1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Andrew Marvell

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:554-55.



1678, July 19. Died, ANDREW MARVELL, who stands in the very first and very highest rank, "facile princeps," as an incompatible patriot, the best of controversialists, and the leading prose wit of England. His are the "first sprightly runnings" of that glorious stream of wit, which will bear upon it down to the latest posterity, the names of Swift, Steele, and Addison. Before the time of Marvell, wit was to be forced, strained, and conceited. From him wit first came sparkling forth, untouched with baser matter. It was like his personal character. Its main feature was an open clearness. Mean detraction, or sordid jealousy never for an instant stained it. He turned aside in the midst of an exalted panegyric to Oliver Cromwell, to say the finest things that have ever been said of Charles I. He left for a while his own wit in the Rehearsal Transposed, to praise the wit of Butler, his rival and political enemy. As a poet, Marvell was true, and this is the grand point in poetry. He was not of the highest order, not perhaps in even a high order, but what he did was genuine. It is sweetness speaking out in sweetness. In the language there is nothing more exquisitely tender than the Nymph Complaining for the Loss of her Fawn. Such poems as this and the Bermudas may live, and deserve to live, as long as the longest and the mightiest. Of as real a quality are the majority of the poems of Marvell. In a playful and fantastic expression of tender and voluptuous beauty, they are well nigh unrivalled.

Andrew Marvell was born at Kingston-upon-Hull, Nov. 15, 1620, where his father was a celebrated preacher of the church of England. The son was educated at Trinity college, Cambridge, and afterwards travelled to Rome, where he first associated with Milton, and both being attached to the popular cause in politics, formed a friendship which lasted during his life. It is related of him, that, while he represented the town of Hull in parliament, and was without any other resources than a small allowance, which he received for that duty, a courtier was sent with a thousand pounds in gold to buy him over to the opposite side; he placidly refused the bribe, pointing to a blade-bone of mutton which was to serve for his dinner on the ensuing day, as a proof that he was above necessity. He was buried in St. Giles's in the Fields, London.

He was the author of several political treatises, published anonymously, particularly one, On the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England; more particularly from the long Prorogation of November, 1675, ending the 15th of February, 1676, until the Meeting of Parliament, July 16, 1677. The king and his ministry were so offended at this production, that an advertisement appeared in the Gazette, offering a reward of one hundred pounds for the discovery of the author, and fifty pounds for the apprehension of the printer. He entered into a long and bitter controversy with Parker, bishop of Oxford, a temporising prelate, a famous partisan, and virulent writer on the side of arbitrary government, and between him and Maryell many pamphlets were written. On one occasion a letter, dated July 3, 1676, was received by Marvell, subscribed J. G., and concluding with these words: — "If thou darest to print an lie or libel against Dr. Parker, by the eternal God I will cut thy throat."

Marvell gives the following pertinent description of the powers of the press: — "The press, invented much about the same time with the Reformation, bath done more mischief to the discipline of our church than all the doctrines can make amends for. It was a happy time when all learning was in manuscript, and some little officer did keep the keys of the library. Now, since printing came into the world, such is the mischief, that a man cannot write a book but presently he is answered. There have been ways found out to fine, not the people, but even the grounds and fields where they assembled! but no art yet could prevent these seditious meetings of letters. Two or three brawny fellows in a corner, with mere ink and elbow-grease, do more harm than a hundred systematic divines. Their ugly printing letters, that look like so many rotten teeth, how oft have they been pulled out by the public tooth-drawer; and yet these rascally operators of the press have got a trick to fasten them again in a few minutes, that they grow as firm a set, and as cutting and talkative, as ever. Oh, printing! how hast thou disturbed the peace of mankind! Lead, when moulded into bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into letters! There was a mistake sure in the story of Cadmus, for the serpent's teeth which he sowed, were nothing else but the letters which he invented. The first essay that was made towards this art, was in single characters upon iron, wherewith of old they stigmatized slaves and remarkable offenders; but a bulky Dutchman diverted quite from its original institution, and contrived these innumerable syntegems of alphabets. One would have thought in reason, that a Dutchman at least, might have contented himself only with the wine-press."