In 1680 a woman named Mary Palmer who claimed to be the widow of Andrew Marvell, best known at the time as a longtime member of Parliament for Hull, made an attempt to secure Marvell’s estate. Her alleged inspection of his London quarters turned up only “a few Books & papers of small value.” Among these papers would have been his unpublished poems, including several immortal poems of the English language. Nevertheless, Palmer decided to publish the poems the following year, although for more than two centuries they attracted the attention of only a few connoisseurs. It is unlikely that they will again suffer such neglect. They are the justification for any modern biography of a man earlier admired mainly as a principled champion of Puritanism in an age of religious and political strife.
Before the eighteenth century, singular success at poetry did not suffice to render a man notable. As far as public records go, Geoffrey Chaucer was a customs official and sometime diplomat, Sir Philip Sidney the scion of a noble family and a military hero, William Shakespeare an actor. The bulk of the available facts about Marvell pertain to his early labors as a tutor in the household of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, his uneasy maneuvering through England’s midcentury political turmoil, and his services on behalf of the merchants of Hull, especially as a member of Parliament for most of his later life. His younger contemporary John Dryden is probably the first major English poet to make a name for himself by means of his verse—primarily because he excelled at religious and political satire, forms that Marvell too practiced competently but not superlatively.
Marvell’s career constitutes a severe challenge to his modern biographer. Whereas critics of Marvell the poet—a numerous and active group in recent years—can concentrate on a small but fascinating body of lyric poetry, the biographer must try to re-create not merely the life of a public man who happened to be an accomplished writer but also a revelation of a significant poet. The critic may, but need not, relate the poetry to the life; the biographer of a poet must do so. How is that to be done, however, when poems are essentially timeless ones such as “The Garden,” “The Definition of Love,” and “To His Coy Mistress,” which remained in manuscript until after the poet’s death?
Murray has faced up to this difficult challenge bravely. He was able to take advantage of a few points of reference in Marvell’s life, one of them a position that facilitated the poet’s contribution to a genre that changing taste and changing social conditions have rendered obsolete: the country house poem. Murray regards “Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax” as the culmination of a series of such poems originating with Ben Jonson’s tribute to the Sidney family, “To Penshurst.” As he aptly explains this type of poem,
It was a way of seeing the country house and praising it, not as a rich man’s prize, but as the hub of a traditional, ordered, ethical way of life. It stressed the social function of the house in its community and the relationship of this domestic economy to nature.
Beginning probably in 1650 when he was twenty-nine, Marvell tutored Lord Fairfax’s daughter Mary at Nun Appleton House, once a Cistercian nunnery but later Fairfax’s Yorkshire estate. The poem can be dated between that year and 1652, when Marvell seems to have moved on. This poem declares him poetically mature, already the master of the octosyllabic couplet at which Marvell is unsurpassed in English poetry.
It is also clear that he composed “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” in 1650. This poem reflects his ambivalent attitude toward a man with whose stormy career he was to be associated in the decade that followed, while demonstrating rare skill at a form much cultivated by Renaissance classicists. Thus it can be seen that by his thirtieth year Marvell was capable of his best work. If one assumes that his service to Fairfax provided him with a reasonable amount of leisure amid congenial surroundings, it is easy to concur with Murray’s speculation that pastoral poems such as “The Garden,” with its bewitching couplets (“How vainly men themselves amaze/ To win the palm, the oak, or bays”; “Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade”), and the several poems about mowers date from this period in his life.
“The Garden” is also one of the cluster of poems tantalizingly suggesting facets of Marvell’s elusive personal life. For instance, the speaker judges it “two paradises . . . to live in paradise alone.” Like most Marvellians, Murray rejects Mary Palmer’s claim to be Marvell’s widow and accepts the...
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