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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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Marvell’s ability to compress large theological and philosophical meanings into short lines doesn’t always make his verse difficult, though. These lines, taken from “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”—to my mind his greatest work—express a profound and profoundly complicated truth in eight graceful 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.


Nature that hateth emptiness,

Allows of penetration less,

And therefore must make room

Where greater spirits come.

Marvell does not say that the “ancient rights” of monarchical succession are imaginary or even dead; indeed, Justice itself pleads in their favor. But abstract “rights” mean nothing in the absence of strength, and when strength fails, “greater spirits” move into the vacuum. (Note the ambiguity of the word “greater.” Marvell does not say “nobler” or even “better,” though the meter would have permitted it.)

One finishes this biography without feeling one has seen the essence of Marvell’s character. The biographer’s not to blame for that. The available evidence is too scarce, and Marvell himself was too unforthcoming to yield a satisfying life portrait. What remains is the poetry, in all its sparing beauty.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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