Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House

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.

6 responses to “Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House

  1. You know that Fairfax was a hero of mine? I’d love to know more about him. I might have to read some Marvell . . .

    • Fairfax is worthy of praise not because of the Civil War but because he was an unspeakably bad poet and named his horse Brigadore. This fact alone places him in the Bebrowed pantheon of worthies. What do you mean – ‘might’ ? I’m also rather fond of Mrs Fairfax…

  2. I didn’t know about the horse. I think I was impressed because Chris Keith had a particular fondness for him and his refusal to fight the Scots in the 2nd Civil War.

    • His ‘refusal’ got overtaken by events didn’t it? Appleton House was written about the time he was making up his mind on this. The horse isn’t just any horse, it is the iconic Spenserian horse but you need to have read at least books 2 and 5 to know why this is funny.

  3. I’ve been working my way through a small, older edition of Marvell’s poem selected and edited by Frank Kermode, and I paused before embarking on “Upon Appleton House” simply for reasons of length. Thank you for compelling me to take it on and in.

    The passages you’ve selected are intriguing, especially because they aren’t moments that necessarily leap out; there are a number of stanzas that glimmer more obviously with the “Wondrous beauty” that Mary Thomas Crane finds characteristic of Marvell (as you noted in another post). I’m thinking, for example, of the catalogue of sea creatures on land during the flood; of the moment when Mary Fairfax, Marvell’s young pupil, first enters the scene and even “The sun himself… / Seems to descend with greater care; / And lest she see him go to bed / In blushing clouds conceals his head”; and of the final incredible image of the “rational amphibii.”

    Even just typing those moments out, I sense how right you are about the way Marvell rewards attentiveness. His praise of his pupil, Mary, is prepared for by the language you quoted describing the oak tree. The two passages share a great figure (the sun, the hollow oak) who “seems” (only seems?) to “fall” or “descend.” They also share an unlikely moment of blushing or bashfulness. I’m not sure what to make of these resonances except that they demonstrate that AH is less patchy and disjunct than it might seem at first. The various episodes reflect off one another, and those mirrorings grow more and more complex as the poem’s pieces accumulate. Marvell’s lack of concern with providing clear transitions between the stanzas and sections is thus productive rather than otherwise.

    What to make of the somewhat less wild, and certainly more obscure, passage about the woodpecker and the hollowed oak? One thought comes to mind: the word “treason” fits awkwardly in that last line. Ostensibly, Marvell writes “the treason’s” rather than just “treason’s” to maintain the iambic rhythm. We half expect him to go full-on Spensarian and write “Treason,” with a capital letter. But what if it rings awkwardly because the definite article accentuates a hidden pun? Doesn’t “the treason’s” sound, to the playful ear, like “the tree’s son” or “the tree’s sons” or even “the treeson,” as in a familial suffix?

    In that case, the punishment being viewed is that of the tree’s own fellers—his kin and his killers. I’m not convinced we need to force this, but it seems a plausible explanation of that strange last line you called attention to. The tree, as it falls, views the woodpecker eating the tree’s enemies, the worms. If those worms are called “the treason,” that is perhaps because the tree itself fed and bred those worms, as if they were its offspring or subjects. However we might parse the meaning of a tree with sons in terms of the political and religious allegories running unevenly through the poem, this tiny hiccup is a great example of the way Marvell’s meanings escape the couplet’s tendency toward constraint and snappiness and instead multiply across phrases, lines, and passages.

    • Thank you Jeremy for this considered and intelligent account, I’m going to take pleasure in re reading the poem and writing a further piece in the next few weeks but for the moment I’m getting wonderfully involved in the complexities and diversions of ‘The Garden’ which is nearly as brilliant as ‘Appleton House’.

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