by Nigel Smith
Yale, 416 pp., $45
When Andrew Marvell died in 1678, he wasn’t thought of as a great poet, or indeed a poet of any caliber at all. He was known as an industrious member of Parliament and as a talented pamphleteer—author, among other works, of The Rehearsal Transpros’d, a witheringly funny attack on the Erastian and anti-Puritan cleric Samuel Parker, and An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, a work that generated precisely the kind of alarm its author thought the times warranted. Most of Marvell’s poems were not published until 1681, three years after his death, when his housekeeper, Mary Palmer, brought out a collection titled Miscellaneous Poems in which she described herself as having been Marvell’s wife, a claim that remains unrefuted but highly doubtful. Eighteenth-century Whigs revered him as a defender of political liberty, but only appreciated him as a poet. In fact, well over two centuries would pass before Marvell would become anything more than an interesting second-tier lyricist.
His reputation rose steadily throughout the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1921, when T. S. Eliot published an essay celebrating the tercentenary of the poet’s birth, that Marvell began to acquire his present reputation as one of the language’s greatest minor poets. (Eliot described Marvell’s poetry as cutting a middle path between Milton’s magniloquence and Dryden’s wit, which seems about right.) Yet Marvell is still, even now, underrepresented in the field of biography. There has been no comprehensive Life of Marvell since Pierre Legouis’s critical biography of 1928; Nigel Smith, professor of English at Princeton and an excellent scholar of 17th-century literature, has now filled that void with this authoritative Life. Smith’s writing is clear and bereft of scholarly jargon—but alas, his book has no narrative thrust whatever. The first thing a nonspecialist reader of Marvell’s life wants to know about “To His Coy Mistress” isn’t that “the poem is an example (almost to a self-parodic degree) of the carpe diem motif” or that it “alludes to the contemporary millenarian sense that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent.” He wants to know what this technically perfect and endlessly searchable poem may reveal about the author’s character and circumstances—and of that we get almost nothing.
In Smith’s defense, Marvell’s must be a difficult life to write. It would take a special talent to create a narrative out of a biography in which there are so many gaps. In some instances the only evidence we have of his existence is a stray comment or two by some brief acquaintance. He was not one to cultivate many close friendships—Two paradises ’twere in one / To live in paradise alone, he wrote in one of his finest poems, “The Garden”—and so there are only a few recorded recollections of the man extant.
Andrew Marvell was born in Hull, Yorkshire, the son of a learned and highly capable clergyman, also named Andrew. He was given a classical education at Hull Grammar School and matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was 12. At Trinity he endured a regime designed to give students a mastery, if not complete dominion, over classical and biblical writings. In his seventh year at Trinity, however—the first four to attain a BA degree, the following three toward his MA—Marvell, along with four other scholars, lost his scholarship and was asked to leave. The college’s reasons are not known: one of many maddening question marks about Marvell’s life. A year later both his parents were dead, their son trying to make his way as a clerk for a London bookseller; and it’s from this time that his earliest English poetry dates.
Already his verse had that elusive perfection we associate with his more famous poems. There is this, for instance, from “The Unfortunate Lover,” with its evocation of orphanhood:
No day he saw but that which breaks
Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
While round the rattling thunder hurled,
As at the funeral of the world.