Andrew Marvell

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Andrew Marvell World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2527

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 Mary, as she takes the values of Appleton House out into the wider world.

“Upon Appleton House” can be considered a bridge to Marvell’s later poems advocating active engagement in society and politics. Marvell recognized that the extraordinary times in which he lived required individuals of integrity and ability to take an active role in the conduct of the state. As Marvell himself became increasingly involved in public life, his work was likewise concerned more and more with political topics. Among his politicized writings are several poems praising Cromwell, satires such as “Last Instructions to a Painter,” which severely criticized English policies and politicians, and a number of political pamphlets.

“To His Coy Mistress”

First published: 1681 (collected in Miscellaneous Poems, 1681)

Type of work: Poem

The swift passage of time and its attendant decay is a compelling reason to enjoy life’s pleasures in the present, but it may also be as strong an argument for religiously motivated abstinence.

“To His Coy Mistress” is a witty exploration of the traditional carpe diem theme, and it can be read on several levels. On the surface, it functions extremely effectively as a lover’s argument in favor of pursuing pleasure. The speaker begins by assuring his lady that, “Had we but world enough, and time,” he would be well content to love her at a slow pace, devoting thousands of years to adoring each part of her. Time in this stanza is an agent of growth, as the speaker assures his beloved, “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow.” The initial stanza moves at a leisurely metrical pace as the speaker uses extravagant and playful images to persuade the lady of his devotion and his wish that he could love her with the slow thoroughness that she deserves.

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts to images of swiftly passing time to impress upon his love that they in fact do not have the leisure to love at this slow rate. “At my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” he says. Now time is destructive, and the meter moves rapidly. The speaker resorts to images of decay that are at once whimsical and frightening as he attempts to convince the beloved of the need to consummate their love in the present. Though images of death and decay are not unusual in carpe diem lyrics, Marvell’s images are particularly graphic and alarming: “in thy marble vault . . . / worms shall try/ That long-preserved virginity:/ And your quaint honour turn to dust.” The speaker employs dark humor as he ironically comments, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.”

The third stanza exhorts the beloved to action. While they are still young, able, and desirable, he urges, they should “sport” while they may, and “Rather at once our time devour,/ Than languish in his slow-chapped power.” By seizing the initiative and enthusiastically embracing life and pleasure, they can win a victory over destructive Time: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

As always, though, Marvell is aware of an equally compelling counterpoint to his argument, and he chooses ambiguous imagery to communicate it subtly. In the first stanza, Marvell uses explicitly religious terminology to describe the enormous length of time that he would like to devote to the wooing of his lady: “I would/ Love you ten years before the flood:/ And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of Jews” (it was a traditional belief that the Jews would convert to Christianity at the end of the world). Marvell thus evokes a specifically divine or eternal time frame, with overtones of judgment (the Flood was divine punishment for the human race’s corruption) and salvation.

Similarly, the following stanzas are studded with religious references. Marvell conjures up an image of the “Deserts of vast eternity” that lie before the lovers, an image that may spur his beloved to action in this life but may just as well remind her of her eternal afterlife. He argues that time will turn her honor to “dust” and his lust to “ashes,” suggesting the terminology of the Christian burial service. He refers to the way (in reality or perhaps merely in his hopes) that her “willing soul transpires/ At every pore with instant fires.” Conjoining images of souls and fires cannot help but suggest hellfire and eternal damnation.

The final stanza, in which he urges action, presents a problematic vision of love. He compares himself and his lover to sportive animals, specifically “amorous birds of prey,” an odd image to use in attempting to win his lady. The love that he describes seems rough and violent: He suggests that they “devour” their time and says, “Let us . . . / Tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Thorough the iron grates of life” (“thorough” here means “through”). The lines have a rather strange and unromantic ring and qualify the speaker’s ostensibly enthusiastic description of love. Love as described in this stanza is not conventionally sweet and sentimental but rather vaguely dangerous and threatening; beneath the surface, Marvell seems to be issuing a warning as much as an exhortation.

More than a love poem, “To His Coy Mistress” is a meditation on time and death. Marvell dramatizes the questions: What are the implications of physicality and mortality? In using time most wisely, should one focus on this life or the afterlife? Marvell avoids a simple, conventional answer, and the poem works well as an argument for either view.

“An Horatian Ode”

First published: 1681 (collected in Miscellaneous Poems, 1681)

Type of work: Poem

Cromwell, the hero and prime mover of the English Civil War, which led to the overthrow of King Charles I, is celebrated as a valorous man of action, but Marvell warns that his exercise of power must be tempered with prudence and restraint.

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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Andrew Marvell Poetry: British Analysis


Marvell, Andrew