Last updated: May 13, 2019
Topic: ArtMusic
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Andrew Marvell is a 17th century poet that seems to stand in a class of his own.  Among the two prevailing schools of poetry at the time, Marvell seems to be both and neither at the same time.  The metaphysical poets like Donne and Johnson refer to a group of poets who share an interest in concerns of the intellect rather than emotions and who seem to disregard mysticism for rationalism (“Metaphysical Poets”).  Marvel, in many ways, could be (and is) classified as a metaphysical poet.  According to Virginia Tech professor J. Mooney, “His best poetry combines true metaphysical wit with perfect classical grace and poise to a greater degree than any other poet of the century….”

However, Marvel could also be seen as a type of Cavalier poet.  These poets wrote about secular themes in a more light-hearted and playful tone than those of the more Puritan metaphysical poets. Perhaps Andrew Moore said it best when he described Marvels work as one which “blends the best of Cavalier wit and courtesy with the quiet gravity of a humane Puritan.”

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These differences make him quite unique in that his poems combine references to Christian elements and to classical elements.  The Christian elements place him more directly in the school of metaphysical poets, while the classic elements from the Greek and Roman tradition place him somewhere in between the metaphysical and the cavalier schools.  Marvell’s poetry explores both classical and Christian elements while exploring themes and issues relevant to his time period.

Seventeenth century style Christian religion was unique in and of itself.  The influence of Oliver Cromwell seemed to pervade much of the writing community.  The Puritanical insistence on self-denial and complete dedication to a virtuous lifestyle set the stage for events like the Salem Witch trials.  In contrast, the Humanistic approach to literature stressed a resurgence of the classics of the ancients.  Greek and Roman deities are featured in these poems as are their infamous sexual and sometimes violent escapades.  At times, Marvell seemed to write in the perfect Puritan fashion, yet at other times he writes in the fashion that has earned him the oxymoronic label Metaphysical Humanist.  His poems “Coronet,”  “Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body” and others reveal the Puritan side of Marvel’s work and life.  On the contrary, his poems “The Garden,” “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” and others seem to play up the classic elements.

The poem “Coronet” is similar to work by John Donne, one of the most notable metaphysical poets of the 17th Century.   It is a religious poem which examines the problem of maintaining faith in God in a secular world filled with temptation and war.  It opens with the speaker alluding to the wreath of thorns that Christ wore upon his head as he was crucified on the cross.  The speaker reveals that he, too, seeks to know the pain of the thorns as he feels crucified by the world also.  “When for the thorns with which I long, too long,/With many a piercing wound, My Saviour’s head have crowned,/ I seek with garlands to redress that wrong…”(Marvell, Coronet, lines 1-4).   The speaker discusses his attempt to make the wreath from the flowers once reserved for by his shepherdess, whom the poem implies is a romantic interest of the speaker.

The wreaths in the poem seem to symbolize adornments worn by individual which represent him.  Christ’s wreath of thorns represented his suffering, but the earthly wreaths of flowers could represent vanities and earthly pleasure.    Some researchers have suggested that Marvell was using this poem to represent the conflict of writing poetry which exalts virtuous love for Christ and also poetry which praises his earthly love for his shepherdess with the same craft of words. “In ‘The Coronet’, Marvell considers whether the poetic skill which has formerly (and culpably) served to praise his ‘shepherdess’ can ‘redress that Wrong’, by weaving a ‘Chaplet’ for Christ” (Moore).  This argument falls cleaning into the metaphysical camp.  The same serpent which served in Genesis to tempt Eve to worldly knowledge also appears in this poem to taunt the speaker for attempting to use earthly flower, or words, to canonize Christ.  The serpent represents this self deception, which is evident in line in line 10 when he says “…(so I my self deceive)”  (Marvell, Coronet)

The poem ends with the speaker realizing that he cannot create the same wreaths of praise for Christ as he does for his shepherdess.  He does, conclude, however, that he might use those words to crown his feet as a show of penitence and supplication.  “That they, while thou on both their spoils does tread, /May crown Thy feel, that could not crown Thy head” (Marvell, Coronet, lines 25-26).  The struggle between earthly virtue and heavenly virtue is apparent throughout.

Another poem that brings this metaphysical argument between religious devotion and secular love to the readers’ attention is Marvel’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body.”  This imaginative poem creates a dialogue between the soul and the body which view their conditions in two very different ways.  The dialogue alternates from the point of view of the soul and the body, both of which maintain that his lot is the most difficult and persecuted.  The soul maintains that adherence to a religious code is emotionally and spiritually draining; the body contends that his must constantly struggles against weakness, pain and temptation.  The obvious parallel here is living a virtuous life in a world full of secular pleasures.

The soul begins by lamenting its metaphorical imprisonment by the physical constraints of the body.  Lines 1, 2, 4, and 7 mention the “dungeon” that “enslaved” the soul with manacles and “chains.”  It feels in lines 9 and 10 that it is fully the victim of the body: “Tortured, besides each other part,/In a vain head, and double heart” (Marvell, A Dialogue1).   The idea is that the physical body, because of its physical capabilities can always force the soul to be its type of puppet, doing whatever it dictates.

The body, however, has an opposite view.  He feels as if the soul is the puppet master, driving him to act in ways that he does not want.  He says he is a “Body that could never rest, /Since this ill spirit it possessed” (Marvell, A Dialogue1 lines 19-20).  The body seems to argue that keeping up with the soul’s demands is depriving the body of its autonomy and pleasure.  The soul argues that treating the body’s ailments, physical and moral, is destroying the soul in lines 25-26: “And all my care itself employs, /That to preserve which me destroys.” The body answers that there is no medicine that could fix the problems bestowed upon him by the soul.  He uses images of physical disease to describe the mental and emotional turmoil the soul causes him.

But Physic could never reach

The maladies thou me dost teach;

Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,

And then the palsy shakes of fear;

The pestilence of love does heat,

Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat; (Marvell, A Dialogue1 lines 30-36).

The obvious parallel here is the constant struggle between secular desires and the maintenance of virtue.  The body and soul constantly wage a war over who will win the battle.  This compares to the religious message of the “Coronet.”  In both poems, struggle to remain on a continuously virtuous path is painted as emotionally difficult and physically draining.

In a third poem that deals primarily with Andrew Marvell’s tendencies to explore the Christian arguments through metaphysical-style poetry is “Eyes and Ears.”  This poem, written in couplets, seems to dwell entirely on eye imagery.  Much detail is given on the use of the eyes for seeing and for crying.  Yet even in this poem, Marvell includes a strictly Christian reference – that of Mary Magdalene.  “So Magdalen in tears more wise/Dissolved those captivating eyes, /Whose liquid chains could flowing meet/To fetter her Redeemer’s feet” (Marvell, Eyes lines 31-34).  All the description up to this point in the poem is capsulated in this example.  His adoration of the weeping eyes which he feels is one of the most beautiful image is so because of its meaning.  The image of Mary Magdalene crying at the foot of the cross is one example of this beauty.

Then, though, Marvell does an interesting thing.  He moves from Christian references to those of the classical myths, yet he does so subtly. He lists things that are, to him, not as beautiful as the weeping eyes.  One of these things is Cynthia.  Of course, Cynthia is a Christian reference.  She is referred to in the book of Acts as one that tempts people away from Christianity.  However, this makes her a classical reference as well.  Cynthia is another name for the goddess Artemis who is a preserver of virginity and goddess of women and fertility (Cynthia). After a quick passing reference, the poem returns to more glorification of the human eye, but now the reader has had a glimpse into another side of Marvell’s poetry

In addition to the Christian references so ingrained in Andrew Marvell, the religious man, are the references to classical poetry that led the humanist movement.  As an artist, Marvell must have felt compelled to dedicate some of his poetry to this exploration. The humanists commonly sought to answer the age-old question “Who am I?”   They wondered where the place of man was in the great cosmos.  Of course, many of these answers led right back to the Puritan church, but others used the elements of classical myth to make points about humanity.

In “The Picture of little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers,” Marvell uses predominantly references and images in classical myth to ponder the child he sees.  This child is probably his young neighbor whose name fits the initials, Theophilia Cornewall (Samuels).  The poem begins by describing a nymph which is a classical reference to a young and innocent girl who is some cases had magical powers.  This girl is described in line 10 as the “Darling of the Gods” (Marvell, Picture);  indeed it was common for the classical gods to choose favorites, unlike the Christian God who loves all man equally.

After contemplating this girl’s future capacity to break men’s hearts and her pastoral beauty, the speaker goes on in the last stanza to refer to the goddess Flora.  Although Flora was a minor goddess of ancient Rome, one that, among many, hailed the coming of the spring, she was a popular reference for Humanist writers, Marvell included.  Flora has the capacity to stop the blooming of the flowers, and metaphorically, to dash the hope and dreams of man (Flora).  This poem does not mention anything about the importance of virtuous living, save that all men respect the beauty that Flora has provided.  He seems to be warning the young girl that she is not exempt from the wrath of the goddess.

This approach seems to be consistent with the classical writer Petrarch, whom Humanists widely studied.  Samuels says that this poem is a simply a retelling of the Petrarchan story of love.  Samuels who details many metaphysical poets that utilize this theme, singles this Marvell poem out as on “that appears to be wholly set inside the Petrarchan locale….By beginning with a young girl or nymph lying in the grass, Marvell opens the poem inside the Petrarchan locale, at the site of most intense vision, where Petrarch first met Laura, the place to which he would return both physically and mentally in order to re-enter the paradise of meeting her and the hope for her return.”   Clearly Marvell wasn’t ignoring the other influences on love and the human condition.

Another poem that makes more obvious and extended reference to the classical gods of mythology is Marvell’s “The Garden.”  According to Professor Bruce Magee, this type of poem is called a hortus which is a type of poetry that arose out of the British affinity for expansive gardens.  The first four lines of the poem confirm this:  How vainly men themselves amaze/To win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes;/And their uncessant Labours see/Crown’d from some single Herb or Tree” (Marvell, Garden).

While any garden reference can certainly be seen as reflective of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, this garden seems to reflect classical realm as well.  It seems more about the sanctity of nature itself than the sanctity of it as being from God.  In stanza three, Marvell criticizes the defamation of a tree by carving initials into it, a practice by young 17th Century lovers.  It also makes allusion to Apollo and Daphne, and Pan and Syrinx.  In classical mythology, both of these male gods pursued these women and later turned them into beautiful plants.  Magee claims that the intention of the gods had always been to have the plants, not the women and cites, “And Pan did after Syrinx speek,/ Not as a nymph, but for a reed” as basis for this idea Marvell, Garden lines 29-32).   Marvell refers to the speaker’s soul as a bird which is another common component of classical myth.  Finally, he makes reference to the zodiac in the last stanza, which is referring to a sundial created by the ancient Romans.

Of course, some of the references to the Garden of Eden are unmistakable and therefore cannot be ignored.  In stanza 5, the speaker refers to the wondrous fruits amply provided for him in this garden, an obvious reference to the gifts of Eden granted to Adam and Eve by God.  In stanza 8, again, the lines “Such was that a happy garden-state, While man there walked without a mate” (Marvell, Garden),  again refer to Adam in the Garden of Eden while the lines following soon after, “But ‘twas beyond a mortal’s share/To wander solitary there” (Marvel, Garden), allude to Adam’s being cast out of the Garden of Eden.  This poem seems to combine Marvell’s references to both Christian and classical ideology.

“Clorinda and Damon” is another poem that seems to refer mainly to classical myth but can also be interpreted as an allegory with Christian elements.  This poem, like “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” is presented as a dialogue between two opposing forces.  Clorinda seems to be calling her love Damon to work to bring their lost flocks back into the fold  and comments that Flora, a minor goddess of the spring, has prepared for them a place to rest and feast:  “I have a grassy scutcheon spied,/Where Flora blazons all her pride;/ The grass I aim to feast they sheep,/ The flowers I for thy temples keep” (Marvell, Clorinda lines 3-6).  The brooding Damon always seems to have a reply that resists her.  “Grass withers, and the flowers too fade,” (line 7), he says.  She continues to try to lure him away, and he constantly resists, mentioning the dying of flowers, the all seeing eye of heaven and the darkening of the soul.

Finally, Clorinda asks her love what has caused him to become so sullen.  He replies with a reference to the Greek god Pan.  Pan is generally believed to be the god of flocksmen (Jenks).  Damon claims to have met and talked with Pan and that he said, “Words that transcend poor shepherd’s skill; /But he e’er since my songs does fill, And his name swells my slender oat”  (Marvell, Clorinda lines 23-25).  Damon is offering that his meeting with Pan has made him think only of him, and not his real god.  Because Pan is a god associated with vile sexual conquest, this makes Damon sad for his own soul.  The end of the poem also suggests that Clorinda could be made to believe in the words of Pan as well, as does the final Chorus who sings to the far-reaching effect of Pan.

Oddly, this poem does have a strong correlation with Christianity.  Over time, the physical image of Satan has evolved from several different physical renderings which started as the darkened angel.  Jenks says,

By the Middle Ages, however, Satan had become a beast. His horns and hooves came from his commingling with beliefs banished by a victorious Christianity. The devil’s appurtenances derive from the great Greek god Pan- half-man, half-goat- and from association with the cult of the forest deity Cernunnos of northern Europe. Relegated to the shadows, the pagan gods were absorbed by the master of darkness, the demigod on the margins….

One of the more recent images paints Satan, then, as the physical depiction of Pan.  Knowing this, the reader can interpret the entire poem now as an allegory for the dark meeting with the devil (in the forest, no less) and its repercussions that became so prevalent in 18th Century literature.

A similar allegorical meaning exists also in Marvell’s In “The Nymph’s Complaining For the Death of her Faun.”  Professor J. Mooney discusses this idea: “On the surface, this poem simply adds to a tradition of poetry which memorializes pets: the girl literally speaks of the death of her fawn.   Yet the poem also functions as allegory: it recalls the Song of Songs, as well as the Virgin weeping at the foot of the cross.” Again, the reader can interpret the poem on two different levels.

First, the poem alludes to the work of the classical writer Virgil.  In Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, Aeneas’ son kills the beloved pet of Silvia:

“Ascanius young, and eager of his game,
Soon bent his bow, uncertain in his aim;
But the dire fiend the fatal arrow guides,
Which pierc’d his bowels thro’ his panting sides.
The bleeding creature issues from the floods,

Young Silvia beats her breast, and cries aloud
For succor from the clownish neighborhood:
The churls assemble; for the fiend, who lay
In the close woody covert, urg’d their way.
One with a brand yet burning from the flame,
Arm’d with a knotty club another came:
Whate’er they catch or find, without their care,
Their fury makes an instrument of war. (VII, lines 32-36, 41-48).

Marvell obviously borrows this story from Virgil in relating the story of this loss.  However, he also borrows from Christianity when he discusses the girl’s behavior.  She appears to be grieving for the wounds in a way that are reminiscing of Biblical stories.  Several scriptures in the New Testament refer to the women weeping at the foot of the cross in much the same way that the girl weeps for her fawn. The comparison between the lily white fawn and Christ are seen in lines 77-84.

Among the beds of lilies I

Have sought it oft, where it should lie,

Yet could not, till itself would rise,

Find it, although before mine eyes;

For in the flaxen lilies’ shade,

It like a bank of lilies laid.

Upon the roses it would feed,

Until its lips e’en seem to bleed (Marvell, Nymph)

Christ, in the Bible, is described as pure and white. John 1:29 states “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith,  Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”(Holy Bible).   The girl’s pet was also described as white and pure.   Christ is crucified so that people may live.  This crucifixion can be likened to the seemingly senseless death of the girl’s fawn, which had never hurt a single soul.  Likewise, Christ was the one human to remain sinless on earth.

In the Song of Solomon 2:1, the flowers of the lily and rose are presented: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys”(Holy Bible). This is describing Christ. The speaker of the poem also uses these same two flowers to describe one the girl’s fond memories of her pet.  It would lie among the white lilies and become almost invisible.  Then, the color red is introduced as a stain from the roses and as sin.  This corresponds with the red blood that flowed across Christ’s white skin as he was crucified.

The last three stanzas of the poem also contain references to both Christian and classic elements.  One reference from the poem shows the girls desire to enshrine her fawn in Diana’s temple.  Diana is the Roman goddess of woodlands and animals, a companion to the Greek Artemis.  She also envisions her fawn living on “In fair Elysium” (line 107) which refers to the island of the blest in mythology.  Here is where the gods would send the souls of departed heroes and heroines to live amid the fields and streams (Parada).   Yet the final stanza draws upon the age-old Catholic custom of creating likenesses of the Virgin Mary weeping for her son.  These are often in the form of pictures and statues.  The poem’s speaker, the girl weeping over the loss of her dear pet, seems to compare herself to the Virgin Mary when she says in the last seven  lines of the poem:

“That I shall weep, though I be stone,

Until my tears, still dropping, wear

My breast, themselves engraving there;

There at my feet shalt thou be laid,

Of purest alabaster made;

For I would have thine image be

White as I can, though not as thee. (Marvell, Nymph).

Mooney concludes that “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn” finally “takes the story of the young girl whose pet fawn has been killed and connects this simple tale to the vast human story….”  This story is one which can be found in both the classics and in the Christian theology.

“A Dialogue Between Thyrsis and Dorinda” is very similar to elements from “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn” and the two previously mentioned poems by Marvel, “The Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” and “Clorinda and Damon.”  This poem is also in the form of a conversation, this time between two lovers.  In the first stanza, Dorinda asks her lover if he knows where they will go when they die.  He responds with “to the Elizium” (Marvell, A Dialogue2 line 5).  She doesn’t seem to understand him, so he points to her the way.  He says “Cast thine Eye to yonder Skie,/There the milky way doth lye;/’Tis a sure but rugged way, That leads to Everlasting day” (lines 9-12).  She is finally convinced that she will soon pass the time happily and without fear in Elizium and falls asleep calming anticipating her own death.  Other classic Greek references include the Queen of May, another goddess of the spring, and the Music of the Spheres.

While “A Dialogue Between Thyrsis and Dorinda” seems only to reflect upon the classical afterworld of Elysium, its parallel to the Christian heaven is apparent.  The poem mentions the Everlasting, a reference to Christian semantics” and also the word “heaven.  The explanations given by Thyrsis are also reminiscent of Biblical theology.  For example, when he says that the path is “sure but rugged” (Marvell, A Dialogue2 line 10), studiers of the Bible might note that this is also the way the Bible describes the way to Christ at several points in the New Testament.  The parallel perhaps reveals that Marvell was aware that these two belief systems could be reconciled rather than be in constant opposition.

Finally, the short pastoral type poem “Ametas and Thestylis Making Hay-ropes” also contains the element of secularism vs. Christianity.  A pastoral is a light lyric poem which may express the Cavalier theme of Carpe Diem (sieze the day) or may express the more metaphysical ideal of remaining chaste and pure for God.  In this instance, the dialogue between Ametas and Thestylis seems to take the shape of an argument between the two.  Ametas is arguing that the two of them slip off to have sex.  Thestylis clearly wants to wait until the two of them are married.

Ametas begins his argument for the two consummating their love by arguing in the first four lines that “Think’st Thou that this Love can stand,/Whilst Thou still dost say me nay?/Love unpaid does soon disband:/Love binds Love as Hay binds Hay”(Marvell, Ametas).  He attempts to persuade her by making a metaphor to their own activity, twisting hay into ropes.  The argument seems to be, if you don’t consent, our love will not stay strong as this rope.  However, Thestylis outmaneuvers him. She counters with “Think’st Thou that this Rope would twine/If we both should turn one way?/ Where both parties so combine,/ Neither Love will twist nor Hay” (lines 5-8).  Her argument is that if both of them turned the hay in the same direction, they would never even have a hay rope.  Thus, she is saying that love survives best by those that seem to turn in opposition – in this case, not having sexual relations.    She is further arguing that their love will be made stronger, like the ropes, by keeping this tension between them.

Ametas responds by saying her argument about love is not as strong as his to which she replies something to the effect of “You can just keep on hoping.”  The argument is never resolved, as it usually is not.   It does represent the constant opposition between people who represent one the secular and the other, the religious.  It more likely even represents the existence of this conflict within a single individual.

The presence of Christian elements in the poetry of Andrew Marvell is completely understandable in light of his position in the Puritan community, his support of Oliver Cromwell, and his status as a learned man in the 17th century. According to Moore, “Metaphysical poems are lyric poems. They are brief but intense meditations, characterized by striking use of wit, irony and wordplay.”  Marvell’s  poems  “The Coronot,” “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” and “Eyes and Tears” clearly establish his position as a metaphysical poet. Yet, Marvell is not so clearly categorized.  Some of his poems go beyond this Christian perspective.

As a humanist, Marvell also sought to find the true meaning to man.  In order to do this, he had to branch out from the strictly Puritan view and seek answers in the classics.  Mythology provides several clues to the ideology of early man.  Marvell’s poems “The Picture of little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers,” “The Garden,” and “Clorinda and Damon” all make pointed references to elements from mythology.  Yet, these references do not completely negate the Christian perspective, but in some ways run parallel to it.   Finally, the poems “The Nymph Complaining For the Death of her Fawn,” “A Dialogue Between Thyrsis and Dorinda,” and Ametas and Thestylis Making Hay-ropes” all show a complexity of intertwining the Christian and classic elements.  In this way, it may be inferred that Marvell, instead of supporting only one belief, may be reconciling the co-existence of both.





















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