The Complete Poems (Andrew Marvell)

Posted: September 18, 2017 in poetry
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As I’ve mentioned, I am a very trusting person. I will believe everything a person says to me, especially if I’ve had a glass or two of wine, and then only later do I start thinking critically to see if what was said is realistic or true. But, when you’ve been breaking promises to me for the last year, I start to distrust more quickly, so when we have the sort of phone conversation we had this week, I pick up on things that I wouldn’t have a year ago. As anyone skilled in the art of detecting deception can tell you, there are certain ‘tells,’ or signs whereby I can tell, that you’re lying, and I thought it might be instructive to point out what those are.

  1. Fast exculpation. I explain that I’m feeling sick because I’ve been walking outside in the cold rain without my customary protection – we both know that I left my coat and hats at your house in the Midwest, and that you promised to mail them to me. In the past, you’ve always encouraged me to consult with a medical doctor, because even though I don’t trust Western medicine and the American habit of prescribing antibiotics for everything, you do. But instead of making sure I’m being taken care of properly, you immediately start talking about how none of this is your fault because you’ve already mailed my warm clothes to me.
  2. Unrealistic details. I’ve lived in several parts of the United States while my family has remained more or less stationary, which means that I’m pretty familiar with the U. S. Postal Service and how long it takes mail to be delivered. So when you say that the package is supposed to be delivered in the middle of next week, and you mailed it last week, I know that it is unrealistic to say that it takes two weeks for a package to travel from the Midwest to the South. It buys you time, since now I can’t ask you about it for another week, but it doesn’t help me trust you.
  3. Lack of follow-through. I asked you to text me the address I gave you so that I could make sure it is correct, and you didn’t. If you had sent the package, you would have been more anxious to make sure it went to the right place.
  4. You hadn’t called me for a few days before, and this could mean that you’re just getting used to your life without me and that you’re moving on, but when coupled with the other tells, it looks suspicious. You also made up an excuse to get off the phone and said that we’d talk again later that evening, and I stayed up late waiting for your call, but you didn’t call back. Now, you did try to cover it by introducing another topic before running away, but even hurrying to tell me about your dog’s incontinence and new grain-free diet looks like you’re avoiding talking about what is going on with me.
  5. We went through all these same things face-to-face when you told me you had deposited money to my bank account but it never actually appeared. Another thing to keep in mind here is that while I may have let the matter drop, relinquishing the subject does not mean that I believe you or that I have forgotten it. It simply means that I don’t want to talk about it any more, and that often means that the fact that I think you’re lying to me makes me sad, and I don’t want to keep reinforcing the sense of sadness. Sometimes the only way I can make you stop lying to me is by ending the conversation. That sadness may not be in the forefront of my feelings, but it doesn’t go away; it just sits in the back of my mind, waiting for you to feed it some more. Every time I think you’re lying the sadness gets stronger, until eventually I realize that the fact that I care about you doesn’t make me happy, and when thinking about you makes me sad, it’s time for things to change.

As you can see, the summary of all these points is that when you’re being honest, you act like you care about me, and when you’re lying to me, you act like you don’t.

As I was preparing to leave, you thought it strange that I donated some books to the library, knowing as you do how much I care about my books, and I didn’t think of this analogy then, but I thought of it later and it really makes sense to me. Do you marry every man you sleep with? Buying a book is like meeting a guy at a bar. He only has to look good enough to take home for a night, but that’s not a lifetime commitment. Most of the books I buy are cheaper than a cocktail and last longer than a one-night stand, but the same principle holds true.

All of which brings me around to this book of sixteenth-century poetry. I remember Marvell primarily for “To His Coy Mistress,” a delightful pastoral love poem about taking advantage of youth, along the lines of this:

Grass withers; and the flowers too fade.
Seize the short joys then, ere they vade,

But most of Marvell’s poetry is not at all similar. As I was reading, there seemed to be three main phases in his career, and they overlapped a bit. The first is the one that I was most interested in, when he was young and writing pastoral love poems. I’m not opposed to the dialogue, and Daphnis and Clorinda are the appropriately Arcadian stock characters used in such poems. But Marvell only wrote about pastoral love and the advantages of youth when he himself was young; when he’s old, he skips over all that. This first stage of his writing is also the time when he talks about abstract emotion – he gets grouped with the Metaphysical Poets, and it’s only in his twenties that this makes sense.

Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the morshae, and see the less:
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.

Around the time he was thirty years old, Marvell was hired as a teacher for the daughter of General Fairfax, the recently retired general of the Parliamentary Army. If you’ll remember your seventeenth-century British history with me, Charles I was an awful king who mismanaged resources and demanded too much from the people, so he spent a good part of his reign opposed to the Parliament, which was influenced by a strict religious sect known as the Puritans. They weren’t very popular in a lot of circles; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio is accused of being one, and Sir Andrew immediately threatens to beat him within an inch of his life. As you know, many of the Puritans left England for Amsterdam, a place of religious tolerance, but Amsterdam was too tolerant for them, so they traveled on to Massachusetts Bay, where they built a colony where their virtues could shine brightly, unmixed with the baser matter of anyone who disagreed with them. At the same time, the Puritans who stayed in England grew strong, especially in the military, so they had a big voice in the Parliamentary Army. In this second phase of his career, Marvell drops the pastoral love and the risqué allusions in favor of virtue and Puritan justice and conservative values. It’s like he suddenly remembered he was a clergyman’s son, ten years after his father died.

When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear has coward churchmen silenced,
Then is the poet’s time, ‘tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken virtue’s cause.

In time, Marvell worked more directly with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Puritan government after King Charles was beheaded. Throughout the Interregnum, Marvell’s poems are in praise of military leaders (like Fairfax and Cromwell) and he really says some nasty things about their opponents, the Dutch. I’ll admit that this bothered me because of my Dutch ancestry, even though by the time of the Protectorate, we had already crossed the ocean to New Amsterdam. I know that when we read poetry of the past, we tend to value those poets who share our values, so modern readers have a hard time with Milton’s anti-Irish comments in the same way that I balked at Marvell’s anti-Dutch comments, because racism is bad. But these men are products of their time (the same time), and in service to an intolerant government, so some people say that Marvell didn’t really hate the Dutch, he was just an opportunist with a talent for self-preservation, and he was just giving his patrons what they wanted. Apparently what they wanted was to hear how great they were, how successful in battle, and how terrible their opponents were. They wanted to hear about the glories of battle without hearing about the horrors of war. This passage is atypical in its acknowledgment that war can be a terrible thing:

Thousands of ways thousands of men there die,
Some ships are sunk, some blown up in the sky.
Nature ne’er made cedars so high aspire,
As oaks did then, urged by the active fire,
Which by quick powder’s force, so high was sent,
That it returned to its own element.
Torn limbs some leagues into the island fly,
Whilst others lower in the sea do lie.
Scarce souls from bodies severed are so far
By death, as bodies there were by the war.
The all-seeing sun, ne’er gazed on such a sight,
Two dreadful navies there at anchor fight.
And neither have or power or will to fly,
There one must conquer, or there both must die.
Far different motives yet engaged them thus,
Necessity did them, but Choice did us.

But in general, the poems of the middle period are very much Marvell acting as Cromwell’s cheerleader.

Things end. Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored. Charles II’s government wanted to execute John Milton for being all up in the Puritans, but Marvell dissuaded them. He himself was elected to the House of Commons, at around the age of forty or so, so in the third phase of his career he’s done with being a secretary or an assistant and has now become a politician in his own right. Unfortunately for the apologists of his middle period, Marvell’s poetry doesn’t suddenly become a celebration of liberal values; when that conservatism is opposed, Marvell digs his heels in and refuses to change with the times. This is what makes me think he was a true convert to the conservatives rather than an opportunist: when the government changes and fashion goes to the other side, he doesn’t go with it. In fact, he writes a very long poem with some very harsh satire against specific members of society and Parliament. Most of it is against the Restoration government and its mismanagement of the military, but he also throws some disparagement at Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whom you will remember from Woolf’s Common Reader as being an important example of women’s power and liberation, and one of the first people to write speculative fiction in English. In this time, Marvell was usually much busier being an MP than being a Major Poet, so his work is a little thin here at the end. In fact, after his death his constituency put up a huge monument with a lengthy inscription, which describes his political career and ignores the poetry. It seems sad to me that someone who loved youth and nature should end up a bitter old man, but that’s the story the poetry tells.

Nation is all but name – a shibboleth –
Where a mistaken accent causes death.

Dear Friends, I advise you, if you like “To His Coy Mistress,” don’t read Marvell’s complete poems. After he gets political, it’s sort of a downward slope. I wonder, if his life had run differently, if he hadn’t worked so closely with government and military officials, whether his writing would have gotten so frustrating. I suppose someone who writes a lot of verse in Greek and Latin is not necessarily headed to twenty-first century popularity, but no matter whether his politics were merely expedient or truly embraced, they stink.

I haven’t read Marvell’s prose, but apparently it’s even more extreme in its conservatism, attacking Catholics, Dutch, and anyone different to himself. I don’t remember now how Marvell was presented to me at school; it’s possible that we ignored the heavy later poems, but it’s also possible that I forgot about them. I’m good at self-deception; I like to see the best in people, including long-dead poets, but it’s not always accurate. Hopefully I’m learning to be wiser about whom I trust, but I think it’s a slow process.

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