1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Andrew Marvell

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 265-66.



A better edition of Marvell's works than any that has been given, is due to his literary and patriotic character. He was the champion of Milton's living reputation, and the victorious supporter of free principles against Bishop Parker, when that venal apostate to bigotry promulgated, in his Ecclesiastical Polity, "that it was more necessary to set a severe government over men's consciences and religious persuasions, than over their vices and immoralities." The humour and eloquence of Marvell's prose tracts were admired and probably imitated by Swift. In playful exuberance of figure he sometimes resembles Burke. For consistency of principles, it is not so easy to find his parallel. His few poetical pieces betray some adherence to the school of conceit, but there is much in it that comes from the heart warm, pure, and affectionate.

He was a native of Hull. At the age of fifteen he was seduced from Cambridge by the proselytizing Jesuits, but was brought back from London by his father, returned to the university, and continued for ever after an enemy to superstition and intrigue. In 1640 his father, who was a clergyman of Hull, embarked on the Humber in company with a youthful pair whom he was to marry at Barrow, in Lincolnshire. Though the weather was calm when they entered the boat, the old gentleman expressed a whimsical presentiment of danger, by throwing his cane ashore, and crying out, "Ho for heaven!" A storm came on, and the whole company perished.

In consequence of this catastrophe the gentleman whose daughter was to have been married, adopted young Marvell as his son, conceiving his father to have sacrificed his life in performing an act of friendship. Marvell's education was thus enlarged: he travelled for his improvement over a considerable part of Europe, and was for some time at Constantinople as secretary to the English embassy at that court. Of his residence and employments for several years there is no account, till in 1653 he was engaged by the Protector to superintend the education of a Mr. Dutton, at Eton; and for a year and half before Milton's [sic] death, he was assistant to Milton in the office of Latin secretary to the Protector. He sat in the Parliament of 1660 as one of the representatives of the city of Hull, and was re-elected as long as he lived. At the beginning of the reign, indeed, we find him absent for two years in Germany and Holland, and on his return, having sought leave from his constituents, he accompanied Lord Carlisle as ambassador's secretary to the Northern Courts; but from the year 1665 till his death, his attendance in the House of Commons was uninterrupted, and exhibits a zeal in parliamentary duty that was never surpassed. Constantly corresponding with his constituents, he was at once earnest for their public rights and for their local interests. After the most fatiguing attendances, it was his practice to sent them a minute statement of public proceedings, before he took either sleep or refreshment. Though he rarely spoke, his influence in both houses was so considerable, that when Prince Rupert (who, often consulted him) voted on the popular side, it used to be said that the prince had been with his tutor. He was one of the last members who received the legitimate stipend for attendance, and his grateful constituents would often send him a barrel of ale as a token of their regard. The traits that are recorded of his public spirit and simple manners give an air of probability to the popular story of his refusal of a court bribe. Charles the Second having met with Marvell in a private company, found his manner so agreeable, that he could not imagine a man of such complacency to possess inflexible honesty; he accordingly, as it is said, sent his lord-treasurer, Danby, to him next day, who, after mounting several dark staircases in a very mean lodging, and proffered him a mark of his majesty's consideration. Marvell assured the lord-treasurer that he was not in want of the king's assistance, and humorously illustrated his independence by calling his servant to witness that he had dined for three days successively on a shoulder of mutton; and having given a dignified and rational explanation of his motives to the minister, went to a friend and borrowed a guinea. The story of his death having been occasioned by poisoning, it is to be hoped, was but a party fable. It is certain, however, that he had been threatened with assassination. The corporation of Hull voted a sum for his funeral expenses, and for an appropriate monument.