Marvell idea draws hostile fire

July 26, 1996

Academic life's capacity for inducing controversy over the unlikeliest subjects was reasserted when a conference on the poet Andrew Marvell concluded abruptly and in mild disorder.

The three-day Marvell and Liberty conference, the most important gathering devoted to the Yorkshire poet and politician since the tercentenary of his death in 1978, was organised by Warren Chernaik, director of London University's Centre for English Studies. Earlier this month, almost everyone who is anyone in the small but committed world of Marvell studies convened.

Paul Bembridge, director of English studies at Huddersfield University, gave the final paper. He duly took his place at the lectern, a little later than scheduled because animated discussions during earlier sessions had left the conference, like many such gatherings, running late.

Dr Bembridge has strong and somewhat heretical views on Marvell. He argues: "Marvell was a Rosicrucian - a hermetic philosophy that belongs to the esoteric tradition. And there is a traditional school of thought that can't bear the idea of Marvell being sullied by association with Rosicrucianism."

Expecting to have 30 minutes to expound his view, he was surprised to get winding up signals from the chair - Lindy Abraham of the University of New South Wales - just over halfway through that period.

This was followed by an intervention from the floor by an academic who argued that he was speaking from previously published material. After a brief hiatus a puzzled Dr Bembridge returned to the body of the hall, complaining to his neighbour: "I've been guillotined."

Professor Chernaik disagrees, arguing that at the rate at which Dr Bembridge was developing his argument it would have been not so much a case of Time's winged chariot hurrying near as of its arriving, getting tired of waiting and moving on. "I agree with the actions of the chair - who I know is very sympathetic to his viewpoint. The audience was getting very restive, I think as much as anything, at the manner of his delivery - lecturing at everybody in a way that did not seem to allow for discussion. He had made his point and it wasn't clear where he was going - it seemed as though he might go for an hour and a half."

Dr Bembridge admits that his style was animated: "I was speaking from the heart. Half the audience loved it and the other half hated it, and I was stopped soon after it was clear that I was saying Marvell was a Rosicrucian." Shortly afterwards his critics left the hall and the conference ended with Dr Bembridge determined to fight for his views.

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