Happy Birthday, Poet Andrew Marvell

A re-post for poet Andrew Marvell’s birthday

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Another Metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell was in that generation that spanned a time of huge upheaval in England: the reign of Charles 1, the Civil War, the Restoration and then the Commonwealth. He was often on the losing side of these events, yet unlike some other public figures (Milton, in particular), he was not punished. He was also instrumental in saving Milton’s ass, intervening when things got pretty hairy. He must have been a mild unassuming fellow, yet with deep convictions. He must have been well-liked, despite some of his unpopular sentiments (but in those turbulent times, who could tell how things would turn out?) He was a big Cromwell fan (he had personal connections with the man as well), and those poems were kept out of his published collections when the wind blew in the opposite direction. He was close to the seat of power, and yet somehow remained above the fray. He was a member of Parliament, politically active, and writing satirical pamphlets on the hot issues of the day. They were hugely influential. A public man. His pamphlets and prose were more well-known than his poetry during his lifetime.

Famous, perhaps, most of all for the beautiful line “Had we but world enough and time” (heartache!), he wrote much more than just that one poem. Many of his poems are political (these are not so well-known, they seem rooted in his day and age and perhaps do not travel well), and many are religious – although without the sweeping grand devotion of, say, Milton or Donne. He was more polite, reserved (although perhaps not so in his political pamphlets, where he railed against censorship and Popery and all the rest). I like his stuff a lot. He was a Latin scholar, and apparently his skill in Latin was incomparable.

A big-wig of his day, he is still influential.

Michael Schmidt writes, in Lives of the Poets:

Marvell was not a professional writer. Most of his poems are in one way or another “flawed”. The tetrameter couplets he favored prove wearying: the form can dictate rather than receive the poetry. The excessive use of “do” and “did” auxiliaries to plump out the meter mars many lines. Some of the conceits are absurd … Yet because of some spell he casts, he is a poet whose faults we not only forgive but relish. Beneath an inadequate logic the poetry follows its own habits of association and combination. Two modes of discourse are at work, a conscious one, and something unwilled yet compelling. We cannot decide which of a poem’s effects are deliberate, which casual or accidental. They seem products of a not altogether untroubled leisure at Nunappleton. T.S. Eliot contrasts Marvell with Donne. Donne would have been “an individual at any time and place”; Marvell is “the product of European, that is to say Latin, culture.” The difference is in the use of the “I”. Donne’s “I” demands attention, Marvell’s directs it. In Marvell the flaws do not disappear beneath gesture; inconsistency and uncertainty are aspects of a mind concerned with subject. That subject is not self. However distinctively he appropriates a landscape or scene, it never becomes a paysage interieur. The macrocosm is never displaced by the microcosm.

What the hell, I’ll post today his most favorite poem: “To His Coy Mistress”. It’s the one everyone has read. It’s “in the curriculum”, so to speak. But check out his ode to Oliver Cromwell, too. Cromwell is such a villainous name, and so hated (rightly so) and the ode is so sycophant-ish you want to puke. (One of my favorite memories of one of my trips to Ireland was standing in the middle of an empty field in County Mayo – home of the O’Malleys – with my sister Jean, looking around at the emptiness. An emptiness full of a tragic history. Jean and I didn’t say anything, but suddenly Jean put up her fist in a threatening manner and said into the empty air, “Oliver Cromwell!” So, you know. People don’t forget.) But Marvell’s ode gives a fascinating historical perspective, and shows Marvell’s facility with language.

An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland

The forward youth that would appear
Must now forsake his Muses dear,
Nor in the shadows sing
His numbers languishing.
’Tis time to leave the books in dust,
And oil th’ unused armour’s rust,
Removing from the wall
The corslet of the hall.
So restless Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace,
But thorough advent’rous war
Urged his active star.
And like the three-fork’d lightning, first
Breaking the clouds where it was nurst,
Did through his own side
His fiery way divide.
For ’tis all one to courage high,
The emulous or enemy;
And with such to enclose
Is more than to oppose.
Then burning through the air he went,
And palaces and temples rent;
And Cæsar’s head at last
Did through his laurels blast.
’Tis madness to resist or blame
The force of angry Heaven’s flame;
And, if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,
Who from his private gardens where
He liv’d reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,
Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time,
And cast the kingdom old
Into another mould.
Though justice against fate complain,
And plead the ancient rights in vain;
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak.
Nature that hateth emptiness
Allows of penetration less,
And therefore must make room
Where greater spirits come.
What field of all the civil wars
Where his were not the deepest scars?
And Hampton shows what part
He had of wiser art,
Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
He wove a net of such a scope
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrooke’s narrow case,
That thence the royal actor borne
The tragic scaffold might adorn,
While round the armed bands
Did clap their bloody hands.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;
Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.
This was that memorable hour
Which first assur’d the forced pow’r.
So when they did design
The Capitol’s first line,
A bleeding head, where they begun,
Did fright the architects to run;
And yet in that the state
Foresaw its happy fate.
And now the Irish are asham’d
To see themselves in one year tam’d;
So much one man can do
That does both act and know.
They can affirm his praises best,
And have, though overcome, confest
How good he is, how just,
And fit for highest trust;
Nor yet grown stiffer with command,
But still in the republic’s hand;
How fit he is to sway
That can so well obey.
He to the Commons’ feet presents
A kingdom for his first year’s rents;
And, what he may, forbears
His fame, to make it theirs,
And has his sword and spoils ungirt,
To lay them at the public’s skirt.
So when the falcon high
Falls heavy from the sky,
She, having kill’d, no more does search
But on the next green bough to perch,
Where, when he first does lure,
The falc’ner has her sure.
What may not then our isle presume
While victory his crest does plume!
What may not others fear
If thus he crown each year!
A Cæsar he ere long to Gaul,
To Italy an Hannibal,
And to all states not free,
Shall climacteric be.
The Pict no shelter now shall find
Within his parti-colour’d mind;
But from this valour sad
Shrink underneath the plaid,
Happy if in the tufted brake
The English hunter him mistake,
Nor lay his hounds in near
The Caledonian deer.
But thou, the war’s and fortune’s son,
March indefatigably on;
And for the last effect
Still keep thy sword erect;
Besides the force it has to fright
The spirits of the shady night,
The same arts that did gain
A pow’r, must it maintain.

Back to happier subjects.

In Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, Camille Paglia says of “To His Coy Mistress”:

This is the most famous as well as the most intricate carpe diem poem. The term means “Seize the day” – that is, “Live now,” a brazen pagan message descending from Greco-Roman literature. Marvell’s oratorical plea for a young woman’s sexual surrender builds like a legal argument from evidence to summation. The three long stanzas (really verse paragraphs of rhyming couplets) mimic the structure of a simple syllogism in formal logic. To paraphrase the three parts: (1) If we had all the time in the world … (2) But we don’t … (3) So let’s make love.

The poem’s driving theme is the transience of time: all things must pass. This sober insight, fostering detachment from earthly illusion, is shared by classical philosophers (such as Heracleitus and the Roman Stoics), Christian theologians, and Buddhist monks. But Marvell, quite the opposite, wants to reclaim and intensify the sensual present: “Now … now … now,” he insists (33, 37, 38). By creating an alarming sense of urgency, he lures the lady (called “mistress” not for her sexual status but for her social position or power over her admirers) to side with him against the hostile forces of the universe.

Michael Schmidt, again, on the same poem:

In “To his Coy Mistress” the poet begins with a cool, reasonable proposition. From the temperate beginning the poem gathers speed, rushing to a cruel resolution. Image follows image with precise brevity; each extends and enriches the idea… If drama is generated, as in “To his Coy Mistress”, it is by control of pace and imagery, not by situation. His verse is urbane, detached, with recurrent motifs and words and a recognizable tone that distinguishes it from the work of other Metaphysicals.

It’s a poem full of great lines, not to mention the stunning first two lines, and the other famous couplet:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

I particularly love: “My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.” It’s a strange connection made: vegetables (earthy) compared to empires (man-made, not of the earth at all), so it calls up a rather gross image of a giant ballooning vegetable, a summer squash, say, larger than an entire empire. There’s something chaotic and out of control in the connection made, belied by the tidiness of the rhyming couplets. I really like that about this poem. The whole thing is fantastic. If you look at how neat the poem looks, and only see that neatness, you might miss all of the “rough strife” he calls up in the verse.

His is one urgent (and persuasive) voice. I’d surrender my “long preserv’d virginity” if presented with such a compelling argument from a lover.

To his Coy Mistress

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 winged 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 preserv’d 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 am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d 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.

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