Saturday, 19 February 2011

Andrew Marvell ~ Poet or Politician

You might be forgiven for thinking that there is precious little reading going on in the SCR at the moment, I certainly feel as if that is the case.  I don't seem to be writing much about books and the tbr pile is simply growing by the day.  However, in my defence I do have three quite substantial projects on the go.  My Wednesday evening book group is reading Daniel Deronda for the first week in March and I have to lead the discussion.  Not only is this a substantial read in its own right, but I'm also having to do quite a lot of background reading both on Eliot's own religious position and on the general reception of Jews in England in the period when the novel is set.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the work, but it is taking time.

Then, my Wednesday Shakespeare Group is just about to move on to The Taming of the Shrew and the first of the three sessions is always the most difficult to prepare for as I like to look not only at the major sources for the play but also at the various editions that are available.  In the case of The Shrew, of course, this means reading and comparing the Folio text with the three Quartos of The Taming of A Shrew which were published before the First Folio in 1623 and then taking on board all the arguments as to which, if either, is the original play.  Again, this is fascinating, but it takes time.

Finally, I was suddenly asked to give a talk to our History Group about the seventeenth century poet, Andrew Marvell, on the somewhat shaky grounds that we have now reached that period in our study of English History and I am the literary one.  

Now if push comes to shove, I can talk about any Shakespeare play for an hour or so off the top of my head, and this isn't the first time that I've read Daniel Deronda, but the sum total of my knowledge about Andrew Marvell prior to this request was the first line of the poem To His Coy Mistress.  So, believe me, there has been a great deal of reading going on in the SCR but it's mostly been aimed at finding out more about this remarkable man, who was far better know in his own time as a politician and a writer of tracts designed specifically to get up the noses of the great and the good than he was as a poet.

Marvell was born in Yorkshire in 1621 and the family very soon moved to Hull, a city with which he was associated for the rest of his life.  His father was an Anglican Minister and from what I can discover Marvell himself was solid in that faith throughout his life.  Certainly, he was voluble orally and in writing against both the Catholics and the Episcopalians, and towards the end of his life this would set him at odds with all the major players in the political arena as Charles II moved further and further towards the Catholic church and those who wished to see the power in the hands of the Bishops fought the monarch in the House of Commons.

He was a very well-educated man, attending Cambridge University from before his thirteenth birthday, and using the chance to travel as governor to a young nobleman to learn Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian.  His knowledge of languages was to become well known and he was employed as tutor to a number of well connected teenagers including, for a time, the nephew of a friend of Oliver Cromwell who was intended as husband for Cromwell's youngest daughter.  When he moved into politics as MP for Hull, he was often given secretarial roles that required him to interpret and translate documents for visiting dignitaries and was part of a delegation to Russia when Parliament was trying to renegotiate trading deals that had been cancelled when Charles I was beheaded.  Obviously Tzar Alexis didn't want his own subjects getting any regicidal ideas.

Looking at his time in Parliament you do tend to get the feeling that things were pretty much the same then as they are now.  The Borough of Hull paid Marvell 6s 8d for every day that the House sat as well as expenses and the occasional barrel of ale.  Oh that word expenses.  We all know what that can mean after the scandals of the last year about the monies claimed by our current crop of MPs.  And what about those barrels of ale?  I suppose we can only be glad they weren't Duck Houses! (With apologies to my non UK readers who may not quite understand that last comment.)  However, Marvell did speak out in the Commons against a bill designed to allow MPs to accept public office, a means of bribing politicians to vote in ways favourable to those who held the real power.  In fact, my overall impression of Marvell is that he was his own man.  He had his own ideas of what was right and wrong and he supported whichever grouping he thought was most likely to bring about the effects he thought desirable.  This has led to people looking at him as something of a turncoat, but I think you could rely on him if you relied on him to be true to himself.

And all this time he was writing, but not primarily the poems for which we now remember him.  The works that brought him most notice were the poems and the tracts which either feted or poured scorn on the major players in English government.  His final great piece was An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government which opens:

There has now for diverse Years, a design been carried on, to change the Lawfull Government of England into an Absolute Tyrrany, and to convert the established Protestant Religion into down-right Popery

and goes on to trace the conspiracy back to Charles II himself.  A real example of how to win friends and influence people!

Marvell died of the tertian ague (which probably means some form of malarial type illness) in 1678, but even then was hardly able to avoid controversy when his housekeeper claimed to have been secretly married to him and consequently to have rights over his estate.  His poems were published after his death, but for a long time the more political writings were overlooked.  It was really the essay written by T S Eliot for the tercentennial volume of his works, published in 1921, that brought Marvell back to general notice and led to a reassessment of his writings, both poetical and political. 

So, you see there has been some reading going on in the SCR and now I just have to hope that I can satisfy my colleagues when I give the longer version of this paper on Monday.  Fingers crossed.


  1. Hello Annie,

    You certainly have a busy schedule at the moment.

    You are probably reading more than most of us, in reality, but just not organising anything into structured reviews.

    I quite like your blog as it is, the diary format is really interesting to read and I am totally depressed that my literary abilities fall far short of your achievements.

    My TBR mountain, is completely out of hand and I will seriously have to sort something out soon, or I can see me being evicted, along with all my books, just so that 'hubbie' can find room to lay his head at night!! It really IS that bad!!

    I am desparately trying to hold out against following the crowd down the e-reader route, as I do so love my books, but how high can the mountain get?

    Enjoy your weekend.


  2. Thank you Yvonne. I really wanted the blog to be about a wider range of subjects than just books because one of the things I love about my life is the way in which discoveries in one area seem to connect with those from other interests. As to literary abilities it's more the collected experiences of a lifetime of reading. It comes to all readers eventually.

    Oh, those tbr piles! I have a friend who lives in an upstairs flat who is seriously worried about what happens when her floor gives way. At the moment she gets on quite well with her downstairs neighbours, but there does come a point! Today I made the mistake of suggesting that our next lunch meeting should take in Long Barn Books a really large secondhand book shop. What kind of a friend am I leading her down the path to ruin?

  3. I know that feeling very well of knowing you're not really writing about books you're finishing (me--at the moment am reading lots but finishing nothing!) but are still reading loads. It sounds as though you're very busy indeed. You mentioned in a comment on my blog that you are retired--were you an English professor? I've been trying to read more Shakespeare but it all comes in fits and starts--and nothing at all lately---far too many interests and books I want to read and far too little time to do it all.

  4. I don't think any finger crossing is needed ... sounds like you are on top of your game.

    Must say that Marvell is one of those poets I "did" a little of in my student days but remember even less of. One of my children did an essay on To his coy mistress which I recollect enjoying reading. I've been thinking recently that I should reacquaint myself with the poets of the 1600-1700s. But them I think that I really should catch up on Aussie poets as most of my poetic knowledge is British ... whereas my knowledge of fiction is far more broadbased.

    Anyhow, as for your lecture. Go sock it to 'em!

  5. Danielle, I am so glad I'm not the only one. I don't remember a time when I seem to be reading so much to so little finished purpose and it's worried me. Yes, I've been in education all my life one way or another. I started out as a drama student, then went into primary teaching, running school libraries and getting totally immersed in children's literature, then (to avoid having to be a head mistress instead of a teacher) did a Masters and a Doctorate in English Language Studies and moved into the University sector and taught Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, Children's Literature and Language Studies. Although it may not always show when I'm writing quickly, I am a whizz at teaching grammar and making it fun! After I had to take early retirement on health grounds I was given an Honorary Senior Fellowship at a rather prestigious local university and so I still do some work with post-graduate students who are studying in one or other of my fields and I also do a lot of work with The University of the Third Age. Basically I'm a teacher. If any group of people sits still for long enough in my presence I'm going to try and teach it something!

  6. Thank you WG. I need a little hand holding on this one. I don't think you're alone in not knowing much about Marvell or his works. Until quite recently I would say that he has played very much second fiddle to John Donne, even though Donne was really a good few years earlier. In many respects Donne had a much more interesting life going from rake to priest; it makes for better publicity than being a Member of Parliament! My knowledge of poetry is really abysmal. I know the popular stuff, but any real depth is beyond me. I should definitely read some Aussie work as well.

  7. Wow, you have a lot going on! I would love to be a part of all the discussions you describe here. Daniel Deronda is a particular favorite of mine and would enjoy learning more about it. It sounds like you are very busy but that the work is satisfying.

  8. That's so cool. You have such a varied and rich work history. I think anyone working in the education field has to really love it as they certainly aren't going to become rich doing it! So glad to have found your blog.

  9. My trouble, Dorothy, is that I say yes to all the things I really want to do and then find I haven't got enough time to prepare as well as I would like. I'm going to have to learn to be more selective. The trouble is it's so nice to be asked and appreciated that it's hard to say no. And, should you ever find yourself in my area you have a standing invitation to join in with any of the discussion you want to.

    Danielle, you are so right about needing to love the job to be a teacher. Part of my university work was with trainee teachers and you could tell straight away which ones would stay and who would leave within a couple of years. You can learn how to teach, but you can't learn to be a teacher.
    An after thought - you can only be a really effective teacher if you are also a learning. I really believe that life long learning is a pre-requisite for any successful teacher.

  10. Wow, you have been doing lots of reading. The stuff about Marvell is really interesting. I'm sure your groups will all be successful!

  11. The Marvell is now a thing of the past, Stefanie, and thank goodness it went very well. We had a new member who assured us she would definitely be returning, which I think means it was OK.