Andrew Marvell, Various Short Poems, the "Mower and the Garden" group, "An Horatian Ode: Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" (ed. prin. 1681)

Genre: metrically experimental lyrics, many in the pastoral mode, and a "balanced" or "Horatian" ode describing its subject's strengths and weaknesses.

Form: Marvell's most common strategy is alternation of short and long lines, like the tetrameter-trimeter groups in "The Coronet" or the pentameter-tetrameter pairs in "The Mower Against Gardens."  He also likes tetrameter couplets ("To His Coy Mistress," "Bermudas," "A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body," and "The Nymph Complaining"), which anticipate the pentameter couplet ("heroic couplet") whose measured balance becomes the hallmark of the next century's poetry.   The "Horatian Ode" alternates tetrameter and trimeter couplets in which the first pair sets up a situation which the second, shorter pair tartly comments upon.   Sometimes the sentiment is admiration (ll. 27-8, 43-4, 75-6) and at others, ambiguous truth (ll. 99-10) or outright criticism (ll. 15-16, 119-120).

Characters: Marvell's most famous personae are Damon, the hapless mower in love with Juliana and hostile to gardens, the sentimentally grieving "Nymph," and his mute but memorable "Coy Mistress."  His own persona is more ambiguous, masked by its playful use of langauge and standard poetic conventions.

Issues: Andrew Marvell presents us with an interesting literary reflection of the "binary paradoxes" (my term) inflicted upon English authors by the Civil War (1642-8), the parliamentary dictatorship (1649-60), and the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (1660-85).  Are English gardens good or bad?  Have humans ruined nature, or worse, the New World, or have they "discovered" and "improved it"?  Is the poetic art good for religious subjects or does it ruin them?  Is love Marvell had worshipped in both the Church of England and the Roman Christian church, and had written to support both the royalists and the parliamentarians.  To those who would accuse him of lacking principles, we should ask how they would explain his defense of Milton after the blind poet was imprisoned and near execution by the Restoration government.  Like many people who live intimately with civil war, Marvell had friends on both sides of the conflict, and to be fair, the conflict was less a mere governmental dispute than a shift in culture from medieval to modern mentality. He also is a good example of a post-Miltonic poet, one who seemingly measures his gifts and ambitions against the epic poet and finds himself lacking the will and skills to challenge his immediate predecessor.


Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Most of Marvell's lyric works were never published in his lifetime, when he was known as an author of political satire attacking religious intolerance and political corruption.  He seems to have been an intensely private man while writing these poems, which the Norton editors estimate to have been composed between 1650 and 1652, during his employment by Lord Fairfax as tutor to his young daughter at Nunappleton House.  The estate house poem to that very place, dedicated specifically to "my Lord Fairfax," is perhaps the most private of all the poems, meant by the poet for the lord's eyes alone.  T.S. Eliot once wrote (in "The Three Voices of the Poet") that lyric poems were meant to be "overheard" by their readers.  In this case, the "overhearing" effect is quite powerful.  What characteristic stylistic traits do you see in the poems that might enable you to detect a Marvell poem among a group of others?  Look especially at attempts to find balance by looking at both sides of a question (gardens are good/gardens are bad; the soul is trapped by the body/the body is haunted by the soul; Oliver Cromwell was a heroic general/Oliver Cromwell was a destructive disaster, etc.).  What effect has the Civil War (1642-9) had upon this poet, born in 1621 and working for a Parliamentary army general who resigned his commission in protest against the most extreme Puritan policies and acts? 
  2. Marvell's works would never have affected later poets had not a rather unusual chain of events brought them to public attention after his death.  His housekeeper, Mary Palmer, sent his manuscript works to press under a Preface she signed "Mary Marvell," suggesting she was his wife.  The Marvell canon remained in disarray for two centuries until Herbert Grierson's annotated edition of Marvell's poems (1912) and the critical study, Metaphysical Lyrics (1921).  These attracted the attention of T.S. Eliot, whose essay on Marvell brought him to the attention of American critics, as well as continuing a reappraisal of metaphysical poets' strategies.

    Contrast this with the effects of the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, which never went out of print and continued to have enormous influence in nearly every generation until the mid-twentieth century.

    • Might unknown poets constitute a potentially revolutionary force against the reigning authorities, or are they unknown for good reasons?
  3. Marvell's relationship to the Puritan and Royalist causes seems to have been extremely complex.  The library does not have the best political biography, but it is available in the area (H. Kelliher, Andrew Marvell: Poet and Politician [1978]).

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