Andrew Marvell: the Chameleon

Andrew Marvell: the Chameleon
Nigel Smith
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25#

Is Andrew Marvell the most skittish English poet? His slender oeuvre contains major works in a wide variety of genres: elegy, satire, panegyric, pastoral, the "Horatian Ode" to Crom­well, an exquisitely wrought example of Herbertesque piety in "The Coronet", and "Upon Appleton House", the greatest country-house poem in the language. Often he seemed content to compose one or two examples demonstrating his mastery of each form. Yet within conventional frames an agile intelligence is at work, as well as an ironic sensibility, the sincerity of which is hard to fathom.

Most of Marvell's lyrics were not published until after his death and though he remained in print throughout the 20th century, it took the efforts of T S Eliot to rejuvenate his reputation. Eliot identified Marvell's wit as a "tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace" (though "tough" seems inapt for a body of work that is so tearful) and praised lines from the well-known anthology pieces "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Garden". In recent years, however, scholarly attention has been trained on Marvell's public writings, such as the "Advice to a Painter" satires, with their bracing criticism of the Restoration government. Nigel Smith, the author of this conscientious if trundling biography, is a leading proponent of the historicist turn in the study of 17th-century literature.

Andrew Marvell was born in Winestead, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in 1621. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, but was forced to leave without an MA after his father, the preacher at Holy Trinity Church in Hull, drowned while crossing the Humber. He travelled in Europe for four years, spending the civil war admiring the Berninis in Rome and taking fencing lessons in Spain. On his return, Marvell moved in royalist circles, but he was adept at tuning himself to the dominant political key (one contemporary described him as "a notable English Italo-Machiavellian").

After the execution of Charles I, Marvell joined the household of Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had been commander of the New Model Army. When Fairfax's influence waned on his retirement to his estates, Marvell found a new patron in Oliver Cromwell and landed a government job in 1657 as assistant to John Milton, then Latin secretary to the Commonwealth, in charge of foreign tongues. There was little opportunity to demonstrate literary flair in what was probably the most poetically accomplished government department in English history (Dryden was also an employee): Marvell was merely required to translate, transcribe and take dictation. However, he played a crucial role in attenuating Milton's punishment on the return of Charles II, and they remained friends until the blind poet's death. Having been elected MP for Hull in 1659, he served his home town until his own death from the ague in 1678.

In the early years of the Restoration, he may have endeavoured to prove his loyalty, Smith speculates, by spying in the Low Countries on fugitive Commonwealthmen. But this hitherto compliant politico soon found himself in opposition as he championed, in parliament and in print, religious freedom for Nonconformists.

Marvell was far from the "easie Philosopher" we encounter in "Upon Appleton House". He had a tinderbox temper: while returning from a diplomatic mission to Russia, he pulled a pistol on an argumentative waggoner. He probably felt embittered by his failure to achieve the glittering administrative career that seemed to await him during the two years he spent working for the Protectorate: "But I myself, who live to so little purpose", he wrote to a friend in 1667. The details of the life remain vague. His sexuality is ambiguous, though homosexual desire can be read into the images of reflection and the semantic involutions found throughout his poetry. It is not even certain if he married: after his death, his housekeeper Mary Palmer claimed she was his secret wife. A number of his animadverters hint at an unfortunate accident that may have precluded any form of intercourse (they insist we reconsider the Mower's refrain: "Juliana came, and she/What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me").

Smith diligently examines the skeletal documentary record, though with little biographical imagination. He cleaves slavishly to chronology, slogging through the poet's letters to the Corporation of Hull. These report on his tedious work in the city's interest, but provide no insight into his personality. Smith's scattergun criticism (which often reads like a slung-together selection of annotations from his Longman edition of Marvell's poems) also exposes the limits of his enterprise's fixation on history.

In seeking to capture the poet in a mesh of context and generic precedent, Smith writes extensively about Marvell the Cromwellian panegyrist, the satirist and the pamphleteer, but gives scant attention to the lyrics for which Marvell is justly famed. No sustained attempt is made to trace the movement of a mind both flip and philosophical, or to explore his use of irony and ornament to constrain emotion. But Marvell's elusiveness is part of his poetic identity. By the end of this book, he still remains hidden in a green shade.

Jonathan Beckman is assistant editor of the Literary Review

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter