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Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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Book Review

By the Tide of Humber — Andrew Marvell, Standing in the Shadows

Stuart Mitchner

What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet.

John Keats

Extending south to make a barrier between the sea and the Humber estuary is Spurn Head, periodically broken by the sea, its shape thereby constantly changed by the strident waters.

from Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon

The poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a Member of Parliament for Hull (also known as Kingston upon Hull) for the better part of 20 years. Underneath the statue that stands in front of the former Hull grammar school the inscription reads, “An incorruptible patriot, a wise statesman, and a zealous and energetic representative of this his native town in Parliament from 1658 to 1678.” Nothing about the poet. But at the base of the statue are the first four lines of “To His Coy Mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness lady were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

There’s a piece of Hull in the lines that follow. While the lady “by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find,” the man “by the tide/Of Humber would complain.” Marvell had significant, life-altering associations with the Humber. His father drowned crossing it. The poet was 20 at the time and had been on his way to becoming a clergyman.

Hull is a defining presence in Nigel Smith’s epic work Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (Yale 2010), not only because Marvell grew up there but because his biographer spent three years as an undergraduate at the University of Hull. In an email message, Smith remembers driving to Spurn Point, where the lighthouse “seemed to shift in the sea as the landspit changed direction. Spurn Point was reshaped by the sea every year and sometimes breached by it in places.” Hull, as Smith describes it, was “strikingly flat, and just as Marvell had it, perplexing because you couldn’t tell if water or land was round the next corner.”

Swift and Secret

March 31 will mark Andrew Marvell’s 390th birthday. In Keats’s account of the poetic character, the “chameleon poet” is “continually in for and filling some other body.” As a poet for both Cromwell and the court, as pamphleteer, member of Parliament, tutor, secretary to and defender of Milton, government agent on undercover missions in Europe and Russia, Marvell brought the analogy to life, casting himself as a shadow, both poetically and politically — a term that has a certain resonance in a country where a shadow cabinet is filled by shadow officers.

The poet’s “vast/And ever climbing shadow” moves over Archibald MacLeish’s poem “You, Andrew Marvell,” from Ecbatan and the “mountains over Persia” through Baghdad and Palmyra, Crete and Sicily, Spain and Africa until it reaches the overshadowed American poet lying face down in the American sun feeling “how swift/how secretly/The shadow of the night comes on,” Marvell’s shadow, Marvell’s night, it’s all Marvell — that’s why it’s called, “You, Andrew Marvell.” The source and subject, to be exact, is “To His Coy Mistress,” that 46-line lyric rocket sent into orbit by a poet in his late twenties and sighted by T.S. Eliot in the Times Literary Supplement on Marvell’s tercentenary, March 31, 1921. Although Eliot’s labored remarks are almost laughably out of synch with the verve and energy of the poem and the poet (“It will hardly be denied that this poem contains wit, but it may not be evident that this wit forms the crescendo and diminuendo of a scale of great imaginative power”), the essay put Marvell on the 20th century literary map and no doubt helped make possible tributary works such as “You, Andrew Marvell.”


Like numerous other readers, I may have Eliot to thank for my first encounter with the shade of “To His Coy Mistress” through the references in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Wasteland. Around the same time, I ran into Marvell again in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms when Frederick Henry tells Catherine Barkley, “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.”

In late December 2005 when I first encountered Nigel Smith, he was rocking up a storm on the stage at the Berlind Theatre with Rackett, the “3-car garage band” he had formed with his Princeton colleague poet Paul Muldoon. Rackett has since ended its run, giving way to a new band called Wayside Shrines, and Smith has produced a monument of scholarship (as well as a TLS Book of the Year) for which the term “biography” is barely sufficient. You might as well call “I am the Walrus” or “Desolation Row” a pop tune. On the other hand, this is not a book for the casual reader. Even failed graduate students in English literature may find themselves frantically consulting the sages of the Net, for Marvell was deeply involved in the tangled issues of the day.

Marvell’s most famous poem is no more dated or time-bound than a sunset. In his analysis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” literary critic Christopher Ricks suggests that “not since Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ has there been such an upsurge of the urgency of now.” As David Niven’s RAF pilot seems to be plunging to a fiery death in the 1946 Powell-Pressburger film Stairway to Heaven, he shouts four lines from “Mistress” over the roar and exclaims, “Andy Marvell — what a marvel!” Wikipedia is hard put to contain all the Marvellian fall-out, from Ursula LeGuinn to Woody Allen to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The subversive nature of rock and roll fits with Marvell’s lively, subversive intelligence.” To those he skewered in voluminous, unsigned prose satires like The Rehearsal Transposed, he was “a mad horse kicking and flinging most terribly” [the italics are in Smith’s text]. An anonymous shot across his anonymous bow in “The Character of a Coffee House” (1673) calls him “a Walking Comedy, the only Merry Andrew of the Age, that scatters Wit wherever he comes, as Beggars do Lice, or Muskcats perfumes, and that nothing in Nature and all that can compare with him.”

Shape Shifter

Smith pictures Marvell’s shifting shadow as something like a chosen condition of existence for someone “who had few friends and generally did not trust people,” who “liked drinking but would not drink in company,” who was of necessity discreet as an MP and a secretary dealing with matters that involved the perusal of intelligence (“being a spy always required secrecy”). The development of a “professional, public, or civic persona” could mean denying “oneself as a person.” Like Keats’s fluidly adapatable poetic character, “One’s identity was part of someone else’s” or, in Smith’s sterner view, “one was a blank.” It’s when Smith offers a final profile of the invisible poet “who is always a shadow of the object of praise” that he comes closest to the essence of the poetical and political hero whose progress he has followed through 340-plus pages of extraordinary events, including wars, regicides, revolutions, feuds, expeditions, plagues, and fires.

Having mentioned Marvell’s self-fashioned self-denial in his powerful concluding chapter, “Afterlife and Revelation,” Smith focuses on the man who once admitted that he “was caustic to some extent in character” because “in a wicked world” it was always necessary to carry some “ill Nature” in one’s pocket: “All this evidence suggests that Marvell suffered a good deal of personal denial.” The love he could express in his writing was “a further manifestation of the variety of desires driven by his dependencies — the attachments of patronage he needed to make his life livable.”

In the book’s last paragraph, however, Smith’s Marvell towers alone above it all — I keep thinking of that lighthouse standing on Spurn Head, the shape-shifting land around it “constantly changed by the strident waters.” Having “finally resisted all corruption in an age of corruption,” Marvell “stands for liberty — liberty of the subject, liberty in the state, liberty of the self, liberty from political and personal tyrannies.” His is a triumph of scope and vision. He casts both light and shadow. By standing alone and above, by standing for, by “standing outside the lines of authority that would have had him exercising power,” he has “the power to analyse those liberties.”

Following Marvell

Nigel Smith grew up in North London, read Marvell in high school, and, as he puts it, “followed him to Hull,” where the fact that the water was sometimes “higher than you were seemed to infect all of reality there.” It also changed his life. “Three years in that sobering, but elevating flat landscape was like being refined, pared down, and set up for the future. I was a foreigner there, being a southerner, and it was a rough rough port town — I learned how to look after myself. At present Hull’s republicanism is noted: they shut their gates on Charles I in 1642 and today they have no plans for any street parties for the forthcoming royal wedding.”

Smith is currently Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Books and Media at Princeton. His other works include Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? (Harvard UP, 2008), the Longman Annotated English Poets edition of Andrew Marvell’s Poems, a TLS Book of the Year for 2003, Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (Yale UP, 1994) and Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford UP, 1989). At present he’s writing a study of the relationship between words and music, which grows in part from his work with Rackett (2004-2010) and Wayside Shrines.

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