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’.

Marvell was so often in danger, this editor says, that he was forced to have his letters directed to him under another name. An anonymous poet called him ‘this Islands watchful Centinel’, and his vigilant patriotic shade can be glimpsed behind these lines of Larkin’s celebrating Hull, that remote city beloved of many poets, which stands like a lonely beacon on the North Sea:

Isolate city spread alongside water,
Posted with white towers, she keeps her face
Half-turned to Europe, lonely northern daughter,
Holding through centuries her separate place.

Although Hull’s first poet is perhaps the most celebrated political poet in English, it seems as hard for posterity to place him as it was for his contemporaries. This supple, humorous, highly intelligent poet was also one of the foremost defenders of English liberty during the dark days of the Restoration, or it may be that he was posthumously re-created as a Whig hero. The monument raised to him in the Church of St Giles-in-the-Fields in London was either forbidden by the rector or destroyed, but this epitaph, thought to have been composed by his nephew Will Popple, celebrates his genius:

NEAR UNTO THIS PLACE LYETH THE BODY OF ANDREW MARVELL ESQUIRE, A MAN SO ENDOWED BY NATURE, SO IMPROVED BY EDUCATION, STUDY – TRAVELL, SO CONSUMMATED BY PRACTICE – EXPERIENCE; THAT JOINING THE MOST PECULIAR GRACES OF WIT – LEARNING WITH A SINGULAR PENETRATION, – STRENGTH OF JUDGMENT, – EXERCISING ALL THESE IN THE WHOLE COURSE OF HIS LIFE, WITH AN UNALTERABLE STEADINESS IN THE WAYS OF VIRTUE, HE BECAME THE ORNAMENT – EXAMPLE OF HIS AGE; BELOVED BY GOOD MEN, FEAR’D BY BAD, ADMIR’D BY ALL, THO IMITATED ALASS BY FEW, – SCARCE FULLY PARALLELLED BY ANY, BUT A TOMB STONE CAN NEITHER CONTAIN HIS CHARACTER, NOR IS MARBLE NECESSARY TO TRANSMIT IT TO POSTERITY, IT WILL BE ALWAYS LEGIBLE IN HIS INIMITABLE WRITINGS, HE SERVED THE TOWN OF KINGSTON UPON HULL, ABOVE 20 YEARS SUCCESSIVELY IN PARLIAMENT, – THAT, WITH SUCH WISDOM, DEXTERITY, INTEGRITY – COURAGE AS BECOMES A TRUE PATRIOT, HE DYED THE 16. AUGUST 1678 IN THE 58TH YEAR OF HIS AGE,

                                                           SACRED

TO THE MEMORY OF ANDREW MARVELL ESQR AS A STRENUOUS ASSERTER OF THE CONSTITUTION, LAWS – LIBERTIES OF ENGLAND, AND OUT OF FAMILY AFFECTION – ADMIRATION OF THE UNCORRUPT PROBITY OF HIS LIFE – MANNERS

It is worth meditating on the ways in which Marvell the radical English patriot has slipped to the edges of cultural memory. The first comprehensive biography was written in French by Pierre Legouis and published in an edition of 500 copies in 1928. It appeared in English, abridged and lacking its rich footnotes, in 1965. Despite the enormous amount of critical commentary on the poems, a lot of it tedious and exasperating, no major biography has appeared since Legouis and no Life, aside from Murray’s new one, is currently in print. Yet Murray’s brief biography can only be viewed as a prompt towards a full historical and critical study.

The problem here, as with many biographies, is that the general reader at whom biographies are directed is deemed to be nervous of any kind of sophisticated literary criticism which points to the sometimes bottomless, tantalising nature of aesthetic experience. Murray is alive to such experience, as his comments on the shortcomings of a reductive New Historicist reading shows, but he has not sought to draw his readers into it. In an essay on Marvell’s poetics of enclosure, reprinted in Healy’s collection, one of Marvell’s most interesting recent critics, Jonathan Crewe, shows how ‘The Garden’ exposes ‘a widespread cultural fantasy of the supposedly autonomous, originary masculine subject’. This, though Crewe does not say so, is because Marvell’s irony uses a form of camp to unsettle conventional categories and tantalise his readers. Crewe’s commentary is particularly acute when he discusses the stanza that follows this one:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The word ‘green’ occurs nearly thirty times in Marvell’s poems, and I can remember trying to puzzle out the simultaneously intellectual and tactile nature of these lines as an undergraduate on hot summer days in the flat green fields outside Hull. The element of camp can be found in the next stanza, as Marvell deploys with self-conscious confidence the obvious dualism of traditional Christian belief:

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Crewe argues that the ‘liberated’ masculine soul in the poem is in fact ‘an exotic figure of “feminine” narcissism’ represented by the bird of paradise that ‘whets and combs its silver wings’. For Crewe, this narcissistic figure follows logically from the great closing couplet of the previous stanza, which reduces the pastoral subject to a ‘thought-possessed “shade” ’. I would suggest that Marvell plays with the two sounds made by the letter i, both of them contained in the word ‘sliding’, which helps design a typically slippery image.

As the assonance spreads, Marvell appears to be almost obsessively underlining both the sound i and the concept in:

My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

My hunch is that the i sound in ‘flight’ represents a disembodied Cartesian or Puritan idea of mind which he rejects in favour of in-ness, the interiority of the closing couplet of the next stanza:

Two paradises twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

Perhaps there is a form of dangerous pantheism here, which the adept politician is masking behind Christian piety and a jokey light-verse tone? What is significant, though, is the deliberately preening quality created by the repeated i sounds, so that ‘flight’ takes off into an empty disembodied heaven. What he prefers is ‘in paradise’, the two sounds hand in glove, like the mortalist’s idea of embodied spirit.

One of my favourite examples of Marvell’s stringent poetic ear is the way he exploits the name ‘Cromwell’, which was then given the rather less resonant pronunciation ‘Crummle’ – the effect is rather like a wall being pounded by a battering-ram. The future Lord Protector first appears in the early Royalist elegy Marvell wrote for Lord Francis Villiers, who was killed in 1648 in a skirmish with Parliamentary forces. The only surviving copy of this poem is in Worcester College, Oxford, and though it cannot definitely be proved to be by Marvell, George Clark, the early editor who discovered it, believed it was. In the poem, Marvell says:

                               ’Tis always late
To struggle with inevitable fate.
Much rather though, I know, expect’st to tell
How heavy Cromwell gnashed the earth and fell.

This sets up the pattern of uh sounds which runs through these lines from the famous ‘Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’:

So restless Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace,
But through adventurous war
Urgèd his active star.

The repetition of the uh sound validates the name ‘Cromwell’ or ‘Crummle’ and makes it overwhelming like fate – or a force of nature. On the other hand, we might argue that Marvell’s memory of his earlier lines – if the Villiers elegy is his – complicates the effect of the uh sound and that this passage from the ‘Horatian Ode’ could be thought to mimic the slugging, thumping sounds of battle and disgust. This textured complication is present in the following lines from ‘Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilbrough’, which is dedicated to Fairfax:

Here learn, ye mountains more unjust,
Which to abrupter greatness thrust,
That do with your hook-shouldered height
The earth deform and heaven fright.

The same sounds are used as the major key in these lines from Marvell’s poem celebrating ‘The First Anniversary of the Government under His Highness the Lord Protector, 1655’:

Cromwell alone with greater vigour runs,
(Sun-like) the stages of succeeding suns:
And still the day which he doth next restore
Is the just wonder of the day before.
Cromwell alone doth with new lustre spring,
And shines the jewel of the yearly ring.

The passage with its attendant kinetic assonance builds a majestic image of Cromwell while hinting at the problem of succession, but the next lines, which conclude with a deliberately dissonant, because forced or uprooted, stress, introduce a complication:

’Tis the force of scattered time contracts,
And he in one year the force of ages acts:
While heavy monarchs make a wide return,
Longer and more malignant than Saturn.

The thud of that last unexpected stress casts over the sun-like Cromwell the leaden gloom of heavy Saturn who was deposed by his son Jupiter, just as Cromwell the regicide may in time be deposed.

This, however, is over-schematic about an exercise in the sounds which time or history make within the present political moment: Marvell uses the Machiavellian injunction ‘now’ three times in the ‘Horatian Ode’, and it is the stretched moment, like thrumming canvas, that his delicate ear attempts to catch.

He knows that there is a chaotic void at the heart of political action which turns the world upside down and gives an image for it in his poem on the death of Cromwell:

Thou in a pitch how far beyond the sphere
Of human glory tower’st, and reigning there
Despoiled of mortal robes, in seas of bliss,
Plunging does bathe, and tread the bright abyss.

‘Tread’, that soldier’s or even farmyard verb, is typically strong and concrete, while ‘bright abyss’ is both heavenly and hellish. It’s almost as if Cromwell is treading grapes in a pastoral, which in a sense he is, because Marvell is remembering this extraordinary phantasmagoric moment from ‘Upon Appleton House’:

And now to the abyss I pass
Of that unfathomable grass,
Where men like grasshoppers appear,
But grasshoppers are giants there:
They, in their squeaking laugh, contemn
Us as we walk more low than them:
And, from the precipices tall
Of the green spires, to us do call.

Any decent edition of Marvell will detail the allusions here to grasshoppers in the Old Testament and to Marvell’s Cavalier friend, Richard Lovelace’s poem ‘To a Grasshopper’, but it is the reference to ‘green spires’ as ‘precipices tall’ that intrigues me. It may be that Milton was recalling this passage when he compared Satan to a scout who sees from a hill ‘some renowned metropolis/With glistening spires and pinnacles adorned’. Milton repeats the image later in Paradise Lost when he describes Satan’s head

Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes;
With burnished neck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant.

The spires here are partly Rome, partly Royalist Oxford’s dreaming spires; they also recall the circling shape of the snake. Marvell relishes the squeaking laughter of the giant Royalist grasshoppers which are both belittled and ominously huge, as Charles’s forces will be when Richard Cromwell fails to get very far along the ‘rugged track’ – that uh sound again – which Marvell imagines him beating down now his ‘great parent’ is dead.

It is a moment of surreal political premonition, like a passage from Gulliver’s Travels or like this passage which imagines the hayfield as a sea:

When after this ’tis piled in cocks,
Like a calm sea it shows the rocks,
We wondering in the river near
How boats among them safely steer.
Or, like the desert Memphis sand,
Short pyramids of hay do stand.
And such the Roman camps do rise
In hills for soldiers’ obsequies.

This is witty, gentle and accurate – haycocks do look like rocks in a calm sea – but the Egyptian and Roman imagery suddenly contradicts the native Englishness by introducing sharp geometrical shapes which belong to an imperial slave culture. In The Reason of Church Government Milton compares the rule of bishops to a ‘pyramid’ that aspires and ‘sharpens’ ambition, saying that it is ‘the most dividing and schismatical form that geometricians know of’; and in his Second Defence of the English People he warns Cromwell not to ‘invade that liberty which you have defended’, arguing that Cromwell ought not to assume the title of king, because actions such as his are lost in clouds like ‘the points of pyramids’. Later, Satan in Paradise Lost is shown raised on a mount ‘with pyramids and towers’.

It may be that the connection with Milton is a coincidence, but I cannot think that the two poets, who were both friends and colleagues, failed to influence each other. And if I’m here pointing to an element of historical premonition, a deliberate unease within Marvell’s affectionate pastoralism, this is because it is possible to perceive something other than the historical in this type of writing, something unforeseen, even unknowable. James Loxley’s essay ‘The Prospect of History: Marvell’s Landscapes in Contemporary Criticism’ is particularly interesting in this context because it seeks to unsettle the apparently solid Whig foundations on which New Historicist interpretation rests. Arguing against Louis Montrose’s apparently famous chiastic formulation ‘the historicity of texts and the textuality of history’, Loxley challenges the idea that history can be simply ‘emptied into textuality’. He is concerned to unsettle the new critical settlement which emerged after the Theory Wars of the early Eighties (readers of this journal may recall the epic and often splenetic correspondence on the subject of a collection of essays called Re-Reading English) and argues that Montrose’s chiasmus ‘ought not to be taken as the definition of a criticism that has absorbed and moved on from the moment of theory’. He wants a historicism which is ‘less self-consciously new’ to attend to ‘an aporetic moment’, a moment of doubt and perplexity that will be ‘not the basis of a method but the beginning, yet once more, of its critique’.

Loxley properly insists that the critical spirit exists hand to mouth on sinking sands or trembling bogland, never on solid classical foundations, and reflecting on his essay I’m drawn through that Lycidasian cadence ‘yet once more’ to one of the most extraordinary stanzas in ‘Upon Appleton House’ – stanza 77, where Marvell indulges wittily in a fantasy involving bondage and auto-asphyxia. Earlier in the poem he mentions Cawood Castle, seat of the Archbishop of York, saying the sight – meaning his eyesight – plies its ‘invisible artillery’ on the proud castle: ‘As if it quarrelled in the seat/The ambition of its prelate great’. Then he describes wandering into a grove:

The oak leaves me embroider all,
Between which caterpillars crawl:
And ivy, with familiar trails,
Me licks, and clasps, and curls, and hales.
Under this antic cope I move
Like some great prelate of the grove.

I can never read the last couplet without imagining how Frankie Howerd or Kenneth Williams would have delivered it – this is quite deliciously camp, and that word ‘antic’ is also theatrical, for it inescapably carries a memory of Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’. However, as Elizabeth Story Donno points out in her edition of Marvell, Milton uses the word in his 1642 An Apology for Smectymnus: ‘it has no rubric to be sung in an antic cope upon the stage of a high altar.’ The phrase denotes a ‘grotesque ecclesiastical vestment’, and the spellings ‘antic’ and ‘antique’ were interchangeable, so there is a pun meaning ‘grotesquely old-fashioned’ at work here. But this is the lead-in to the next verses where he draws on Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’ to fuse sensually with the ‘velvet moss’ – another High Church vestment – before stanza 77’s almost orgasmic scream:

Bind me, ye woodbines, in your twines,
Curl me about, ye gadding vines,
And, oh, so close your circles lace,
That I may never leave this place:
But lest your fetters prove too weak,
Ere I your silken bondage break,
Do you, O brambles, chain me too,
And, courteous briars, nail me through.

This passage is one of several – the stanza with the screaming grasshoppers is another – where the poem descends into unforeseen, but in a way perfectly logical insanity. It recalls, in addition to Milton and Shakespeare, Marvell’s Royalist friend Richard Lovelace’s ‘To Althea’:

When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fetter’d to her eye,
The gods, that wanton in the air,
Know no such liberty.

Marvell has tied himself in these conventional Cavalier knots before – ‘the curlèd trammels of her hair’ (‘The Fair Singer’), and ‘Black eyes, red lips, and curlèd hair’ (‘The Singer’) – but this is a more typical ironic fantasy of solitary self-gratification which both mocks that selfish and painful pleasure, and glances at Puritanism: ‘Cease, tempter. None can chain a mind/Whom this sweet chordage cannot bind’. This is the Soul’s reply to the ‘charming airs’ Pleasure proposes in ‘A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure’, and we may savour the exquisite agony that is intimated in that phrase ‘sweet chordage’, as well as noting the mnemonic presence of the couplet in those triple binding internal rhymes in the first line of stanza 77. The circle which Marvell is attempting to square elsewhere in the poem and in the house’s architecture is there in the third line’s triple orgasmic 0 rhymes. (I’m reminded of Leopold Bloom’s bondage fantasy, which wittily suggests that Ireland is tied up inside Egypt/Britain’s house of bondage.)

Marvell the camp bishop – the poet in ecclesiastical drag – is taking Royalism and Anglicanism to the limit of absurdity. He is also recalling Archbishop Laud’s execution (the Archbishop courteously suggested that the spectators underneath the scaffold should move from under the block, lest they be covered in his blood), and the ‘royal actor’ Charles on the scaffold. It might be too much to suggest that the 00 rhymes in the last couplet recall Caesar’s ‘et tu Brute’, but my point is that there is a deliberate too-muchness, a phantasmagoric, over-the-top quality in this stanza and elsewhere. Anyone who has seen Ian Paisley preaching in a darkened mission hut in Africa, or Gerry Adams walking up the steps of Stormont in an Armani suit will appreciate that politics can go beyond itself into that almost transcendental grotesquerie that is the antic. As I write Mrs Thatcher has just addressed the Tory Party Conference, head and body out of sync like a demented puppet. Politics isn’t simply what Harold Macmilian described as ‘events, dear boy’, though he meant the unforeseen, the unpredictable, the utterly unexpected – it is the chaos those words attempt to represent.

To adapt an encouraging remark of Tom Stoppard’s about an audience arriving at one of Howard Brenton’s plays – ‘a lot of denim’ – I would suggest that there is a lot of silk in this poem. The military flowers Marvell terms ‘silken signs’, the dew-wet meadows are like ‘green silks but newly washed’, the vines catch him in their ‘silken bondage’, but Marvell also uses the words ‘lick’ and ‘slick’, which follow from the river’s ‘wanton harmless folds’ to echo the word ‘snake’ and suggest the word ‘silk’. He says ‘No serpent new nor crocodile/Remains behind our little Nile’ – a witty glance at the snake in the Garden of Eden, and at Cleopatra or the ‘serpent of old Nile’, as well as at the escape from Egypt theme that he sternly represents in the Puritanical accent of the resolved soul in the previous stanza, 78, which itself follows the bondage stanza:

Here in the morning tie my chain,
Where the two woods have made a lane,
While, like a guard on either side,
The trees before their Lord divide;
This, like a long and equal thread,
Betwixt two labyrinths does lead.
But where the floods did lately drown,
There at evening stake me down.

This is the exit from Egypt, the Minotaur’s labyrinth and the Garden of Eden, and it seems to set the course for a ‘long and equal’ republic, except that, in another anticipation of Swift’s Gulliver, he is tied down by the strings of political intrigue. The dislocation of scale in the poem is reminiscent of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and it must be that Swift was influenced by this master of the octosyllabic couplet, a form Swift himself employs in a workman-like manner, quite lacking Marvell’s super-subtle deftness of touch.

My own hunch is that Marvell owes a lot to Spenser, and that the tawny mowers are a version of the ‘yron man’ Talus in The Faerie Queene, whom Spenser based on Talos, the Bronze Man who was guardian of Crete. If the bronzed, suntanned mowers can be associated with Talus, Marvell may have intended to ghost Talus’s relationship with Artegall, Knight of Justice, whom Spenser based on Lord Grey – Spenser served as his Secretary while Grey was Lord Deputy of Ireland and supported his violent measures, Marvell may, in other words, be making a link with Cromwell’s policies in Ireland and with the Levellers who mutinied against being sent to Ireland (Fairfax helped to suppress the mutiny). Too arcane, perhaps, but Marvell is such a tantalising poet that he effortlessly inspires the critical soul to whet its silver wings. I look forward to the annotated editions of his verse and prose which, at long last, are now in preparation. They may, among other things, determine whether this poet of ‘liminal states’ was gay, as a few scholars suggest. John Creaser is the only critic in these two recent collections of essays to attend to Marvell’s finely modulated prosody, but the renewed interest in his work and his life which these three studies represent make me hopeful that a new generation of critics capable of appreciating the formal joys of verse may soon redefine New Historicism. Mean-while, the real task for literary critics is to find a way of communicating with a general audience.