It’s a long time since I last wrote about Marvell and have been intending to write more ever since. He is one of those poets that I read for pleasure and he never ceases to amaze me with the amount of stuff that he manages to put into a poem and by his very skilled use of language.
I think tow things have got in the way of Marvell’s reputation, the first being his close association with John Milton and the fact that Milton would overshadow every other poet in the language. Being not as good as Milton does not automatically confine you to the box marked ‘minor’ as has occurred in Marvell’s case. The other problem relates to having written one poem that everybody knows. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ may be a very accomplished and sensitive lyric but it’s not representative of the rest of the work.
The previous post was intended to draw attention to ‘An Horatian Ode’ and this intends to espouse the virtues of ‘Upon Appleton House’ (AH) and to make a case for it as one of the most ambitious and experimental poems of its type.
For several days I’ve been in two minds as to whether to write about AH or about ‘The Last Instructions to a Painter’ which provides a detailed account of the Second Dutch War and our defeat in the Thames. I’ve chosen AH because I think it’s a better poem and because of its ambition.
The poem is long, consisting of 97 eight-line stanzas with each stanza containing four eight-syllable iambic couplets which are used to great effect. The poem is ostensibly about one of the country estates belonging to Thomas Fairfax who was (along with Cromwell) the most successful military commander on the side of Parliament during the English Civil War. Marvell worked for Fairfax between 1650 and 1652 as tutor to Fairfax’ daughter, Maria and Nigel Smith (world expert on all things Marvell) dates the poem to July – August 1651.
Apparently there was a bit of a fashion for country house poems in the 17th century and AH’s most significant forerunner in this regard is ‘To Penshurst’ written in 1612 by Ben Jonson but Marvell expands on this in several different directions. The poem starts with a narrative about two of Fairfax’s ancestors, Isabel Thwaite and William Fairfax and how Isabel was rescued by William from the clutches of wicked and corrupt nuns:
But the glad youth away her bears,
And to the nuns bequeaths her tears:
Who guiltily their prize bemoan,
Like gypsies that a child had stol’n
Thenceforth (as when th’enchantment ends,
the castle vanishes or rends)
The wasting cloister with the rest
Was in one instant dispossessed.
At the demolishing, this seat
To Fairfax fell as by escheat.
And what both nuns and founders willed
‘Tis likely better thus fulfilled.
For if the virgin proved not their’s,
The cloister yet remained her’s.
Though many a nun there made her vow,
‘Twas no religious house till now.
I won’t pretend that I chose these two stanzas at random, I want to use them to illustrate a couple of things. The first (and this is really important) is that the couplet structure does not get in the way of what’s being said. This is important for the sentiment behind these lines is essentially an attempt to exonerate the Fairfax family from profiting from the Reformation and this could easily have been done by means of anti-Catholic bombast. Marvell instead decides to leave his readers to work out the gist of his argument, the nuns are likened to gypsy kidnappers, and Nun Appleton only became a religious house when occupied by the Fairfax line.
The other main element of note occurs in lines 5 and 6 of the first stanza, Smith detects a reference to Britomart’s rescue of Amoret in Book III of the Faerie Queen and reminds us that Marvell’s patron was a Spenserian to the extent of naming his horse ‘Brigadore’ and would have picked up on this allusion. Whether this is the case or not, the reference is fairly gentle and clever without detracting from what’s being said.
I’d also like to highlight a couple of references to property rights, the verb ‘dispossessed’ at the end of the first stanza and the use of ‘escheat’ in the second together with the double meaning of ‘willed’ as in both wanted and bequeathed. These betray an anxiety felt by many noble families in the seventeenth century that they owned houses that had been built from the ruins of religious buildings destroyed during the Reformation.
So, Marvell packs a lot into these sixteen lines and manages to make a number of quite complex points in an elegant and subtle manner. He isn’t in any way hindered by the couplet form and the rhyme isn’t in anyway intrusive or distracting.
The next bit that I’d like to draw attention to refers obliquely to political concerns in quite a sophisticated way. We are in the woods of the AH estate. The ‘he’ that is referred to is a woodpecker.
The good he numbers up, and hacks,
As if he marked them with the axe.
But where he, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
And through the tainted side he mines,
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!
Nor would it, had the tree not fed
traitor-worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long,
But serves to feed the hewel’s young.
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason’s punishment.
There’s a lot going on in this. Smith is correct to note that the description of the oak isn’t ‘just’ a straightforward reference to the execution of Charles I but is also pointing to the demise of “a kind of civilisation”. I think it’s doing a bit more than that. The Fairfax family were well known for their opposition to the trial of the king with Lady Anne Fairfax famously shouting her disapproval from the public gallery at the trial. So, Marvell is echoing his employer’s known views and expresses similar regret in the ‘Horatian Ode’. The rhetorical question at the end of the first stanza refers more to a particular idea of national identity than the king.
The second stanza is a more complex analysis of political power and how it functions. The straightforward reading would be that Marvell is identifying the regicides as the villains of the piece and (correctly) prophesying that justice would quite quickly catch up with them. I’d like to point out the use of ‘bashful’ to describe sin and that it our corrupt flesh that is doing the tempting.
The last couplet belies what might also be aimed at. The oak’s contentment, whilst being defeated / altered / transformed, at seeing not the traitor-worm but treason itself receiving the punishment. We then get into the following complexities:
1. Why is it that the oak is said to seem content rather than is content?
2. What or who might the traitor-worm be?
3. Given that I can’t find any other uses of this compound until the age of computer hacking, why did Marvell choose it? He rarely does things by accident.
4. The reference to sin isn’t either ‘orthodox’ or Puritan theology. Is it?
Naturally, I don’t intend to attempt any kind of sensible response to any of the above. I just want to point out that thinking about them is a very satisfying and rewarding thing to do and that Marvell is full of these and always rewards the attention that the reader pays. I also need to observe that 17th century was a fundamentally odd place to be and it continues to elude all our attempts (from either side of the ideological divide) to make sense of it and that this is a Good Thing.
In terms of the ongoing engagement with Simon Jarvis on rhyme, I think that I need to concede (before beginning to think about ‘Sordello’) that it is possible to do sophisticated and complex things within the confines of the couplet- but I still don’t think that Pope is a good example.