Tag Archives: andrew marvell

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.

Parenthood and books not read in 2010 together with excuses

Now that we’re at the end of this politically disastrous year, I’ve been thinking about all those tomes that I should have read but didn’t. This is purely for my own record and I’ll probably do it again next year. The reason for this interest in the passing of time is probably due to a recent ‘cardiac episode’ which is oddly ironic given that I’ve spent parts of the last five years planning to kill myself. One of the side effects of an unscheduled brush is a half-recognition that you might not have all the time in the world to read all the stuff that you need to.

I also want to use this to record what I see as a more significant event that I haven’t yet fully worked out. After said brush my two kids returned home briefly to offer support and to0 make sure that I wasn’t actually at death’s door. I’m unspeakably and fiercely proud of both of them. Kayt is 29 and beginning to pursue a career in archaeology which is her passion. Jack is 25, intent on saving the world (all of it), and is about to embark on the next phase of this project in Tbilisi.

They’re both incredibly bright and articulate and think that I’m cleverer than I actually am. We debate issues of common interest (poetry, the revolution, music etc) with more than a degree of good-natured intensity which is great fun- Jack and I recently discussed the possibility of setting up a better organised piracy business off the coast of Somalia whilst Kayt and I are currently arguing about Bachelard’s notions of  resonance and reverberation.

During the visit we were talking about the first Michael Faber novel and Kayt offered the view that it doesn’t have much of a plot. I expressed some surprise at this and pointed out that things do occur in the book. I was then going to expand on plotlessness when I noticed an exchange of glances between my two offspring. Jack smiled and gently explained that, to most people, narrative consists of things that occur in sequence.  Kayt nodded in agreement and I realised that any further argument on my part would merely be seen as further proof of my inherent oddness.

The significance of this moment cannot be over-emphasised. For the last thirty years I’ve been able to express all kinds of ‘odd’ views to my kids and they’ve taken some of these on board and we’ve argued about the rest. I now realise that any notion of parental guidance / influence is a thing of the past in that they are now (more or less) autonomous and have formed the view that my interests may be a little too strange or esoteric for them. This was probably compounded by the fact that I had earlier shown them both passages from ‘The Unconditional’ which was met with quietly amused bewilderment.

This is not to say that my feelings about them have changed. My love for them is absolutely unconditional and I will move heaven and earth to prevent bad things happening to them but there is a sense that the dynamic has changed.  I then began to consider this perceived oddness and whether or not the hours spent with Prynne, Sutherland, Celan, Derrida, Blanchot etc has actually pushed me into a fairly small and obscure corner of the world where debate is only possible with fellow eccentrics who’ve read the same stuff. I’ve decided that this may be the case but I don’t actually care- I’m not going to start engaging with more mainstream stuff because it’s not very interesting and it doesn’t challenge me.

I do need to work on the ‘oddness’ thing- I recognise that I’m attracted to the odd but (I like to think) only if it makes some kind of sense at some level. I also have to recognise that I may need to spend more time giving this oddness context so that it is less likely to be viewed as merely eccentric. This may also entail a greater degree of seriousness on my part but that may be a small price to play- especially if I’m going to escape this kind of marginalisation.

I must point out that this view isn’t confined to my kids. The NHS sends a man around once a week to check on my mood and thinking. This is very useful as he’s a Dorn fan and we can argue about the whole Olson/Dorn/Prynne thing but he does view my adherence to most things Cambridge as wilfully odd.

I’ve spent longer on that than planned so here’s the books not read-

“The Unconditional” by Simon Jarvis. I’ve tried and I’ve written about trying and I’ve even started to take an interest in Jarvis’ criticism but there’s a long way to go. The excellent Timothy Thornton recently described the experience thus “never got through The Unconditional, but can’t stop returning to it somehow” which describes my own experience better than I can. Next year will see me trying to work out the nature of this particular “somehow”.

“The Cantos” by Ezra Pound. My only excuse is that it’s very long and full of stuff that I’ll need to look up. I know that reading Hugh Kenner and the wonderful  Christine Brooke-Rose on Pound isn’t the same and that such an omission is unforgivable but the time required to pay full attention will detract from other stuff and I know that, once started, I’d become more than a little obsessed.

They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets by J H Prynne. The only excuse is that I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web and the second-hand sites that I use don’t list it.
Anything by Wallace Stevens apart from “The Rock” following Jim Kleinhenz’ contribution to arduity. This is again unforgivable and my only excuse is that the Collected has got to the top of the waiting list twice in the last few months but was supplanted by stuff that seemed more urgent.
A guide to The Maximus poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. The reason that this is on the list is that I’m a Maximus obsessive and Butterick makes a point about originality in his introduction and I want to see where he goes with it. The reason for not reading it is that I’m queasy about commentaries and would rather spend time reading the poem.
Anything by Benjamin, Adorno, Hegel, Marx. This is a lie, I have read one essay by Adorno and a couple of essays and a poem by Marx. I also read more about Hegel than was good for me. I read ‘Arcades’ in 2009 and hated it and don’t intend giving Benjamin any more attention ever. Adorno has been avoided for most of the last year but I have this horrid feeling that making sense of Jarvis will involve making some sense of critical theory in the near future…. I remain firm in my intention not to engage with Hegel because life really is too short.

Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England by Blair Warden. I’ve been intending to return to the 17th century for most of this year and this tome is attractive because it’s bound to annoy me and it’s a useful way into reading Nigel Smith’s new biography of Marvell and then Marvell’s prose. This was going to occur when I felt the need of a rest from contemporary stuff- the need has not yet arisen.

This list is not complete but it does contain most of the stuff that I probably should have read. There’s also the list of stuff that I should have written about but that’s going to stay in my head.

Andrew Marvell and planting the bergamot

Marvell’s poetry doesn’t seem very popular these days except for ‘To his coy mistress’ which is one of the finest love poems in the English language. This is a pity because some of his other stuff is very good indeed. I’m particularly fond of ‘Upon Appleton House’ but here I wish to draw attention to ‘An Horatian ode upon Cromwell’s return from Ireland’.
This is a political poem and it is very, very clever. The civil wars of the 17th century carry all sorts of baggage in English culture and I’m wary of imposing modern values on that contested period. The poem was written in the three week period between Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland and his journey north to do battle with the Scots. The ode celebrates Cromwell as the decisive man of action and urges him on to defeat the Scots. However the poem also paints a very positive picture of Charles I on the scaffold and also hints that Cromwell may want the crown for himself. There is also presented as fact the suspicion that Cromwell engineered Charles’ flight from Hampton Court so as to hasten his execution.
Critics have argued over whether the poem was written in support of Cromwell or Charles but I don’t think that this is the issue. I think it is a sophisticated study of power and of the effects that power has on individual men. The stanzas set out below are the first in the poem to suggest that this may be more than just a song of praise:

Who, from his private garden, where
He lived 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 kingdoms old
Into another mould.

I needed Nigel Smith in the excellent Longman edition Of Marvell’s poetry to tell that a bergamot is a type of pear considered to be the pear of kings. These lines more than hint at Cromwell being a man of immense personal ambition wants to destroy the past and seize the crown for himself. I don’t think that to accuse someone of ruining the great work of time is particularly complimentary.
Marvell is particularly effective (and direct) as to Cromwell’s ‘skill’ in engineering Charles’ move from Hampton Court to the Isle of Wight-

Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
He wove a net of such a scope
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrook’s narrow case:

That thence the royal actor born
The tragic scaffold might adorn,

Smith tells us that this view of Cromwell’s role was fairly commonplace at the time but I don’t think anyone expressed it more succinctly than Marvell. I’m particularly fond of ‘twining subtle fears with hope’ as it sums up how you would persuade somebody to do something against their best interests. It doesn’t lessen the strength of these lines that Cromwell was entirely innocent of this accusation- they reflect what people thought at the time.
I won’t add to the heap of stuff that’s been written about the description of Charles’ behaviour on the scaffold other than to note that it has an elegiac, haunting quality that is absent from the rest of the poem.
Cromwell had just returned from Ireland where he had committed atrocities at Drogheda and Wexford, Marvell’s reference to this campaign takes up a mere four lines-

And now the Irish are ashamed
To see themselves in one year tamed.
So much can one man do,
That does both act and know.

Of course the Irish were never tamed and the brutality of this campaign continues as a running sore to this day. I’ve long held a theory that the English don’t really care about Ireland and I think these four lines epitomise that kind of willful ignorance that’s been around for centuries. Incidentally, the Scots don’t come off much better in the poem.
The last six lines of the poem show just how clever Marvell is. Smith glosses these as a warning to be wary of those defeated who may come seeking revenge. My view is that these lines point out that Cromwell, who has won power by killing others, must go on killing ad infinitum purely because the is that position that the various power matrices have put him in-

And for the last effect
Still keep the sword erect:

Besides the force it has to fight
The spirits of the shady night;
The same arts that did gain
A pow’r must it maintain.