B. 1621 D. 1678
Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime. Andrew Marvell, 'To His Coy Mistress'
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About Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell was born near Kingston Upon Hull in 1621, the son of a priest. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, but left his studies early when his father was drowned in a boating accident on the Humber. He travelled abroad for several years during the Civil War, but then returned to London and moved in literary circles there.
In 1650, at the age of thirty, he wrote ‘An Horation Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, which has been described as the greatest political poem in English. Cromwell had returned from Ireland in May 1650 to a triumphant reception in London; the infant Commonwealth was eighteen months old. Marvell, despite earlier Royalist sympathies, now writes an optimistic appraisal of the republican scene, while at the same time movingly celebrating the dignity with which King Charles met his end.
From 1650 to 1652, Marvell tutored young Mary Fairfax, the daughter of the parliamentarian general, and during these years wrote ‘The Garden’ and his ‘Mower’ poems. ‘The Garden’ has extraordinary wit, variety and depth. Marvell luxuriates in the joys of the garden, with sensuous sound effects and witty bathos (he trips over a melon), and also reaches an extraordinary spiritual ecstasy. At the end this bachelor poet conjures up his ideal paradise: Eden before Eve, when Adam walked in the garden alone.
‘The Garden’ is 72 lines long; ‘The Mower to the Glow Worms’ is a one-sentence miniature. The nightingale at the start, sitting late and planning her matchless songs, is also the poet; just as the poet needs his lamp, so the nightingale needs the light of the glow-worms. In the delightfully realistic third verse, the mowers who have worked until they can see no more are helped home by the gentle light. Then, at the end, the narrative makes a surprise turn: suddenly this is a love poem. Its charming images of harvest and English country life end in bleak despair.
In 1653, Marvell became a tutor in Cromwell’s household and moved to Eton, where he wrote ‘Bermudas’. This name had been given to the islands in 1515 by the explorer Juan Bermudez and they appear in Shakespeare’s Tempest in 1613. Marvell describes the hazardous voyage from England, and the beauty and plenty when they arrive. It is a picture of abundant fruits for the picking, within easy reach, a feast for the eye. The poem is a song of praise, made explicit at the end when the rowers sing hymns to the Creator in time to the rhythm of their oars.
Marvell laboured over ‘To His Coy Mistress’ for many years and finally produced his masterpiece. Its wit and heightened drama (it could be a speech from a play), its directness, its shuddering realism about the certainty of death, is all carried out in a tone of rakish exaggeration. Come to bed with me, because I am a bit of a wag.
Marvell became unofficial Laureate to Cromwell and in 1659 was elected MP for Hull. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought him inevitable dismissal from his post in the Cromwell Protectorate, but he went unmolested and was able to save his friend and sponsor, the now blind Milton, from trial. He remained an MP until his death from malaria in 1678. In his lifetime he was virtually unknown as a lyric poet; his papers were found in his rooms after his death by his housekeeper, who claimed to be his widow. Without her intervention, Marvell’s poems may never have been published.