31 March 2010

'The Better Swordsman'—Andrew Marvell, Part 1

Today is the birthday of the English poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). In his study of Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, Douglas Bush of Harvard called Marvell ‘by far the best of the mainly secular line’ of English poets, who ‘combines metaphysical range and subtlety of thought and feeling with classical economy, ease, grace, clarity, and precision of style’. [1] But as E.M.W. Tillyard has pointed out, Marvell ‘was known but fitfully till the twentieth century’. [2] In fact, as far as I can tell it was largely T.S. Eliot who rescued him from almost total obscurity (who, it is interesting to note, engaged in a comparison of one of Marvell’s pieces with one of William Morris’s in his famous tercentenary essay on the former [3]). But even with the assistance of Eliot, Marvell is not so well known to the general reader as such poets as the Johns Donne and Milton, despite being quite deserving of our full attention. Here is the account of his life from the anthology, Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660, by Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, and Ricardo Quintana:

Andrew Marvell was born in 1621, the son of an Anglican clergyman of Puritan cast, who in 1624 became preacher and master of the alms house at Hull. The poet entered Cambridge in 1633, withdrew to London for a short time, supposedly under Jesuit influence, took his BA in 1639 and remained as a scholar until 1641. By the time we have record of his views, he was a Church of England man of the type who placed strong emphasis on reason rectified by grace and on individual conscience and consequently on toleration, for which he fought in his prose pamphlets after the Restoration. From 1642 to 1646 he travelled in Holland, France, Italy and Spain, probably as a tutor. His poems show that on his first return his connections were with the King’s party, which he regarded as the support of civilization. Presently he was drawn to an admiration fror Cromwell which deepend during the fifties. During 1651-2 he was tutor to Mary, daughter of the great Parliamentary general, Fairfax, then retired and living in Yorkshire. He was recommended by Milton as his assistant in 1653; but he was not appointed to the post until 1657. In 1653 he was at Eton as tutor to a ward of Cromwell’s. From 1659 to his death in 1678 he was a member of Parliament for Hull. During that period, he was famous as a political satirist, though it is now very difficult to be sure which of the Poems of State are his . . . , and he wrote a number of controversial pamphlets in prose. In their irony, their concentrated simplicity, their supple and sophisticated colloquialism, and their trust in the common sense of the educated man illuminated by moral vision, the pamphlets anticipate Swift. [4]

Eliot emphasises Marvell as a ‘product of European, that is to say Latin, culture’; in other words, he stresses Marvell’s place in the poetic tradition rather than trying to discern some merely individual genius. He argues that Marvell’s ‘wit’ is a successor to ‘that high style developed [in the 17th c.] from Marlowe through Jonson (for Shakespeare does not lend himself to these genealogies) . . . . It is more than a technical accomplishment, or the vocabulary and syntax of an epoch; it is . . . a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.’ [5]

According to Frank Kermode’s compelling introduction to his selection of Marvell’s poetry, the likes of White et al. (whose biographical account is quoted above) go somewhat astray in trying to interpret the poet’s work. Early in their critical comments, they observe, ‘Marvell’s poems vary widely in point of view, from that of the Coy Mistress, say, to that of The Garden or The Drop of Dew. But underlying this diversity is a fundamental unity.’ [6] Kermode complains that this sort of approach misses the ‘longer historical perspective’ of Eliot’s essay, asserting:

Obviously we must understand that the presiding personality of the poet—of which we certainly have a strong sense—is not to be thus d etermined, and allow for the fact that the vitality of the poems derives in part from the traditions to which they indirectly assert their relation, traditions which, on a myopic view, may seem mutually contradictory. They belong to the history of poetry, considered a s an aspect of the history of civility, rather than to a temporary arrangement of ideas; and to read them one needs to give some weight to what is specific in them, to the poetic attitudes which they allude to and transform. Though they share the qualities of ‘wit and learning, with a singular penetration and strength of judgment’, they ask of the critic a respect for their relationship to traditions not invented by the poet, and not to be resolved in some generalization about his thought; his peentration and judgment must respect, in this sense, their singularity. [7]

Thus, while in an agenda like that of White et al., a poem such as ‘To his Coy Mistress’, ‘which ostensibly violates that unity [they seek for] becomes the occasion for some vain exegetical epicycle’, [8] Eliot is able to say of the same poem, ‘The theme is one of the great traditional commonplaces of European literature. It is the theme of O mistress mine, of Gather ye rosebuds, of Go, lovely rose; it is in the savage austerity of Lucretius and the intense levity of Catullus.’ [9]

But Eliot is also responsible for what many would call an exagerrated interest in Donne in the twentieth century, to whom C.S. Lewis compares Marvell favourably in a poem of four stanzas:

To Andrew Marvell

Marvell, they say your verse is faint
Beside the range of Donne’s;
Too clear for them, too free of taint
Of noise, your music runs.

Their sultry minds can ill conceive
How godlike power should dwell
Except where lungs with torment heave
And giant muscles swell.

The better swordsman with a smile
His cool passado gives;
Smooth is the flooding of the Nile
By which all Egypt lives.

Sweetness and strength from regions far
Withdrawn and strange you bring,
And look no stronger than a star,
No graver than the spring. [10]

Donne was of course the earlier poet, and was thus an influence on Marvell, but Lewis considers much of his tone and influence a bit pernicious. He argues that Marvell put that influence to use making verse that was better, or at least more desireable, than the earlier poet’s. Michael Ward points out that Lewis regarded Donne as too ‘Saturnine’:

And in his essay on Donne he concludes by observing that Donne’s influence on the poets of the seventeenth century is seen to best advantage when his successors (Carew, Lovelace, Marvell) take a Donne-like conceit and translate it into “ordinary poetry” where beauty and cheefulness, “the great regal name of Jove” and an “Olympian” mastery of Saturnine sensations, can break in. [11]

In the essay Ward references, Lewis concentrates on Marvell’s transformation of Donne’s influence in love poetry, citing Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, where more Jovial and (positive) Venereal influences can be seen. [12] But while Lewis may rightly lament the influence of Infortuna Major in Donne, it might be argued that the Jovial presence in Marvell enables him to make use of a more positive Saturnine influence in treating themes of asceticism and contemplative withdrawal. Indeed, it is this poetry that I find—and that I think my readers will find—the most interesting part of Marvell’s oeuvre. I shall cite two examples: one today, and one in a continuation of this post which I hope to put up tomorrow.

The first is a pastoral dialogue called ‘Clorinda & Damon’. The names of the alternating speakers are indicated by initials marking their lines:

C. Damon, come drive thy flocks this way.

D. No, ’tis too late; they went astray.

C. I have a grassy scutcheon spied,
Where Flora blazons all her pride.
The grass I aim to feast thy sheep;
The flowers I for thy temples keep.

D. Grass withers; and the flowers too fade.

C. Seize the short joys then, ere they vade.
Seest thou that unfrequented cave?

D. That den?

C. Love’s shrine.

D. But virtue’s grave.

C. In whose cool bosom we may lie
Safe from the sun.

D. Not Heaven’s eye.

C. Near this, a fountain’s liquid bell
Tinkles within the concave shell.

D. Might a soul bathe there and be clean,
Or slake its drought?

C. What is’t you mean?

D. These once had been enticing things,
Clorinda, pastures, caves, and springs.

C. And what late change?

D. The other day
Pan met me.

C. What did great Pan say?

D. Words that transcend poor shepherds’ skill,
But he e’er since my songs does fill;
And his name swells my slender oat [flute].

C. Sweet must Pan sound in Damon’s note.

D. Clorinda’s voice might make it sweet.

C. Who would not in Pan’s praises meet?

Of Pan the flowery pastures sing,
Caves echo, and the fountains ring.
Sing then while he doth us inspire;
For all the world is our Pan’s choir. [13]

I observed in a paper several years ago that the poem was an example of ascetic ‘single-mindedness’, in St John Climacus’s sense of leaving behind ‘everything...that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety’. [14] Similarly, Eliot observes that in this poem, ‘which, because of its formal pastoral machinery, may appear a trifling object’, ‘a metaphor has suddenly rapt us to the image of spiritual purgation’. [15] For the ‘pastoral machinery’ is a very thinly worn allegory or conceit. Kermode’s note on line 19—‘Pan met me’—reads simply, ‘20 Pan Christ, as often in pastoral poetry.’ [16] Bush, noting that this is ‘not merely Spenserian’, cites it nevertheless as an ‘echo of Spenser’, [17] who, using the same device in the fifth eclogue of his Shepheardes Calender, ‘Maye’, notes:

Great pan) is Christ, the very God of all shepheardes, which calleth himselfe the greate and good shepherd. The name is most rightly (me thinkes) applied to him, for Pan signifieth all or omnipotent, which is onely the Lord Iesus. And by that name (as I remember) he is called of Eusebius in his fifte booke de Preparat. Euang. . . . . [18]

In the light of Christ, Damon finds he has no desire for lesser, natural beauties taken as ends in themselves. Damon, having met Pan (Christ), is so possessed by his devotion that he tersely parries the thrusts of Clorinda’s enticements. Her amorous ‘shrine’ is to him but ‘virtue’s grave’. Her mention of a fountain merely serves to remind him of the need for spiritual cleansing and the thirst of the soul. ‘Clorinda, pastures, caves, and springs’ are but distractions to Damon’s single-minded ascetic devotion to Christ as represented by Pan. But they acquire their true value when they become ‘Pan’s choir’, that is, leading the soul into praise of God. ‘But,’ Ward notes, ‘asceticism—that sanctity which rebukes the world from above—must have a positive purpose behind its negations or else it makes common cause with the barbarism which hates the world from below. . . . [Lewis] thought that asceticism needed to have an account of the light by which it sees the darkness under reproach.’ [19] Marvell’s poem is perhaps a perfect example of the presence of such a light, embodied in Pan/Christ Himself.

Continued in this post.

[1] Douglas Bush, Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, New rev. ed. (NY: Norton, 1963), p. 235.

[2] E.M.W. Tillyard, Myth & the English Mind: From Piers Plowman to Edward Gibbon (Being the Clark Lectures 1959-60) (NY: Collier, 1962), p. 75.

[3] T.S. Eliot, ‘Andrew Marvell’, Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1949), pp. 299-300.

[4] Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, & Ricardo Quintana, Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660 (NY: Macmillan, 1965), p. 453.

[5] Eliot, p. 293.

[6]. White, et al., p. 453.

[7] Frank Kermode, ed., The Selected Poetry of Marvell (NY: New American Library, 1967), pp. x-xi.

[8] Ibid., p. x.

[9] Eliot, p. 295.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1992), p. 82.

[11] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford U, 2008), pp. 46-7.

[12] I have only part of this essay, ‘Donne & Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century’, in Helen Gardner, ed., John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), where the passage referenced is on pp. 98-9.

[13] Kermode, pp. 62-3.

[14] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore), rev. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 14. The line is from chapter 1 of Step 3, ‘On exile or pilgrimage’.

[15] Eliot, p. 300.

[16] Kermode, p. 62.

[17] Bush, p. 235.

[18] Edmund Spenser, Poetical Works, ed. J.C. Smith & E. De Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford U, 1991), p. 439.

[19] Ward, p. 210. In my paper, I used Charles Williams’s notion of the ‘Rejection of images’ as a hermeneutic device to analyse several English poems, including Marvell’s, and Ward cites the same idea in explaining Lewis’s allowance for the importance of a proper asceticism. For my views on Williams’s ideas about this, see this post.

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