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.)