1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Andrew Marvell

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:175-77.



This noble-minded patriot and poet, the friend of Milton, the Abdiel of a dark and corrupt age, — "faithful found among the faithless, faithful only he," — was born in Hull in 1620. He was sent to Cambridge, and is said there to have nearly fallen a victim to the proselytising Jesuits, who enticed him to London. His father, however, a clergyman in Hull, went in search of and brought him back to his university, where speedily, by extensive culture and the vigorous exercise of his powerful faculties, he emancipated himself for ever from the dominion, and the danger of the dominion, of superstition and bigotry. We know little more about the early days of our poet. When only twenty, he lost his father in remarkable circumstances. In 1640, he had embarked on the Humber in company with a youthful pair whom he was to marry at Barrow, in Lincolnshire. The weather was calm; but Marvell, seized with a sudden presentiment of danger, threw his staff ashore, and cried out, "Ho for heaven!" A storm came on, and the whole company perished. In consequence of this sad event, the gentleman, whose daughter was to have been married, conceiving that the father had sacrificed his life while performing an act of friendship, adopted young Marvell as his son. Owing to this, he received a better education, and was sent abroad to travel. It is said that at Rome he met and formed a friendship with Milton, then engaged on his immortal continental tour. We find Marvell next at Constantinople, as Secretary to the English Embassy at that Court. We then lose sight of him till 1653, when he was engaged by the Protector to superintend the education of a Mr. Dutton at Eton. For a year and a half after Cromwell's death, Marvell assisted Milton as Latin Secretary to the Protector. Our readers are all familiar with the print of Cromwell and Milton seated together at the council-table, — the one the express image of active power and rugged grandeur, the other of thoughtful majesty and ethereal grace. Marvell might have been added as a third, and become the emblem of strong English sense and incorruptible integrity. A letter of Milton's was, not long since, discovered, dated February 1652, in which he speaks of Marvell as fitted, by his knowledge of Latin and his experience of teaching, to be his assistant. He was not appointed, however, till 1657. In 1660, he became member for Hull, and was re-elected as long as he lived. He was absent, however, from England for two years, in the beginning of the reign, in Germany and Holland. Afterwards he sought leave from his constituents to act as Ambassador's Secretary to Lord Carlisle at the Northern Courts; but from the year 1665 to his death, his attention to his parliamentary duties was unremitting. He constantly corresponded with his constituents; and after the longest sittings, he used to write out for their use a minute account of public proceedings ere he went to bed, or took any refreshment. He was one of the last members who received pay from the town he represented; (2s. a-day was probably the sum;) and his constituents were wont, besides, to send him barrels of ale as tokens of their regard. Marvell spoke little in the House; but his heart and vote were always in the right place. Even Prince Rupert continually consulted him, and was sometimes persuaded by him to support the popular side; and King Charles having met him once in private, was so delighted with his wit and agreeable manners, that he thought him worth trying to bribe. He sent Lord Danby to offer him a mark of his Majesty's consideration. Marvell, who was seated in a dingy room up several flights of stairs, declined the proffer, and, it is said, called his servant to witness that he had dined for three successive days on the same shoulder of mutton, and was not likely, therefore, to care for or need a bribe. When the Treasurer was gone, he had to send to a friend to borrow a guinea. Although a silent senator, Marvell was a copious and popular writer. He attacked Bishop Parker for his slavish principles, in a piece entitled The Rehearsal Transposed, in which he takes occasion to vindicate and panegyrise his old colleague Milton. His anonymous Account of the Growth of Arbitrary Power and Popery in England excited a sensation, and a reward was offered for the apprehension of the author and printer. Marvell had many of the elements of a first-rate political pamphleteer. He had wit of a most pungent kind, great though coarse fertility of fancy, and a spirit of independence that nothing could subdue or damp. He was the undoubted ancestor of the Defoes, Swifts, Steeles, Juniuses, and Burkes, in whom this kind of authorship reached its perfection, ceased to be fugitive, and assumed classical rank.

Marvell had been repeatedly threatened with assassination, and hence, when he died suddenly on the 16th of August 1678, it was surmised that he had been removed by poison. The Corporation of Hull voted a sum to defray his funeral expenses, and for raising a monument to his memory; but owing to the interference of the Court, through the rector of the parish, this votive tablet was not at the time erected. He was buried in St. Giles-in-the-Fields.

"Out of the strong came forth sweetness," saith the Hebrew record. And so from the sturdy Andrew Marvell have proceeded such soft and lovely strains as The Emigrants, The Nymph complaining for the Death of her Fawn, Young Love, &c. The statue of Memnon became musical at the dawn; and the stern patriot, whom no bribe could buy and no flattery melt, is found sympathising in song with a boatful of banished Englishmen in the remote Bermudas, and inditing Thoughts in a Garden, from which you might suppose that he had spent his life more with melons than with men, and was better acquainted with the motions of a beehive than with the contests of Parliament, and the distractions of a most distracted age. It was said (not with thorough truth) of Milton, that he could cut out a Colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones — a task which his assistant may be said to have performed in his stead, in his small but delectable copies of verse.