Or to suspend my sliding Foot
On the Osiers undermined Root
Marvell, “Upon Appleton House”
Literary histories have last chapters; literary history does not. And so it is with this book, reflecting on Andrew Marvell, “here at the Fountain’s Sliding Foot” (“The Garden”)—Marvell, the creation of much that was best in seventeenth-century poetry. Like Vaughan, he wrote some of his most celebrated poems around mid-century; the famous “Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland” comes immediately to mind. And he seems to have had an even briefer apprenticeship (if apprenticeship is indeed a useful word to describe a poet who was largely indifferent to the notion of a literary career) before producing work of astonishing skill, judgment, and variety. Only a handful of his poems can be dated with much certainty, but to know that the “Horatian Ode” and “Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax” were written by someone in his late twenties, or at most early thirties, is to recognize a poet limited (a questionable word again) only by his own lack of literary ambitions and his cool regard for the approval of either a wide contemporary readership or posterity itself. “Fit audience find though few” is a remark Marvell would not have been especially concerned to make.
Such modesty can be disarming, particularly for modern readers who wish to identify authorship with literary production rather than literary performance. Indeed, in a culture as radically divided over issues of publication as seventeenth-century England, we might even regard Marvell as an accident almost waiting to happen. Were it not for the improbable charade involving his housekeeper, Mary Palmer, who posed as his wife, Mary Marvell, in order to lay claim to a portion of her “late dear Husband’[s]” estate, 1 we would scarcely have reason to remember Marvell, the poet, as more than the author of a few deftly worked commendatory or occasional poems. For the proof offered by Mary Palmer of her supposed marital link to Marvell (who died in 1678 without ever having married) also contains most of the verse upon which his modern