Andrew Marvell Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Andrew Marvell is firmly established today in the ranks of the Metaphysical poets, and there is no question that much of his work clearly displays the qualities appropriate to such a position. He reveals a kinship with the Metaphysical poets through his ingenious use of extended logic, even when dealing with emotions; his yoking of very dissimilar things, of the mundane (even profane) with the sublime, of large with small and far with near; and his analytic quality. His use of puns, often woven into intricate groups, may be added to the list. Like John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets, Marvell shapes his rhythm with careful attention to his meaning. Marvell’s admiration for Donne shows not only in having written some strongly Donne-like poetry (“On a Drop of Dew,” “Young Love,” and parts of “Upon Appleton House,” for example), but also in his gratuitously full use of one of Donne’s poems in a pamphlet written late in Marvell’s life. It might be added that Marvell’s prose works, especially his most successful, show the same Metaphysical qualities.

Although Donne’s best-known poetry (as well as Marvell’s most Donne-like work) resembles puzzles from which attentive reading gradually extracts greater clarity, a similar approach to Marvell’s best and most “Marvellian” passages (for example, “a green thought in a green Shade”) causes them not to become more clear so much as more dazzling. Marvell has been called “many-sided,” “ambiguous,” “amphibian,” “elusive,” and “inconclusive.” He is. He has been said to have a vision that is “complex,” “double,” or “ironic.” He does.

Marvell’s work often shows a remarkable ability to make opposites interdependent, to create a concordia discors. Such is the relationship of Cromwell and King Charles in “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” and of retirement and action in “Upon Appleton House” and “The Garden.” Sometimes, no less remarkably, he achieves moments of what can only be called “fusion,” as in the “annihilation of all that’s made” in “The Garden,” or in the last few lines of “To His Coy Mistress.” He will at times surprisingly mix levity and gravity, as in “To His Coy Mistress” and parts of “Upon Appleton House.” His use of qualifiers is unusual (“none, I think,” or “If these the times”).

Marvell employed decasyllabics for his last two Cromwell poems, inventing a stanza combining lines of eight and six syllables for the first. Three fourths of his work was in octosyllabics, however, and he has been rightly called the “master of the octosyllabic.”

“To His Coy Mistress”

Certainly the most widely anthologized and best known of Marvell’s poems is “To His Coy Mistress.” It is not only a seduction poem, but also a deduction poem, in which the theme of carpe diem is presented as a syllogism: (1) If there were world enough and time, the lady’s coyness would not be a crime; (2) There is not world enough and time; (3) therefore, this coyness may or may not be a crime. Marvell must have been aware that his poem depended on flawed logic; he may have meant it to be ironically typical of the desperate reasoning employed by would-be seducers.

In the first section of the poem, the speaker describes the vast amounts of time (“An age at least to every part”) and space (from the Ganges to the Humber) he would devote to his love if he could. This apparently gracious statement of patience is then juxtaposed with the striking image of “Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near” and the resultant “Deserts of vast eternity.” “Deserts,” meaning “unpeopled places,” is emphasized by the shift of the stress to the first syllable of the line. There follows the arresting depiction of the drawbacks of postmortem chastity, with worms “trying” the lady’s “long-preserved virginity,” as her “quaint honor” turns to dust.

Imagery of corruption was not unusual in carpe diem poems, and it also occurs (the memento mori theme) in visual arts of the period; Marvell’s lines are, however, remarkably explicit and must have been devised to shock and disgust. The passage represents, as Rosalie Colie notes in “My Ecchoing Song” (1970), “sound psychology” in frightening the lady into the comfort of her lover’s arms, an event that the next two lines suggest may indeed have occurred at this point, as the speaker rescues himself from the danger of excessive morbidity with the urbanely ironic comment, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.” This makes the transition to the last section of the poem, wherein the speaker, having shown that however limitless time and space may intrinsically be, they are to mortals very limited, offers his solution. The answer is to take energetic action. The formerly coy mistress, now described (either in hope or in fact) as having a “willing soul” with “instant fires,” is invited to join the speaker in “one ball” of strength and sweetness, which will tear “thorough the iron gates of life.” This third section of the poem is an addition not typical of carpe diem poems, which usually suggest rather than delineate the consummation. The amorous couple, the speaker indicates, should enthusiastically embrace the inevitable and each other. Like the elder Fairfaxes in “Upon Appleton House,” they should “make Destiny their choice” and devour time rather than waiting for time to consume them. In its three sections, “To His Coy Mistress” presents first a cheerful and generous offering of limitless time and space, then a chilling reminder that human life is very limited, and finally a frenzied but extraordinarily powerful invitation to break through and transcend all limits.

“The Garden”

If “To His Coy Mistress” makes the case for action versus hesitation, “The Garden,” the best-known hortensial work of the “garden poet,” considers the question of action versus contemplation. Like much of Marvell’s work, it employs a rich texture of wordplay and classical and Christian allusions. It is a retirement poem, in which the speaker begins by celebrating his withdrawal from the busy world of human endeavor. This theme is one rich in tradition, and would have been attractive during the uncertain and dangerous times in which Marvell lived. In this poem, however, the speaker retires not merely from the world of men, but, in a moment of ultimate retirement, from the world of material things. As the poet contemplates the garden, his mind and his soul momentarily transcend the material plane.

In the first stanza, the speaker comments on the folly of seeking human glory. Men “vainly” (“from vanity,” and also “in vain”) “amaze” themselves (surprise themselves/trap themselves in a maze) in their efforts to achieve honors (represented by the palm, oak, and bay leaves used in classical victors’ wreaths). Even the best such victory represents success in only one area of endeavor, for which the victor receives the decoration of a wreath woven from a single species, a wreath that in its singleness “upbraids” (braids up/rebukes) his “toyles” (coils of hair/efforts). In contrast, repose is rewarded by “all flowers and all trees.” Addressing Quiet and Innocence personified, the speaker uses a typically Marvellian qualifier when he says that their sacred plants “if here below,/ Only among the plants will grow,” suggesting that quiet and innocence may be really unobtainable on Earth. The solitude experienced by the lone visitor among the plants of the garden is nevertheless worth seeking, for, in comparison, “Society is all but rude”—society is nearly “coarse,” or (an inversion and a pun) society is almost “rustic.” The next three stanzas describe the physical, sensual values that the garden offers in contrast to those of the world. As the “society” of the garden is superior to that of men, so the sensuality of the garden is more intense than that of men: “No white or red was ever seen/ So amorous as this lovely green” (the colors of fleshly passion are less “amorous” than the green of the garden), and the beauties of the trees exceed those of any woman. The gods Apollo and Pan knew this, the speaker says, since they pursued the nymphs Daphne and Syrinx, not for their womanly charms, but in order to obtain their more desirable dendritic forms.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker reaches a height of sensual ecstasy as the various garden fruits literally thrust themselves on him, in what Rosalie Colie rightly calls a “climactic experience.” It is powerfully sexual, yet the speaker is alone and in the garden, as Adam once was in Eden. And then the speaker, “stumbling” and “Insnared,” falls, reminding the reader of the Fall in Eden. Marvell’s speaker, however, is still alone and still—indeed, more than ever—in the garden. The next two stanzas describe what is...

(The entire section is 3701 words.)