Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

Andrew Marvell’s objects

 |  1966 words

The satirical poem, “Tom May’s Death” was written in 1650, not long after the sudden death of Thomas May, the translator of Lucan and historian of the English Parliament. It has been attributed to Andrew Marvell, and was included in his posthumous Miscellaneous Poems (1681). In my thesis, I looked at the relationship between that poem and Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” from the same year. David Norbrook has said of these poems that “with great force, they make incompatible utterances” (Norbrook, 244). I don’t want to go over that ground again, except to say that at one stage I considered the possibility that “Tom May’s Death” might look like an attempt to imitate Marvell’s style, in that it uses a device (Rosalie Colie calls it a “grammatical pivot”) which might appear to be characteristic of Marvell, but uses it in a way which (it can be argued) is less effective — “a looser or more diffuse form”, I say in my thesis (p. 125) — than Marvell’s. The unquestionably genuine article occurs in “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers”, where the speaker, watching a young girl plucking flowers, urges her to:

Gather the flowers, but spare the buds;
Lest Flora angry at thy crime,
To kill her infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’example yours,
    And, ere we see,
Nip in the blossom all our hopes and thee. (ll. 35–40)

What Rosalie Colie calls the failure of parallelism in “The Picture of little T.C.” is, as she points out, itself paralleled by a “simpler example of a grammatical pivot” in “Tom May’s Death”. The satire depicts May as having died while drunk, and not at first being able to make sense of his new surroundings in Elysium. He mistakes the shade of Ben Jonson for a corpulent landlord, until Jonson begins to quote a parody of May’s translation of Lucan.

By this May to himself and them was come,
He found he was translated, and by whom. (ll. 25–6)

Colie describes “to himself and them” as “simpler”, than the similar turn in “Little T.C.”, where the figure, grammatically suspect though it may be, fulfils an important function. As Colie says:

“Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee” plays, with degrees of metaphor as well as with “nip” as a syntactical pivot: the line begins as a cliché and gains power as we realise that T.C. is taken, throughout the poem, as a “flower,” and that both girl and flower are taken as symbols of transience. (Colie, p. 93)

Just at the moment that it impinges on the reader’s consciousness that the nipping “in the blossom” of all our hopes must, if it occurs, entail the nipping of the flower-girl too, the implication is made unavoidably explicit, with “and thee”. The effect is to underscore the sense of potential loss and to admonish the reader against a euphemistic, or simply a careless, interpretation of the cliché, just as the interpretation is on the point of being made. It is also to make concrete the indeterminate phrase “all our hopes”.

On the face of it, the device does not seem to be doing anything nearly so useful when it occurs in “Tom May’s Death”. Of May’s coming “to himself and them”, Colie justly remarks that it “allows a rather doggerel wit, fitting the kind of inferior accomplishment Marvell attributes to May”. The effect is funny, apt in its awkwardness, enacting May’s initial disorientation and the shock of coming to himself and — the real shock — to them, but it could easily be experienced as a disappointment after “Little T.C.” (and “May” does come immediately after “Little T.C.” in the folio).

As Colie points out, what Marvell has achieved in “Little T.C.” is paradoxical almost to the point of self-contradiction: a carpe florem poem that enjoins discrimination. The paradox is one of the elements contributing to a sense of shock and discomfort that the poem produces. Another such element is the fact that Marvell considers as a real possibility the death of a young child. However, these elements alone are not enough to account for the powerfully disturbing effect of the poem. What is most shocking is the suggestion that a young child might have the same liability as an adult to be punished for the harm she innocently does. To a twenty-first-century reader, at least, this is immediately experienced as unjust, but a little reflection makes it clear that the true situation is even worse: the death of a child, and with it “all our hopes”, bears no necessary relation to the harm done by him or her, innocently or otherwise.

The phrase “to himself and them”, however, is not the only example of such a device in “Tom May’s Death”: there is a second, when Jonson accuses May of shameless betrayal:

But thou, base man, first prostituted hast
Our spotless knowledge and the studies chaste,
Apostatizing from our arts and us,
To turn the chronicler to Spartacus. (ll. 71–4)

Jonson is attempting to be severely judicious, but in the end is unable to withhold an expression of personal affront (“and us”) at May’s apostasy. Gerard Reedy believes that the personal animus is not merely “Jonson’s” but Marvell’s own. But as against that one might take the view that Marvell manages to be precise and controlled in his depiction of Jonson’s sense of betrayal, and that the use of “and us” is a good example of this.

Similar stylistic turns can be found in other poems of Marvell’s. His “On Paradise Lost”, having earlier epressed apprehension as to the senior poet’s ability to steer his way through a doctrinal minefield, he is relieved, and impressed, to see that:

 That majesty which through the work doth reign
Draws the devout, deterring the profane.
And things divine thou treatst of in such state
As them preserves, and thee, inviolate. (ll. 31–4)

That poem can’t have been written any earlier than 1667 and probably dates from 1674, when the second edition of Paradise Lost came out. Much earlier (1649) is his elegy “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings”, in which Aesculapius “Himself at once condemneth, and Mayerne (l. 48)” for their inability to save young Hastings’s life. Aesculapius was the god of healing and Mayerne a chemist and physician whose daughter Hastings had been about to marry.

In each of these passages, we have a verb which has two separate objects. In most cases they’re direct objects: as “hopes” and “thee” are both direct objects of “nip”. In “Tom May’s Death”, however, they’re the objects of prepositions, not directly of the verb: “May to himself and them was come”; “Apostatizing from our arts and us”. This has the effect of making the May satire appear distinguishable from the other poems. I soon abandoned the idea, though, that this indicates that the May poem was an attempt by a different poet to imitate Marvell’s style.

Of course it’s not all that unusual for a single verb to take more than one object. What makes these examples stand out is that in each case, the objects are of different kinds. For example, one may be abstract or general, the other concrete or particular, as with “our arts” and “us”, or “our hopes” and “thee”. May is assumed to be still thinking of himself as a living individual, but he has been translated to the spiritual realm of Elysium, populated by “them”, and presided over by Jonson’s ghost. Similarly with the divinity and the entirely physical physician in “Hastings”.

The implication, then, is that whatever action affects the particular or indvidual can be assumed also make itself felt equally in the realm of the abstract or general. When I first started to study Marvell, the thing that most caught my attention was his attraction to reflexive action (and reflexive imagery): the frequency, as John Carey put it, of “situations in which an agent finds its actions shooting back on itself”. It took me a long time to recognize that the point was “to warn us that everything we do, whatever else it might accomplish, has its first and (for us) most important effect upon ourselves” (Kavanagh, p. 198).

First page of my essay, Andrew Marvell’s Gender, including the passage quoted in the immediately preceding paragraph

As a corollary, the “single verb, two objects” device reminds us that our actions are rarely neat and specific in their effects, they have an impact on the general as well as the particular, in the personal sphere as well as in the social or public arena (and vice versa).

The other noticeable thing about this device is its association with death or serious risk. The speaker in “Little T.C.” is worried about the vulnerability of the young girl picking flowers. The girl, Theophila Cornewall, had the same name as her older sibling who died before this Theophila was born, so the worry was not at all misplaced. In the Hastings elegy and “Tom May’s Death”, the theme of mortality is obviously relevant, while in “On Paradise Lost”, the speaker has earlier professed to be concerned that Milton might have been meddling with dangerous topics or ideas:

Through that wide field how he his way should find
O’er which lame Faith leads Understanding blind;
Lest he perplexed the things he would explain,
And what was easy he should render vain. (ll. 31–4)

So not only does Marvell’s use of the device warn that it’s often not possible to limit the effects of our actions to a single, narrowly defined object, but also that some of the consequences of those actions, foreseen or not, may turn out to be fatal. It’s a figure that can produce comic effects, but at the same time it indicates that this is the work of a poet who is acutely aware of the dangers which surround both him and the people he is writing about.

Works cited

Colie, Rosalie L. My Ecchoing Song’: Andrew Marvell’s Poetry of Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1970);

Kavanagh, Art. “Andrew Marvell’s Gender”, Essays in Criticism 66,2 (2016), pp. 198–220;

Norbrook, David. Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627–1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1999);

Reedy, Gerard. ‘“An Horatian Ode” and “Tom May’s Death”’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 20 (1980), pp. 137–151.

Here are some earlier things I’ve written about Marvell and posted, mostly on my own personal site but one which previously appeared on Talk about books.

Andrew Marvell, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”
Marvell shows the two different parts of the human individual complaining bitterly about each other. But they are more alike, and more deeply interdependent, than either will admit.

Marvell and Mortalism: A supplementary note to my essay on “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”
In the previous piece, I discussed Andrew Marvell’s lyric poem, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”. This is a highly speculative note about the possible link between that poem and the Mortalist heresy.

Mistaken long: Andrew Marvell and pronouns again
I’ve been missing something very obvious about Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden” for an embarrassingly long time.

The paradoxical ambition of Andrew Marvell’s Third Advice to a Painter
This is an argument (a by-product of my thesis) about one of Marvell’s satires.

“Prelate of the grove”: A note on ambition and preferment in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”
The treatment of ambition and preferment in Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” indicates the need to develop an acutely discriminating conscience.

“What course and opinion he thinks the safest”: Religion and divine justice in the work of Andrew Marvell
Another by-product of my thesis, which was about justice as a theme in Marvell’s works. That topic was suggested to me by a book about his treatment of divine justice but I found that Marvell’s writings about divine justice engaged with theodicy only incidentally.