Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Literature

Marvell Marvelled: Katie Kadue on Andrew Marvell’s 400th Birthday

The poet Andrew Marvell was born on this day in 1621 near Hull, England. Marvell’s poetry has inspired readings by some of our finest literary critics, from T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks to Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Christopher Ricks, and Leah S. Marcus. Indeed, it was 300 years ago today that Eliot published his now-classic essay “Andrew Marvell” in the Times Literary Supplement. For Marvell’s quadricentenary, we asked our author Katie Kadue for a brief essay on the poet, touching on the themes of her forthcoming Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton. Kadue illuminates what Marvell’s poetry still preserves for us, and the best literary criticism, too. 

Andrew Marvell’s poetry is best known for images of time’s hurtling, inexorable movement toward a spectacular end: the winged chariot hurrying near, warning us of death’s encroachment, in “To His Coy Mistress,” or, less hurtlingly, the annihilation of all that’s made in “The Garden.” Marvell wrote his poems and was active in politics during the English Civil War and its aftermath, when the nation was captivated by providential time; his “Horatian Ode” to Oliver Cromwell is emphatic that the time to act is “now.” But Marvell also took his sweet time lingering on the ordinary ways the world keeps itself together every day. On the four-hundredth anniversary of his birth, we might consider how Marvell is a poet of preservation as well as annihilation, of pickled vegetable love as well as time-devouring carpe diem. His poetry experimented in making world and time, at least temporarily, feel like enough.

In one poem, “The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers,” Marvell’s speaker exhorts a young girl in a garden to stop and smell the roses. The poem takes place in an indefinitely extended “meantime,” where little T. C.’s most urgent task is not to gather her rosebuds while she may, before they and her youth fade, but rather to put flowers on life support: “But most procure,” the speaker instructs, “That violets may a longer age endure.” While the girl’s eventual marriage does loom in the background, her primary purpose is to help the garden preserve itself, both physically—by prolonging floral lifespans—and, in a way, cognitively—by helping the greenery appreciate being green: “Meantime, whilst every verdant thing / Itself does at thy beauty charm,” is when the girl will go about her violet-prolonging work. This parenthetically suspended image of self-charming plants is not exactly the same as what Christopher Ricks, borrowing from William Empson, calls the “self-inwoven simile,” a figure of speech characteristic of Marvell that “wittily and mysteriously” claims that something resembles its own resemblance, like the drop of dew that, “gazing back upon the Skies, / Shines with a mournful Light; / Like its own Tear.” But like Ricks’ similes, these lines double back on themselves as the girl drops out of the picture, producing what is not quite a charm offensive but more of a charm reflexive. The “itself” after the enjambment—“every verdant thing / Itself”—stalls forward motion by referring back to the last line, back to the things themselves, a green thought in a green shade that doesn’t quite annihilate. It only charms.

Even Marvell’s most action-packed poem, “Upon Appleton House,” admits of a momentary mirror stage. Near the end of the poem, its hallucinogenic visions that transformed a country estate into a kaleidoscopic fever dream of civil war, agrarian revolution, and extreme pastoral self-pleasuring are abruptly interrupted by the entrance of another young girl, Maria, the daughter of Marvell’s patron. Maria walks through Appleton House’s gardens to what has been described as apocalyptic effect: “Nature is wholly vitrified,” recalling the “sea of glass” of Revelation 4:6. But Maria is not destroying the world; she is helping it be itself. “See how loose Nature,” Marvell entreats us, “in respect / To her, itself doth recollect.” It’s as if Nature were looking in its own “vitrified” surface, seeing its own image, and freshening itself up. For this self-regarding garden, “recollection” is at once material and perceptive, the more careful organization of what was “loose” and the remembrance of what it is: “itself.”

T. S. Eliot’s essay marking the tercentenary of Marvell’s birth ends with a paean to the poet’s “modest and certainly impersonal virtue,” a virtue Eliot admits he has “patently failed to define.” Whatever it is, it has something to do with “internal equilibrium,” and “it is something precious and needed and apparently extinct; it is what should preserve the reputation of Marvell.” Ricks, writing over half a century later, supplies his own definition of that “something”: the self-inwoven simile, with its paradoxical internal equilibrium of inclusion and exclusion, balance and conflict. What for Eliot was so ineffable, and what for Ricks could be explained as an advanced poetic technique, might also be a casual insistence on letting things be what they are. Perhaps what should preserve Marvell’s reputation is the self-preservative impulse that stops any given poem’s forward motion in its tracks. Like the lovers in “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvell cannot make our sun stand still; but like Maria in “Upon Appleton House,” he can make it, like the rest of nature, recollect itself, and at the end of the day “descend with greater care.”

Katie Kadue is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows and Assistant Collegiate Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.