Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) has been called “the greatest minor poet in the English language.” There’s plenty of competition for this curious distinction, but the case for Marvell is strong, especially if you like ambiguity and elegance in equal measure. Marvell happens to be one of the great mystery men of English letters. He had a gift for foreign languages, was an avid fencer, and lived a shadowy life on the continent that led to speculation that he was a spy or double agent. For twenty years he served as a member of parliament. He did not produce a large amount of poetry, but what he wrote was, as Spencer Tracey said of Katharine Hepburn’s anatomy, “cherce.”
Probably Marvell’s most famous poem is “To His Coy Mistress.” Never was a declaration of lust more logical. Carpe diem: We won’t be young forever, so let us make merry while we can. But Marvell develops the argument as one would a syllogism. He begins with wild hyperbole. If we had “world enough and time,” he would woo the maiden “ten years before the flood” and not mind if she should turn him down until the second coming.
But with the inevitable “but,” the tone changes drastically from genial to threatening: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And now Marvell warns the lady that someday “worms will try / that long-preserv’d virginity”of hers – a grim image you’d not expect to find in a seduction poem. The stanza closes with a sarcastic couplet for the ages: “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace.”
The third and final stanza clinches the argument as the lovers clinch. The image of the lovers rolled into a ball concludes the poem in an outburst of violence. But the violence is contained; Marvell pushes the couplet to the breaking point: “Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball, / And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life.” T. S. Eliot liked the image so much he lifted it for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
When Oliver Cromwell returned to England after subjugating Ireland in 1650, Marvell greeted him with “An Horatian Ode” that set some sort of record for calculated ambiguity. This stately, grave ode can be read as straightforward praise of the conquering hero who had beheaded King Charles I and would, as the poem predicts, go on to suppress the Scots. But subtle critics have propounded the opposite interpretation, contending that the ode has a secret royalist agenda and is deeply critical of Cromwell. And so this mid-seventeenth-century poem became a perfect object lesson in mid-twentieth-century literary criticism.
Read Marvell’s “The Garden” for his double vision of paradise lost and paradox gained. “Two paradises ‘twere in one / To live in paradise alone.” Before you declare your disagreement with this proposition, consider the mathematical metaphor Marvell employs. And then re-read the first three chapters of Genesis.
Possibly no one, not even Pope, wrote couplets more complex and witty than those of Andrew Marvell.