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The Life and Poetry of Andrew Marvell


"They who with a good conscience and an upright heart do their civil duties in the sight of God, and in their several places, to resist tyranny and the violence of superstition banded both against them, will never seek to be forgiven that which may justly be attributed to their immortal praise."—Answer to Eikon Basilike.

Among, the great names which adorned the Protectorate,—that period of intense mental activity, when political and religious rights and duties were thoroughly discussed by strong and earnest statesmen and theologians,—that of Andrew Marvell, the friend of Milton, and Latin Secretary of Cromwell, deserves honorable mention. The magnificent prose of Milton, long neglected, is now perhaps as frequently read as his great epic; but the writings of his friend and fellow secretary, devoted like his own to the cause of freedom and the rights of the people, are scarcely known to the present generation. It is true that Marvell's political pamphlets were less elaborate and profound than those of the author of the glorious Defence of Unlicensed Printing. He was light, playful, witty, and sarcastic; he lacked the stern dignity, the terrible invective, the bitter scorn, the crushing, annihilating retort, the grand and solemn eloquence, and the devout appeals, which render immortal the controversial works of Milton. But he, too, has left his foot-prints on his age; he, too, has written for posterity that which they "will not willingly let die." As one of the inflexible defenders of English liberty, sowers of the seed, the fruits of which we are now reaping, he has a higher claim on the kind regards of this generation than his merits as a poet, by no means inconsiderable, would warrant.

Andrew Marvell was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, in 1620. At the age of eighteen he entered Trinity College, whence he was enticed by the Jesuits, then actively seeking proselytes. After remaining with them a short time, his father found him, and brought him back to his studies. On leaving college, he travelled on the Continent. At Rome he wrote his first satire, a humorous critique upon Richard Flecknoe, an English Jesuit and verse writer, whose lines on Silence Charles Lamb quotes in one of his Essays. It is supposed that he made his first acquaintance with Milton in Italy.

At Paris he made the Abbot de Manihan the subject of another satire. The Abbot pretended to skill in the arts of magic, and used to prognosticate the fortunes of people from the character of their handwriting. At what period he returned from his travels we are not aware. It is stated, by some of his biographers, that he was sent as secretary of a Turkish mission. In 1653, he was appointed the tutor of Cromwell's nephew; and, four years after, doubtless through the instrumentality of his friend Milton, he received the honorable appointment of Latin Secretary of the Commonwealth. In 1658, he was selected by his townsmen of Hull to represent them in Parliament. In this service he continued until 1663, when, notwithstanding his sturdy republican principles, he was appointed secretary to the Russian embassy. On his return, in 1665, he was again elected to Parliament, and continued in the public service until the prorogation of the Parliament of 1675.

The boldness, the uncompromising integrity and irreproachable consistency of Marvell, as a statesman, have secured for him the honorable appellation of "the British Aristides." Unlike too many of his old associates under the Protectorate, he did not change with the times. He was a republican in Cromwell's day, and neither threats of assassination, nor flatteries, nor proffered bribes, could make him anything else in that of Charles II. He advocated the rights of the people at a time when patriotism was regarded as ridiculous folly; when a general corruption, spreading downwards from a lewd and abominable Court, had made legislation a mere scramble for place and emolument. English history presents no period so disgraceful as the Restoration. To use the words of Macaulay, it was "a day of servitude without loyalty and sensuality without love, of dwarfish talents and gigantic vices, the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds, the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave. The principles of liberty were the scoff of every grinning courtier, and the Anathema Maranatha of every fawning dean." It is the peculiar merit of Milton and Marvell, that in such an age they held fast their integrity, standing up in glorious contrast with clerical apostates and traitors to the cause of England's liberty.

In the discharge of his duties as a statesman Marvell was as punctual and conscientious as our own venerable Apostle of Freedom, John Quincy Adams. He corresponded every post with his constituents, keeping them fully apprised of all that transpired at Court or in Parliament. He spoke but seldom, but his great personal influence was exerted privately upon the members of the Commons as well as upon the Peers. His wit, accomplished manners, and literary eminence made him a favorite at the Court itself. The voluptuous and careless monarch laughed over the biting satire of the republican poet, and heartily enjoyed his lively conversation. It is said that numerous advances were made to him by the courtiers of Charles II., but he was found to be incorruptible. The personal compliments of the King, the encomiums of Rochester, the smiles and flatteries of the frail but fair and high-born ladies of the Court; nay, even the golden offers of the King's treasurer, who, climbing with difficulty to his obscure retreat on an upper floor of a court in the Strand, laid a tempting bribe of L1,000 before him, on the very day when he had been compelled to borrow a guinea, were all lost upon the inflexible patriot. He stood up manfully, in an age of persecution, for religious liberty, opposed the oppressive excise, and demanded frequent Parliaments and a fair representation of the people.

In 1672, Marvell engaged in a controversy with the famous High-Churchman, Dr. Parker, who had taken the lead in urging the persecution of Non- conformists. In one of the works of this arrogant divine, he says that "it is absolutely necessary to the peace and government of the world that the supreme magistrate should be vested with power to govern and conduct the consciences of subjects in affairs of religion. Princes may with less hazard give liberty to men's vices and debaucheries than to their consciences." And, speaking of the various sects of Non-conformists, he counsels princes and legislators that "tenderness and indulgence to such men is to nourish vipers in their own bowels, and the most sottish neglect of our quiet and security." Marvell replied to him in a severely satirical pamphlet, which provoked a reply from the Doctor. Marvell rejoined, with a rare combination of wit and argument. The effect of his sarcasm on the Doctor and his supporters may be inferred from an anonymous note sent him, in which the writer threatens by the eternal God to cut his throat, if he uttered any more libels upon Dr. Parker. Bishop Burnet remarks that "Marvell writ in a burlesque strain, but with so peculiar and so entertaining a conduct 'that from the King down to the tradesman his books were read with great pleasure, and not only humbled Parker, but his whole party, for Marvell had all the wits on his side.'" The Bishop further remarks that Marvell's satire "gave occasion to the only piece of modesty with which Dr. Parker was ever charged, namely, of withdrawing from town, and not importuning the press for some years, since even a face of brass must grow red when it is burnt as his has been."

Dean Swift, in commenting upon the usual fate of controversial pamphlets, which seldom live beyond their generation, says: "There is indeed an exception, when a great genius undertakes to expose a foolish piece; so we still read Marvell's answer to Parker with pleasure, though the book it answers be sunk long ago."

Perhaps, in the entire compass of our language, there is not to be found a finer piece of satirical writing than Marvell's famous parody of the speeches of Charles II., in which the private vices and public inconsistencies of the King, and his gross violations of his pledges on coming to the throne, are exposed with the keenest wit and the most laugh-provoking irony. Charles himself, although doubtless annoyed by it, could not refrain from joining in the mirth which it excited at his expense.

The friendship between Marvell and Milton remained firm and unbroken to the last. The former exerted himself to save his illustrious friend from persecution, and omitted no opportunity to defend him as a politician and to eulogize him as a poet. In 1654 he presented to Cromwell Milton's noble tract in Defence of the People of England, and, in writing to the author, says of the work, "When I consider how equally it teems and rises with so many figures, it seems to me a Trajan's column, in whose winding ascent we see embossed the several monuments of your learned victories." He was one of the first to appreciate Paradise Lost, and to commend it in some admirable lines. One couplet is exceedingly beautiful, in its reference to the author's blindness:—

              "Just Heaven, thee like Tiresias to requite,
               Rewards with prophecy thy loss of sight."

His poems, written in the "snatched leisure" of an active political life, bear marks of haste, and are very unequal. In the midst of passages of pastoral description worthy of Milton himself, feeble lines and hackneyed phrases occur. His Nymph lamenting the Death of her Fawn is a finished and elaborate piece, full of grace and tenderness. Thoughts in a Garden will be remembered by the quotations of that exquisite critic, Charles Lamb. How pleasant is this picture!

                   "What wondrous life is this I lead!
                    Ripe apples drop about my head;
                    The luscious clusters of the vine
                    Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
                    The nectarine and curious peach
                    Into my hands themselves do reach;
                    Stumbling on melons as I pass,
                    Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

                   "Here at this fountain's sliding foot,
                    Or at the 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,
                    And whets and claps its silver wings;
                    And, till prepared for longer flight,
                    Waves in its plumes the various light.

                   "How well the skilful gard'ner drew
                    Of flowers and herbs this dial true!
                    Where, from above, the milder sun
                    Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
                    And, as it works, the industrious bee
                    Computes his time as well as we.
                    How could such sweet and wholesome hours
                    Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!"

One of his longer poems, Appleton House, contains passages of admirable description, and many not unpleasing conceits. Witness the following:—

                   "Thus I, an easy philosopher,
                    Among the birds and trees confer,
                    And little now to make me wants,
                    Or of the fowl or of the plants.
                    Give me but wings, as they, and I
                    Straight floating on the air shall fly;
                    Or turn me but, and you shall see
                    I am but an inverted tree.
                    Already I begin to call
                    In their most learned original;
                    And, where I language want, my signs
                    The bird upon the bough divines.
                    No leaf does tremble in the wind,
                    Which I returning cannot find.
                    Out of these scattered Sibyl's leaves,
                    Strange prophecies my fancy weaves:
                    What Rome, Greece, Palestine, e'er said,
                    I in this light Mosaic read.
                    Under this antic cope I move,
                    Like some great prelate of the grove;
                    Then, languishing at ease, I toss
                    On pallets thick with velvet moss;
                    While the wind, cooling through the boughs,
                    Flatters with air my panting brows.
                    Thanks for my rest, ye mossy banks!
                    And unto you, cool zephyrs, thanks!
                    Who, as my hair, my thoughts too shed,
                    And winnow from the chaff my head.
                    How safe, methinks, and strong behind
                    These trees have I encamped my mind!"

Here is a picture of a piscatorial idler and his trout stream, worthy of the pencil of Izaak Walton:—

              "See in what wanton harmless folds
               It everywhere the meadow holds:
               Where all things gaze themselves, and doubt
               If they be in it or without;
               And for this shade, which therein shines
               Narcissus-like, the sun too pines.
               Oh! what a pleasure 't is to hedge
               My temples here in heavy sedge;
               Abandoning my lazy side,
               Stretched as a bank unto the tide;
               Or, to suspend my sliding foot
               On the osier's undermining root,
               And in its branches tough to hang,
               While at my lines the fishes twang."

A little poem of Marvell's, which he calls Eyes and Tears, has the following passages:—

              "How wisely Nature did agree
               With the same eyes to weep and see!
               That having viewed the object vain,
               They might be ready to complain.
               And, since the self-deluding sight
               In a false angle takes each height,
               These tears, which better measure all,
               Like watery lines and plummets fall."

              "Happy are they whom grief doth bless,
               That weep the more, and see the less;
               And, to preserve their sight more true,
               Bathe still their eyes in their own dew;
               So Magdalen, in tears more wise,
               Dissolved those captivating eyes,
               Whose liquid chains could, flowing, meet
               To fetter her Redeemer's feet.
               The sparkling glance, that shoots desire,
               Drenched in those tears, does lose its fire;
               Yea, oft the Thunderer pity takes,
               And there his hissing lightning slakes.
               The incense is to Heaven dear,
               Not as a perfume, but a tear;
               And stars shine lovely in the night,
               But as they seem the tears of light.
               Ope, then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
               And practise so your noblest use;
               For others, too, can see or sleep,
               But only human eyes can weep."

The Bermuda Emigrants has some happy lines, as the following:—

              "He hangs in shade the orange bright,
               Like golden lamps in a green night."

Or this, which doubtless suggested a couplet in Moore's Canadian Boat

              "And all the way, to guide the chime,
               With falling oars they kept the time."

His facetious and burlesque poetry was much admired in his day; but a great portion of it referred to persons and events no longer of general interest. The satire on Holland is an exception. There is nothing in its way superior to it in our language. Many of his best pieces were originally written in Latin, and afterwards translated by himself. There is a splendid Ode to Cromwell—a worthy companion of Milton's glorious sonnet—which is not generally known, and which we transfer entire to our pages. Its simple dignity and the melodious flow of its versification commend themselves more to our feelings than its eulogy of war. It is energetic and impassioned, and probably affords a better idea of the author, as an actor in the stirring drama of his time, than the "soft Lydian airs" of the poems that we have quoted.


               The forward youth that would appear
               Must now forsake his Muses dear;
               Nor in the shadows sing
               His numbers languishing.

               'T is time to leave the books in dust,
               And oil the unused armor's rust;
               Removing from the wall
               The corslet of the hall.

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

               And, like the three-forked lightning, first
               Breaking the clouds wherein it nurst,
               Did thorough his own side
               His fiery way divide.

               For 't is all one to courage high,
               The emulous, or enemy;
               And with such to enclose
               Is more than to oppose.

               Then burning through the air he went,
               And palaces and temples rent;
               And Caesar's head at last
               Did through his laurels blast.

               'T is madness to resist or blame
               The face of angry Heaven's flame;
               And, if we would speak true,
               Much to the man is due,

               Who, from his private gardens, where
               He lived reserved and austere,
               (As if his highest plot
               To plant the bergamot,)

               Could by industrious valor climb
               To ruin the great work of time,
               And cast the kingdoms old
               Into another mould!

               Though justice against fate complain,
               And plead the ancient rights in vain,—
               But those do hold or break,
               As men are strong or weak.

               Nature, that hateth emptiness,
               Allows of penetration less,
               And therefore must make room
               Where greater spirits come.

               What field of all the civil war,
               Where his were not the deepest scar?
               And Hampton shows what part
               He had of wiser art;

               Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
               He wove a net of such a scope,
               That Charles himself might chase
               To Carisbrook's narrow case;

               That hence the royal actor borne,
               The tragic scaffold might adorn,
               While round the armed bands
               Did clap their bloody hands.

               HE nothing common did or mean
               Upon that memorable scene,
               But with his keener eye
               The axe's edge did try

               Nor called the gods, with vulgar spite,
               To vindicate his helpless right!
               But bowed his comely head,
               Down, as upon a bed.

               This was that memorable hour,
               Which first assured the forced power;
               So when they did design
               The Capitol's first line,

               A bleeding head, where they begun,
               Did fright the architects to run;
               And yet in that the state
               Foresaw its happy fate.

               And now the Irish are ashamed
               To see themselves in one year tamed;
               So much one man can do,
               That does best act and know.

               They can affirm his praises best,
               And have, though overcome, confest
               How good he is, how just,
               And fit for highest trust.

               Nor yet grown stiffer by command,
               But still in the Republic's hand,
               How fit he is to sway
               That can so well obey.

               He to the Commons' feet presents
               A kingdom for his first year's rents,
               And, what he may, forbears
               His fame to make it theirs.

               And has his sword and spoils ungirt,
               To lay them at the public's skirt;
               So when the falcon high
               Falls heavy from the sky,

               She, having killed, no more does search,
               But on the next green bough to perch,
               Where, when he first does lure,
               The falconer has her sure.

               What may not, then, our isle presume,
               While Victory his crest does plume?
               What may not others fear,

If thus he crowns each year?

               As Caesar, he, erelong, to Gaul;
               To Italy as Hannibal,
               And to all states not free
               Shall climacteric be.

               The Pict no shelter now shall find
               Within his parti-contoured mind;
               But from his valor sad
               Shrink underneath the plaid,

               Happy if in the tufted brake
               The English hunter him mistake,
               Nor lay his hands a near
               The Caledonian deer.

               But thou, the war's and fortune's son,
               March indefatigably on;
               And, for the last effect,
               Still keep the sword erect.

               Besides the force, it has to fright
               The spirits of the shady night
               The same arts that did gain
               A power, must it maintain.

Marvell was never married. The modern critic, who affirms that bachelors have done the most to exalt women into a divinity, might have quoted his extravagant panegyric of Maria Fairfax as an apt illustration:—

               "'T is she that to these gardens gave
               The wondrous beauty which they have;
               She straitness on the woods bestows,
               To her the meadow sweetness owes;
               Nothing could make the river be
               So crystal pure but only she,—
               She, yet more pure, sweet, strait, and fair,
               Than gardens, woods, meals, rivers are
               Therefore, what first she on them spent
               They gratefully again present:
               The meadow carpets where to tread,
               The garden flowers to crown her head,
               And for a glass the limpid brook
               Where she may all her beauties look;
               But, since she would not have them seen,
               The wood about her draws a screen;
               For she, to higher beauty raised,
               Disdains to be for lesser praised;
               She counts her beauty to converse
               In all the languages as hers,
               Nor yet in those herself employs,
               But for the wisdom, not the noise,
               Nor yet that wisdom could affect,
               But as 't is Heaven's dialect."

It has been the fashion of a class of shallow Church and State defenders to ridicule the great men of the Commonwealth, the sturdy republicans of England, as sour-featured, hard-hearted ascetics, enemies of the fine arts and polite literature. The works of Milton and Marvell, the prose- poem of Harrington, and the admirable discourses of Algernon Sydney are a sufficient answer to this accusation. To none has it less application than to the subject of our sketch. He was a genial, warmhearted man, an elegant scholar, a finished gentleman at home, and the life of every circle which he entered, whether that of the gay court of Charles II., amidst such men as Rochester and L'Estrange, or that of the republican philosophers who assembled at Miles's Coffee House, where he discussed plans of a free representative government with the author of Oceana, and Cyriack Skinner, that friend of Milton, whom the bard has immortalized in the sonnet which so pathetically, yet heroically, alludes to his own blindness. Men of all parties enjoyed his wit and graceful conversation. His personal appearance was altogether in his favor. A clear, dark, Spanish complexion, long hair of jetty blackness falling in graceful wreaths to his shoulders, dark eyes, full of expression and fire, a finely chiselled chin, and a mouth whose soft voluptuousness scarcely gave token of the steady purpose and firm will of the inflexible statesman: these, added to the prestige of his genius, and the respect which a lofty, self-sacrificing patriotism extorts even from those who would fain corrupt and bribe it, gave him a ready passport to the fashionable society of the metropolis. He was one of the few who mingled in that society, and escaped its contamination, and who,

              "Amidst the wavering days of sin,
               Kept himself icy chaste and pure."

The tone and temper of his mind may be most fitly expressed in his own paraphrase of Horace:—

              "Climb at Court for me that will,
               Tottering Favor's pinnacle;
               All I seek is to lie still!
               Settled in some secret nest,
               In calm leisure let me rest;
               And, far off the public stage,
               Pass away my silent age.
               Thus, when, without noise, unknown,
               I have lived out all my span,
               I shall die without a groan,
               An old, honest countryman.
               Who, exposed to other's eyes,
               Into his own heart ne'er pries,
               Death's to him a strange surprise."

He died suddenly in 1678, while in attendance at a popular meeting of his old constituents at Hull. His health had previously been remarkably good; and it was supposed by many that he was poisoned by some of his political or clerical enemies. His monument, erected by his grateful constituency, bears the following inscription:—

"Near this place lyeth the body of Andrew Marvell, Esq., a man so endowed by Nature, so improved by Education, Study, and Travel, so consummated by Experience, that, joining the peculiar graces of Wit and Learning, with a singular penetration and strength of judgment; and exercising all these in the whole course of his life, with an unutterable steadiness in the ways of Virtue, he became the ornament and example of his age, beloved by good men, feared by bad, admired by all, though imitated by few; and scarce paralleled by any. But a Tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is Marble necessary to transmit it to posterity; it is engraved in the minds of this generation, and will be always legible in his inimitable writings, nevertheless. He having served twenty years successfully in Parliament, and that with such Wisdom, Dexterity, and Courage, as becomes a true Patriot, the town of Kingston-upon-Hull, from whence he was deputed to that Assembly, lamenting in his death the public loss, have erected this Monument of their Grief and their Gratitude, 1688."

Thus lived and died Andrew Marvell. His memory is the inheritance of Americans as well as Englishmen. His example commends itself in an especial manner to the legislators of our Republic. Integrity and fidelity to principle are as greatly needed at this time in our halls of Congress as in the Parliaments of the Restoration; men are required who can feel, with Milton, that "it is high honor done them from God, and a special mark of His favor, to have been selected to stand upright and steadfast in His cause, dignified with the defence of Truth and public liberty."

Book: Reflection on the Important Things