The Magazine

Puritan in Verse

The poet-politician of the English Civil War gets his due.

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By BARTON SWAIM
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At some point during the following year, Marvell left England for a tour of Europe in which (as is thought) he served as governor to a young nobleman on a Grand Tour. In any case, he missed the entire first Civil War. In the winter of 1652-53 we find him trying to get a job in the government of the new republic, and although he didn’t get one, he did ingratiate himself sufficiently to become governor to Cromwell’s nephew and spent the next several years in further European travels. In September 1657 he became Milton’s assistant in the great man’s role as secretary for foreign or Latin tongues. From this point his career took an upward trajectory. Later, Marvell would downplay his role in Cromwell’s government, but he must have been an asset to the Commonwealth. In 1659 he became MP for Hull, a seat he held (discounting a single year) until his death almost 20 years later.

Marvell’s associations with Cromwell do not seem to have hurt him much during the Restoration. Apart from intermittent outbursts of irritation, he was a quiet, unassuming man, with a talent for knowing who not to provoke: a valuable skill in political life. “He was in his conversation very modest, and of very few words,” one friend remembered, and he only drank to excess when alone, “to refresh his spirits, and exalt his muse.”

I wonder, though, whether Smith or an editor chose the subtitle’s vaguely pejorative descriptor, “the chameleon.” It’s true that Marvell’s political writings resist easy categorization. The famous “Horatian Ode” to Cromwell, ostensibly a panegyric, gives some of its best lines in praise of the posthumously beheaded monarch (Nor called the Gods with vulgar spite / To vindicate his helpless Right, / But bowed his comely Head, / Down as upon a Bed). And in “Tom May’s Death,” written at almost the same time, Marvell ridiculed a former royalist for, among other things, switching sides and turning pro-republican (Apostatizing from our Arts and us, / To turn the Chronicler to Spartacus—“Spartacus” being Cromwell). Yet as Smith’s own analysis suggests, none of this is evidence of inconstancy or opportunism, and Marvell’s conduct after the fall of the Protectorate was as consistent and principled as one has a right to expect of any politician. He repeatedly risked his own career to defend his friend Milton from the court party’s reprisals, at one point intervening to get the old Puritan released from prison. Nor did he ever abandon his concern for the plight of Nonconformists. On that subject, indeed, he once provoked a fellow MP, Thomas Clifford of Chudleigh, a hardheaded Tory and furtive Roman Catholic, into striking him. (Both men were obliged to apologize to the other in the presence of the full House of Commons.)

And whatever may have happened in the 1630s, when Marvell is thought to have considered becoming a Jesuit, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity and consistency of his religious commitments. The exquisitely beautiful lines of “Bermudas,” probably written during Marvell’s acquaintance with John Oxenbridge, a Nonconformist minister who had fled to Bermuda during the persecutions of the 1640s, defies every modern attempt to make them ironic. The poem ends,

Thus sung they, in the English boat, 

An holy and a cheerful note;

And all the way, to guide their chime,

With falling oars they kept the time.  

Why did Marvell’s reputation as a poet climb so dramatically during the 20th century? Several answers come to mind. The Metaphysical poets (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell, and a few others) appealed to the Modernists, chief among them Eliot, for evident reasons: Their meanings tend to be tightly compressed, they are preoccupied with intellectual problems, and their solutions to those problems are frequently contingent rather than final. Some of Marvell’s best lyrics, while never engaging in the kind of esotericism in which the 20th-century Modernists indulged, do not yield their meanings easily. Here, for example, is one of his less well-known poems, “On a Drop of Dew,” in which the dewdrop serves as a metaphor for the human soul: pure, barely clinging to the thing to which it’s temporarily attached, and destined to return to its provenance soon enough. It’s a passage of exquisite beauty, and yet the fullness of its meaning lies just beyond one’s grasp. 

In how coy a Figure wound,

Every way it turns away:

So the World-excluding round

Yet receiving in the Day.

Dark beneath, but bright above:

Here disdaining, there in Love.

How loose and easie hence to go:

How girt and ready to ascend.

Moving but on a point below,

It all about does upwards bend.

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