The poet who walked a political tightrope

Marvellous: A 1705 portrait of Marvell by John Howe from Cliffe Castle Museum.

Is poetry more important than politics? Four hundred years after his birth, Andrew Marvell remains a rare example of someone who established a reputation in both spheres.

Marvell’s mission had not gone well. In Moscow, he had managed to insult the Tsar; visits to the Swedish and Danish courts had achieved nothing. Now, confronted by a surly coachman near Hamburg, he decided he had had enough. He drew his pistol and threatened to shoot the man dead. What followed was a “barbarous rout” in which Marvell had to be saved from an angry mob by his companions.

It was not the only time Marvell’s temper got the better of him. As an MP he was twice involved in scuffles in the House of Commons. But as a poet, he expressed himself in far more subtle terms, establishing himself as a master of ambiguity whose views were sometimes impossible to pin down.

The son of a vicar, Marvell grew up in the Yorkshire port of Kingston upon Hull. He was a promising student at Cambridge University, but in his late teens both his parents died, leaving him to fend for himself just as England was about to descend into civil war.

He managed to escape its first phase entirely by spending four years touring the Continent, probably as a tutor to a nobleman’s son. But his sympathies seem to have been with the Royalist side, since he wrote poems in honour of some of its leading figures, such as Richard Lovelace.

After Charles I’s execution, however, he aligned himself with the Parliamentarians, celebrating their leader in An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, 1650. Hailing Cromwell’s achievements, but also expressing respect for the dead king, it is regarded by some critics as the greatest political poem in English.

Marvell went on to work for Cromwell as tutor to his ward William Dutton. In 1657 he was appointed as a translator of diplomatic papers in the government’s Office of Foreign Tongues, where another great poet, John Milton, also worked.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 spelt the end of Milton’s political career, but not Marvell’s. He was elected MP for Hull, and became one of the “country party”, which accepted Charles II but was strongly critical of his government’s failings.

One of his concerns was that the new king would ensure toleration for Dissenters – Protestants who rejected the authority of the Church of England. But he became increasingly worried that Charles’s real aim was to establish an absolutist Catholic monarchy. He expressed his concerns both in poetry and in biting satires, culminating in 1667 in An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government.

So provocative were these writings that they had to be published anonymously. Government agents hunted out anyone involved with them, including the printers. Marvell might have been prosecuted if he had not died suddenly in August 1668. Though the cause was malaria, rumours spread wide that he had been poisoned by Jesuits.

Today, Marvell is chiefly celebrated for his lyric poems such as To His Coy Mistress. But few people in his lifetime knew of them, since they were only published after his death.

Is poetry more important than politics?

Revolutionary inking

Some say, no. Poetry may give readers pleasure, but it does not solve any of the world’s practical problems. Without politicians to oversee the running of our everyday lives and save people from hunger, poverty and homelessness, nobody would have the leisure to pick up a book. Marvell must have recognised that when he decided to pursue a political career.

Others argue that politicians simply deal with the here and now. Poets concern themselves with things of eternal importance, offering inspiration, encapsulating our feelings and lifting us above daily existence. The work Marvell did during his 19 years as an MP is of little interest compared to his poetry: if he had not been a writer, he would not be remembered at all.

You Decide

  1. Marvell went to university at the age of 12. Should education today start earlier than it does?
  2. Is it wrong to criticise politicians for making U-turns?

Activities

  1. Paint an illustration for Marvell’s poem The Garden.
  2. Study Marvell’s An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, 1650. Write a similarly ambiguous poem about a modern politician.

Some People Say...

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that poets can do enormous harm to their reputations by becoming involved in politics. Gabriele d’Annunzio was Italy’s leading poet at the turn of the last century, but is now regarded as an irresponsible demagogue largely responsible for involving his country in World War One. The American poet Ezra Pound supported Fascism in World War Two, and was confined to a mental hospital after it. Wordsworth lost the respect of his fellow Romantics by espousing right-wing causes.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Marvell was a spy. As a well-travelled man who mastered several languages, he would have been an ideal candidate. His superior at the Office of Foreign Tongues was Cromwell’s head of intelligence, John Thurloe. It has been suggested that Marvell took part in espionage in the Netherlands – but also that he was a double agent, working for William of Orange.

Word Watch

Mission
Led by the Earl of Carlisle, one of its objects was to make a trade agreement with the Tsar.
Tsar
Emperor of Russia. Sometimes spelt “Czar”, it derives from the Latin word “Caesar”.
Swedish and Danish courts
Another of the diplomats’ objectives was to secure backing for a war against the Dutch.
Hamburg
A port which is now the second largest city in Germany after Berlin. The composers Brahms and Mendelssohn were born there.
Rout
A defeat that leads to disorderly retreat.
Ambiguity
Double meaning. It comes from a Latin adjective meaning doubtful.
Kingston upon Hull
Usually known simply as Hull, it was also home to one of Britain’s greatest 20th Century poets, Philip Larkin.
First phase
The war broke out in 1642. Hostilities continued until 1646, when Charles I was captured. But he escaped the following year, and the war flared up again, before finally ending in 1651.
Richard Lovelace
Also a poet, he is best known for writing To Lucasta, Going to the Wars and To Althea, from Prison.
Horatian Ode
A short lyric poem written in stanzas of two or four lines in the manner of the Latin poet Horace.
Ward
A child under the protection of a guardian.
Jesuits
A dynamic order of Catholic clergy, officially known as Members of the Society of Jesus.

Subjects

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