Andrew Marvell, the Critical Heritage

By Elizabeth Story Donno | Go to book overview

Introduction

I

In 1753 Andrew Marvell was styled the ‘poet laureate of the dissenters, otherwise known as ‘fanatics’; in 1901 he was styled the ‘laureate of grass and greenery. 1 Each phrase aptly sums up public response to the man and his works within their eras; in conjunction, they sharply point up the alteration in response that took place in the years between. The first designation is apt, not because it defines Marvell’s literary achievement but because it reflects, as well as projects, his literary status for nearly two centuries. The ‘poet laureate of the dissenters’ did not write poetry on the theme of religious dissent (except perhaps for ‘Bermudas’ which was later so interpreted and the anti-prelatical portion of ‘The Loyal Scot, if it is his), but he did write prose pamphlets that were to mark him out as an intrepid opponent of the ecclesiastical and political establishment. From the last decades of the seventeenth until the last few decades of the nineteenth century, he was to be acknowledged in metaphoric terms as the laureate of dissenting opinion. However odd it may seem to twentieth-century enthusiasts, his reputation as a poet was to remain in inverse relation to his general reputation almost throughout this period.

While early documentary material of the poetry is scant, its very paucity, whether printed or manuscript, can be taken as revelatory of Marvell’s attitude toward his craft. Of the ten selections published during his lifetime, he chose to acknowledge only five either by name or by initials, and each of these is occasional in nature. The earliest stems from the period at Cambridge when he contributed verses to a congratulatory volume on the birth of a royal child in 1637; the latest that can be dated is the commendatory poem on Paradise Lost which he contributed to the second edition of Milton’s epic in 1674. The remainder (apart from the dubious and not so dubious post-Restoration satires) were probably written early in his career before the assuming of his parliamentary duties in 1659-60, with certain pieces lending themselves

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