1902 Encyclopedia > Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell
English poet

ANDREW MARVELL (1621-1678), was born on March 31, 1621, at the parsonage of Winestead in Holderness. He was educated at Hull grammar school by his father, who had obtained high position in that town, until his admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, on December 14, 1633. There he became ensnared by the Jesuits, who at that time were keen to secure youths of promise at the universities, and by them, probably in the beginning of 1638, was taken to London; but he was recaptured by his father, and again received into Trinity on April 13 of the same year. He appears to have con-tributed to the Musa Cantabrigiensis in 1637; and beyond this nothing is known or even conjectured as to his college career. In 1640 his father was drowned under remarkable circumstances, an event which appears to have entirely unsettled him, for by an entry in the College Conclusion book, dated September 24, 1641, we find that he was adjudged by the seniority to have forfeited the benefits of the college. He used his liberty during the next four yeare to travel through the Continent, remaining abroad until 1646. It has been assumed that during this journey Marvell became acquainted with Milton, but a comparison of dates shows that this is an error. His first employment was in 1650, as tutor to Lord Fairfax's daughter. During his stay at Nunappleton were written the Poems of the Country and some of the Poems of Imagination and Love. In 1652 he was in communication with Milton, to whom he had probably been introduced by Fairfax, and was by him sent on February 21 to President Bradshaw with a letter urging his appointment as assistant Latin secretary to himself. The post was, however, otherwise filled up, and he was provided instead with another tutorship, that of Cromwell's nephew, Mr Dutton. This lias been wrongly stated by several writers as not occurring until six years later. In 1657 the secretaryship again fell vacant, aud was then conferred upon him, but he held office for a year only, and no record of his work appears in the calendar of state papers. Marvell accepted the Commonwealth as a practical fact, and the rule of Cromwell as the only guarantee for government at once tolerant and strong. But he never lost his belief in the monarchical theory. His line " 'Tis godlike good to save a falling king " is well known ; and throughout his most vehement invective against corruption there is a great tenderness and desire to spare the king.

The assistant secretaryship opened the way to public life, and in 1658 Marvell was elected member for Kingston-upon-Hull in Richard Cromwell's parliament. From 1663 to 1665 he acted as secretary to Lord Carlisle's embassy to Muscovy, Sweden, and Denmark; and this is the only official post he ever filled during the reign of Charles. With the exception of this and of shorter unexplained intervals of travel, Marvell was constant in his parliamentary attendance to the day of his death. He seldom spoke in the House, some five or six times in all, but his parliamentary influence is amply established by other evidence; and his correspondence with his con-stituents, from 1660 to 1678, forms a source of information all the more valuable because by a resolution passed at the Restoration the publication of the proceedings of the House without leave was forbidden. He made it a point of duty to write at each post—that is, every two or three days— both on local interests and on all matters of public interest. The discreet reserve of these letters, natural at a time when the post-office was a favourite source of information to the Government, contrasts curiously with the freedom of the few private letters which state opinions as well as facts. Marvell's constituents, in their turn, were not unmindful of their member. He makes frequent references to their presents, usually of Hull ale and of salmon, and he regularly drew from them the wages of a member, six and eightpence a day during session.

During these years Marvell wrote a good deal of verse, chiefly satire, often very coarse, but always vigorous and full of an honest hatred at corruption. He chose verse merely as being the usual vehicle of satire, and cared little about form. " He plucked a cudgell from the nearest hedgerow, careless if it became fuel after it had served his turn." It was very different with his prose satires. His peculiar talent was first displayed in the mock King's Speech, issued in 1675. This is written in a vein of genial banter, perhaps the greatest tribute to the influence which the bonhomie of Charles exercised even over such men as Marvell. But his tone soon changed, and The Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Power, published in the year of his death, is a grave indictment of the conduct of ministers of the crown, and, by implication, of Charles himself, since the Restoration. So shrewdly did this strike the conscience of the king that a proclamation, of which Marvell takes laughing notice, offered a large reward for the discovery of the author.

As a political pamphleteer Marvell holds a high place; as a satirist he stands still higher. Tolerance in religion was his creed, and this creed had been lately attacked by a clergyman seeking promotion, Dr Parker, afterwards bishop of Oxford, who asserted in their most extravagant form the claims of the civil magistrate over the consciences of subjects in matters of external religion. Marvell's reply, The Rehearsal Transprosed, is a masterpiece of prolonged banter. It contains passages of lofty indignation, hearty laughter, coarse vituperation; but the prevailing tone is that of grave and ironical banter. The effect, as witnessed to by Anthony Wood, Burnet, and other contemporary writers, was to set the whole public " from the king to the tradesman " in a laugh against Parker. This stung him to an ill-tempered rejoinder, affording Marvell a second opportunity, of which he availed himself so well that no more was heard from his opponent; and Swift was shortly afterwards able to say that people remembered Parker's book only by Marvell's answer. Marvell's second con-troversial work, Mr Smirke, or the Divine in Mode, was written in the same strain and under similar circumstances, and obtained a success fully equal to that of the Rehearsal Transprosed. It was a defence of Croft, bishop of Hereford, against a violent attack by Dr Turner, the High Church master of St John's, Cambridge. Prefixed to it was a " short historical essay concerning general councils," intended to show the folly of religious imposi-tions. Several other writings, often ascribed to him, more especially the Parliamenti Anglix Declaratio, A Sensible Question and an Usefull Answer, and the Flagellmn Parlia-mentarian!, were certainly not his.

As a humorist, then, and as a great "parliament man," no name is of more interest to a student of the reign of Charles II. than that of Marvell. But other qualities entitle him to still higher respect. To a personal charm so great, to wit so brilliant, to learning so extensive, and to sympathies so wide that he was at the same time dear to John Milton and courted by Charles II., he joined the rarest quality of that evil time, a robust and intrepid rectitude. In the very heyday of political infamy, at a time when he says passionately " we are all venal cowards except some few," and when opposition to the court was likely to be resented by personal violence of the brntalest kind, he, a needy man, obliged to accept wages from his constituents, tempted in winning phrases from royal lips by his old schoolfellow Danby, and with nothing to gain from the court by purity, kept his political virtue unspotted and unsuspected. The meaning of this fact can barely be felt by any one who has not read with minute care the annals of that time. When the grossest forms of self-indulgence were the ordinary habits of town life, Marvell was a temperate man, in spite of Aubrey's witness that he " kept bottles of wine at his lodgings and would drink liberally by himself to refresh his spirits and exalt his muse." Lastly, in the worst times of parliamentary vio-lence, he stood forward throughout his career as the champion of moderate and tolerant measures. His person corresponded singularly with his mind, so far as can be judged from the portrait by Hannemann and from the few words of John Aubrey—" He was of a middling stature, pretty strong set, roundish faced, cherry cheeked, hazel eyed, brown haired. In his conversation he was modest and of very few words."

He died suddenly in 1678 on his return from Hull to take his seat in August. That he was poisoned, and at the instigation of the court, has been roundly asserted, naturally enough, though without the slightest foundation. The matter has been finally set at rest by a very interesting letter by Dr Samuel Gee in the Athenxum for March 7, 1874.

The following works may be consulted on Marvell:—Life and Works—(1) by Thomas Cooke, 2 vols., 1726 (there is a reprint by Thomas Davies in 1772) ; (2) by Captain Thomson, 3 vols. 4to, 1776 ; (3) by John Dove, 1832 ; (4) by Edwin Paxton Hood, 1853 ; and essays by Hartley Coleridge in Lives of the Northern Worthies, Henry Rogers in his collected Essays, and an anonymous author in the Cornhill Magazine for July 1869, and in the Saturday Review for April 26, 1873. All these authorities are mentioned, collated, and corrected in the very important and laborious work of Mr Grosart, wdiose book, in spite of its excessive mannerism and one or two curious inaccuracies, is indispensable to the student of Marvell's correspondence and career. (O. A.)

The above article was written by: Osmund Airy, M.A.

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