"The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers": Marvell's Portrait of Tender Conscience
Samuels, Peggy, Papers on Language & Literature
British literature in the mid-seventeenth century often involved an intensive transformation of genres in order to make intelligible the experience of revolution that was unprecedented, unfamiliar, and disorientating. The Civil War disrupted the self-containment of the Renaissance love lyric (Smith 250-76). Under pressure was the ideal of tenderness itself, whether as a component of love or as the sweet music of the verse that expressed that love. While such pressures would be unsurprising in any wartime culture, mid-century Britain witnessed physical violence produced by a radical religious discourse of spiritual tenderness so that the violence seemed to be perversely emerging out of tenderness itself. The situation of tenderness producing pain had its literary equivalent in the sequence of poems that had become the loadstone for imagining the conflation of tenderness and pain: Petrarch's Canzoniere. Andrew Marvell takes this amatory literary tradition and transforms it so that it can be used to make intelligible the dynamics of a political and religious struggle.
Marvell often explored the relationship between aesthetic delicacy or tenderness and a spiritual ideal, in, for example, "On a Drop of Dew," "The Coronet," "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn," "Clorinda and Damon," "Bermudas," and the nun sequence in "Upon Appleton House." There are other moments of supra-delicacy in Marvell's poetry where the categories of the aesthetic and the tender or delicate seem to rise up and become thematically important, as in the moment of Charles's death in the Horatian Ode. There is one poem, however, that appears to be wholly set inside the Petrarchan locale and that critics have consistently remarked on as a rendering of particular tenderness and delicacy: "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers." (1) By beginning with a young girl or nymph lying in the grass, Marvell opens the poem inside the Petrarchan locale, at the site of most intense vision, where Petrarch first met Laura, the place to which he would return both physically and mentally in order to re-enter the paradise of meeting her and the hope for her return:
Sometimes in form of nymph or other goddess arising from the clearest depths of Sorgue she comes to take her place upon the shore sometimes I've seen her there upon fresh grass. (281) (2)
Marvell's poem can be read as a witty but fairly simple extension of this Petrarchan story of love--a rendition of the story that describes a prepubescent girl's movement through the stages of naivete, chastity, refusal, wounding and then being wounded by love, told from the point of view of a young man who both fears the girl's future power and wishes her to experience a punishment for her future scorn.
Yet, there are two reasons to suspect that a witty extension of the Petrarchan tradition is not the only purpose of Marvell's poem. First, a series of terms in the poem has pointed contemporary relevance. Second, delicacy and tenderness were themselves being attached to particular contemporary factions, and tenderness, in particular, had become the focal point of a crucial conflict in 1646-47. (3) In this conflict, Presbyterians, Independents, and sectarians all wished to be understood to have tender consciences, that is, to be purified spiritually, beautiful, chaste, delicate, and sweet. The claim to the status of "tender" in the context of a struggle over who would hold military and political power and control civic and church discipline gave rise to suspicions on all sides that representations of tenderness merely provided a cloak for a future violent imposition of discipline. If Marvell wished to discuss the super-idealized, aestheticized vision that had become a crucial part of how various factions understood their own legitimacy and suspected others, it would make sense for him to use the Petrarchan literary tradition that focused on the subject of tenderness. Marvell's "Little T.C." is not merely a poem about young girls, or about Marvell's neighbor, Theophilia Cornewall, (4) but about another "T.C.," the figure of "tender conscience" that had begun to take hold over his contemporaries' imaginations.
Although the use of the term "tender conscience" extends from the early 1640s until after the Restoration, as traced by Paul H. Hardacre in "Sir Edward Hyde," I will be focusing on the use of it in the particular period from the summer of 1646 through 1647. It was in this period--when the question of whether or not a Scottish Presbyterianism was going to become the model for England--that the ownership of "tenderness" by Independents and sectarians was most vigorously challenged by Presbyterians. (5) After the end of the first Civil War, hopes of a compromise between King and parliament (and therefore the settlement of the kingdom) depended on an acceptance of some form of Presbyterianism. Independents' withdrawal from congregations threatened any potential settlement of the kingdom along Presbyterian lines. Independents insisted that Presbyterianism would harshly force the godly to conform to doctrines and practices not acceptable to all. Attempting to keep the Independents from separating out of congregations or out of the national church, Presbyterians strove to lay claim to the image of tenderness and sweetness. (6)
Competing claims to tenderness, beauty, innocence, and passivity are prevalent in the polemics of this period and can be seen vividly in some of the pamphlets connected to the occasions of Norwich guildhall sermons, presented at the election of new mayors. (7) As public events that brought together ministers, townspeople, and city magistrates, the Norwich guildhall sermons of 1646 and 1647 became occasions for rather blunt commentary about the controversies surrounding the delays in the settlement of the kingdom. Marvell would certainly have been familiar with the broader pamphlet controversy between Presbyterians and Independents, and it is likely that he would have been familiar with pamphlets arising out of significant political controversies in the most important city of East Anglia, Norwich, especially those associated with the election of a new mayor. Although we do not know precisely the date of Marvell's return from the Continent, we do know that he was in the neighboring county of Cambridgeshire in December of 1647 and may have been present in late 1646 in relation to the sale of some family land at Meldreth just north of Cambridge. (8) Aside from the pamphlets themselves being available in London as well as Norwich, the controversies surrounding the June 1647 sermon would have been a likely part of any local person's attempt to understand the quickly changing fluctuations of power between Army, Scottish Presbyterians, Parliament and King as first the Presbyterians, then the Army, took control of the King's person. In addition, Philip Nye, an Independent minister in Marvell's home town of Hull, played an active role in the pamphlet controversy between Independents and Presbyterians and is named as having stolen away papers that would have provided evidence of a broken covenant between Norwich Presbyterians and Independents (Vicars, Schismatic 17). Thus, it is likely that in addition to Marvell's familiarity with the broader discourse between Independents and Presbyterians, he would have been aware of the Norwich controversies.
By looking at self-representations and accusations in these pamphlets, we can gain access to the way Marvell reuses images to create a portrait of his contemporaries. "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers" resignifies the claim to be delicate, sweet, passive, and tender and to harbor only "simplicity." The poem is part of the larger cultural project that James Loxley has described, in which civil war writers attempted to fend off or oppose polemical misnamings (111-18). "Little T.C." undertakes to undo the misnaming of "tender consciences" and uses all of its poetic resources to iconoclastically undermine that term's image of innocence and to reposition the audience in relation to it. The poem uses both the image of femininity and the figure of the chaste Diana that was associated with the Independents. The lyric also draws attention to other terms and images in the conflicts that were intensifying in 1646-47: the separation of pure from even more pure, the competing visions of a reformation of errors, a reformation that becomes tyrannical in a move to crush all opposition by means of a wheel with eyes, and the expectation that new violence will erupt. The poet combines the images that had been associated with Presbyterians, Independents, and sectarians, warning that those sectarians who claim tenderness will "spin" or be uncloaked to reveal a Presbyterian-like violent pose.
The poem opens hyperbolically with an image of an innocent young nymph who spends her days reclining in the grass. Prone, she gives off an effect of quasi-lassitude, not even active enough to be standing up:
See with what simplicity This nymph begins her golden days! In the green grass she loves to lie, And there with her fair aspect tames The wilder flowers, and gives them names: But only with the roses plays; And them does tell What colour best becomes them, and what smell. (Complete Poems lines 1-8) (9)
Both image and diction resemble the representation of the Independents. The Independent pamphlet Vox Populi (1646) strove to produce a description of the sectarians as passive, sweet, and tender. (10) The author claims that the sectarians are accused of being "sparks" when "alasse they are meerly passive, and act nothing, but desire to be let alone" (3). The pamphlet's depiction of the sectarians stresses their "simplicity" and tenderness: the author declares the "simplicity of their [the Independents'] heart ... for the truth is, Conscience is a tender thing" (2). They are a "people holy, harmelesse, peaceable" (3). They are not attempting to divide the kingdom or prevent a solution to the crisis of civil war; they are passive, simple, tender, godly.
The Independents' claim to innocence and tenderness gave rise to their opponents' mocking depiction of them as "females" (An Hue and Cry 25). The idiomatic expression "Diana"--often used to mean "idol"--is brought to life by the Presbyterian author of An Hue and Cry. Using the phrase "the great Diana of Independency," the author sarcastically captures the way Independents conceived of themselves as above the realm of mortals, god-like in their chastity (16). Like Diana as she bathes naked in a secluded spot, the Independents separate themselves into another realm, not to be violated by any creature less pure than themselves. Sometimes the phrase referred to the ideal of purity held by the Independents, sometimes to the Independents themselves, figuring them as the nymphs who worship that ideal; for example, "The …
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Publication information: Article title: "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers": Marvell's Portrait of Tender Conscience. Contributors: Samuels, Peggy - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 39. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2003. Page number: 245. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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