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.
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.
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.