Andrew Marvell Biography | Poet
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), English poet and satirist, son of Andrew Marvell and his wife Anne Pease, was born at the rectory house, Winestead, in the Holderness division of Yorkshire, on the 31st of March 1621. In 1624 his father exchanged the living of Winestead for the mastership of Hull grammar school. He also became lecturer at Holy Trinity Church and 806master of the Charterhouse in the same town. Thomas Fuller (Worthies of England, ed. 1811, i. 165) describes him as “a most excellent preacher.” The younger Marvell was educated at Hull grammar school until his thirteenth year, when he matriculated on the 14th of December 1633 (according to a doubtful statement in Wood’s Athen. oxon.) at Trinity College, Cambridge. It is related by his early biographer, Thomas Cooke, that he was induced by some Jesuit priests to leave the university. After some months he was discovered by his father in a bookseller’s shop in London, and returned to Cambridge.1 He contributed two poems to the Musa cantabrigiensis in 1637, and in the following year he received a scholarship at Trinity College, and took his B.A. degree in 1639. His father was drowned in 1640 while crossing the Humber in company with the daughter of a Mrs Skinner, almost certainly connected with the Cyriack Skinner to whom two of Milton’s sonnets are addressed. It is said that Mrs Skinner adopted Marvell and provided for him at her death. The Conclusion Book of Trinity College, Cambridge, registers the decision (Sept. 24, 1641) that he with others should be excluded from further advantages from the college either because they were married, or did not attend their “days” or “acts.” He travelled for four years on the Continent, visiting Holland, France, Italy and Spain. In Rome he met Richard Flecknoe, whom he satirized in the amusing verses on “Flecnoe, an English priest at Rome.”
Although Marvell ranks as a great Puritan poet his sympathies were at first with Charles I., and in the lines on “Tom May’s Death” he found no words too strong to express his scorn for the historian of the Long Parliament. He himself was no partisan, but had a passion for law and order. He acquiesced, accordingly, in the strong rule of Cromwell, but in his famous “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” (1650)2 he inserts a tribute to the courage and dignity of Charles I., which forms the best-known section of the poem. In 1650 he became tutor to Lord Fairfax’s daughter Mary, afterwards duchess of Buckingham, then in her twelfth year. During his life with the Fairfaxes at Nunappleton, Yorkshire, he wrote the poems “Upon the Hill and Grove at Billborow” and “On Appleton House.” Doubtless the other poems on country life, and his exquisite “garden poetry” may be referred to this period. “Clorinda and Damon” and “The Nymph complaining for the Death of her Faun” are good examples of the beauty and simplicity of much of this early verse. But he had affinities with John Donne and the metaphysical poets, and could be obscure on occasion.
Marvell was acquainted with Milton probably through their common friends, the Skinners, and in February 1653 Milton sent him with a letter to the lord president of the council, John Bradshaw, recommending him as “a man of singular desert for the state to make use of,” and suggesting his appointment as assistant to himself in his duties as foreign secretary. The appointment was, however, given at the time to Philip Meadows, and Marvell became tutor to Cromwell’s ward, William Dutton. In 1653 he was established with his pupil at Eton in the house of John Oxenbridge, then a fellow of the college, but formerly a minister in the Bermudas. No doubt the well-known verses, “Bermudas,” were inspired by intercourse with the Oxenbridges. At Eton he enjoyed the society of John Hales, then living in retirement. He was employed by Milton in 1654 to convey to Bradshaw a copy of the Defensio secunda, and the letter to Milton in which he describes the reception of the gift is preserved. When the secretaryship again fell vacant in 1657 Marvell was appointed, and retained the appointment until the accession of Charles II. During this period he wrote many political poems, all of them displaying admiration for Cromwell. His “Poem upon the Death of his late Highness the Lord Protector” has been unfavourably compared to Edmund Waller’s “Panegyric,” but Marvell’s poem is inspired with affection.
Marvell’s connexion with Hull had been strengthened by the marriages of his sisters with persons of local importance, and in January 1659 he was elected to represent the borough in parliament. He was re-elected in 1660, again in 1661, and continued to represent the town until his death. According to Milton’s nephew, Edward Phillips, the poet owed his safety at the Restoration largely to the efforts of Marvell, who “made a considerable party for him” in the House of Commons. From 1663 to 1665 he acted as secretary to Charles Howard, 1st earl of Carlisle, on his difficult and unsuccessful embassy to Muscovy, Sweden, and Denmark; and this is the only official post he filled during the reign of Charles. With the exception of this absence, for which he had leave from his constituents, and of shorter intervals of travel on private business which took him to Holland, Marvell was constant in his parliamentary attendance to the day of his death. He seldom spoke in the House, but his parliamentary influence is established by other evidence. He was an excellent man of affairs, and looked after the special interests of the port of Hull. He was a member of the corporation of Trinity House, both in London and Hull, and became a younger warden of the London Trinity House. His correspondence with his constituents, from 1660 to 1678, some 400 letters in all, printed by Dr Grosart (Complete Works, vol. ii.), forms a source of information all the more valuable because by a resolution passed at the Restoration the publication of the proceedings of the House without leave was forbidden. He made it a point of duty to write at each post—that is, every two or three days—both on local interests and on all matters of public interest. The discreet reserve of these letters, natural at a time when the post office was a favourite source of information to the government, contrasts curiously with the freedom of the few private letters which state opinions as well as facts. Marvell’s constituents, in their turn, were not unmindful of their member. He makes frequent references to their presents, usually of Hull ale and of salmon, and he regularly drew from them the wages of a member, six-and-eightpence a day during session.
The development of Marvell’s political opinions may be traced in the satirical verse he published during the reign of Charles II., and in his private letters. With all his admiration for Cromwell he had retained his sympathies with the royal house, and had loyally accepted the Restoration. In 1667 the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames, and Marvell expressed his wrath at the gross mismanagement of public affairs in “Last Instructions to a Painter,” a satire which was published as a broadside and of course remained anonymous. Edmund Waller had published in 1665 a gratulatory poem on the duke of York’s victory in that year over the Dutch as “Instructions to a Painter for the drawing up and posture of his Majesty’s forces at sea....” A similar form was adopted in Sir John Denham’s four satirical “Directions to a Painter,” and Marvell writes on the same model. His indignation was well grounded, but he had no scruples in the choice of the weapons he employed in his warfare against the corruption of the court, which he paints even blacker than do contemporary memoir writers; and his satire often descends to the level of the lampoon. The most inexcusable of his scandalous verses are perhaps those on the duchess of York. In the same year he attacked Lord Clarendon, evidently hoping that with the removal of the “betrayer of England and Flanders” matters would improve. But in 1672 when he wrote his “Poem on the Statue in the Stocks-Market” he had no illusions left about Charles, whom he describes as too often “purchased and sold,” though he concludes with “Yet we’d rather have him than his bigoted brother.” “An Historical Poem,” “Advice to a Painter,” and “Britannia and Raleigh” urge the same advice in grave language. In the last-named poem, probably written early in 1674, Raleigh pleads that “’tis god-like good to save a fallen king,” but Britannia has at length decided that the tyrant cannot be divided from the Stuart, and proposes to reform the state 807on the republican model of Venice. These and other equally bold satires were probably handed round in MS., or secretly printed, and it was not until after the Revolution that they were collected with those of other writers in Poems on Affairs of State (3 pts., 1689; 4 pts., 1703-1707). Marvell’s controversial prose writings are wittier than his verse satires, and are free from the scurrility which defaces the “Last Instructions to a Painter.” A short and brilliant example of his irony is “His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to both Houses of Parliament” (printed in Grosart, ii. 431 seq.), in which Charles is made to take the house into the friendliest confidence on his domestic affairs.
Marvell was among the masters of Jonathan Swift, who, in the “Apology” prefixed to the Tale of a Tub, wrote that his answer to Samuel Parker could be still read with pleasure, although the pamphlets that provoked it were long since forgotten. Parker had written a Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politye (1670) and other polemics against Dissenters, to which Marvell replied in The Rehearsal Transposed (2 pts., 1672 and 1673). The book contains some passages of dignified eloquence, and some coarse vituperation, but the prevailing tone is that of grave and ironical banter of Parker as “Mr Bayes.” Parker was attacked, says Bishop Burnet (Hist. of His Own Time, ed. 1823, i. 451), “by the liveliest droll of the age, who writ in a burlesque strain, but with so peculiar and entertaining a conduct, that, from the king down to the tradesman, his books were read with great pleasure.” He certainly humbled Parker, but whether this effect extended, as Burnet asserts, to the whole party, is doubtful. Parker had intimated that Milton had a share in the first part of Marvell’s reply. This Marvell emphatically denied (Grosart, iii. 498). He points out that Parker had, like Milton, profited by the royal clemency, and that he had first met him at Milton’s house. He takes the opportunity to praise Milton’s “great learning and sharpness of wit,” and to the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674) he contributed some verses of just and eloquent praise.
His Mr Smirke, or the Divine in Mode ... (1676) was a defence of Herbert Croft, bishop of Hereford, against the criticisms of Dr Francis Turner, master of St John’s College, Cambridge. A far more important work was An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, more particularly from the Long Prorogation of Parliament ... (1677). This pamphlet was written in the same outspoken tone as the verse satires, and brought against the court the indictment of nursing designs to establish absolute monarchy and the Roman Catholic religion at the same time. A reward was offered for the author, whose identity was evidently suspected, and it is said that Marvell was in danger of assassination. He died on the 16th of August 1678 in consequence of an overdose of an opiate taken during an attack of ague. He was buried in the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields, London. Joint administration of his estate was granted to one of his creditors, and to his widow, Mary Marvell, of whom we have no previous mention.
As a humorist, and as a great “parliament man,” no name is of more interest to a student of the reign of Charles II. than that of Marvell. He had friends among the republican thinkers of the times. Aubrey says that he was intimate with James Harrington, the author of Oceana, and he was probably a member of the “Rota” club. In the heyday of political infamy, he, a needy man, obliged to accept wages from his constituents, kept his political virtue unspotted, and he stood throughout his career as the champion of moderate and tolerant measures. There is a story that his old schoolfellow, Danby, was sent by the king to offer the incorruptible poet a place at court and a gift of £1000, which Marvell refused with the words: “I live here to serve my constituents: the ministry may seek men for their purpose; I am not one.” When self-indulgence was the ordinary habit of town life, Marvell was a temperate man. His personal appearance is described by John Aubrey: “He was of a middling stature, pretty strong set, roundish faced, cherry cheeked, hazel eyed, brown haired. In his conversation he was modest and of very few words.” (“Lives of Eminent Persons,” printed in Letters ... in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 1813).
Among Marvell’s works is also a Defence of John Howe on God’s Prescience ... (1678), and among the spurious works fathered on him are: A Seasonable Argument ... for a new Parliament (1677), A Seasonable Question and a Useful Answer ... (1676), A Letter from a Parliament Man ...(1675), and a translation of Suetonius (1672). Marvell’s satires were no doubt first printed as broadsides, but very few are still extant in that form. Such of his poems as were printed during his lifetime appeared in collections of other men’s works. The earliest edition of his non-political verse isMiscellaneous Poems (1681), edited by his wife, Mary Marvell. The political satires were printed as A Collection of Poems on Affairs of State, by A—— M——l, Esq. and other Eminent Wits (1689), with second and third parts in the same year. The works of Andrew Marvell contained in these two publications were also edited by Thomas Cooke (2 vols., 1726), who added some letters. Cooke’s edition was reprinted by Thomas Davies in 1772. Marvell’s next editor was Captain Thompson of Hull, who was connected with the poet’s family, and made further additions from a commonplace book since lost. Other editions followed, but were superseded by Dr A. B. Grosart’s laborious work, which, in spite of many defects of style, remains indispensable to the student. The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Andrew Marvell, M.P. (4 vols., 1872-1875) forms part of his “Fuller Worthies Library.” See also the admirable edition of the Poems and Satires of Andrew Marvell ... (2 vols., 1892) in the “Muses’ Library,” where a full bibliography of his works and of the commentaries on them is provided; also The Poems and some Satires of Andrew Marvell(ed. Edward Wright, 1904), and Andrew Marvell (1905), by Augustine Birrell in the “English Men of Letters” series.
1There is an allusion to this escapade addressed by another anxious parent to the elder Marvell in the Hull Corporation Records (No. 498) [see Grosart, i. xxviii.]. The document is without address or signature, but the identification seems safe.
2This poem has been highly praised by Goldwin Smith (T. H. Ward’s English Poets, ii. 383 (1880)). It was first printed, so far as we know, in 1776, and the only external testimony to Marvell’s authorship is the statement of Captain Thompson, who had included many poems by other writers in his edition of Marvell, that this ode was in poet’s own handwriting. The internal evidence in favour of Marvell may, however, be accepted as conclusive.
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