March 31, 2021

“Strength and Sweetness” — Andrew Marvell at 400

By Stuart Mitchner

Marvell is the most enigmatic, unclassifiable, and unaffiliated major poet in the language.

—Harold Bloom

Now let us sport us while we may…

—Andrew Marvell (1621-1679)

   No man is an island entire of itself …

—John Donne (1572-1631) 

In October 1966, Ray Davies and the Kinks recorded my theme song for the day, “Too Much On My Mind,” which makes a surprising but perfectly natural appearance a decade later in The American Friend (1977) by the German director Wim Wenders. At the time of the filming, Wenders told an interviewer that rock and roll had “saved” him: “It gave me the idea of finding out about life. It led me to everything; it led me to film-making.” Because of rock Wenders started to think of creativity “as having something to do with joy: the idea of having a right to enjoy something.” That’s a striking admission from someone who grew up in postwar Germany; instead of the burden of guilt, angst, and negativity: enjoying the right to find joy in creation.

It’s not that I mind having too much on my mind every week. Far from it. Witness the crowd of epigraphs at the top. I could have added a dozen more, including all of Andrew Marvell’s irresistible seize-the-day and see-the- world-and-die seduction song “To His Coy Mistress,” one of those poems it’s hard to stop reading. One sip of this salty Margarita and you’re off to the races with the world and time like the wind at your back, the notion of maidenly coyness the salt on the rim of the glass. Try not feeling happily drunk reading a line like “our long love’s day.” Then to go from that to the sweeping geographical audacity of the coy mistress finding rubies by the Ganges while the love-crazed poet from Hull sings a lusty far-reaching complaint beside his own hometown Humber (was Humbert Humbert here?). Then a take-no-prisoners love song pitch for all time, “I would love you ten years before the Flood.” Who cares what happens after the Flood? And the casual beauty of “And you should if you please refuse” with the not so casual “until the Conversion of the Jews.” Another one-two punch follows, the time-wise, “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow.” How slow? At this point a poet writing in the 1660s, his poetry unpublished in his time, casts his line and lands the last, July 29, 1997 entry, in the journal of William S. Burroughs two days before his death in Lawrence, Kansas, where a low-rent midnight movie called Carnival of Souls had been filmed in the early 1960s around the time Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was being served up to the world.

Too much on my mind, for sure. Like Ray’s song says, “It seems there’s more to life than just to live it.”

Here’s where Marvell’s lover outdoes himself. Has anyone this side of Dante put as much on the line as a poet promising a hundred years to praise his lover’s eyes and forehead and “Two hundred to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest,” and “an Age to every part,” and “the last Age should show your Heart. / For Lady you deserve this State; / Nor would I love at lower rate.”

And so you arrive and catch your breath in time to utter the  poem’s most quoted line, the by now relatively underwhelming one about “Time’s wingèd chariot” (which surfaces in 1929 in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), but that’s as it should and has to be when the poet’s loving full-on, at the highest rate, no holds barred. Anyway, what comes next more than makes up for it (and will be reborn 200 years later in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”): “And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast Eternity.”

From the middle stanza’s worms and ashes and lust and dust, and the poem’s second most quoted couplet (“The Grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace”), Marvell’s rolling again, moved by the momentum of time repossessed for poetry, all his, fueling his fire; giving an infusion of force to the word Now. While youth “Sits on thy skin like morning dew, / And while thy willing Soul transpires / At every pore with instant Fires. / Now let us sport us while we may.”

Pause again. Take a breath. Enjoy the joy and savor saying this, “Let us roll all our Strength, and all / Our sweetness up into one ball.” Remind yourself, it’s the middle of the 17th century when the poet adds, let’s “tear our Pleasures with rough strife” right through the “Iron gates of Life.” And so he ends, as bold and undaunted as ever, “Thus, though we cannot make our Sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run.”   

Don’t Mess with Marvell

Maybe it’s because I first encountered Marvell by way of Hemingway (the “time’s chariot” line prompted by the honking of a car), but I can’t help seeing a “Let’s put the gloves on and go ten rounds” challenge in Marvell’s expression as he peers out of the shadows on the cover of the Wordsworth Poetry Library paperback (shown here). Imagine a pandemic mask covering his nose and mouth as I just did and he seems to be sizing you up. Actually, his expression is more intense without the mask. You definitely don’t want to cross or misconstrue or in any way underestimate this man of many parts — a poet serving both Oliver 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. It only makes sense that his portrait (circa 1655-1660) would be painted by “an unknown artist.”

When he was riding high, Hemingway liked to imagine himself holding his own in the ring with Mr. Turgenev and Mr. de Maupassant, and fighting “two draws with Mr. Stendahl,” but Marvell? I doubt he’d take on the author of one of his favorite poems.

In a letter from January 1926, Hemingway says he doesn’t think “good poetry has anything to do with our age at all,” meaning our age in history. As an example of “my idea of Poetry” he quotes from the anonymous 16th-century song (“… Christ that my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again”) and an anonymous Medieval ballad. The only poet he mentions by name is “Andy Marvell To His Coy Mistress somewhere in the 17th century.”

Marvell in Person

Says John Aubrey in his Brief Lives, Marvell “was of middling stature, pretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek’t, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in conversation very modest, and of very few words; and though he loved wine he would never drinke hard in company, and was wont to say that, he would not play the goodfellow in any man’s company in whose hand he would not trust his life. He had not a generall acquaintance.”

Harold Bloom imagines “a bad-tempered, hard-drinking, lifelong bachelor and controversialist” he finds hard to match with “everything we know of his religion and politics, for the paradoxical reason that such a personality simply does not manifest itself in the poems, except perhaps for the satire. The Mower poems could have been written by a good-tempered married man who never touched alcohol and had little notion of religious and political quarrels. Yet they are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and personal and totally universal in scope and emphasis, which is only to say that they are very great, very enigmatic lyric poems.”

Marvell Now

In my review of Nigel Smith’s biography Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (Yale 2010), I quoted from Christopher Ricks’s analysis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” in which 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” and exclaims, “Andy Marvell — what a marvel!” Wikipedia is hard put to contain all the Marvellian fallout, from Ursula LeGuin to Woody Allen to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The upside of having too much on your mind is the chance to listen and listen again to the Kinks song on YouTube after a year of pandemic challenges. Just as “To His Coy Mistress” is hard to stop reading — you could almost say it reads itself — it’s hard to stop thinking or humming or singing quietly along to a deceptively simple lyric that encompasses so many possibilities, as in that line, “It seems there’s more to life than just to live it,” all the more when you think beyond the moment, back over the last year.

Or, you can think back through the centuries to John Donne, who died on March 31, 1631, ten years after Andrew Marvell was born, March 31, 1621.

It was Donne’s “No man is an island” from his “Devotions on Emergent Occasions” that gave Ernest Hemingway, who died 60 years ago this July, an epigraph and a title when he sent For Whom the Bell Tolls” into a world at war. Given the enormity of the death toll, it’s a meditation that has special resonance today, the idea that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.” But with vaccinations on the rise, I’d rather end with something more upbeat. In his song “The Good-Morrow,” Donne says “good morrow to our waking soules, / Which watch not one another out of feare; / For love, all love of other sights controules, / And makes one little roome, an every where.”