You, Andrew Marvell

by Archibald MacLeish

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

“You, Andrew Marvell” is a short, meditative poem in nine four-line stanzas, with a simple rhyme scheme. The title refers to a seventeenth century poet, one of whose best-known poems is a carpe diem lyric entitled “To His Coy Mistress.” Carpe diem means “seize the day” in Latin, and in a carpe diem poem the poet (or speaker) reminds his audience (usually either a lover or the reader himself) of life’s brevity and the prospect of inevitable, impending death, as he urges his audience to “seize the day” and make the most of what life and its pleasures still afford. Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” invokes images of death and decay and of “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” as the speaker attempts to convince his beloved to be more receptive to his advances. Strictly speaking, “You, Andrew Marvell” is not a carpe diem poem, because it does not explicitly urge one to act or to reflect on one’s own life’s short span, but Archibald MacLeish’s choice of title is a deliberate suggestion of the carpe diem genre.

The speaker, who is not distinguished from the poet, identifies himself at the poem’s opening as lying “face down beneath the sun” at noon, though he does not specify a geographical location. He describes how he can “feel the always coming on/ The always rising of the night,” literally, the dark shadow of nightfall moving slowly across the earth from east to west.

The speaker then moves, in imagination, from his own location to the other side of the globe, to the “curving east,” where at noontime in the speaker’s own land night is falling. He describes the darkness of night spreading across places such as Persia, Baghdad, Arabia, Lebanon, and Crete. He imagines the details of the landscape—trees, mountains, and rivers—fading from view in the darkness of night. He envisions the shadow of evening moving westward over Spain and Africa and, finally, across the sea. By the final stanza, he has returned to his own starting point, the place where he is still “face downward in the sun,” and the poem ends almost like the closing of a circle as the final stanza echoes the first.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

“You, Andrew Marvell” has virtually no punctuation. The poet sets off his point of departure (in the first stanza, in which he describes his prone position) from the rest of the poem with a colon; thenceforth the description of night falling across the earth flows in an unbroken stream of images. In this way the structure helps evoke a sense of the constant, inexorable approach of the night. In the final stanza, another colon sets the long description of nightfall apart from the poet’s own noontime location as he returns to his point of departure.

The poem is rich with images that not only create a vivid landscape of evening, but also suggest level of meaning beneath the poem’s surface. The visual images alternate in perspective as the poet moves back and forth between minute details and sweeping overviews of the landscape. In the third stanza, for example, he describes how in Ecbatan “the trees take leaf by leaf the evening,” then abruptly pulls back to describe the darkness flooding over an entire mountain range in Persia. In other stanzas, the poet shifts from a lone bridge in Baghdad to the entire land of Arabia, and from a street in Palmyra to the huge vista of all of Lebanon and Crete. This shifting of perspective gives a sense of the all-pervasiveness of nightfall, which does not miss even one leaf of a tree, as well as a sense of its vast scope as it closes over entire continents.

MacLeish peppers “You, Andrew Marvell” with images of death. A vague suggestion of death is connected with the rising of the night through the connotations of “the earthly chill of dusk and slow,” a suggestion that is strengthened by later images of empty gates, withered grass, and ruined stone. The whole landscape seems to drown in the “flooding dark” that rises over trees, mountains, and continents like a relentless tide. Some of the hints of death are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible and may depend on the reader’s own associations. Some readers may find that the “ever-climbing shadow” that creeps up the “under-lands” is reminiscent of the “valley of the shadow of death” in the Twenty-third Psalm; others may believe it connotes the poetic sense of a shadow as a ghost.

Even the few references to a human presence have a vaguely deathly quality in that they suggest a bygone era, rather than a modern one. “The wheel rut in the ruined stone” in Palmyra’s street is certainly an image of an ancient city. Ships glimpsed in the twilight show “sails above the shadowy hulls”; perhaps modern sailboats, but within the context appearing as symbols of an older way of life. Scattered travelers hurrying through a mountain pass, a disappearing bridge across a silent river, and an empty gate overgrown with withered grass suggest, not a vital, modern society, but a civilization from the past.

The places themselves support this sense of an ancient land in decline. All the cities and countries mentioned are places that at one time were homes to advanced ancient civilizations which have disappeared or gone into decline. The once-thriving lands the poet envisioned are now in a kind of civilizational as well as literal twilight.

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