Andrew Marvell World Literature Analysis - Essay

Andrew Marvell World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marvell is a poet attracted by complexity and paradox, and he is reluctant to oversimplify the themes and experiences that he explores in his poems, be they pastoral lyrics or overtly political works. His best poems frequently display an ambiguity and irony that is not a mere stylistic device but rather a reflection of Marvell’s penchant for seeing many sides of an ostensibly simple situation. In addition, Marvell was artistically influenced by other Metaphysical poets such as John Donne, who avoided hackneyed poetic conventions and used clever, convoluted logic and incongruous imagery to bring fresh perspectives to bear on traditional poetic subjects such as love and death.

The term “Metaphysical poet” is not one with which Marvell would have been familiar. Although it was first used by Dryden in criticizing Donne for his use of farfetched, extravagant metaphors and abstract logic in poems dealing with emotional subjects, it gained a nonpejorative status and wider currency as a result of Eliot’s seminal 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets.” Eliot’s essay praises the Metaphysical poets (including Marvell) for their harmonious uniting of reason and emotion. Some qualities of Metaphysical poetry that Marvell shares are a logical and analytical strain in dealing with emotional subjects; the use of extended, incongruous metaphors, or “conceits,” that link dissimilar images; a fondness for puns and paradox; and, occasionally, a deliberate roughness or unevenness of meter designed to add vigor to the lines.

“The Definition of Love” illustrates some of these qualities. In it, Marvell explores the paradox of an unrequited love that by its very impossibility achieves perfection. Marvell inverts traditional poetic images, referring to “Magnanimous Despair” and “feeble Hope.” Like Donne, who compared his love to a compass, Marvell employs mapmaking imagery to describe the separation from his lover. He and his beloved are like “the distant Poles,” around whom the entire world turns. He speaks of love in terms of oblique angles and infinite parallel lines that can never meet, and he invokes the oxymoronic image of a planisphere (literally a flat sphere, a term used to describe two-dimensional representation of the globe) to illustrate the impossibility of their union. He “defines” his love by these images of impossibility.

Many of Marvell’s earlier poems deal with the subject of retirement or withdrawal from public life to a life of private contemplation. Indeed, many critics divide Marvell’s work into two bodies: his early poems in praise of the contemplative life and his later poems that address more explicitly political subjects and advocate engagement in public, political life. Many of his poems praising retirement employ imagery of gardens and green woods, a trait that has led to his being called “the green poet” or “the garden poet” for his pastoral works.

“The Garden” exemplifies this type of poem. In it, Marvell wavers between whimsy and melancholy as he describes the joys of solitude in a lush, green garden. The garden is the home of “Fair Quiet” and “Innocence,” far from the “busy companies of men.” Paradoxically, the lack of human company results in a higher form of civilization: “Society is all but rude,/ To this delicious solitude.” In arguing that solitude in the garden is superior to love, he inverts romantic images from classical mythology, claiming that Apollo was rewarded, rather than thwarted, when Daphne, his romantic quarry, was metamorphosed into a tree; likewise, he suggests that Pan pursued Syrinx “Not as a nymph, but for a reed.” In typical fashion, however, Marvell subtly qualifies the paradisiacal scene, suggesting that the garden may not be as perfect as the speaker describes. The speaker stumbles over fruits and vines and says “Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass,” recalling Adam’s fall in Eden. As the speaker withdraws further and further into inward contemplation in the garden, his thoughts destructively begin “Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.” Marvell moves this vaguely unhealthy solipsism into hubris as the self-absorbed speaker criticizes the Divine plan, saying “Two paradises ’twere in one/ To live in paradise alone.” As in many of Marvell’s poems, the meaning rests on the reader’s interpretation of the tone. Despite the subtly qualifying negative imagery, the garden is portrayed throughout as beautiful and peaceful. Marvell appears neither to embrace wholeheartedly nor to reject entirely retirement in the garden, and his equivocal lyrics seem to suggest an ideal of balance between total withdrawal and engagement in society.

Marvell explores the issue of pastoral retirement versus engagement in worldly affairs in other poems such as “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” which offers the garden as a fragile refuge from violent society, “The Emigrants in the Bermudas,” which posits the necessity of escape from corrupt society in order to achieve spiritual perfection, and the several “Mower” poems, which depict meadows and gardens as wholesome retreats from unhappy social relations. The subject receives its fullest treatment in the lengthy “Upon Appleton House.” As in “The Garden,” the positive values of retirement are expounded through garden imagery. In this work, however, Marvell is more openly ambivalent about the virtues of retirement. The poem celebrates the character, home, and family of his employer, Lord Fairfax. Fairfax embodies all the positive qualities that Marvell sees as springing from a life of retirement and contemplation. Marvell suggests, however, that Fairfax has a responsibility to bestow the benefits of his virtue on society by taking active part in the politics of the day. Unlike “The Garden,” “Upon Appleton House” does not ignore the political and social exigencies of the day; Fairfax cannot live in a kind of horticultural vacuum. Instead, Fairfax must cultivate and cherish the values nurtured in retirement but use them in the service of society. That is achieved metaphorically through the marriage of Fairfax’s daughter...

(The entire section is 2527 words.)