- Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon by Nigel Smith
Yale, 400 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 11221 4
To the modern world Andrew Marvell is a poet. Earlier times knew him differently. From his death in 1678 until the late Victorian era he was mainly admired not for his poetry but for his politics. The 18th and 19th centuries commemorated him as the MP and prose-writer who had challenged tyranny and corruption and religious persecution in the reign of Charles II. Though his verse found readers, especially from the time of the Romantic movement, a biographer of 1853 could still suggest that ‘few’ persons had heard Marvell’s ‘name mentioned as a poet’. For most of the 20th century few heard it mentioned as anything else. The change, sharp and swift, was entrenched by the new confidence and autonomy of literary criticism, which separated itself from historical inquiry and preferred itself to it. Lovers of Marvell’s verse, especially his lyric verse, now relegated or even despised his political career, which they viewed as a departure from, if not a betrayal of, his poetic calling.
Now his reputation is changing again. Nigel Smith’s biography belongs to a series of early 21st-century publications which, aided by other recent scholarship, have brought the verse-writer and the prose-writer together. In 2003 there appeared fresh versions of Marvell’s writings: Smith’s own richly annotated edition of The Poems of Andrew Marvell and, in two volumes under the general editorship of Annabel Patterson, The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell, most of which had been barely available outside copyright libraries. It was Patterson’s premise that ‘Marvell’s prose was at least as important to civilisation as his poetry.’ In 2005 Nicholas von Maltzahn’s An Andrew Marvell Chronology, an essential handbook, brought the often murky or recalcitrant biographical materials to order and gave us the first rounded picture of his literary and political career.
Not that Marvell will ever be easy to know. In some ways the new perspective has made him less fathomable than ever. To set the lyric poetry beside the Restoration tracts is to wonder what coherence of mind or personality can have underlain writings so various in tenor and subject and genre. Chronological complications have arisen too. His literary life used to seem to have a trajectory. Whereas the prose belongs to the Restoration, his lyric verse was assumed to be the product of youth or relative youth, written in retreat from the civil wars. Admittedly there was political verse on both sides of 1660, when he was 39, but the start of his career as an MP a year before the king’s return did seem to have marked a shift from the poet to the politician. It could be explained by the drying up of poetic inspiration in middle age; or by the superannuation of his metaphysical technique as the ordered classicism of the Restoration advanced; or, according to the interpreter’s perspective, by either the responsibilities of public business or its reductive impact on his imagination. In the mid-18th century the poet William Mason, like Marvell a native of Hull, proudly remembered how after 1660 Marvell’s ‘daring genius’ rose to ‘loftier heights’ than ‘beauty’s praise, or plaint of slighted love’, and ‘led the war’ against ‘freedom’s foes’. By the 1890s the same transition was held to have ‘sullied’ his poetic inspiration and ‘buried’ it in ‘the dust of politics’.
Now the transition is itself in doubt. Marvell’s poems were not widely known in his lifetime. Few of them were published, and it has been possible to date most of the others only by vulnerable speculation. Now scholars find evidence that one of the best loved of his lyrics, ‘The Garden’, where the poet flees ‘busy companies of men’ and finds ‘innocence’ and ‘delicious solitude’ in ‘a green thought in a green shade’, is not the early poem it was long taken to be. It seems to have been written not, as appeared likely, at or around the time of Marvell’s stay at Nun Appleton, the Yorkshire estate of the Fairfax family where he tutored the retired general’s daughter, but nearly 20 years later, in a respite from his parliamentary duties, perhaps in Buckinghamshire at the residence of a political patron. If ‘The Garden’ is a late poem, how many other lyrics are too?
Rudimentary chronological uncertainties are a biographer’s despair. Understandably Smith bypasses a few of them. He assigns a date to ‘To His Coy Mistress’, or to Marvell’s first meeting with his friend Milton, or to the initial impact on Marvell’s mind of another friend, the political thinker James Harrington, that is but one of the possibilities. In the main, however, he scrupulously reports the difficulties and adroitly absorbs them into the narrative they complicate. Elusiveness, he sees, has to be not so much the problem of Marvell’s biography as its thread. How secretive he was. Did he marry the woman who claimed to be his wife, or didn’t he? On his Continental travels, before and after the Restoration, was he a spy or wasn’t he, and, if he was, in whose cause? It seems fitting that we cannot agree which syllable of his surname to stress, and that it attracted a variety of spellings exotic even by 17th-century standards: Marvell, Marvel, Marvelle, Marvil, Marvill, Marvaile, Mervel, Mervell, Mervil, Mervill, Merveil, Merveill, Merveille, Marvin, Marvynn, Mervin.
Then there are the problems of literary attribution. Most of his poems were, like his prose works, anonymous. It is hardest of all to identify his contributions to the collaborative campaigns of underground satirical verse that were aimed at the Restoration court. Even when we can say what he wrote and when he wrote it, his character masks or contradicts itself. Phrases and images that voice one viewpoint in one writing are turned to an opposite end in another. Both Puritanism and Catholicism have been found in his love poems. A contemporary critic of his prose called him ‘double tongued’, ‘begot by some Proteus of a chameleon, an Oedipus cannot riddle him’. We have a heap of letters that he wrote to his constituents in Hull, but they are mostly cagey, written with an eye to what the town fathers will want to hear. His tracts, exercises in persuasion, adjust his convictions, and perhaps distort them, to tactical ends. John Aubrey, a friend, wrote that Marvell was ‘of very few words’, and that though he stoked his muse with wine he was careful not to give himself away by drinking in company. Yet he had a violent temper which got him into humiliating trouble in the Commons – and which in turn stands oddly beside the Marvell who elsewhere deploys and pleads for civility and moderation and poise.