Of literature from the medieval era up to the 17th century, I was most fascinated by the metaphysical poets. This was partially due to the fact that I couldn’t grasp this concept at first, and also because the poetry sounded new, unlike traditional poetry that are popular in text books and in society.
Overused rhyming schemes didn’t seem to reoccur and popular themes such as love, religion and politics were portrayed in intriguing ways. To be clear these themes were presented through unusual metaphors that didn’t have any connections to the theme. These ‘unusual metaphors’ are called metaphysical conceits.
Both John Donne and Andrew Marvell adopted these methods in their poetry. Andrew Marvel is an interesting character to me because, he was mysterious with his political affiliations and he hasn’t written as much as John Milton or John Donne, but his work resonates and gets as much attention as theirs do.
Andrew Marvell was born in 1621 at East Yorkshire. His father was a Clergyman who was working his way up from a humble beginning. Marvell obtained a traditional education from Hull Grammar School. His household was of a protestant background. He continued his education at Trinity College Cambridge with a small scholarship for academic merit.
Unfortunately for Marvel, his father passes away and he is deprived of his scholarship as well. This meant that he had to find a way to support himself. His goal was to reach a clerical position but that was going to take a lot of hard work. He initially tutored at noble households or clergymen’s households. Towards the latter part for the 1640s he spent some time in London where he got into poetry circles to create some of his really good work. He wrote poetry that praised England’s new leaders, and slowly broke into the political scene by getting the opportunity to tutor Oliver Cromwell’s ward, William Dutton.
Marvell was born towards the end of King James I’s reign. King James wasn’t very good with money management so the country wasn’t very prosperous. Also during his reign, in 1618 the thirty year old war begins. Marvell was born into a country that wasn’t doing too well. When Marvell was a few years old, Charles I becomes king. He wasn’t a very successful King either as he always had issues with the parliament, but when he ordered five members from the House of Commons to be arrested, a civil war broke out between him and the parliament.
During this war Marvell travelled to France, Italy, Holland and Spain. “While his earliest poems associate him with royalists, those after 1649 celebrate the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell; although he is sometimes ambivalent, Marvell recognizes divine providence in the political changes” (Greenblatt 676). In 1657 he was given a job as per John Milton’s request, as a Latin secretary to Olive Cromwell’s council of state.
According to Greenblatt, during this time period Marvell helped his friend Milton from execution due to his revolutionary polemics and also helped negotiate his release after being imprisoned for a short time. John Milton and Andrew Marvell were friends and they worked together. Their literary work didn’t have a lot in common, but Marvell wrote a wonderful poem which was an interpretation and literary criticism of Milton’s ‘Paradise lost’. With this job, Marvell also got the opportunity to go abroad on diplomatic missions to Holland and Russia. During this time period of working for Cromwell, Marvell was also successful in selecting a member for parliament from his town, Hull, which allowed him to focus some attention towards the needs of his district.
“Marvell is a poet of serious wit, like Donne, but his wit takes the form of drollery, and he writes pages on end without a strong line or a violent metaphor” (Adams 223). To take a close look at his literature, “To His Coy Mistress” was a great metaphysical poem of his. In the poem Marvel uses “you only live once” or “carpe diem” as the central thesis to get his point across. He says that if time was on his side he would devote centuries to love every bit of this woman for she deserves it, but realistically time runs out. They don’t have all eternity to endure her coyness.
There are witty theories or comments to be found all throughout his poetry. To explain and to provide further examples for Marvell’s careful thinking and careful structuring of his poetry, Stephen Greenblatt explains, in “The Norton Anthology of English Literature”:
Many of Marvell’s poems explore the human condition in terms of fundamental dichotomies that resist resolution. In religious or philosophical poems like “The Coronet”… the conflict is between nature and grace, or body and soul, or poetic creation and sacrifice. In love poems such as “The Definition of Love”… it is often between flesh and spirit or physical sex and platonic love, or idealizing courtship and the ravages of time. In the pastorals like the Mower poems and “The Garden,” the opposition is between nature and art, or the fallen and the Edenic state, or violent passion and contentment. (676)
Aside from metaphysical poetry, Marvel wrote poetry about political incidents that occurred during his time. His biggest political poem was, “An Horatian Ode”. He may have written a political poem on a ruler who gave the command to behead the King who was reigning before him, but Marvell’s tone and writing is elegant and well constructed. He includes wit and logical reasoning just as Donne did in his poetry. These were new, experimental writing for that time period as they almost took a playful edge with unusual metaphors and unexpected wit.
In ‘An Horatian Ode’ Marvel does nothing but talk about Cromwell’s desire for war. All at once Marvell changes the subject to how Charles I upheld his dignity during his execution. It doesn’t come up before in the poem and Marvell doesn’t even talk about the opposition between Cromwell and Charles, but he abruptly changes course in those few stanzas towards the end to honor the fallen king. Then he comes back to Cromwell and his military success with the Irish. Does Marvel condone everything Cromwell has done? Or is he against him? Towards the end of the ode we find Marvel appreciating the fact that Cromwell is not a dictator and that he could lead a united country to many foreign battles as a champion.
But is there a possible explanation for this ambivalence? Is he trying to take the ‘middle path’ or not take sides? Or is he being sharp and doing what is best for his career? I say this because he did stop siding with the royalists when Cromwell started rising to power, and being on his side did help Marvell further his career. Another possible explanation could be, that “Marvell’s ambivalence contains the traces of his conscious efforts to explain and survive the religio-political flood by resorting to, as it were, the ark of the providential theology which, while widening the gap between first cause and secondary causes, was inclining increasingly from determinism towards accidentalism in and after the mid- seventeenth century.” (Yoshinaka 276)
Looking at Marvell’s life we see a classic success story. He had a humble beginning as he struggled for his education and survival. He then found footing while tutoring noble families. One could say that he was an ‘educated servant’ in that sense. Most of his adult life he did this job, and he didn’t have a stable livelihood. This was until John Milton requested his services. That’s when Andrew Marvell’s luck changed forever. Eventually he became an important figure in politics as a member of the parliament. His success in politics was great, but his success as a poet was always a shining part of him that carried his name over to this century.
As my study of Marvell’s life continues, some questions for further work would be, “Did he ever feel inferior in parliament?” “Did his upbringing or childhood haunt him, help him or was he indifferent to his past?” Like many mysteries related to his political ideologies and religious affiliations, these queries too remain, waiting to be uncovered.
You can dig deeper:
Smith, Nigel. Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
Stillinger, Jack, Deidre Lynch, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton anthology of English literature. 8th ed. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
Yoshinaka, Takashi. Marvell’s ambivalence: religion and the politics of imagination in mid-seventeenth century England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011.
Adams, Robert Martin. The land and literature of England: a historical account. New York: Norton, 1983.