The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Andrew Marvell’s poem chronicles his reactions to the artistic merit of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in seven verse paragraphs of fifty-four rhymed iambic pentameter lines. The opening sentence forms a grammatical unit of ten lines. The remaining lines, marked with a grammatical pause at the end of each couplet, follow the poetic practice of end-stopped couplets.

Initially, Marvell contrasts Milton’s “slender Book” with its “vast Design,” its Christian topic of salvation history and its cosmic scope of infinite time and space. He fears that Milton will mar or disfigure “sacred Truths” by expressing them through, or by confining them within, the devices of an epic poem, a pagan or nonbiblical art form. Also, Marvell deals bluntly with Milton’s blindness, mentioning it in the first line as well as in lines 9-10 and lines 43-44. Milton had become blind at least fourteen years prior to the first publication of Paradise Lost in 1667. Marvell assumes that Milton’s blindness may have had something to do with his choice of a biblical “Argument” or subject. Tentatively, he questions Milton’s “Intent,” comparing Milton’s motives in writing the poem to those of the biblical Samson, who sought “to revenge his sight.”

As Marvell then begins to reflect upon his experience of reading, he grows “less severe.” He favors the poet’s “Project,” but he fears that Milton will not succeed, given the...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As Marvell recounts the way Paradise Lost unfolded itself to him, his thoughts evolve dramatically from doubt to resolution. He begins by addressing readers and ends by addressing Milton himself. Although a personal friend of Milton and a professional colleague in the Cromwellian government, Marvell takes a detached, agile, skeptical, and reflective stance toward Milton’s poem. As a critic seeking to illuminate Milton’s epic for himself and for other readers, he maintains his integrity and a sense of perspective. He reads the poem carefully, assimilates the overall meaning, and describes, analyzes, and evaluates both substance and style. He candidly expresses his fears regarding the main features of Paradise Lost and Milton’s own motivation in writing it.

In addition, Marvell maintains his independence as a poet. For example, he knows that Milton virtually created a new poetic medium of narrative blank verse and acknowledges its superiority to rhyme. Nevertheless, he does not abandon rhyme in praising Milton’s unrhymed verse. Instead, with gentle irony, he asks Milton to overlook his rhyme. Once he has grasped the poem as a whole, Marvell realizes that his doubts, though well intended, are “causeless.” He does not, however, explain the exact reasons for his change of mind. He conveys his conclusions through assertion and through a change of attitude or tone. He demonstrates the assurance that grows out of wide literary...

(The entire section is 433 words.)