Hard Labour

Frank Kermode

  • The Poems of Andrew Marvell edited by Nigel Smith
    Longman, 468 pp, £50.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 582 07770 2

The task of keeping us interested in the canonical poets seems now to have fallen mainly to the Longman Annotated English Poets series. But who are we? Every time another volume is added somebody has to decide who we are, how many we are, and how much annotation and prefatory material we’ll want in addition to a reliable text. Given that nobody really knows the market for the canonical poets, or how many people are willing to work with a full-scale edition, these cannot be easy decisions. Perhaps it is in accordance with them that the quantity of annotation, even within this series, varies from one volume to another.

The books have changed their format over the years but continue not to resemble the old Oxford English Texts, which appeared in handsome editions, suitable for the libraries of scholars and gentlemen, and, later, in cheaper formats for the underprivileged. In the old days there were few if any notes in the Oxford volumes. All was left in the original spelling and there was an apparent assumption that anybody likely to read them would scorn assistance. Meanwhile students and ordinary folk used tersely annotated paperback editions.

The founding editor of the Longman series, F.W. Bateson, explained in a preface that he wanted as little as possible to come between the reader and the poetry, but, as the title of the series makes plain, this principle did not exclude notes. Bateson also decreed that the poems should appear in chronological order, a rule that produces difficulties for editors whose poets did a lot of revising, and which, as the latest general editors point out, would make little sense if the poet was George Herbert.

Long reprinted, Bateson’s preface has now disappeared to be replaced by another, this time by the succeeding general editors, John Barnard and Paul Hammond. They claim fidelity to Bateson except where he has come to seem fallible. For instance, he insisted on modernising spelling and punctuation; but why modernise Browning, and why meddle with Marvell’s punctuation, which is important to his rhetoric and contributes to his ambiguity? Most important still, Bateson hoped his editors could work on a received text, but now, editorial standards being higher, they feel obliged to return to the originals, no small matter when they have to deal with corrupt manuscripts and dodgy printing. And when that is sorted there remains the problem of commentary, vastly more ample than it used to be, almost a reversion to ancient editorial practices. And all along it must be presumed that some of the many readers who admire the poet will like to have him in this necessarily rather elephantine format.

The Longman series has a distinguished history stretching over nearly half a century. It includes Christopher Ricks’s exemplary Tennyson volume, later much enlarged to include variants from the Trinity MS, still under ban at the time of the first edition; the Milton volumes of Alastair Fowler and John Carey; and a good many others, including, more recently, multi-volume editions of Shelley, Browning and Dryden. The editors are expert and the poets are major poets, so that it seems surprising, but only at first glance, that these books are not published by a university press. It must “be thought a good thing that a commercial house continues to be willing to do the job, having presumably discovered that there are enough readers out there who want the kind of help and instruction these editions offer.

The addition of Andrew Marvell to the list is a tacit claim for his major status. T.S. Eliot, in one of his less impressive lectures, brooded over the difference between major and minor, deciding that minor poets are the ones we read only in anthologies. There are difficult cases like that of Herbert, whose work we may know from anthologies but who proves on inspection to have written other poems just as good that are not in anthologies, and which belong to a book best read as a whole. Only thus can one develop a sense not only of his skill but also of his context – for example, his place in the history of Anglican piety.

Marvell is a different matter, since people who think him major usually do so by excluding a lot of his poetry from consideration. But what Eliot chiefly fails to consider is that these rankings depend on what all manner of people think and say about the poets concerned. Major rankings come and go and relegation is a recurring threat to all but a few. A poet can be simply abandoned; if an influential critic, Leavis, for instance, feels strongly enough he can run a campaign to ‘dislodge’ Milton. Some poets automatically called major are not much read because opinion has silently turned against them, while turning in favour of others. Donne was a minor poet, a parson who, in youth, wrote some difficult poetry, until opinion, working slowly through the 19th and quickly in the early 20th century, turned him into a major one, needing or deserving to be elaborately edited.

Something like this also happened to Marvell, whose modern eminence was also achieved partly at the expense of Milton (regardless of the fact that Marvell thought his friend a very good poet). He had always enjoyed some celebrity, but primarily as an apparently incorruptible Restoration politician, author of some political satires and of a good deal of distinguished polemical prose, now not much read. Miscellaneous Poems, published posthumously in 1681, was virtually ignored until the 19th century; editions appeared, but their interest was seen to lie outside the lyric poems. The lyrics attracted attention in the Romantic period; Hazlitt said Marvell’s verses ‘leave an echo on the ear’, and Lamb admired their ‘witty delicacy’. Later, admiration became virtually universal, and of course it now depends on the lyrics as much as it once depended on the politics.

That the lyrics are a rather small proportion of Marvell’s verse creates a problem for the Longman editor, or at any rate for most of his potential readership. Committed to full annotation, he cannot choose to annotate this and not that. What is of small interest to most readers has to be treated with the same care as the rest. A further difficulty is that the least interesting poems are, in a sense, the easiest to annotate, while the need to provide something comparable for the lyrics sends the editor off on a hunt through a thousand periodical articles, by no means all of which deserve his, or anybody else’s, attention.

Nigel Smith, Marvell’s new editor, remarks that the serious annotation of Marvell’s works began only in 1927, with H.M. Margoliouth’s Oxford edition. That edition might never have been projected but for Eliot’s 1921 essay on the poet, itself the culmination of the growing interest and developing critical vocabulary of the preceding generation. Indeed Eliot’s essay was a review of H.J.C. Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the 17th Century, a very influential anthology, with a lot of Marvell in it, by the scholar who had produced the first serious edition of Donne. So Marvell at last qualified for a modern edition, one which saw the lyric poems as the fine products ‘of European, that is to say Latin, culture’. Here was a poet whose wit derived – famous phrase – from ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’. He could now be mentioned in the same sentence as Catullus and Laforgue, Baudelaire and Gautier. He could be declared ‘a classic’, by a critic who was to spend a good deal of time deciding exactly what that meant.

Margoliouth’s edition, The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, in two volumes, was in the same Oxford series as Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems, which was supplemented over the years by editions of Donne’s other works. Margoliouth’s annotations, light by modern standards, were eventually supplemented by the expert comments of Pierre Legouis and Elsie Duncan-Jones in a revised third edition of 1971. Comment on the lyric poetry now became more adventurous, not only because the new editors knew so much but because there was so much recent criticism and analysis to consider. Other editions both major and minor followed, some of them quite important but generally focused on the lyric poems. Now comes this new edition, building on the others, but as to commentary by far the most elaborate of all.

The political poems set the commentator to hard labour, but the job is relatively straightforward, since there is a mass of background material. The satires Marvell wrote after the Restoration exist in a great many manuscripts, which Smith tackles conscientiously, though it seems likely that very few will see how hard he has worked, except historians of the period and other interested scholars who may well be looking for chances to disagree. The poems about Cromwell, and the Post-Restoration satirical and political verse, occupy about half the book. Tricky questions of attribution must be answered. The poems named ‘Advice to a Painter’ were very topical, attacking government policy in the Second Dutch War; there are 46 extant MSS of the ‘Second Advice’, and several contemporary printed editions. The annotations take up more of the page than the poems themselves, and there is necessarily a mass of detailed introductory material. Surpassing his predecessors in control of detail, Smith deals assiduously with all such matters. Some of the earlier poems also encourage annotation – one addressed to the poet Lovelace, another an elegy on the death of Lord Francis Villiers, killed at a battle near Kingston upon Thames in 1648, and not agreed by all who have looked into the matter to be by Marvell (something has gone wrong with Smith’s note in favour of the attribution). The Lovelace poem, 50 lines long, calls for eight packed columns of preface and notes. The reason is not that the poems are very important, simply that there is relevant topical and biographical material there to be reported.

This is not true of the poems for which Marvell is now admired. The attention lavished on and rewarded by the political poems creates a problem when it comes to the lyrics. Of course the poems we all like are, in one sense, easy to edit, for, as Smith remarks, most of them depend solely on the text of the 1681 collection and there are no other witnesses except a Bodleian manuscript of unknown provenance which offers some variant readings. But somehow they must be given a decent quantity of apparatus and comment, and the results, more often dependent on critical ingenuity than on historical fact, are not always admirable.

Partly because they are obliged to take an interest in the poet as well as his work, editors are traditionally keen to assign dates to poems, as if they were straightforward autobiographical documents; but for most of Marvell’s lyric poetry this is virtually impossible and anyway unnecessary. Smith would not agree and goes through all the motions of dating; nevertheless he prints the poems in substantially the order established by the posthumous 1681 edition. Whoever put together that volume was not interested in the chronology of the lyrics. ‘A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure’, was, for adequate reasons, placed first in the 1681 volume. Here it is dated 1667, very late for a Marvell lyric – not impossible, but the evidence cited is a faint echo of a passage in Paradise Lost. In fact Paradise Regained is a far more relevant connection, and so Marvell’s poem, a kind of throwback, would have to have been written after 1671; but there is no need to suppose that Marvell was mimicking Milton or vice versa – schemes and themes circulated freely in Stuart poetry.

To confine the notes on the lyrics to matters of fact would produce a very skimpy harvest compared with the riches of the political poems, but the notes are greatly swollen by numerous, probably too numerous, references to recent commentary. The effect is to distract the reader from the poems, exactly the opposite of Bateson’s original plan. Take, for instance, the notes on ‘Bermudas’, a poem admired by all. Marvell was a friend of John Oxenbridge, a fellow of Eton, who had twice visited Bermuda and was on the commission for the government of the colony. In 1653 Marvell was at Eton, as tutor to a ward of Cromwell’s. So he probably wrote the poem about then. His association with Oxenbridge gave him ample opportunity to find out what life was like in the colony, but he failed to present this intelligence in the poem. Conditions in Bermuda were rough, and it is therefore argued that the ideas of the poem have more to do with colonialist propaganda than with reality. So, in a form rather like that of a metrical psalm, Marvell draws a false picture based on existing descriptions of the earthly paradise, here admirably explained in a battery of notes. The most interesting of these comes from the Australian critic Michael Wilding, a distinguished exponent of Marvell, who eliminates some earlier commentary by pointing out that the apples in ll. 23-40 were certainly not pineapples, for pineapples don’t grow on trees. The poem has 40 lines, maybe three hundred words, and the commentary something like two thousand. One can be encumbered with assistance.

Other poems are at least equally endowed with explanations. What is disturbing is that the application of vaguely parallel passages and generalisations about current Puritan soteriology are inclined to distract attention from the power of meaning generated by a poem such as ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’. Nowhere among all the useful information on this poem is there a word about Leavis’s once famous questioning of an ‘immense apparatus of scholarship’ when it connotes a ‘lack of acquaintance with intelligent critical reading’. In the course of a controversy about this very poem Leavis informs his opponent (Bateson, as it happens) that the poem is an ‘utterly different thing’ from what he says it is, and goes a long way towards proving this. He would surely have said much the same about the treatment of the poem in this edition. Despite the skill and ingenuity of the editor, this piling up of comment would have struck Leavis as indicating, paradoxically, ‘a striking failure of attention’. That is certainly too severe, but that there is a redundancy of annotation seems true enough. Is it useful, to take a trivial instance, to refer to Donne’s Corona sonnets when considering ‘The Coronet’? Donne’s is an entirely different enterprise. Or to find ‘colonial’ resonance in ‘A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure’? You won’t find it unless you put it there. The most irritatingly intrusive comments come from a certain Gordon Williams, who sniffs out dirty and often dotty double meanings all over the place.

I was surprised to find that the Mower poems are to be thought of not only as a group but as a sequence during which the Mower changes from a champion of pastoral values into an ‘alienated dealer of death’; and that he takes a political stand against the growing practice of landscaping. Indeed the Mower poems are to be thought of as reflecting the increase in the number of waged agricultural labourers during the 17th century. In fact the Mower, arguing against cultivated gardens, is making a point in an ancient debate, familiar enough to be touched on in The Winter’s Tale.

So although the arguments and illustrations proffered are often helpful, some are not, and they are so many that they take one’s eye off these profoundly original poems. The 16 lines of ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’ require around two thousand words of comment. It is easy to understand that the splendidly witty ‘Upon Appleton House’, which has 776 lines, calls for some thirty pages of annotation in small print, and that the mysteriously beautiful ‘Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn’ encourages speculation that it is about the death of Charles I or the death of Christ. Nothing exceeds in detail the treatment of ‘To His Coy Mistress’, a poem that seems to have had some celebrity even in the 17th century, since it exists in a version which interpolates some bawdy lines. It is here usefully studied in the tradition of classical erotic elegy and the Greek Anthology, but also described as ‘a parodic deconstruction of a cluster of inherited forms’, which it transforms to produce ‘a radically new, outspoken and vigorous evocation of sexual intimacy’. Some might complain that the poem is really about a strong and thwarted desire for such intimacy. But the point, however expressed, is correct, for the mixing and matching of genres is characteristic of Marvell. And if he includes some real duds among his citations, the editor cannot be blamed, least of all by a reviewer who has in his day contributed his own pennyworth to commentary of this sort, for he had no option.

The great ‘Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, written at a moment of political crisis, should offer firmer ground, but the ambiguity of its political bearing, endlessly discussed, is never quite cleared up. It is suggested, without much evidence, that the poem was written ‘in pursuit of patronage from the new (Cromwellian) regime’. Strong on the Horatian models, the commentary fairly sets forth the conflict of opinion about the politics and some of the disputed details of the poem. Fuel for further annotation, of course, and in this case there ought to be; the poem can stand it, braced against folly by the power and intelligence that make it possible to think it the greatest political poem in the language.

It is fair to say that by offering so much comment, some of it reflecting his conscientiousness rather than his views, Smith at least gives the reader a chance to choose his favourite follies and illuminations. But, once again, who is that reader? Will gentlemen in their libraries browse through this huge book? The likeliest users are graduate students determined to add more commentary: everywhere here they will discover possible arguments, disagreements and refinements. They, more than general readers, will be properly grateful to an editor who has devoted years of careful and learned labour to this edition.