Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars: Marvell and the Cause of Wit

March 12, 2009

Andrew Marvell's poetry has long been attended by critical controversy or quizzical scepticism, due in part to his characteristic ambivalence and additionally by debate about his biography and political motivation. Marvell's great early poems, in particular his writing on public affairs such as An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland (1650), are extremely difficult to pin down in terms of meaning or political significance. Nicholas McDowell's carefully researched book makes the "apparent inconsistency or ambiguity of Marvell's public verse" a virtue, reading it as representative of the varying, shifting and multiple political positions available during the turbulent conclusion of the 1640s; the poems "reflect disconcertingly unstable times".

As scholars of his writing, then, and of the writing of his contemporaries, we should consider in nuanced ways what looks like, to us now, political flip-flopping or retirement. McDowell persuasively argues that during the mid to late 1640s, John Milton himself was seeking to articulate a shared position with Royalist writers to guard against a religiously and socially repressive Presbyterian-led Parliament. In the light of such alliances of necessity, it is hardly surprising that Marvell, a figure with links across the ideological spectrum (as, it is clear, did Milton) should write verse that seems ambiguous, to say the least.

Here, McDowell places the composition, transmission and cogitation of Marvell's verse within a series of overlapping networks, all of which had very different political contexts. Yet even these circles were not homogeneous in their affiliation, and this is the key point: writers, poets, scholars, soldiers and patrons happily moved in multiple circles during this crucially heterogeneous period.

The key term for this book is "sociability", an idea central to criticism that locates writers within coteries and literary circles, and seeks to demonstrate that their work was read, circulated and written within these contexts. Scholars are increasingly thinking about the ways in which such communities were part of collaborative poetic projects, trading poems and forms, imitating each other, contributing prefatory verses, circulating manuscripts or printed books, publishing work, financially supporting each other and, on occasion, sharing religious affiliation and often the associated punishment.

What we have come to discover is that such circles are hardly ever, if at all, homogeneous in their motivations or aspirations. However, his is not a return to simplistic models of poetic friendship familiar from the study of Ben Jonson and the "Tribe of Ben" or John Donne and the "Line of Wit"; McDowell's investigation of these circles is keenly interested in the political resonance and cultural significance of such relationships. He centres his discussion on an intricate reconstruction of the circle of Thomas Stanley, a patron and writer interested in translation, poetic friendship and liberty of thought. This adds a great deal to our emerging sense of the complexity of political, social and cultural identity during the 1640s, and is an important description of the remnants of intellectual life at that point.

Poetry and Allegiance spends much time discussing figures that are relatively unfamiliar: Samuel Sherburne, Thomas Urquhart, John Hall and Alexander Brome. Analysis of the works and words of these figures reveals a matrix of allusion, sociability, allegiance and engagement within which our understanding of the multiplicities of Marvell's poetry can be reformulated. Sometimes the sheer volume of information can tend to obscure the more thoughtful analyses, and one other caveat is that the subtitular "cause of wit" is not sufficiently explored.

A phrase associated with Marvell from T. S. Eliot onwards (who influentially described it as a poetic mode of "modest and certainly impersonal virtue"), it fades into the background somewhat here.

Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars: Marvell and the Cause of Wit

By Nicholas McDowell. Oxford University Press 320pp, £50.00. ISBN 97801998008. Published 20 November 2008

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