, of course I know that articles, dissertations, presentations, and monographs are still produced on him, of course I know that all of us are familiar with his most celebrated poems. It would be a disingenuous argument to claim that I’m “rediscovering” a poet who remains firmly canonical, at least among my small tribe. Secondly, to any conservatives reading, I’m not suggesting that Marvell has been eclipsed because he’s been “cancelled,” or anything similarly silly, though honestly there would probably be ample reason to do so even if that were a thing (and as perfect a poem as it is, “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” is problematic in the least), but bluntly his stock isn’t high enough to warrant being a target in that way. Thirdly, and most broadly, I’m not claiming that his presence is absent from our imagination, far from it. If anything, Marvell flits about as a half-remembered reference, a few turns of phrase that lodge in the brain from distant memories of undergraduate British literature survey courses, or a dappling of lines that end up misattributed to some other author (I’ve seen both “Times winged chariot” and “green thought in a green shade” identified with Shakespeare). Modern authors as varied as Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Ursula K. Le Guinn, William S. Burroughs, Terry Pratchet, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Archibald MacLeish, Primo Levi, and Arthur C. Clark either quote, reference, allude toward, or directly write about Marvell. Even Stephen King quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” in Pet Sematary. Regardless, on this muted birthday, ask yourself how many people you know are aware of Marvell, among a handful of the greatest poets writing during the greatest period of English poetry?
“Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” So concludes Marvell’s greatest accomplishment, “To His Coy Mistress.” Like an aesthetic syllogism, the poem piles an abundance of gorgeous imagery in rapid succession to make an argument about how the present must be seized, for immortality is an impossibility. Of course, the conceit of the poem isn’t novel; during the Renaissance it was downright cliché. Carpe diem poetry—you may remember the term from the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society—goes back to Latin classics by poets like Catullus and Lucretius. A representative example would be Marvell’s contemporary, the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick, and his lyric “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” These poems commonly made an erotic argument, the imagined reader a woman whom the narrator is attempting to seduce into bed with an argument about the finite nature of life. Donne’s obvious precursor “To His Mistress Going to Bed (Elegy 19)” is perhaps the most brilliant example of the form. Bate emphasizes that such a “motif is typical of the Cavalier poets… Marvell, however, takes the familiar Cavalier genre and transposes it to a realm beyond ideology.” When reading Donne, the “poems are written in the very voice of a man in bed with a real woman,” as Bates writes, most likely his beloved wife, Anne, for whom he had no compunctions about blatantly stating his sexual yearning. Marvell, by contrast, “never fleshes out his imaginary mistress,” and the result is that “He is not really interested in either the girl or the Cavalier pose; for him, it is experience itself that we must seize with energy, not one particular lifestyle.” The mistress to whom Marvell is trying to woo is his own soul, and the purpose is to consciously live in a present, for that’s all that there is.
“Had we but World enough, and Time,” Marvell begins, “This coyness Lady were no crime.” Ostensibly an argument against chastity, his reasoning holds not just for sex (though the declaration of “My vegetable Love should grow” a few lines later certainly implies that it’s not not about coitus). Eroticism marks the first half of the lyric, explicitly tied to this theme of time’s fleetingness, while imagining the contrary. “A hundred years should go to praise/Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze. /Two hundred to adore each breast:/But thirty thousand to the rest. /An Age at least to every part, /And the last Age should show your heart.” Marvell is working within the blazon tradition, whereby the physical attributes of a beloved are individually celebrated, yet Bates is correct that the hypothetical woman to whom the lyric is a cipher more than a person—for nothing actually is described, merely enumerated. For that matter, the time frames listed—100 years, 30,000, an ambiguous “Age”—all seem random, but as a comment on eternity, there’s a wisdom in understanding that there’s no difference between a second or an epoch. He similarly reduces and expands space, calling upon venerable exoticized images to give sense of the enormity of the world (and by consequence how small individual realities actually are). “To walk, and pass our long Loves Day. /Thou by the Indian Ganges side… I would/Love you ten year before the Flood:/And you should if you please refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews.” Marvell’s language (orientalist though it may be) is playful; it calls to mind the aesthetic sensuality of Romantics like William Taylor Coleridge, where he imagines the mistress picking rubies off the ground. But the playfulness is interrupted by the darker tone of the second half of the poem.
“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Desarts of vast Eternity.” The theology of “To His Coy Mistress” is ambiguous; are these deserts of vast eternity the same as the immortality of Christian heaven, or does it imply extinction? Certainly, the conflation of death with a desert seems to deny any continuation. It evokes the trepidation of the French Catholic philosopher and Marvell’s contemporary Blaise Pascal, who in his Pensées trembled before the “short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing.” Evocatively gothic language follows: Marvell conjures the beloved’s moldering corpse in “thy marble Vault,” where “Worms shall try/That long preserv’d Virginity: And your quaint Honour turn to dust,” a particularly grotesque image of the phallic vermin amidst a decomposing body, especially as “quaint” was a contemporary pun for genitalia. “The Grave’s a fine and private place, /But none I think do there embrace.” In the final third of the poem, Marvell embraces almost mystical rhetoric. “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.” This couple melding together is obviously a sexual image, but he’s also describing a singularity, a monad, a type of null point that exists beyond space and time. If there is one clear message in “To His Coy Mistress,” it’s that this too shall pass, that time will obliterate everyone and everything. But paradoxically, eternity is the opposite of immortality; for if eternity is what we desire, then it’s in the moment. Traditional Carpe diem demands that we live life fully for one day we’ll die; Marvell doesn’t disagree with that, but his command is that to truly live life fully is to understand that it’s the present that exists eternally, that we always only live in this present right now, so we must ask ourselves what the significance of this brief second is. What’s mere fame to that?
Marvell’s star has faded not because he wasn’t a great poet, not because he deserves to be forgotten, not because he’s been replaced by other writers or because of any conscious diminishment of his stature. His fame has ebbed because that’s what happens to people as time moves forward. The arguments about what deserves to be read, taught, and remembered often overlooks the fact that forgetting is a function of what it means to be human. What makes “To His Coy Mistress” sublime is that there is a time-bomb hidden with it, the poet’s continuing obsolescence firmly confirming the mutability of our stature, of our very lives. Marvell’s own dwindling fame is a beautiful aesthetic pronouncement, a living demonstration of time’s winged chariot, and the buzzing of the wings of oblivion forever heard as a distant hum. After his death in 1678, he was ensconced within seemingly ageless marble, and set within the catacombs of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a gothic stone church at the center of London, though true to its name it was at the edge of the city when Marvell was alive. Ever as fortune’s wheel turns, the neighborhood is now bathed in perennial neon light—theaters with their marquees signs and the ever-present glow of electronic billboards. Red double-decker busses and black hackney-carriages dart past the church were Marvell slumbers, unconscious through empire, through Industrial Revolution, through the explosions of the blitz.
“But a Tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is Marble necessary to transmit it to posterity,” reads his epitaph, “it is engraved in the minds of this generation, and will be always legible in his inimitable writings, nevertheless.” Probably not. For one day, there will less seminars about Marvell, and then no more; less anthologizing, and then the printings will stop; less interest, except in the minds of antiquarians, and then they too shall forget. One day, even Shakespeare shall largely be forgotten as well. The writing on Marvell’s tomb will become illegible, victim to erosion and entropy, and even the banks of the Thames will burst to swallow the city. When he is forgotten, paradoxically maybe especially when he is, Marvell teaches us something about what is transient and what is fleeting. Time marches forward in only one direction, and though it may erase memory it can never annihilate that which has happened. Regardless of heaven, Marvell lived, and as for all of us, that’s good enough. His verse still dwells in eternity, whether we utter his name or not, for what is rendered unto us who are mortal is the ever-living life within the blessed paradise of a second, which is forever present.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.