Andrew Marvell – Biography


The English poet and politician Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), one of the writers of the 17th century most admired by the 20th, composed lyric poetry which is sensuous, witty, elegant, and sometimes passionate.

Were Andrew Marvell not a major poet in his own right, he might be regarded primarily as a fascinating transitional figure. His work is deeply under the influence of John Donne and the metaphysical school, yet it shares its formal elegance and smoothness with the “tribe of Ben,” the poets who clustered about the influential Ben Jonson and came to form the Cavalier school. Furthermore he was a protégéand disciple of John Milton, whose intense and broad-ranging participation in Renaissance philosophical, poetic, and theological traditions finds its counterpart in his own work. Like Milton, he wrote considerable poetry devoted to contemporary political questions, and he wrote verse satire akin to that of John Dryden, who is generally seen as the leading spirit of a new age.

Marvell was born on March 31, 1621, at Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire. His father, a Calvinistic Anglican clergyman, became master of the Charterhouse, an almshouse, and preacher at Holy Trinity Church in Hull, where the family moved in 1624; the poet’s mother was to die in 1638, his father in 1641. In 1633 Marvell began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained until 1641, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1639. Late in his Trinity years, a plausible tradition holds, Marvell was converted to Roman Catholicism by persuasive Jesuits but was promptly brought back to the Anglican faith by his father. By the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 Marvell’s academic career had ended short of his completing a master of arts degree, perhaps as a result of his father’s accidental death, and he began a 4-year sojourn in Europe, probably tutoring the son of a well-to-do family.

First Works

Though in poems written between 1645 and 1649 he had evinced royalist sympathies, Marvell seems to have been attracted by the strong personality of Oliver Cromwell, and in 1650 he wrote “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.” Commonly acknowledged a masterful piece of political poetry, this ode has occasioned some controversy as to the degree of unqualified admiration with which the poet regards the military harshness of the Puritan general.

For 2 or 3 years beginning in 1651, Marvell was tutor to Mary Fairfax, daughter of Lord General Fairfax, a retired Commonwealth general who lived at Nun Appleton, and here he wrote some memorable poems. Among them are the lovely “Music’s Empire” and “Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax,” a complex and sophisticated compliment to Mary Fairfax consisting of almost 400 octosyllabic couplets in which landscape description serves emblematically to convey political and philosophical ideals.

Political Career

In 1653 Milton attempted unsuccessfully to have Marvell made his assistant as Latin secretary (a position like that of secretary of state) to Cromwell; instead Marvell became tutor to a young ward of Cromwell named William Dutton. He tutored first at Eton, in the house of a man who had been to Bermuda and may possibly have provided the inspiration for the charming “Bermudas,” in which a tropical island is presented as a Puritan paradise. Later, his tutoring duties took him to France.

In 1657 Marvell was appointed Latin secretary himself and remained in office until the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. He continued to write political poetry, much of it celebrating his admiration for Cromwell, such as “The First Anniversary of the Government under Oliver Cromwell” in 1655 and “Upon the Death of O.C.” in 1658. In 1659 he was elected member of Parliament for Hull and served in the House of Commons for the rest of his life. Unlike the tempestuous Milton, however, Marvell was not an embattled and passionately committed politician but rather a quiet civil servant. In 1662 he served with the British minister in Holland; in 1663 he embarked on 2 years of diplomatic missions to Russia, Denmark, and Sweden. The latter years of his life were devoted to his service to the government, to the composition of political satire in verse, and to the writing of prose dealing with contemporary issues. He is said to have protected Milton from the vindictiveness of the new royal government after the Restoration—not the least of his contributions to poetry. He died on Aug. 16, 1678, of a fever compounded by medical treatment, still a bachelor. In 1681 his housekeeper published Miscellaneous Poems by Andrew Marvell, Esq., the basis of his reputation as a poet.

Assessment of His Poetry

To the student of cultural history, Marvell’s poetry is a fascinating amalgam of intellectual currents of his age—stoicism, Christian Platonism, antischolastic mysticism—and an Anglican sense of the order and harmony of nature. To the historian of poetry, his achievement is remarkable for its balance between a never-abandoned wit and dramatic atmosphere reminiscent of Donne, a precision and verbal elegance modeled on Horace and other classical poets, a detachment and metrical sophistication shared with the Cavaliers, and a sensuous evocation of landscape shared with the classical pastoral tradition.

Most of the finest poems seem to have been composed in the 1650s; few of them are without central images of gardens. Perhaps the most famous of Marvell’s lyrics is “To His Coy Mistress”: “Had we but world enough and time,/ This coyness, Lady, were no crime…. / But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/ And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity.” Like many of Marvell’s best poems, it masks extraordinary subtlety and complexity beneath a surface of smooth and deceptively simple octosyllabic couplets. It is, in fact, as perfect an example of the metaphysical mode as anything by Donne and, for all its cool and witty tone, a passionate lyric. Similarly powerful is “The Garden,” whose sensuous images constitute a complex blending of Renaissance traditions that bear on the rival virtues of the active and the contemplative life; one of the most famous images in the poem is that of the mind, “that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,” withdrawn into itself and detached from the world, “Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

Further Reading on Andrew Marvell

The most authoritative biography of Marvell is in French. In English, briefer and less reliable biographies are Augustine Birrell, Andrew Marvell (1905), and V. Sackville-West, Andrew Marvell (1929). Some of the most influential modern essays on Marvell—by Frank Kermode, Leo Spitzer, Douglas Bush, and Cleanth Brooks—are conveniently assembled in William R. Keast, ed., Seventeenth Century English Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism (1962). The seminal essay by T. S. Eliot (1921) is reprinted in his Selected Essays (1932; subsequent editions), and the essay by William Empson, “Marvell’s Garden,” in his Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). Most of Ruth C. Wallerstein’s Studies in Seventeenth-century Poetic (1950) is devoted to Marvell. John M. Wallace, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (1968), relates the poet’s work to its political context, and Donald M. Friedman, Marvell’s Pastoral Art (1970), relates the poems to literary and intellectual traditions. The literary background is best provided by Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (1945; 2d ed. 1962). Also recommended is Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (1934).

You can read Andrew Marwell’s poetry here