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Andrew Marvell and politics

Andrew Marvell was a poet, but he was also a politician and a civil servant at a time of tremendous upheaval. Nigel Smith investigates how Marvell and his writing negotiated the civil wars, Oliver Cromwell's government and the Restoration.

Let’s start with a very important observation. Andrew Marvell matters today because he is revered as a poet, and in particular as the author of one of the most famous metaphysical poems, ‘To his Coy Mistress’. Yet he was little known in his own time as a poet, and not at all as the great lyricist we esteem today. Most of his poetry was only available in print from 1681, three years after his death, and before then most of it did not even circulate in manuscript. Far fewer people know that, instead, Marvell made his name as a prominent politician, civil servant and satirist, a voice for toleration and against corruption. He lived through the English Civil Wars, Interregnum and much of the Restoration: his accumulated experience is reflected in his writing, making him all the more valuable and fascinating to us today.

Portrait of Andrew Marvell

Portrait of Andrew Marvell

This portrait of Andrew Marvell, painted by an unknown artist, dates from around 1655–60.

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Early life, a change in fortune and the Civil Wars

Marvell was born on 21 March 1621 in the east Yorkshire village of Winestead, where his father Andrew Marvell senior was vicar. Andrew senior was an industrious Church of England clergyman from Meldreth, Cambridgeshire. When his son was three the family moved to Kingston upon Hull where Andrew senior became lecturer at Holy Trinity Church and Master of the Charterhouse, a residence for poor widows. The future poet attended the town grammar school before going to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1633 at the age of 12.

Andrew did well at Trinity and was made a scholar of the College in 1639; he would be regarded later in life as a gifted Latin poet. Yet he had to confront the tragedy of his father’s death by drowning in a ferry accident on the River Humber in 1641. There is a sense of unhappy turbulence during this period. His mother had died in the spring of 1638, after which his father had quickly remarried. It was reported that Marvell had dabbled with Roman Catholicism, only to be rescued by his father in 1639. With Andrew senior’s demise Marvell lost his main support, and in the same year he was thrown out of Trinity College. He had simply not been in residence enough to keep his scholarship. A sense of despair and personal psychodrama abides in his lyric ‘The Unfortunate Lover’, which depicts shipwreck and implies the death of a mother as it tells the story of the ‘orphan of the hurricane’.

The young Marvell was in a precarious position – dealing with a serious drop in fortune and with no certain support. Worse still, the calamity happened just as disputes in church and state degenerated into civil war. He went to London and seems to have attached himself to some eminent Yorkshire families in their London homes. At some point in 1642–43 he left England to tour the Continent, probably as the tutor to a nobleman’s son, visiting the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain, and not returning until late 1646. Many of his travel experiences appear as striking memories in his writing, from descriptions of magnificent Spanish palaces at Aranjuèz and Buen Retiro, impressive Roman churches and paintings such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to sword fights – just for practice!

By the autumn of 1646 England has been devastated by the first Civil War (1642–46). Although well connected with Puritans and Parliamentarians, Marvell seems to have associated with Royalists as they attempted to rise from defeat in the second Civil War (1648–49), a far more desperate and bitter affair. Some of his earliest datable poetry laments the sad deaths or financial ruin of young Royalist heroes he had known well: ‘An Elegy upon the Death of My Lord Francis Villiers’ and ‘To his Noble Friend Mr Richard Lovelace, upon his Poems’, where ‘virtues now are banished out of town, / Our civil wars have lost the civic crown’.

Print of scenes from the first English Civil War

Series of scenes of the first English Civil War, progressing from a meeting of conspirators to the execution of the king

This image depicts a failed Royalist plot to seize London from the Parliamentarians and its aftermath in May 1643.

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Yet he saw the future and needed to be part of it. Now in his late twenties, he sought an appointment with the makers and supporters of the new regime, the first kingless state or republic in English history, and as I write the only one thus far. He was moving in London literary circles where sentiments of defeated royalism were strong, but he may have become involved in intelligence work for the new regime in the summer of 1650 he wrote ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’. Regarded as possibly the greatest political poem in the English language, the work celebrates the rise of the republic and hymns Oliver Cromwell as a master soldier and statesman, while also treating the executed King Charles with grace (or, for some, expressing covert sympathy with him). All the while Marvell catches the enormous historical significance of this moment:

That thence the royal actor born
The tragic scaffold might adorn,
While round the armèd 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. (ll. 53–60)

First edition of Andrew Marvell's Poems, 1681

First edition of Andrew Marvell's Poems, 1681

‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’

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In the New Year Marvell moved back to Yorkshire to become tutor to Mary, the daughter of Thomas, Baron Fairfax, the retired parliamentary army commander, at his house at Nun Appleton, near York. It was here that he wrote his remarkable country house poem ‘Upon Appleton House’, the greatest example of its kind, as he discussed literature with his patron; he probably also produced his famous ‘mower’ poems and several other accomplished lyrics at this time. Indeed, we presume that many of the most famous and outstanding lyric poems, such as ‘To his Coy Mistress’, were written during these years, the late 1640s and earlier 1650s. But since we have no precise evidence for a date for many of his lyrics, we cannot be sure. There can be no doubt, however, of the competence of a poet who can move from the humorously polite rhyme reminding his mistress of the risks of refusal (‘The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace’) to the startling image of the lovers’ imagined consummation, more than humanly sexual in its violent imagery of birth and the conquest of time:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run. (ll. 41–46)

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire

Marvell added a new element to the country house sub-genre: namely, an examination of the role that humans played in shaping and structuring nature, especially within a garden context.

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Oliver Cromwell and Marvell’s entry into government

In 1653 Marvell moved directly into the circles of Oliver Cromwell, just before the great soldier became Lord Protector and the experiment in a republic in the eyes of most people ended. He became tutor to a Cromwell ward called William Dutton at Eton in the house of John Oxenbridge, a Puritan divine with Hull connections. He wrote poems in Latin and English for regime-connected occasions, for example ‘A Letter to Dr. Ingelo’, the formidable The First Anniversary of the Government of the Lord Protector, and the delightful ‘Bermudas’ that playfully expresses godly sentiment and English territorial ambitions in the Caribbean. Note the irony provided by the wry, critical second voice in the parenthesis, calling into some doubt the poem’s optimism:

‘Oh let our voice his praise exalt,
Till it arrive at heaven’s vault;
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Echo beyond the Mexique Bay.’
Thus sung they in the English boat,
An holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time. (ll. 33–40)

In 1656 he went with Dutton for eight months to Saumur in France to further his education at the Protestant Academy there. Upon his return Marvell found himself with a government position at long last: he would work in the Office of Foreign Tongues on the translation of diplomatic papers, and was effectively understudy to the great poet and pamphleteer  John Milton, who had been pressing for his appointment since 1653. The two would become even firmer friends, as Marvell became something of an expert on Baltic affairs, working on papers from Sweden and the north German states.

First edition of Andrew Marvell's Poems, 1681

First edition of Andrew Marvell's Poems, 1681

Marvell wrote this poem in praise of Paradise Lost: it was printed in the second edition of Milton’s epic poem.

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Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658, to be succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard. Marvell wrote a long poetic elegy on his death that was not published at the time, possibly because it was too honest about Richard’s inferior powers (‘He threats no deluge, yet foretells a shower,’ l. 324). By the time Marvell’s poem would have appeared the new Lord Protector was in deep political trouble. In January 1659 Marvell was elected one of the two MPs for Hull, and then lost the seat in May when Richard stood down and the Rump Parliament briefly replaced the Protectorate (Marvell was always a Protectorate man and he lost to the prominent republican Sir Henry Vane). He stayed in Westminster as Latin Secretary, and was then re-elected for Hull at the beginning of the Restoration in April 1660. This began the 18-year period when Marvell served his home town, writing a regular newsletter for the mayor and corporation that became famous for its careful avoidance of partisanship: you have to read carefully between the lines to glean Marvell’s own opinions.

Pamphlet on the death of Oliver Cromwell

Pamphlet on the death of Oliver Cromwell

A detailed woodcut engraving of Cromwell lying in state bedecked with all the royal trimmings, including a crown.

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Pamphlet on the death of Oliver Cromwell

Pamphlet on the death of Oliver Cromwell

Engraved portrait of Richard Cromwell.

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Marvell during the Restoration

From 1660 Marvell lived mostly in Westminster and became identified with the ‘country party’: accepting the monarchy, but sceptical of royal abuse of power, and quick to criticise the failures of courtiers and former Cavaliers on the field of battle. He probably helped the government identify former Commonwealth supporters in the Netherlands in 1662–63, and then went as secretary to the Earl of Carlisle on an embassy to Moscow in 1663–65, during which no trading privileges were restored (the goal of the mission). Marvell managed to insult the honour of the Czar and his attendants twice in one evening: the first time inadvertently, the second obstinately.

High diplomacy was not Marvell’s forte, for despite eloquence with the pen he was no skilled speaker, and sometimes let a quick temper get the better of him. There were two scuffles in the House of Commons, and he once had to be rescued from an angry mob by his countrymen after an argument with coachmen outside Hamburg on a journey back to England. Once settled again in Parliament he was responsible for three long verse-satires that criticised England’s feeble role in the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–67). These poems, two of which circulated widely in manuscript, should be seen as part of a parliamentary campaign to bring the king’s chief minister, Lord Clarendon, and his associates to justice, in favour of the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Ashley, the future Earl of Shaftesbury. Clarendon resigned and went into exile, and Marvell had hopes that the king, Charles II, would establish toleration for Protestant Dissenters (i.e. those who rejected the re-established Church of England) as he had promised just before his return. The hostility to this view in the so-called Cavalier Parliament was symptomatic of similar views in the country, and Marvell turned to prose to ridicule two intolerant Anglican clergymen: Samuel Parker in The Rehearsal Transpros’d (1672–73, in two parts) and Francis Turner in Mr Smirke (1676). All of Marvell’s work was now directed in this cause. ‘The Loyal Scot’, one of the most important poems from this period, argues for Anglo-Scottish unity in the name of moderate Protestantism: ‘Prick down the point (whoever has the art) / Where Nature Scotland does from England part’ (ll. 75–76). Mr Smirke had attached to it A Short Historical Essay on the interference of church councils and imposed creeds in Christian life throughout history: it is very anti-clerical and a source for Deist and free-thinking ideas in the following century.

Marvell had by now abandoned any hope that Charles II would deliver toleration, and in 1677 he published An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government. This perspective was shared by many Dissenters and supporters of the former Commonwealth, who increasingly feared a move towards absolutism in king and government as well as a revival of Catholicism. Marvell’s bold proto-Whig account describes the descent of the mixed constitutional monarchy into a Catholic French-style tyranny in which English religious and political liberties would be extinguished. It was a potent prediction of the coming Exclusion Crisis (1679–81) in which the emergent Whig party would try to exclude Charles’s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, from the throne. In 1674 Marvell had been rumoured to be negotiating with the future William III (a Protestant, and favoured by the Whigs). He managed another attack in April 1678 on bullying religious posturing, this time the hard predestinarian Calvinism of Thomas Danson. But in August he was stopped in his tracks, dying of malaria contracted during a return journey from Hull to London.

An Account of Popery and Arbitrary Government, 1678

An account of Popery and arbitrary government

The tract caused such an uproar in English court circles that a reward of £100 (a vast sum at the time) was offered for its author’s identity.

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Miscellaneous Poems (1681) was purportedly assembled by his wife Mary Marvell, but it was alleged that she was only his housekeeper. The volume was indubitably Whig, and the three long Cromwell poems were cancelled from most copies by the printer, so incendiary was their subject matter at the time. The British Library copy is one of only two known to survive with all the poems intact. The tracts of 1672–73 and 1677 were published anonymously and the author, publishers and printers were pursued by government agents: books were destroyed, people were imprisoned and interrogated, and lives were ruined. Marvell was protected the first time through the intervention of the King, and was dead before they could catch him in 1678. Over the next 100 years Marvell’s works were republished in the Whig literary tradition, first by Thomas Cooke in 1726 and then more extensively by Edward Thompson in 1776. This enabled Romantic period figures such as Charles Lamb to kindle a serious critical discussion of Marvell’s qualities as a lyric poet, and marked the beginnings of the steady growth of interest in Marvell as the most sophisticated, reflective, intricate and pleasurable of poets, as well as the most ruthless and funny debunker of ungenerous and cruel intolerance.

  • Nigel Smith
  • Nigel Smith is William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University, to which he came from the University of Oxford in 1999. He edited Andrew Marvell’s Poems for the Longman Annotated English Poets series (2003, rev. 2007), and is the author of the biography Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (Yale UP, 2010), as well as many essays on Marvell and his works. He was President of the Andrew Marvell Society (2010–12), and continues to broadcast and speak on Marvell. He is also the author of Literature and Revolution in England 1640–1660 (Yale UP, 1994).

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