O brambles, chain me too

Tom Paulin

  • World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell by Nicholas Murray
    Little, Brown, 294 pp, £20.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 316 64863 9
  • Marvell and Liberty edited by Warren Chernaik and Martin Dzelzainis
    Macmillan, 365 pp, £47.50, July 1999, ISBN 0 333 72585 9
  • Andrew Marvell edited by Thomas Healy
    Longman, 212 pp, £12.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 582 21910 8

In the great quilted cento that is Moby-Dick, there is a passage which might be interpreted as Melville’s response to James Barry’s 1776 engraving The Phoenix or the Resurrection of Freedom. In the engraving Andrew Marvell is depicted with Milton, Locke and Algernon Sidney among the mourners at the bier of Britain’s traditional liberties. Across a pond the mourners can see a Neoclassical rotunda with an eagle-like phoenix raising its strong wings. Below the cupola the words LIBERT. AMERIC. are inscribed. It is a potent, and in England, where the Cork-born artist engraved it, a rare republican icon that celebrates the transplantation of radical English political ideology to the American shore. The engraving is reproduced on the dust-jacket of Marvell and Liberty, a collection of essays which, like David Norbrook’s recent Writing the English Republic, chimes with the discontent that a significant percentage of British people now feels about the monarchy.

That sense of friendship, of a shared and living republican culture, is present in Melville’s many allusions to Milton, as well as in these intriguing paragraphs which open Chapter 58, ‘Brit’:

Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.

     On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a Sperm Whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip. As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.

Melville is alive to the future dangers which face the new republic, and he airs his anxiety by building these lines from Marvell into his prose:

For when the sun the grass hath vexed,
The tawny mowers enter next;
Who seem like Israelites to be,
Walking on foot in a green sea.
To them the grassy deeps divide,
And crowd a lane to either side.

With whistling scythe, and elbow strong,
Those massacre the grass along:
While one, unknowing, carves the rail,
Whose yet unfeathered quills her fail.

You can’t make an omelette, Marvell may be hinting, without breaking eggs, though on the other hand – and there’s usually another sleight of hand with him – he may be ironising the English revolutionaries when he shows how the mower

The edge all bloody from its breast
He draws, and does his stroke detest,
Fearing the flesh untimely mowed
To him as black a fate forebode.

Melville knew Marvell’s work: in his Republican novella Billy Budd, he picks up the phrase ‘starry vere’ from ‘Upon Appleton House’. In these twinned republican imaginations, Leviathan, the state as whale, as monster of the deep, or the state as squad of bronzed soldiers, advances with a ‘strange, grassy, cutting’ or ‘whistling’ sound. And sound, the sonic resonance of action, event and metrical language, is one of Marvell’s subjects in his phantasmagoric poem. His ear is attuned to what Mandelstam called ‘the noise of time’, and this means that readers must seek the political and the historical in the delicate acoustic texture of his work. Not only does he foreground sound as a subject in ‘Upon Appleton House’, he builds very subtle effects into the web of his language, employing a principle of spreading or kinetic assonance. Where Melville predicts the rise of the US as a sinister maritime republic with an all-powerful navy (Ahab is a fighting Quaker like Richard Nixon), Marvell hints at what the future may hold for a Commonwealth that has no institutional continuity. The theme of wounded male narcissism – the mower on a hot day mown, self-injured – may be one way of giving imaginative shape to what it feels like to live inside a new political bubble that’s stretched to bursting point. But let us first address what is known about the life of That Most Excellent Citizen and Uncorrupted Member of Parliament, as his first biographer Edward Thompson described him in 1776, the year of James Barry’s engraving.

Andrew Marvell, whose father was an Anglican clergyman, was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1621, and entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1633 at the age of 12. He left Cambridge in 1641 without obtaining his MA, and soon left for the Continent, where he appears to have acted as tutor to a wealthy young man. (On the other hand he may have entered his brother-in-law Edmund Popple’s trading-house.) When he returned to England in 1647 his political sympathies were apparently royalist. Though he was soon to change his views, the best readings of his poetry are sensitive, as Nicholas Murray points out, to the ‘strangeness of his genius’, and avoid tidy ideological categories. We need to attend to the ‘uncanny tremor of implication’ that makes the lucid surfaces of his poems ‘shimmer with a sense of something undefined and undefinable beneath them’. This is apparent in the poems he wrote while living on Thomas, Lord Fairfax’s estate in Yorkshire, where he was appointed tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary some time after Fairfax resigned as Commander-in-Chief – or Lord General – of the Parliamentary forces. Fairfax resigned because he did not want to take military action against the Scots; he had also been opposed to the execution of Charles. Though Fairfax’s outlook and his Horatian retirement from public life are reflected subtly in the poems, Marvell came to admire Cromwell in the years from 1653 to Cromwell’s death in 1658 – he was the de facto laureate to the new state. He also became tutor to William Dutton, who was a member of Cromwell’s household.

At this time Marvell was referred to as ‘a notable English-Italo-Machiavellian’ – for reasons that are mysterious he had the reputation of being a crafty and powerful figure. In 1657 he entered the public service as assistant to his friend Milton, who was Secretary of Foreign or Latin Tongues. He was now at the heart of the English Government and a frequent visitor to Milton’s house in Petty France. He first became one of the two MPs for Hull in 1659 and was reelected in May 1660, a month after Charles II’s triumphal return to London. He remained an MP until his death in 1678, and during his long Parliamentary career was appointed to 120 committees, acted as teller in 8 divisions and made 14 speeches – a ‘diligent enough’ record, Murray says, for his day. He enjoyed political activity and lobbying, but was a bad speaker, a reserved, cautious, taciturn man who, John Aubrey noted, ‘had not a generall acquaintance’. He lived in meagre lodgings in central London, and appears to have had a close friendship with Prince Rupert which, according to an early Marvell editor, Thomas Cooke, meant that when it was unsafe for him to have it known where he lived ‘for fear of losing his life by treachery, which was often the case, his royal friend would frequently renew his visits in the habit of a private person’.

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