Although Andrew Marvell is now best known to us as a poet, in his own time he was most renowned for his remarkable personal integrity and his commitment to public service.
Marvell was born in Yorkshire and raised in Hull, before attending Cambridge University. He appears to have spent much of his early twenties in Europe, safely removed from the Civil Wars in Britain, returning to England in time for the Interregnum - the period between Charles I’s execution in 1649 and his son’s return to the throne, as Charles II, in 1666.
From roughly 1650 to 1652, Marvell was a private tutor to Mary Fairfax, the daughter of Lord General Thomas Fairfax, who had recently ceded control of the parliamentary army to Oliver Cromwell. This period, in which Marvell was living at Nun Appleton Hall, produced one of his most celebrated poems, ‘Upon Appleton House’, a long, complex work which is both a hymn to the tranquillity and beauty of his adopted home and a troubled comment on the political instability of the world outside.
Marvell is often considered, along with writers such as John Donne and George Herbert, to belong to what Samuel Johnson later called the ‘metaphysical’ school of poetry. Some of his famous works, such as ‘To His Coy Mistress’, ‘On a Drop of Dew’, ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Mower’, combine romantic and pastoral themes with reflections on mortality, social upheavals and Neoplatonic philosophy.
In 1650 Marvell wrote ‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, which scholar Blair Worden has called ‘the most private of political poems’. It is a masterfully ambivalent treatment of the Civil Wars, of Charles I’s dignity at the moment of his execution (‘he nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable scene’), of Cromwell’s determination and ultimately on how much more bloodshed might be necessary to keep the new republic stable. The poem ominously ends with a reminder that ‘The same arts that did gain / A power, must it maintain’.
As well as being a poet, Marvell was also heavily involved in political life, both in Cromwell’s Protectorate (where, like Milton, he served as Latin Secretary), and as the Member of Parliament for Hull, both during and after Britain’s transition back to a monarchy. But Marvell found much to dislike in life under the Restoration, and he wrote a number of anonymous satires in verse and prose on the dissipation of Charles II’s court, including Last Instructions to a Painter (1667), and on corruption and intolerance in both Protestant and Catholic religious orders.
After a visit to Hull in the early summer of 1678, Marvell contracted ‘tertian ague’, which claimed his life in August of that year at the age of 56. Following his death, Marvell’s housekeeper Mary Palmer announced the two had been married ‘on or about’ 13 May 1667, and that they had kept their union secret because of ‘the difference in their [social] Conditions’. By 1680 ‘Mary Marvell’ had written a prefatory note for an edition of Marvell’s Miscellaneous Poems, ‘Printed according to the exact Copies of my late dear Husband, under his own Hand-Writing’.
Further information about the life of Andrew Marvell can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.