The first important theme that Andrew Marvell explores in “An Horatian Ode” is political conflict, as he explores events in the English civil war of the 1640s, which pitted Royalists against Parliamentarians. A crucial element in the poet’s approach is the relationship between individuals and institutions. Marvell considers both Oliver Cromwell and the deceased King Charles I for their personal characteristics as well as how they represent republican government and the monarchy.
In 1649, King Charles I was beheaded, and a Council of State assumed control of a republic called the Commonwealth of England. The king’s execution fueled the flames in the civil war, which extended into Ireland. In 1650, Marvell wrote the ode to commemorate the return of Oliver Cromwell from Ireland. Cromwell, then a member of the so-called Rump Parliament, was an important and controversial figure. He had actively supported the king’s execution and then played key roles in the military campaigns, including the one waged in Ireland.
Marvell had been a committed Royalist before the republic was declared, but he later supported the Parliamentarians. In the poem, he does not take a firm stand for either side, implying that the English must accept the current state of affairs. Marvell focuses on the personal characteristics of both Cromwell and the king. The speaker seems to celebrate Cromwell as a bright, bold figure in war. Using a simile, he compares him to a “three-fork’d lightning ... burning through the air.” This apparent praise is qualified, however, as he calls resistance “madness” and identifies Cromwell’s force as “angry Heaven’s flame.”
The ambiguity that Marvell shows toward Cromwell is also seen in his attitude toward the late king. Although royal rule may have become archaic, representing “ancient rights,” in describing the king’s behavior at the execution, Marvell emphasizes the fine behavior of
the royal actor ... [on] / The tragic scaffold.
He continued to comport himself like a king until the end; his actions were not “common or mean,” and he did not vulgarly cry out but
bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.
Ironically, Marvell notes, Cromwell’s behavior in conquering Ireland has made him like a king. He calls Cromwell “Caesar.” The poem’s last section conveys the poet’s opinion that the war will continue and Cromwell must continue to function as a military ruler.