Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“You, Andrew Marvell” is about the passage of time and its attendant decline and death. The poem operates on several levels. The immediate surface of the poem describes the passage of time in a literal, limited sense: the end of another day and the beginning of another night. By stressing the constant, irresistible approach of night (“the always coming on/ The always rising of the night”), the poet removes his reflections on the night from the realm of the literal. In the real world, night is followed by morning; if night is a kind of figurative ending, each new dawn is a new beginning. In this poem, however, the approach of night eclipses all sense of day, all ideas of new beginnings. Even at noon, the brightest part of the day, the poet is keenly aware of the night, far away on the other side of the earth, swiftly stealing toward him like a dark flood.

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Though the poet does not explicitly link the rising of the night with individual human aging and death, the poem reverberates with suggestions of death. The analogy of a human life as a single day is a common one in literature, from the riddle which compares man to a creature that walks on four legs in the morning (crawling in infancy), two legs at noon (walking upright in adulthood), and three legs in the evening (walking with a cane in old age), to Dylan Thomas’s well-known poem about death, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (“Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light”). In MacLeish’s poem, the titular reference to Andrew Marvell and, by association, the suggestion of Marvell’s famous carpe diem lyric, are in themselves enough to spur the reader who is familiar with Marvell’s poem to make the connection between MacLeish’s “ever climbing shadow” and death, but images such as the withered grass and the ruined stone amply reinforce the inference.

References to the homes of dead civilizations widen the suggestion of death from the individual to society or to the whole world. As night falls, so people age and die; so, too, do societies decline and fall. The poet’s vision of the darkness rising over the whole earth places his analogy of night in the widest possible context: As he describes himself “upon earth’s noonward height (literally the point of the globe closest to the sun) and envisions the “curving east,” the reader can picture the earth as a globe, spinning inexorably away from the sun into darkness. As the “flooding dark” rises to swallow up mountains and oceans, the reader may even be reminded of Noah’s flood and thus make a poetic leap of imagination from night to individual death, to the fall of civilizations, to, finally, the end of the world.

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