Coy Mistress Uncovered

David Norbrook

  • Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution by Michael Wilding
    Oxford, 288 pp, £25.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 19 812881 9
  • Apocalyptic Marvell: The Second Coming in 17th-Century Poetry by Margarita Stocker
    Harvester, 381 pp, £32.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 7108 0934 4
  • The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defence of Old Holiday Pastimes by Leah Marcus
    Chicago, 319 pp, £23.25, March 1987, ISBN 0 226 50451 4
  • Milton: A Study in Ideology and Form by Christopher Kendrick
    Methuen, 240 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 416 01251 5

When John Aubrey discovered that Milton had written some panegyrics of Cromwell and Fairfax, he eagerly sought them out for their ‘sublime’ quality: ‘were they made in commendation of the Devil, ’twere all one to me: ’tis the hypsos that I look after.’ Aubrey’s brief lives of the leaders of the Puritan revolution retain something of his youthful excitement at the sublimity, the magnanimity in defence of liberty, aspired to by the Devil’s party. What was at stake was a cultural revolution which seemed to a few enthusiasts to open up immense possibilities. Marvell’s prefatory poem to Paradise Lost registers the sense of some of his generation that there had been losses in the move from that sublimity to a Restoration ethos of polite consumerism, an age whose dominant trope is anti-climax.

‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’ may nonetheless seem to confirm the stock views of Marvell and Milton: Marvell stands apart from the sublime solemnity of his friend, ironically distancing himself from his achievements. According to T.S. Eliot, Milton’s Puritan republicanism destroyed his poetry and left it a monument to dead ideas, but Marvell, by being commendably ‘lukewarm’ in his politics, managed to retain his poetry’s links with ‘European, that is to say Latin, culture’. Even Marvell’s period as a servant of the Commonwealth has tended to be seen as a kind of lovable lapse, as if a gentleman cricketer had gone over to a weaker players’ side in a supremely sporting gesture. But Marvell’s temperamental differences from his friend do not necessarily indicate substantial ideological divergence. His poem to Milton acknowledges a common difficulty for all poets in attempting the sublime in the face of the Restoration ethos, and does not shrink from hinting at how close Milton comes in his epic to the ridiculous: but the element of risk only heightens his respect. Milton’s evident readiness to accept such teasing from his friend indicates that the distance between the Miltonic sublime and Marvellian wit was not as great as the textbooks used to suggest. Marvell, too, after all, wrote many significant political pamphlets in which he could draw on a long humanist and Protestant tradition of witty anti-ecclesiastical satire.

And indeed, wit seems to have been as much a part of the ethos of the short-lived republic as sublimity: Henry Marten could subvert protest at radical measures in the Commons by laughter, and friends like Thomas Chaloner and Thomas May shared his sceptical wit. To denounce them as libertines was to become a stock tactic for conservatives anxious to show where republicanism ended up; Aubrey himself disliked this tactic, and felt that the poem ‘Tom May’s Death’ came down too hard on its victim. This injustice may not disprove Marvell’s authorship of that controversial text, but subsequent critics have been too ready to take such glib dismissals of the republicans at face value. As can be seen in the relative fortunes of Swift’s and Marvell’s prose – down to the availability of editions – the Eliot tradition prefers wit when it is devoted to the repression, rather than the defence, of religious dissent. As Michael Wilding points out in Dragons Teeth, changes made by Sir Thomas Browne to Religio Medici in the political crisis of 1642-3 reveal the famously ambiguous wit of that text as defensively conservative.

The critical climate is now changing. The books under review show how Marvell and Milton, whatever their temperamental differences, were united in the resourcefulness with which they responded to these political changes; all four critics recognise that to understand the interactions between poetry and political change we need to analyse not just overt content but also formal questions, not just local topical allusions but the complex relations between genre and society.

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