Upon Appleton House (To My Lord Fairfax): The Country-House Poem and the Poet-Patron Relationship
Before you read this poem, pay attention to its subtitle—it’s not written for you or me. For help, read footnote 1, at the start of the poem. “Upon Appleton House” is written for a very specialized audience, his patron, General Fairfax, and the Fairfax family and friends, all of whom basically know the story of the house's origins and know the house, itself. The poem is meant for them, not for us, so we have to work harder to read it. In fact, the poem takes on the size and complexity of the estate it describes.
Nun Appleton House is a huge place--we would say "an estate" or a real estate agent might say "a family compound on extensive landscaped acres surrounded by miles of tenant farmland." Marvell is setting the house's design in a series of contrasting contexts, starting with the design of human beings and other animals (Architect = God, a now familiar metaphor), and going on to classical buildings (Aeneas in his host's house in Arcadia, Romulus in his pre-Roman hut). Then he describes the exterior and entrance of the hall, and takes his readers back to the origins of the current family fortune in the seizure of the heiress, Isabel Thwaites, from a nunnery by General Fairfax's ancestor, William (footnote 2). The struggle between William Fairfax and the nuns for control of Isabel and her fortune begins with the nun's seductive speech to Isabel, trying to persuade her to stay at the convent in the long quotation that begins at "Whence in these words one to her weaved / (As 'twere by chance) thoughts llong conceived" [ll. 95-6]. William's response begins at "Now Fairfax seek her promised faith..." (l. 197) and he has a briefer speech to Isabel in which he criticizes the "Hypocrite witches" as thieves using religion to thwart Isabel's free exercise of her fortune and life. Marvell has an ambiguous attitude toward the cloistered or isolated life--see the Mower/Garden poems. He carries Isabel off at "But the glad youth away he bears / And to the Nuns bequeaths her tears" [ll. 265-6]) and he poet returns to the "Now" of the poem's description of the hall and its surroundings which were produced by Isabel's fortune married to Fairfax's lands. Much of the remainder of the poem talks about the landscaping using metaphors drawn from the religious factions and wars in which the General had fought. It also reflects on the poet's place in this immense estate, a decorator in words of the decorated landscape he sees, but it's not entirely a trivial thing to be a country-house poet. See stanza 96 for what the post-Civil-War world view seems like outside the grounds of Appleton House, "a rude heap together hurled; / All negligently overthrown, / Gulfs, deserts, precipices, stone" (ll. 761-4).
Country-house poems are part of the evolution of poets' roles from private individuals to public artists making their living by their pens. In serving patrons as in-house poets, Marvell and Donne (when he wrote the "Anniversary" poems) and others kept themselves alive and made art that specifically appealed to their wealthy hosts' knowledge and tastes. To break free from this role, poets had to find a way to adapt their art to build a mass audience on topics the general public would find appealing. As any poetry student at Goucher will tell you, that is no easy task.