“Art indeed is long, but life is short.” — Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell

“Andrew Marvell spans three ages like a delicate but serviceable bridge. The first length spans Charles I’s reign and fall, the second spans the Commonwealth, the third the Restoration.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

It’s his birthday today.

Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell was in that generation spanning a time of huge upheaval in England: the reign of Charles 1, the Civil War, the Restoration and then the Commonwealth. Marvell 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 hairy. He was an Oliver Cromwell stan, and his Cromwell poems were kept out of his published collections when the wind blew in the opposite direction. Marvell was a member of Parliament, writing satirical pamphlets on the hot issues of the day. His pamphlets and prose writing were more well-known than his poetry during his lifetime. He was not an ivory tower poet.

Marvell is famous most of all for the gorgeous line “Had we but world enough and time…”, but most of his poems are political. He also wrote many religious poems, but they lack the sweeping grand devotion of Milton or Donne. Marvell was more reserved in his faith. Or maybe I’m mis-reading them entirely. The political poems, too … I could be not equipped to analyze them, there may be much more ambivalence there than is perceivable to the naked eye, to the 20th/21st century eye, underneath all the “anti-Popery” hatred. The poets of this era did what they had to do to survive. If that meant toadying up to the Head Honcho, then that’s what they did. Of course there were also the true believers. As the monarchy toppled, and then resurrected, it was impossible to stay on the right side, because the “right side” swapped. You either changed sides or went into hiding or faced the consequences. That ol’ boomerang of history: it’s such an inevitability in power and politics, and yet we continue to fail to learn the necessary lessons.

His ode to Oliver Cromwell is fascinating and grotesque. There’s nothing else like it, really, in the literature. (Thank goodness.) But still: if you can stomach it, and you probably should, read it. It’s called “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”. Fuck you, Cromwell.

Marvell has written so many famous lines:

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

And this, his most famous:

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.


17th century writer/gossip John Aubrey:

He was of middling stature, pretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek’t, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in conversation very modest, and of very few words; and though he loved wine he would never drinke hard in company, and was wont to say that, he would not play the goodfellow in any many’s company in whose hand he would not trust his life. He had not a generall acquaintance… For Latin verses there was no man could come into competition with him.

T.S. Eliot, from his famous essay “Andrew Marvell”, 1921, which was an extended argument that Marvell wasn’t “all THAT”:

Marvell has stood high for some years; his best poems are not very many, and not only must be well known, from the Golden Treasury and the Oxford Book of English Verse, but must also have been enjoyed by numerous readers. His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him, if there be need for thinking, for our own benefit, not his. To bring the poet back to life–the great, the perennial, task of criticism–is in this case to squeeze the drops of the essence of two or three poems; even confining ourselves to these, we may find some precious liquor unknown to the present age.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Friend and admirer of John Milton, Marvell was no more Miltonic than he was Jonsonean or Donnean in his poetry. Critical admiration for Marvell began in the Romantic period with Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and continued with Tennyson, achieving an apotheosis in T.S. Eliot. Since Eliot, Marvell has been another poet’s poet, but a general audience has held fast to a few poems … Marvell is also immensely influential upon modern poetry; the greatest living American poet, John Ashbery, abounds in Marvellian allusions.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets:

Marvell was not a professional writer. Most of his poems are in one way or another “flawed”… 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.

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

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.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921, on “Coy Mistress”:

Where the wit of Marvell renews the theme is in the variety and order of the images. In the first of the three paragraphs Marvell plays with a fancy which begins by pleasing and leads to astonishment.

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime,
… 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. …

We notice the high speed, the succession of concentrated images, each magnifying the original fancy. When this process has been carried to the end and summed up, the poem turns suddenly with that surprise which has been one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

William Empson, on the Mower poems:

In these meadows he feels he has left his mark on a great territory if not on everything, and as a typical figure he has mown all the meadows of the world; in either case Nature gives him regal and magical honors, and I suppose he is not only the ruler but the executioner of the daffodils–the Clown as Death.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Marvell is the most enigmatic, unclassifiable, and unaffiliated major poet in the language. It is finally unhelpful to call his poetry Metaphysical, Mannerist, Epicurean, Platonist, or Puritan, though all of those terms somehow are applicable. One of the most original poets in Western tradition, Marvell had no strong precursors, though Spenser may be near his hidden root. His poetry has a clear relation to the schools of Donne and Johnson, but is of neither, unlike that of such contemporaries as Randolph, Carew, and Lovelace. The distance from Milton, his greatest contemporary, and the subject of one of his most admirable and admiring poems, is remarkable. His authentic affinities were with quite minor French poets who came after the Pleiade, Theophile de Viau (1590-1626) and Antoine-Girard de Saint-Amant (1594-1661).

Frank Kermode:

Marvell is not a philosophical poet; in his role as poet he engaged his subjects as poetry, bringing to them a mind of great intelligence and intelligently ordered learning. our knowledge of his religious and political thought helps us only a little more than our knowledge of his personal life (quick temper, preference for solitary drinking) and can be related to the substance of his poetry only very cautiously and generally (the power of a mind engaged but detached, the alertness, leaning on the wind.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Marvell’s best verse is the product of European, that is to say Latin, culture.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

One can choose 1587 as an arbitrary date to begin the richest eighty years of poetry in English. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was then first performed, perhaps with Shakespeare in the audience, though we do not know when the greatest of poets first arrived in London: 1589 seems to me rather too late, even as an outward limit. The first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene were published in 1590. In the early 1590s, Donne wrote many of the Songs and Sonnets, to be published only posthumously. By 1595, at the latest, Shakespeare was at his first full greatness, joined by Jonson at his strongest in Volpone (1606). The Tribe of Ben–disciples of the lyric and epigrammatic Jonson–included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and Richard Lovelace. Andrew Marvell, a poetic party of one, wrote his lyrics by the 1650s, coming after the posthumous publication of George Herbert’s poetry in 1633. Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan published by the 1650s. Milton’s Comus was composed in 1634; Paradise Lost, dictated by the blind poet, was finished by 1665, seventy-eight years after Marlowe first shattered his London audiences.

Ruth Nevo on “Damon the Mower”:

A pastoral elegy for the quiet mind disturbed radically by desire unsatisfied.

T.S. Eliot, “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

And in the verses of Marvell which have been quoted there is the making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, which Coleridge attributed to good poetry.

Michael Schmidt:

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.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Nor are there Marvellian poets after Marvell. T.S. Eliot, though his essay on Marvell has been so influential, is a Tennysonian-Whitmanian elegist of the self, whose actual verse has more in common with that of William Morris than with Marvell. Eliot’s celebrated essay, still being exalted by Frank Kermode and others, is in fact quite bad, being replete with irrelevant assertions as to how much better a poet Marvell is than Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Hardy, and Yeats.

Geoffrey Hartman on the Mower poems:

[The theme is] labor of hope … hope in nature frustrated by love or by the very strength of hope.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

The wit of the Caroline poets is not the wit of Shakespeare, and it is not the wit of Dryden, the great master of contempt, or of Pope, the great master of hatred, or of Swift, the great master of disgust. What is meant is some quality which is common to the songs in Comus and Cowley’s “Anacreontics” and Marvell’s “Horatian Ode.” It is more than a technical accomplish meet, or the vocabulary and syntax of an epoch; it is, what we have designated tentatively as wit, a tough reasonableness beneath the slight Iyric grace.

Michael Schmidt on the Cromwell poem:

It is the most complex and the best directly political poem in the language. It retains a radical balance in the terms of its celebration and commendation.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

That Marvell was a bad-tempered, hard-drinking, lifelong bachelor and controversialist is more helpful knowledge than everything we know of his religion and politics, for the paradoxical reason that such a personality simply does not manifest itself in the poems, except perhaps for the satire. The Mower poems could have been written by a good-tempered married man who never touched alcohol and had little notion of religious and political quarrels. Yet they are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and personal and totally universal in scope and emphasis, which is only to say that they are very great, very enigmatic lyric poems rather than philosophical tractates or scholarly investigations.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Marvell, therefore, more a man of the century than a Puritan, speaks more clearly and unequivocally with the voice of his literary age than does Milton.

Michael Schmidt:

Marvell is the poet of green, a “green thought in a green shade,” his eye on a fruitful garden; Vaughan is the poet of white in its implications of moral and spiritual purity, skyscape, cloudscape: “a white, Celestial thought,” the white light of stars, or in his translation of Boethius’s “that first white age.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

This extraordinary lyric [“The Mower to the Glowworms”], addressed by the fallen Mower to the luminaries of his severely shrunken world, is surely one of the most mysterious and beautiful poems in the language.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Marvell is no greater personality than William Morris, but he had something much more solid behind him: he had the vast and penetrating influence of Ben Jonson. Jonson never wrote anything purer than Marvell’s Horatian Ode; this ode has that same quality of wit which was diffused over the whole Elizabethan product and concentrated in the work of Jonson. And, as was said before, this wit which pervades the poetry of Marvell is more Latin, more refined, than anything that succeeded it.

You, Andrew Marvell
By Archibald MacLeish

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …

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