Summary

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Like “To His Coy Mistress,” “An Horatian Ode” operates on several levels. On the surface, it is a conventional celebratory ode about a military and political hero, praising his exploits and virtues. One can infer from Marvell’s other laudatory poems about Oliver Cromwell that the poet genuinely admired the lord protector; the tone of the poem is not openly ironic. Woven into the praise, however, or hidden behind it, are subtle signs indicating an equivocal attitude toward Cromwell and his achievements.

Cromwell is depicted as a larger-than-life figure, a conqueror who is almost as much a force of nature as a man; Marvell compares him to “three-forked lightning” and calls him a “greater spirit.” He is likened to a scourge of God, sweeping away corruption. “’Tis madness to resist or blame/ The force of angry heaven’s flame.” He is a conqueror on a par with “Caesar” and “Hannibal.” Yet intermingled with this praise for Cromwell is a sense of regret at the destruction of ancient institutions. The effect of Cromwell’s revolution has been “to ruin the great work of time,” in other words, society and government as it had been. Marvell calls Cromwell an instrument of fate and power rather than one of righteousness when he says “Though justice against fate complain,/ And plead the ancient rights in vain:/ . . . those do hold or break/ As men are strong or weak.”

Of course, the greatest institution that Cromwell succeeded in destroying was the monarchy. Marvell treats the scene of King Charles I’s execution with great sensitivity and sympathy. The king is likened to an “actor” playing his final scene on a stagelike scaffold, while all around “the armed bands/ Did clap their bloody hands.” Marvell praises the dignity and courage of the king: “He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene . . . / Nor called the gods with vulgar spite/ To vindicate his helpless right.” In describing the king’s execution, Marvell seems more concerned with the human drama than with the political circumstances surrounding the event; the king is not a tyrant or an enemy, but an admirably brave prisoner.

Beyond this open ambivalence are more indirect qualifications to the praise of Cromwell. The whole poem is rife with puns and double meanings, from the opening lines describing Cromwell’s supporters as “forward” (either “eager” or “presumptuous”—or both) to the sly description of Cromwell’s progress from farmer to conqueror and statesman. Before his emergence as a public figure, Marvell says, Cromwell labored in his “private gardens . . . / As if his highest plot/ To plant the bergamot.” The pun on “plot” is apparent, but the choice of “bergamot” is interesting. A bergamot is a fruit tree whose etymological name means “prince’s pear”; the reference is perhaps a swipe at Cromwell’s aspirations to rule.

A kind of resolution, or at least an acknowledgment, of the tensions established by his equivocal praise is achieved toward the end of the poem when Marvell openly expresses his concerns about Cromwell’s rule. Though he praises Cromwell for being responsive to the wishes of the people, having “his sword and spoils ungirt,/ To lay them at the public’s skirt,” he offers an explicit warning, both to Cromwell and to the people, about the exercise of absolute power and the possible necessity of further bloodshed to uphold it: “The same arts that did gain/ A power, must it maintain.”

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