Public Reception and Allusion in Marvell’s Poetry

The intention of Andrew Marvell as to publication and public reception was often interfered with by the necessity of his political circumstances, particularly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. This interference does however unintentionally enrich the works with a simultaneous feeling of reading the public thoughts of a writer interacting with other published ideas, and of private conspiratorial thoughts read only by friends, especially in regards to how he uses allusions to other works. Loxley describes Marvell’s works as ‘echoic’ verse, saying that ‘words are both owned and disowned, used with their full pragmatic force and held fastidiously between the tongs of quotation. If allusion affirms or identifies, it also distances; if it articulates something as sure as the occasions of a friendship or commitment, it also toys with their vocal manifestation.’ The allusions to others as well as his own works open his works up to interpretation as a published writer, as he participates in public debates with established poets and politicians, but distance him from the sentiments he alludes to as well, and excludes those who do not understand the references. They both embellish and complicate any public perception of Marvell himself.

His interactions often took the form of animadversion and combative satire after 1660. When he was published, anonymity was sometimes necessary: by 1678, the year of his death, there was a reward offered by the government for the identity of whoever authored An Account of the Growth of Popery (a political pamphlet, and therefore published for a far wider audience than his quartos – perhaps evidence that the larger his readership, the more danger came from his name being attached to his work.) Marvell could directly criticize public figures by name if he himself was anonymous, as with ‘Clarendon’s House-warming’, which satirises Clarendon’s choice to build his £50,000 Dunkirk House in the same year as the Great Fire of London. Marvell compares this display of wealth to treason by drawing parallels to Guy Fawkes in the line, ‘A lantern like Faux’s surveys the burnt town,’ (90) proving his willingness to manipulate public opinion by using controversial figures, even if his printer saw fit to attribute this poem to ‘an unknown author.’

Von Maltzhan, however, claims that his ‘last great move’ was to ‘turn on animadversion itself’, which is why in verses like The Last Scot or Epigram: Upon Blood’s attempt to steal the Crown, he sets the wise moderation of the citizen against the clerical cruelty of both High Church excesses and Presbyterian rigidity alike, emphasizing unity rather than logical debate on behalf of either side. In The Loyal Scot in particular, he expresses humanistic sentiments about the possible union of England and Scotland:

‘Nation is all but name: a Shibboleth

Where a mistaken accent causes death.’ (107-8)

This is a complete contradiction of his previous nationalistic sentiments in verses like The Character of Holland (1953), and he apologizes at the end, entreating ‘My former Satyre for this verse forget.’ (137) By contradicting himself in this way, Marvell assumes that the reader is familiar with his other works, implying a public persona with commonly known opinions. The difficulties with publishing did not prevent him from interacting with politically relevant debates as though his poems were a cohesive presence on a public platform, attributable to one man.

As Von Maltzhan explains, Marvell’s work was often in debate with other poets as well as political figures and his own past works. Murray draws connections between Marvell’s earlier lyrics to poetry he respected and tried to emulate, such as Abraham Cowley’s The Mistress (1647), William Davenant’s Gondibert (1651) and Milton’s Lycidas. In the satires of the 1670s, his engagement with other published works still places him in the reader’s view as an equal of publicly known poets, and creates the same self-conscious intertextuality. Marvell’s use of allusion is more antagonistic in these later satirical works, however, such as his ‘painter’ poetry’s mocking appropriation of Waller’s dramatically heightened tenor in Instructions to a Painter (1665). The same sails that swelled with the duke’s ‘extraction’ and ‘glorious mind’ in Waller’s naval scenes are ‘Swoln like [Coventry’s] purse, with tackling like its strings’, implying the statesman’s greed, in those of Marvell’s ‘Second Advice to a Painter’. As well as applying Waller’s heroic tone to poetry that directly contradicted his portrayal of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Marvell mentions him by name in The Last Instructions to a Painter:

‘Old Waller, Trumpet-gen’rall, swore he’d write

This combat truer than the navall fight.’ (263-4)

Waller was ‘widely criticized as a political turncoat’, according to Lord, so this rhyming couplet evaluating him is evidence of Marvell purposefully interacting with public consensus in this poem, and perhaps of him trying to influence it. The description of him as a ‘trumpet-gen’rall’ may be implied criticism of Waller’s position celebrating war through his published art but not actually participating in it.

In both the poems ‘The Garden’ and ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Marvell approaches social taboos around sexuality rather than political views of battles, and demonstrates the futility of the pursuit of heterosexual love in the face of encroaching time and mortality. ‘The Garden’ uses nature as a comparison, and invokes the Greek gods to do so:

‘Apollo hunted Daphne so,

Only that she might laurel grow.

And Pan did after Syrinx speed,

Not as a Nymph, but for a Reed.’ (29-32)

These classical allusions posit conventional sexuality as superficial or ephemeral in contrast to the natural world, as even gods themselves, ‘that mortal beauty chase’, end their races with nothing but a tree. Marvell is reclaiming public myth for the purpose of criticizing conventional wisdom about courtly, unrequited love. In ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Marvell echoes Abraham Cowley through an idealized image of how he could spend eternity in courtly worship of his mistress’ beauty:

‘A hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each breast:

But thirty thousand to the rest.’ (13-16)

These lines directly echo Cowley’s ‘My Dyet’ (published in 1647), where Cowley lists scenarios like ‘On a sigh of pity I a year can live’ and ‘Fifty a gentle look will give’. Marvell then subverts this fantasy of assigning hyperbolic worth to a woman’s attributes or actions, and therefore challenges older published poetry, with the mention of their mortality:

‘(…) then worms shall try

That long-preserv’d virginity:

And your quaint honour turn to dust;

And into ashes all my lust.’ (27-30)

Although the anaphora of ‘And’ may evoke the list format of his imagined centuries of worship, the image of a worm turning her ‘long-preserv’d virginity’ to ‘dust’ is a shocking one. The lover has described not only a bodily violation of his mistress, but also a negation of the specific value of an unmarried woman in society: her chasteness, and therefore her potential to be legitimately wed. The numerical value that he and Cowley had previously conferred in years is subverted by this destruction of the monetary implications that would be associated with virginity, like a dowry. This use of intertextuality weakens an established poetic image with the morbid idea of heterosexual pursuit turning to ‘ashes’ in the grave.

The alternative provided in The Garden, an implicit homo-eroticism, is instead aligned with nature, which in contrast is constantly replenished and infinite. In lines 35-6, he writes that ‘The luscious clusters of the vine / Upon my mouth do crush the wine’, which, if the vine is to be read as a phallic presence, implies a sensual experience that may even be a kind of fellatio with nature. The interactions with the natural world are explicitly judged to be mutually exclusive with heterosexual love in the penultimate verse:

‘Such was that happy garden-state,

While man there walked without a mate.’ (57-58)

These lines also support the idea of the eponymous garden as Eden itself, and call it a paradise that could only be enjoyed before the creation of Eve. Hyman’s interpretation of Adam in this poem is as an androgynous figure, to counter the ‘misogynist’ interpretation of Hollander and Kermode, who embodies both genders with no need for a partner; Marvell could also, however, be representing same-sex attraction through a kind of Narcissus figure who is in love with what reflects him. The allusion to the popular contemporary misconception that all land animals had their equivalent in the sea, ‘that Ocean where each kind / Does straight its own resemblance find’ (43-44), supports the idea of this garden-state representing admiration of something that mirrors Man (‘a green thought in a green shade’, 47-48.) Whether homosexuality or auto-sexuality is intended, Marvell’s effect is a coded inversion of heterosexuality that, if published publicly, may have drawn unwanted attention to his actual life.

Healy writes that Marvell’s verse in general is ‘enamoured of masculine prowess – admired in Villiers, in Douglas, in the heroic nude unfortunate lover, in the Mower with his scythe, even Cromwell with his erect sword’, but also connects that admiration to his allusions to other writers. Even solitary spaces, like that created in ‘The Garden’, ‘echo with other men’s voices’. His concluding invitation in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ arguably does this too:

‘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.’ (41-46)

These lines share the rhymes of ‘run’ and ‘sun’, as well as the vocabulary of ‘tear’ and ‘ball’, with a six-line entreaty from John Hall’s ‘To his Tutor, Master Pawson, an Ode’: framing heterosexual love by evoking an ode to intellectual pleasure between men. Both ‘The Garden’ and ‘To His Coy Mistress’ were published posthumously in 1681, but still would have been passed around in manuscript form when written. If his intention was actually to imply homosexual love amongst the Edenic setting of ‘The Garden’, he would have had to disguise that with the knowledge of this limited but still public reception in mind.

These coded allusions, however, had the effect of both creating familiarity with the reader who understood them, and enriching the intertextuality in his work. Even if Marvell’s actual reach was limited in his lifetime, due to his controversial ideas about politics, and potentially sexuality, preventing publication, the way he interacts with other poets shows a willingness for his work to be part of the public literary environment. He invites interpretations of his own poetry by echoing or contradicting established works, creating ongoing debates while still maintaining the intimacy of elite literary circles, or a shared joke, through the coded references and assumed knowledge that circumstances demanded. Marvell’s poetry contains the scandal of public poetry made private, and the collaborative intertextuality of private poetry made public.

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