Analysis of Andrew Marvell’s Poems

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) is firmly established today in the ranks of the Metaphysical poets, and there is no question that much of his work clearly displays the qualities appropriate to such a position. He reveals a kinship with the Metaphysical poets through his ingenious use of extended logic, even when dealing with emotions: his yoking of very dis-similar things, of the mundane (even profane) with the sublime, of large with small and far with near: and his analytic quality. His use of puns, often woven into intricate groups, may be added to the list. Like John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets, Marvell shapes his rhythm with careful attention to his meaning. Marvell’s admiration for Donne shows not only in having written some strongly Donne-like poetry (“On a Drop of Dew,” “Young Love,” and parts of “Upon Appleton House,” for example), but also in his gratuitously full use of one of Donne’s poems in a pamphlet written late in Marvell’s life. It might be added that Marvell’s prose works, especially his most successful, show the same Metaphysical qualities.

Although Donne’s best-known poetry (as well as Marvell’s most Donne-like work)resembles puzzles from which attentive reading gradually extracts greater clarity, a similar approach to Marvell’s best and most “Marvellian” passages (for example, “a green thought in a green Shade”) causes them not to become more clear so much as more dazzling. Marvell has been called “many-sided,” “ambiguous,” “amphibian,” “elusive,” and “inconclusive.” He is. He has been said to have a vision that is “complex,” “double,” or “ironic.” He does.

Marvell’s work often shows a remarkable ability to make opposites interdependent, to create a concordia discors. Such is the relationship of Cromwell and King Charles in “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” and of retirement and action in “Upon Appleton House” and “The Garden.” Sometimes, no less remarkably, he achieves moments of what can only be called “fusion,” as in the “annihilation of all that’s made” in “The Garden,” or in the last few lines of “To His Coy Mistress.” He will at times surprisingly mix levity and gravity, as in “To His Coy Mistress” and parts of “Upon Appleton House.” His use of qualifiers is unusual (“none, I think,” or “If these the times”).

Marvell employed decasyllabics for his last two Cromwell poems, inventing a stanza combining lines of eight and six syllables for the first. Three fourths of his work was in octosyllabics, however, and he has been rightly called the “master of the octosyllabic.”


To His Coy Mistress

Certainly the most widely anthologized and best known of Marvell’s poems is “To His Coy Mistress.” It is not only a seduction poem, but also a deduction poem, in which the theme of carpe diem is presented as a syllogism: (1) If there were world enough and time, the lady’s coyness would not be a crime: (2) There is not world enough and time: (3) therefore, this coyness may or may not be a crime. Marvell must have been aware that his poem depended on flawed logic: he may have meant it to be ironically typical of the desperate reasoning employed by would-be seducers.

In the first section of the poem, the speaker describes the vast amounts of time (“An age at least to every part”) and space (from the Ganges to the Humber) he would devote to his love if he could. This apparently gracious statement of patience is then juxtaposed with the striking image of “Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near” and the resultant “Deserts of vast eternity.” “Deserts,” meaning “unpeopled places,” is emphasized by the shift of the stress to the first syllable of the line. There follows the arresting depiction of the drawbacks of postmortem chastity, with worms “trying” the lady’s “long-preserved virginity,” as her “quaint honor” turns to dust.

Imagery of corruption was not unusual in carpe diem poems, and it also occurs (the memento mori theme) in visual arts of the period: Marvell’s lines are, however, remark-ably explicit and must have been devised to shock and disgust. The passage represents, as Rosalie Colie notes in “My Ecchoing Song” (1970), “sound psychology” in frightening the lady into the comfort of her lover’s arms, an event that the next two lines suggest may indeed have occurred at this point, as the speaker rescues himself from the danger of excessive morbidity with the urbanely ironic comment, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.” This makes the transition to the last section of the poem, wherein the speaker, having shown that however limitless time and space may intrinsically be, they are to mortals very limited, offers his solution. The answer is to take energetic action. The formerly coy mistress, now described (either in hope or in fact) as having a “willing soul” with “instant fires,” is invited to join the speaker in “one ball” of strength and sweetness, which will tear “thorough the iron gates of life.” This third section of the poem is an addition not typical of carpe diem poems, which usually suggest rather than delineate the consummation. The amorous couple, the speaker indicates, should enthusiastically embrace the inevitable and each other. Like the elder Fairfaxes in “Upon Appleton House,” they should “make Destiny their choice” and devour time rather than waiting for time to consume them. In its three sections, “To His Coy Mistress” presents first a cheerful and generous offering of limitless time and space, then a chilling reminder that human life is very limited, and finally a frenzied but extraordinarily powerful invitation to break through and transcend all limits.

The Garden

If “To His Coy Mistress” makes the case for action versus hesitation, “The Garden,” the best-known hortensial work of the “garden poet,” considers the question of action versus contemplation. Like much of Marvell’s work, it employs a rich texture of wordplay and classical and Christian allusions. It is a retirement poem, in which the speaker begins by celebrating his withdrawal from the busy world of human endeavor. This theme is one rich in tradition, and would have been attractive during the uncertain and dangerous times in which Marvell lived. In this poem, however, the speaker retires not merely from the world of men, but, in a moment of ultimate retirement, from the world of material things. As the poet contemplates the garden, his mind and his soul momentarily transcend the material plane.

In the first stanza, the speaker comments on the folly of seeking human glory. Men “vainly” (“from vanity,” and also “in vain”) “amaze” themselves (surprise themselves/ trap themselves in a maze) in their efforts to achieve honors (represented by the palm, oak, and bay leaves used in classical victors’ wreaths). Even the best such victory represents success in only one area of endeavor, for which the victor receives the decoration of a wreath woven from a single species, a wreath that in its singleness “upbraids”(braids up/rebukes) his “toyles” (coils of hair/efforts). In contrast, repose is rewarded by “all flowers and all trees.” Addressing Quiet and Innocence personified, the speaker uses a typically Marvellian qualifier when he says that their sacred plants “if here be-low,/ Only among the plants will grow,” suggesting that quiet and innocence may be re-ally unobtainable on Earth. The solitude experienced by the lone visitor among the plants of the garden is nevertheless worth seeking, for, in comparison, “Society is all but rude”—society is nearly “coarse,” or (an inversion and a pun) society is almost “rustic.” The next three stanzas describe the physical, sensual values that the garden offers in contrast to those of the world. As the “society” of the garden is superior to that of men, so the sensuality of the garden is more intense than that of men: “No white or red was ever seen/ So amorous as this lovely green” (the colors of fleshly passion are less “amorous” than the green of the garden), and the beauties of the trees exceed those of any woman. The gods Apollo and Pan knew this, the speaker says, since they pursued the nymphs Daphne and Syrinx, not for their womanly charms, but in order to obtain their more desirable dendritic forms.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker reaches a height of sensual ecstasy as the various garden fruits literally thrust themselves on him, in what Rosalie Colie rightly calls a “climactic experience.” It is powerfully sexual, yet the speaker is alone and in the garden, as Adam once was in Eden. And then the speaker, “stumbling” and “Insnared,” falls, re-minding the reader of the Fall in Eden. Marvell’s speaker, however, is still alone and still—indeed, more than ever—in the garden. The next two stanzas describe what is occurring “Meanwhile” on the mental and spiritual planes. The mind withdraws from the lesser pleasures of the body to seek its own kind of happiness. Within the mind, an interior paradise, are the images of all things in the physical world, just as the sea was thought to contain creatures corresponding to all terrestrial species. Yet the mind, unlike the sea, can create, imaginatively, “Far other worlds and other seas,” transcending the mundane, and “Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade,” an image that R. I. V. Hodge in Foreshortened Time (1978) calls “arguably the most intriguing image in Marvell’s poetry or in the whole of the seventeenth century.” Many explications have been offered for this couplet: the central notion seems to be that through the action of the mind in creating the far other worlds and seas, the physical world (“all that’s made”) is compacted, or by contrast appears to be compacted, into a single thought. It is, however, a “green” thought—a living, fertile thought that is the source, through the action of the mind, of the transcendent worlds and seas. Indeed, per-haps the thinker himself has almost been annihilated: “in a green shade” could indicate not only that the thinker is shaded by the trees, but also that he is (for the moment) a shade, an insubstantial shadow of his physical self. The green thought is, perhaps, the Platonic pure idea of garden from which all gardens derive. It could be suggested that this is the true garden of the poem.

In stanza 7, the soul leaves the body in a flight indicative of its later, final flight to heaven. In the next stanza, the garden is compared explicitly to Eden—not merely Eden before the Fall, but Eden before Eve. Three times, in successive couplets, the speaker states that Paradise enjoyed alone is preferable to Paradise shared. Such praise of solitude can hardly be exceeded, even in the considerable Christian literature on the subject, and perhaps Marvell, relying on his readers’ knowledge that Adam had after all requested Eve’s company, expected his readers to identify this stanza as a momentary effusion, not shared by the poet himself, on the part of the poem’s persona. The reader is reminded, at least, that mortals in the fallen world can only approximate paradisiacal ecstasy, not achieve it, until they leave this world for a better one. The speaker, now quite recalled from his ecstasy, observes “this dial new.” The term may indicate a literal floral sundial, in which small plots of different plants marked the hours around a circle: it clearly and more importantly indicates the entire renewed postlapsarian world, under the mercy of God the “skillful gardener,” who provides the “milder sun” (the Son, Christ, God’s mercy). The bee, who is industrious rather than contemplative, “computes its time [thyme] as well as we!” This is a typically Marvellian paradox. The bee’s industry is reminiscent of the negatively viewed “incessant labors” of the men in the first stanza: the bee, however, is performing wholesome activity in the garden, reckoned with flowers. The situation is analogous to that of the speaker in stanza 5 who fell, but did not Fall, remaining in the garden.

The poem’s persona at first rejected the world of action for the garden’s solitude and the contemplative exercise thereby made possible. Contemplation has led to physical, then to mental, then to spiritual ecstasy, but the ecstatic moment is limited because the speaker, dwelling in a world that remains thoroughly fallen, is not yet “prepared for longer flight.” Refreshed by his experience and noting that the “dial” is new, the speaker can accept the action of the bee and recognize action, as well as contemplation, as an appropriate part of human existence.

Upon Appleton House

Another poem dealing with the question of withdrawal versus action is “Upon Appleton House,” which clearly raises the issue of involvement in the English Civil War and subsequent disturbances. The poem falls into two halves, each depicting both action and retirement, and builds toward a resolution in the form of Lord Fairfax’s daughter Mary, who was under Marvell’s tutelage. A genre of the time was the “country house” poem, in which a country estate was described, and its inhabitants and their way of life thereby praised. “Upon Appleton House” begins in this manner, with the first nine stanzas devoted to the house itself. Employing a variety of conceits, Marvell finds the modest size and decoration of the structure preferable to the overblown grandeur of other houses. It is on a human scale, with “short but admirable Lines” that “In ev’ry Figure equal Man.” Nevertheless, it is less modest than its owner, Lord Fairfax. When he arrives, the house sweats, and from its square hall sprouts a “Spherical” cupola, outdoing the proverbially impossible task of squaring the circle.

A source of building material for the house was the ancient nunnery whose ruins were still evident, wherein had dwelt the nuns whose order had in former times owned the estate. By recounting a historical episode connected with the nunnery, Marvell shows how it is also a source of the estate’s present occupants. An ancestral Fairfax had wooed the “blooming Virgin” Isabel Thwaites, “Fair beyond measure” and an heiress. She was induced to enter the nunnery at Appleton, from which she could ultimately be extracted only by a Fairfacian raid. This tale, told in stanzas 11 to 35, falls into two distinct parts. The first (stanzas 11 to 28) is essentially a nun’s eloquent invitation to Isabel to withdraw to the secluded life of the cloister. The joys of this “holy leisure,” behind walls that “restrain the World without,” are attractively and enthusiastically described, though Marvell would not wish to portray otherwise so Catholic an institution. The pas-sage wherein Isabel is compared to the Virgin Mary, and the later picture of the nuns “in bed,/ As pearls together billeted,/ All night embracing arm in arm,” may be meant to raise doubts in the reader’s mind that would be confirmed when he is told that “The nuns smooth tongue has suckt her in.” After debating what to do, the betrothed Fairfax decides to remove her from the nunnery by force. In a rather burlesque episode, the nuns, whose “loud’st cannon were their lungs,” are dispossessed of their prize and, in the next stanza, which flashes forward to the Dissolution, of their nunnery.

Action in this case has been far superior to withdrawal. It leads ultimately, however, to another withdrawal, that of Sir Thomas Fairfax, son of the celebrated couple. After a heroic military career, he retired to Appleton House, but the flower beds there, which he shaped like the bastions of a fort, show that he was incapable of retiring fully. Stanzas 36to 40 describe the flower-fort, wherein flower-cannons discharge salutes of scent and the bee stands sentinel. There follows (stanzas 41 to 45) a lamentation by the poet over the present unhappy state of England, “The garden of the world ere while,” and praise of Fairfax, “Who, had it pleasèd him and God,” could have prevented it. In this first half of the poem, then, Marvell has first described the house as an illustration of the greatness of its owner, then shown the virtue of action over withdrawal, then indicated that a man of great action can never fully retire. Finally, he has shown regretful acceptance of Fairfax’s retirement, with the clear statement that England suffers without ameliorative action on someone’s part. In the second half of the poem, the same ideas will be reiterated and enhanced, except in the last part, the focus will be not on Fairfax but on his daughter Mary (“Maria”), whose embodiment of the values of retirement and action will effect a resolution.

From the flower fort, the speaker can look down over the meadow (stanzas 46 to 60) onto the public world of action. It is a world capable of topsy-turvy, this “Abyss” of a meadow, from which it is a wonder that men rise alive. Men (seen from the hill) look like grasshoppers, but grasshoppers (perched on the tall grass) “are Gyants there.” Cows look like beauty spots or fleas, and when the land is flooded, “Boats can overbridges sail” and “Fishes do the stables scale.” It is a dangerous world, where the Mowers “massacre the grass,” which is very tall, and the rail (humbly close to the ground) is accidentally killed: “Lowness is unsafe as hight,/ And chance o’retakes what scapeth spight.” The earlier lamentation over England’s condition in stanzas 41 to 43 invites the reader, if invitation were needed, to read this section as an allegory of England, although it may be carrying the allegory too far to see the hapless rail as Charles I, as has been suggested. The mowers who cause the carnage, leaving the field like a battlefield “quiltedore” with piles of hay that look like bodies, are not evil. As they dance in triumph, their smell is fragrant, and their kisses are as sweet as the hay. Marvell compares the meadow at the outset with stage scenery, constantly changing. Describing a series of scenes as the hay is harvested and piled and the cattle set loose in the field to crop the last few inches of grass, he ends with a flood. The flood is caused by the opening of sluices up-river, but the reader is meant to think of the biblical Flood.

Taking refuge from the drowned world, the speaker “imbarks” (embarks/encloses in bark) himself in the “green, yet growing ark” of an adjacent wood. The trees are as tightly woven together as are the families of Fairfax and Vere (Fairfax’s wife’s family). From without, the wood seems absolutely solid, but inside it is “passable” and “loose.” The nightingale, a bird of solitude, sings here, and “highest oakes stoop down to hear,/And listning elders prick the ear.” The nightingale may represent Mary Fairfax, twelve years old when Marvell became her tutor, in which case the “Elders” would be her parents. At any rate, while the song of solitude is attractive, the “Sadder” sound of the stock doves, whose necks bear “Nuptial Rings,” is more pleasing. This indication, even within the wood, that private withdrawal may not be desirable, prepares for the later part of the poem, when Mary herself appears. In a lengthy section very reminiscent of “The Garden,” the speaker revels in the delights and the security of the wood, a place “where the world no certain shot/ Can make, or me it toucheth not.” He wishes never to leave the wood, and requests, in a passage that reminds many readers of Christ’s crucifixion, that the vines and brambles fetter him and the “courteous Briars nail [him] through.”

Noticing that the flood has subsided, he finds the meadow equally attractive. It is “newly washt,” with “no serpent new.” The “wanton harmless folds” of the river attract the speaker, who abandons himself to the pleasures of angling, achieving in stanza 81 such harmony with the landscape that it is difficult to distinguish between him and it. The sedge surrounds his temples, his side is a riverbank, and his “sliding foot” may re-mind the reader of the “Fountains sliding foot” in “The Garden.” The sudden arrival of Maria, however, extracts him from this reverie by means of an odd inversion wherein she, the pupil, reminds the presumably adult speaker of his responsibility. Calling himself a “trifling Youth,” he hastily hides his fishing gear.

Essentially the rest of the poem is devoted to praise of Maria, a creature neither of withdrawal nor of action, but a fusion of both. Among the imagery giving her awesome power are echoes of the Last Judgment: She has “judicious” eyes, she “already is the Law,” and by her the world is “wholly vitrifi’d.” Nature collects itself in silence, and the sun blushingly conceals himself. As the halcyon, flying “betwixt the day and night,” paralyzes nature and turns it blue, so Maria gives her surroundings the stillness of glass and imbues them with her (their) qualities: “Tis She that to these Gardens gave/ That wondrous beauty which they have,” and so also with the woods, meadow, and river. Intelligent (learning languages to gain wisdom, which is “Heavens Dialect”), without vanity, and raised in the “Domestick Heaven” of Appleton House, she is not the new branch that a male heir would be on the “Farfacian oak.” Instead, she is a sprig of mistletoe that will one day be severed “for some universal good.” Presumably this will be her marriage, which will be of considerable political importance. The product of the seclusion of Appleton House, she is thus the ideal person to take action to affect the world at large: in her the apparent opposites of withdrawal and action are harmoniously fused.

The final stanza of the poem features a pattern of conceits reminiscent of the first stanza, and compares the fishermen carrying their boats to tortoises, echoing the tortoise in stanza 2. The fishermen are “rational amphibii,” amphibians who can think: but they are also thinkers who can operate in two mediums: Human beings need both contemplation and action. This concord of opposites, which is more powerful than compromise and is presented with reason and wit, represents those characteristics central to Marvell’s work.

Major Works
Nonfiction: The Rehearsal Transpros’d, 1672: The Rehearsal Transpros’d: TheSecond Part, 1673 (for modern editions of the two preceding entries, seeThe RehearsalTranspros’d and The Rehearsal Transpros’d: The Second Part, 1971: D. I. B. Smith,editor): Mr. Smirke: Or, The Divine in Mode, 1676: An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, 1677: Remarks upon a Late Disingenuous Dis-course, 1678: The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell, 2003 (Martin Dzelzainis and Annabel Patterson, editors).
Miscellaneous: The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, 1927, 1952, 1971 (H.Margoliouth, editor).

Chernaik, Warren L.The Poet’s Time: Politics and Religion in the Work of Andrew Marvell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Hunt, John Dixon.Andrew Marvell: His Life and Writings. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Klause, John.The Unfortunate Fall: Theodicy and the Moral Imagination of Andrew Marvell. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1983.
Murray, Nicholas. World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell. New York: St.Martin’s Press, 2000.
Patterson, Annabel.Marvell: The Writer in Public Life. New York: Longman, 2000.
Ray, Robert H.An Andrew Marvell Companion. New York: Garland, 1998. Rees, Christine.The Judgment of Marvell. London: Pinter, 1989.
Stocker, Margarita. Apocalyptic Marvell: The Second Coming in Seventeenth Century Poetry. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986.

Categories: ELIZABEHAN POETRY AND PROSE, History of English Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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