By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 20, 2011; C10
In 1921, T.S. Eliot, commemorating the tercentenary of Andrew Marvell's birth, coyly referred to the poet as "the former member for Hull" - that is, Parliament's representative from the provincial city of Hull.
Eliot wasn't simply being cute. While most of us think of Marvell (1621-1678) as the author of the best seduction poem in the English language, he was known to his contemporaries as a private tutor, a hardworking civil servant and an occasional diplomatic emissary (to Holland and Russia). He was also quite probably a secret agent. "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden," "Upon Appleton House" and his three or four other familiar masterpieces weren't even published until 1681, three years after his death.
Nigel Smith, a professor of English at Princeton University, is Marvell's editor in the invaluable Longman's Annotated English Poets series, and he has certainly mastered everything that can be learned about this elusive, shadowy and very private man.
While Smith expresses the hope that his biography will "make Marvell known to the widest possible readership," his isn't an easy task, given a paucity of personal anecdote and the fact that the poems most people care about are those Marvell wrote in his 20s or early 30s. The last 25 years of his life were largely devoted to government work and occasional verse satires on the politics of the day.
As a result, "Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon" focuses throughout on the distant politics of 17th-century England and on Marvell's reactions to it, whether in his public career or in his private writing.
The son of a clergyman, the poet started off a royalist, spent much of the civil war abroad, welcomed Oliver Cromwell (while showing sympathy and admiration for the doomed Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649), and ultimately worked closely as an assistant to the protectorate's secretary of foreign tongues: none other than John Milton, who by that point in his life had gone blind. When Cromwell died, it is said that Marvell, Milton and John Dryden walked together in the funeral cortege.
Following the restoration of the monarchy, Marvell served in Parliament, published religious and political pamphlets, including "An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England" (1677), and eventually died poor.
A Mary Marvell, nee Palmer and possibly his former landlady, dubiously claimed to be his widow. Smith is open to this possibility, in part because Marvell's sexuality was distinctly heterodox. Misogyny and pedophilia have been detected in some of his poems, but so have hints of homosexuality (reinforced by contemporary rumors). The satirical poet Samuel Butler even implied that some kind of genital accident left Marvell a eunuch.
No one knows for sure. As Smith writes, Marvell "had few friends and generally did not trust people. He liked drinking but would not drink in company." As Washingtonians know, public responsibilities sometimes require not only discretion but also secrecy and the maintenance of a low profile. Still, there are signs that this lifelong civil servant felt frustrated and disappointed, was subject to jealousy and sneering, and regarded himself as fundamentally an outsider.
Little wonder that Marvell's verse often leaves us unsure of where he and we stand, distinguished as it is by ambiguities, ironies and a liking for what the ancients called "concordia discors" (dissonant harmony). To the common view of Marvell as a somewhat Olympian figure, incorruptible and patriotic, Smith suggests that his poetry might have resulted from "a brilliant sublimation of a set of social and sexual confusions and frustrations."
Eliot regarded Marvell as the product of European - that is to say Latin - culture, neatly defining his wit as "a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace." An early Marvell poem such as "On a Drop of Dew" employs the elaborate metaphysical conceits we associate with John Donne; the "Dialogue Between the Soul and Body" - a very Yeatsian title - depicts "a Soul hung up, as 'twere, in Chains/Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins."
In "The Definition of Love," Marvell dramatically announces that his love "was begotten by despair/Upon Impossibility." "The Garden" contains the famous couplet "Annihilating all that's made/To a Green Thought in a Green Shade," and "An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" hauntingly tells us that Cromwell's destiny was to bring about Charles I's downfall and so "to ruin the great Work of Time."
All these are famous lines. But in any rereading of Marvell's poetry one regularly discovers striking passages in unexpected works, such as this opening to "The First Anniversary of the Government under O.C." in which human life is likened to one long act of drowning:
So Man, declining always, disappears
In the weak Circles of increasing Years;
And his short Tumults of themselves Compose,
While flowing Time above his Head does close.
While "Upon Appleton House" may be Marvell's most sustained poem, it is overlong for most modern tastes, being composed of descriptions of a country estate with Horatian reflections on rural ease, coupled with advice to its owner, Lord Fairfax, and a look to the future of his little daughter Mary, for whom Marvell was employed as a tutor.
Perhaps only in "To His Coy Mistress" did Marvell avoid both obscurities and longeurs and get everything precisely right. From its opening "Had we but World enough, and Time," it presents the "carpe diem" theme with syllogistic inexorability. The first strophe describes how the lover would be happy to praise his mistress from the beginning to the end of time: "My vegetable Love should grow/Vaster than Empires, and more slow." Alas, as he says in the next section, "at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near/and yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity." In short, "the Grave's a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace."
Only one logical deduction is possible: "Now, therefore," the speaker concludes, as the poem grows faster and more intense, "while thy willing Soul transpires/At every pore with instant Fires,/Now let us sport us while we may." Instead of surrendering to time's ravages, "let us roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one Ball; and tear our Pleasures with rough strife,/Through the Iron gates of Life." Love-making's joy is, finally, both thrillingly brutal and ecstatic.
Such poetry appeals directly to almost anyone's emotions and experience, but much of Marvell's other writing is far more deeply grounded in his own time. For such fine but distinctly historical work most readers will need some help, and Smith, whether in his annotated edition of Marvell's poems or in this critical biography, is the man to see.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Post.
By Nigel Smith
Yale University Press
400 pp. $45