Andrew Marvell (March 31, 1621 – August 16, 1678) was an English metaphysical poet, who was largely ignored during his lifetime. He rose to prominence over the centuries and is now considered to be one of the most remarkable poets of the seventeenth century. Marvell's reputation was overshadowed for a long time by his revolutionary politics, which included a stint as a parliamentarian. Most of his verse, unfortunately, consists of satires written for political ends, and suffers as a result. His lyric poetry, however, unfortunately took no subject but himself. While the result consists of beautiful, effortless, flowing verses that roll off the tongue and through the mind with an ease unequaled among poets of his era, his writings offer little to the beauty of the world in which we live.
Marvell was born in Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire, to Rev. Andrew Marvell, an Anglican priest. All that is known of his mother is her name, Anne. When Marvell was three years old the family moved to Hull, where his father took up a post as a lecturer at Holy Trinity Church. As a young man, Marvell was educated at the local grammar school, where he received high marks for his verse and even published two early poems, one written in Greek, the other in Latin in a volume titled Musa Cantabrigiensis.
Marvell went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received a full scholarship, within a year earning his Bachelor of Arts degree. A year into his enrollment, Marvell's mother passed away. He remained as a scholar at Cambridge for a few more years until he was forced to move for financial reasons following his father’s accidental drowning in 1640.
It is unclear what Marvell did in the years following his departure from Cambridge. He may have worked as a clerk at his brother-in-law's trading house for two years. At some point in 1642 Marvell went on the Grand Tour, visiting France, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy. This turned out to be a fortuitous move, because while Marvell was on the continent England became embroiled in the English Civil War from 1642 to 1647. During this time the reigning king, Charles I was imprisoned and then executed by vote of the parliament, who in turn elected a general, Thomas Fairfax, to the executive command of the English Commonwealth. When Marvell returned, he found work as a tutor to the daughter of Fairfax, who had recently given command of the Parliamentary army to Oliver Cromwell. During his three years as tutor to Mary Fairfax, Marvell composed almost all of his most important poems, drawing on the vivid experiences he had abroad and also on a powerful romantic longing, the object of which may have been none other than his student, Mary Fairfax.
The earliest of these major "Fairfax poems" was Upon Appleton House, a poem written as a contemplation of the merits of a life of public service as opposed to a life of inner insight. This marked a turning point in Marvell's life and career. Marvell's astonishing love poems, “To His Coy Mistress” and “The Definition of Love” probably also belong to this period. Upon Appleton House, however, marks the crucial change in Marvell's style from juvenile student to mature poet. The poem is far too long to quote in full here (it consists of nearly a hundred sections consisting of eight-line couplets):
- Within this sober Frame expect
- Work of no Forrain Architect;
- That unto Caves the Quarries drew,
- And Forrests did to Pastures hew;
- Who of his great Design in pain
- Did for a Model vault his Brain,
- Whose Columnes should so high be rais'd
- To arch the Brows that on them gaz'd.
- Why should of all things Man unrul'd
- Such unproportion'd dwellings build?
- The Beasts are by their Denns exprest:
- And Birds contrive an equal Nest;
- The low roof'd Tortoises do dwell
- In cases fit of Tortoise-shell:
- No Creature loves an empty space;
- Their Bodies measure out their Place.
- But He, superfluously spread,
- Demands more room alive then dead.
- And in his hollow Palace goes
- Where Winds as he themselves may lose.
- What need of all this Marble Crust
- T'impark the wanton Mose of Dust,
- That thinks by Breadth the World t'unite
- Though the first Builders fail'd in Height?
In 1653 Marvell befriended the revolutionary poet, John Milton. During his time abroad Marvell had been a supporter of Charles I and had opposed the English revolution and the rise of the Commonwealth, but with Milton's help he gradually became a staunch advocate of the revolution and the rule of parliament. Milton wrote a glowing recommendation that Marvell be appointed to the post of Assistant Latin Secretary to Cromwell's Council of State, a post which he secured in 1657. In the same year he became a tutor to Cromwell's nephew, William Dutton.
In 1659 he was elected to Parliament from his hometown of Hull in Yorkshire, a post he held until his death. In 1660 the Commonwealth collapsed, Cromwell was executed, and the monarchy was restored by the return of King Charles' son, Charles II, from exile. During this time of upheaval, Marvell, in his quiet way, demonstrated his skill at political maneuvering; he not only avoided all punishment for his cooperation with republicanism but also helped convince the government of Charles II not to execute Milton for his antimonarchical writings and revolutionary activities.
From 1659 until his death, Marvell was a conscientious member of Parliament, answering letters from his constituents and going on two diplomatic missions, one to Holland and the other to Russia. He also wrote prose satires anonymously criticizing the monarchy, defending Puritan dissenters, and denouncing censorship. He is sometimes known as the "British Aristides" for his incorruptible integrity in life and poverty at death.
Marvell's reputation as a poet has always been vexed, and it is only in recent years that he has garnered the respect his poetry deserves. It was not until the modernists rediscovered Marvell in the early twentieth century that scholars realized that another poet, the equal of John Donne and George Herbert, was writing in England in the aftermath of the Reformation. George Lord, in a preface to the first complete edition of Marvell's works, aptly sums up his talents and his odd position in literary history:
- The life and work of Andrew Marvell are both marked by extraordinary variety and range. Gifted with a most subtle and introspective imagination, he turned his talents in mid-career from incomparable lyric explorations of the inner life to panegyric and satiric poems on the men and issues involved in one of England's most crucial political epochs. The century which followed Marvell's death remembered him almost exclusively as a politician and pamphleteer. Succeeding periods, on the other hand, have all but lost the public figure in the haunting recesses of his lyric poems.
Marvell's most famous poems are the sensuous love and lyric poems he wrote while abiding in the relative tranquility of his post on Fairfax's estate. Of these, “To His Coy Mistress” is easily the most memorable. Its first lines have been so often imitated, parodied, and appropriated that they have become a part of the colloquial currency. Despite its moderate length, as well as its expression of values and morals offensive to many (especially religious believers) it is worth quoting in full to give readers a sense of Marvell's talent with verse:
- HAD we but world enough, and time,
- This coyness, Lady, were no crime
- We would sit down and think which way
- To walk and pass our long love's day.
- Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
- Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
- Of Humber would complain. I would
- Love you ten years before the Flood,
- And you should, if you please, refuse
- Till the conversion of the Jews.
- My vegetable love should grow
- Vaster than empires, and more slow;
- An hundred years should go to praise
- Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
- Two hundred to adore each breast,
- But thirty thousand to the rest;
- An age at least to every part,
- And the last age should show your heart.
- For, Lady, you deserve this state,
- Nor would I love at lower rate.
- But at my back I always hear
- Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
- And yonder all before us lie
- Deserts of vast eternity.
- Thy beauty shall no more be found,
- Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
- My echoing song: then worms shall try
- That long preserved virginity,
- And your quaint honour turn to dust,
- And into ashes all my lust
- The grave 's a fine and private place,
- But none, I think, do there embrace.
- Now therefore, while the youthful hue
- Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
- And while thy willing soul transpires
- At every pore with instant fires,
- Now let us sport us while we may,
- And now, like amorous birds of prey,
- Rather at once our time devour
- Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
- Let us roll all our strength and all
- Our sweetness up into one ball,
- And tear our pleasures with rough strife
- Thorough the iron gates of life:
- Thus, though we cannot make our sun
- Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Like John Donne, Marvell exhibits a mastery of extended metaphor. Consider the long metaphor of "time enough" sustained through the allusions to "the Flood," "the conversion of the Jews," and the "vegetable love" growing "vaster than empires"; or the metaphor of devouring sustained through the "amorous birds of prey" and time's languishing "slow-chapt power." In addition to this, however, Marvell, perhaps more than any of the other Metaphysical poets, exhibits an easiness of tone that is difficult to analyze but obvious to see: a poem like “To His Coy Mistress” reads so easily it almost doesn't seem like a poem. The ease in which each rhyme moves into the next is a testament to Marvell's virtuosity as a poet, even if he did not develop any particular new techniques but simply improved upon existing ones. Marvell was a member of the Metaphysical school, and in contrast to Herbert's brusqueness and Donne's intellect, Marvell stands out as the most movingly lyric poet of his period.
All links retrieved July 27, 2023.
- Andrew Marvell, available for free via Project Gutenberg by Augustine Birrell
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