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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VII. John Bunyan. Andrew Marvell

§ 10. His poems, satires and prose works

His contributions to literature may be classified as consisting mainly of his Poems, which, for the most part, belong to the years 1650–2; the Satires, which he wrote on public men and public affairs in the reign of Charles II; the News-letters, which he regularly addressed to his constituents in Hull after his election as M.P. for the borough in 1659, and which extend from 1660 to the time of his death in 1678; and his Controversial Essays on ecclesiastical questions, written at intervals between 1672 and 1677.

It is upon his poems that Marvell’s literary reputation mainly rests; yet, curiously enough, these were scarcely known at all to his own contemporaries. Some of them were circulated in MS. after the manner of the time, and were probably read by Milton and other personal friends; but, with few exceptions, they were not given to the world in printed form till three years after his death, when the small folio of 1681 appeared. Three or four fugitive pieces were printed earlier. Two poems, one in Greek and the other in Latin, addressed to the king, appeared as early as 1637 in Musa Cantabrigiensis; an occasional poem was printed in Lachrymae Musarum in 1649; one was prefixed to Lovelace’s Poems the same year; and one to a new edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1671.

Marvell, like his friend Milton and other educated Englishmen, set forth on the accustomed course of European travel when he was twenty-one. From 1642 to 1646, he was abroad in Holland, France, Italy and Spain; but, beyond the fact that he was in Rome in 1645, we know nothing of his movements during these four years, save that Milton testifies that he spent them “to very good purpose and the gaining of those four languages.” From 1646, he passes out of sight till we find him again at Nun Appleton house in Yorkshire, the seat of lord Fairfax, where, from 1650 to 1652, he acted as tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary, a girl of twelve. Nun Appleton house, where Marvell thus came to reside for a while, is situated in the Ainsty of York, in a pleasant tract of country watered by the Ouse, the Wharfe and the Nidd. It was, indeed, an ideal place for a poet, for there nature seemed to conspire with genius to bring to perfection the flowering time of the poet’s life; and it was here, under lord Fairfax’s roof, that, so far as literature was concerned, Marvell did his best and most enduring work. Judging by the dates concerned, we may conclude that the first product of his pen, at this time, was the Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland; and the title itself suggests one powerful influence which had much to do with the development of Marvell’s poetic gift. Though classed among the poets of the reign of Charles II., it is generally recognised now that he really belongs to the earlier time, that his true place is with Herrick, Lovelace and Wither, rather than with Waller, Sedley, Dorset or Rochester. And, while he came under the influence of Donne, an influence paramount during the years of his Cambridge life, he, like Milton, was earliest shaped by his classical training, especially by his study of Horace, his chosen companion and friend. Of his first really great work, the Horatian Ode, it has been said that, better than anything else in the language, it gives an idea of a grand Horatian measure, moving, as it does, from end to end, with the solemn beat of its singular metre, strophe and antistrophe with the epode following. All its stanzas combine force with grace and originality with charm, leading Palgrave to say of it that it is “beyond doubt one of the finest in the language, and more in Milton’s style than has been reached by any other poet.”

Then, too, at a time when poets were not conspicuous for their love of nature herself, except so far as she could furnish similes and illustrations for poetic use, Marvell was an anticipator of Wordsworth in his sheer enjoyment of open air and country life for enjoyment’s sake. In this, also, the influence of the Roman poet may, possibly, be seen. We have foregleams of some of Marvell’s most beautiful poems in the second of Horace’s Epodes, where he tells us how delightful it is to be among the sheep, the bees, the vines and fruit trees of his farm among the Sabine hills, and where he confides to us how willingly he would leave the luxuries of the city for the peaceful surroundings and charm of country life. In like manner, Marvell encamps his mind among trees and gardens where the world toucheth him not, and exclaims, in joyous freedom of soul,

  • Bind me, ye woodbines in your twines,
  • Curle me about, ye gadding vines.
  • In his delight in gardens, fields and woods, he is the poet of the open air and the country-side. In his poem entitled The Garden, it has been well said that “he throws himself into the very soul of the garden with the imaginative intensity of Shelley in The West Wind.” Here he has found Fair Quiet and Innocence her “sister dear.” No city life for him.

  • Society is all but rude
  • To this delicious solitude.
  • Wondrous is the life to be lived here, where
  • Ripe apples drop about my head;
  • The luscious clusters of the vine,
  • Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
  • The nectaren and curious peach
  • Into my hands themselves do reach;
  • and where, when he tries to pass, he is ensnared with flowers.

    The Garden is composed in the short lines of the octosyllabic couplet. It is free, however, from the diffuseness which the facility of this form of composition too easily favours, possibly from the fact that it is an English version of lines first composed in Latin by Marvell himself: the classical mould exercising restraint upon mere unchartered freedom. Yet there is in it, in spite of this restraint, the poet’s genuine love of gardens and woods, of birds and flowers.

    Yet he is no merely sensuous epicure, even in his delight in nature. His poem entitled The Coronet shows he is not insensible how, in human life, the real ever falls short of the ideal; and, in his Dialogue between the Soul and the Body, he makes us realise the meaning of the struggle evermore going on between the lower passions and the higher nature of man. In the similar Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure, also, the chorus comes in with the lofty strain proclaiming that

  • Earth cannot show so brave a sight,
  • As when a single soul does fence
  • The batteries of alluring Sense.
  • In another poem, also, there is a beautiful simile, where “the orient dew, shed from the bosom of the Morn into the blowing roses,” is by the warm sun exhaled back to the skies and so becomes the symbol of a soul,

  • that drop, that ray,
  • Of the clear fountain of eternal day,
  • in its upward ascent to its eternal source. In other poems, besides, we find not only grace and sweetness but, also, that high and excellent seriousness which Aristotle asserts to be one of the grand virtues of poetry, the high seriousness which comes of absolute sincerity. There is one other poem which, composed some five years after the Nun Appleton period, and combining delicacy and depth of feeling with charm of melody, should not escape notice. It is entitled Bermudas, and is descriptive of the experiences of friends of his who, in the days of Laud, were exiled to these islands for conscience’ sake. Though banished, they were not desolate, for, as in their boat and by these shores they
  • rowed along,
  • The list’ning winds receiv’d their song.
  • It was a song of praise to Him who had led them “through the wat’ry maze, and, safe from the storms and prelat’s rage,” had brought them to a land of eternal spring, a land where, for them, the very rocks
  • did frame
  • A temple, where to sound His name.
  • Thus sung they, in the English boat,
  • An holy and a cheerful note;
  • And all the way, to guide their chime,
  • With falling oars they kept the time.
  • While Marvell’s poems were published in collected form in 1681, his Satires on the court and the court party, for obvious reasons, remained unpublished till the revolution of 1688 had become an accomplished fact. First circulated in MS. or, in some cases, printed clandestinely, in 1689 they appeared in collected form under the title Poems on Affairs of State, and throw curious light on the history of the reigns of Charles II and James II, the politics, manners and scandals of the time. As an example, take the one described as An Historical Poem. When Clarendon saw with a smile the wild rejoicings that greeted the return of king Charles on his progress from Dover to London, he could not but wonder, he said, where those people dwelt who had done all the mischief, and kept the king so many years from enjoying the comfort and support of such excellent subjects. In the satire referred to, Marvell expresses his own feelings in humorous fashion also, as he describes the king as:

  • Of a tall stature and of sable hue,
  • Much like the son of Kish, that lofty Jew,
  • Twelve years complete he suffered in exile,
  • And kept his father’s asses all the while.
  • While these Satires came from Marvell’s pen long after the poems of the Nun Appleton period, they were in fact, a return, to his earliest form, for, when in Rome, in 1645, he wrote the lampoon on Richard Flecknoe, an Irish priest, which is remembered now only as having suggested the satire by Dryden in 1682 on the laureate Shadwell. In Paris, also, somewhat later, Marvell wrote a satire in Latin on a French abbé, whom he pronounced a charlatan for undertaking to delineate character and prognosticate fortune from the sight of a man’s handwriting. In turning to this form of literature he was but following in the wake of others whose work has been discussed in a previous chapter of the present work.

    When we consider the main body of Marvell’s Satires, extending from about 1667 to the end of his life, we come to the conclusion that it was as a patriot that he became a satirist. Embittered by the degradation of his country in the disgraceful days when Dutch ships of war were actually sailing up the Medway, and feeling the hopelessness of anything like reform while corruption, open and shameless, reigned in the court and in public departments, in trenchant fashion he assailed the abuses against which he and the nobler spirits in the nation were contending. His longest rimed satire of 1667, dealing with the Dutch wars, is called Last Instructions to a Painter, a title derived from Waller’s panegyric poem, and is believed to have been first published anonymously as a broadsheet in the August of that year. The painter, whom he is supposed to be instructing, is to picture the state as being without a fleet, and as being led by men whom neither wit nor courage did exalt; he is to lay bare the dissoluteness of the court, and the dishonesty of state officials who follow their leader, for he commands that pays; he is to show how, while “the Dutch their equipage renew,” the English navy yards lie idle, the

  • orders run,
  • To lay the ships up, cease the keels begun;
  • meantime, store and wages find their way to the pockets of men who are the obsequious lackeys of the court—“the ships are unrigged, the forts unmanned, the money spent.” These keen home-thrusts were keenly felt by some of those whom they most concerned. Pepys, himself a government official, felt compelled to own their truth. In his Diary, under date 16 September, he writes—“Here I met with a fourth Advice to a Painter upon the coming in of the Dutch and the End of the War, that made my heart ake to read, it being too sharp and so true.” There were other satires of the same trenchant sort, and it has been said that Marvell’s merciless dissection of the blunders and intrigues of the time led to the fall of Lord Clarendon, with all the consequences which that memorable event entailed.

    Marvell’s prose works consist of a long series of News-letters, which he wrote daily to his constituents on the doings in parliament, and also of certain controversial works to which he felt impelled by his love of fair play. The letters were discovered in the archives of the town of Hull by Edward Thompson and published by him in 1776. They are continuous from 1660 to 1678, with the exception of a break of two years when he was abroad in 1661, and another hiatus in 1671, and they throw valuable historical light upon the proceedings in parliament at a time when parliamentary reports had not yet begun. His chief prose work, of another character, was his Rehearsal Transprosed. The title of the book was suggested by a passage in the Duke of Buckingham’s farce called The Rehearsal, which was the talk of the town. It occurs in one of the scenes where Bayes (meaning Dryden) speaks of what he calls his rule of transversion, by which he says he takes a book, and, if it be prose, he puts it into verse, and, if verse, he turns it into prose. To which Jonson replies that a process of putting verse into prose should be called transprosing. Marvell caught up this word, using it as part of the title of his book, in which he held up to ridicule the writings of Samuel Parker, one of the worst specimens of the ecclesiastics of Charles II’s reign. Bishop Burnet tells us that Parker, in reply to several virulent books,

  • was attacked by the liveliest droll of the age, who wrote in a burlesque strain read with pleasure from the king down to the tradesman. He not only humbled Parker but the whole party. The author of the Rehearsal Transprosed had all the men of wit, (or, as the French phrase it,) all the laughers, on his side.
  • Yet, with all the grace and humour that light up his pages, there was in Andrew Marvell a deep vein of serious earnestness; and in his writings we find, not only wit and banter, but, also, passages of powerful advocacy of great truths and of defence of public rights wantonly violated. In other words, there was the puritan strain in him, a spirit which resented and resisted unrighteousness and wrong.

    When we consider the number of editions of Marvell’s Poems issued between 1681 and 1776, it cannot be said that his works lacked appreciation when they first appeared, and yet, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, they seem to have passed out of sight, to be rediscovered in the century following. In a sonnet of 1802, Wordsworth spoke of Marvell as one of the great men there have been among us—

  • hands that penned
  • And tongues that uttered wisdom—better none;
  • ranked him with those “who called Milton friend,” who “knew how genuine glory was put on,” and who taught us
  • what strength was, that would not bend
  • But in magnanimous meekness.
  • Six years later, Charles Lamb, with his usual fine taste, appreciated what he called the “witty delicacy” of Marvell’s poems, and others who have come after have endorsed this judgment, so that it may be said that, after two centuries and a half, this seventeenth century writer has come to his own, and “is winning as high a place as poet as he occupied as a patriot.”