Echoes as Evidence in the Poetry of Andrew Marvell

By Loxley, James | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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Echoes as Evidence in the Poetry of Andrew Marvell


Loxley, James, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


That Andrew Marvell's poetry is particularly allusive is an organizing critical and editorial assumption. Pierre Legouis and E. E. Duncan-Jones's revision of H. M. Margoliouth's Poems and Letters (1971) brought together in a single erudite commentary the plentiful echoes and resemblances to the works of other poets, both ancient and modern, that these and other attentive readers had noted over the years. (1) Nigel Smith's more recent edition (2007) of the poems has arguably given even greater prominence to the echoing nature of Marvellian song, drawing attention to its reverberations both in the extensive headnote to each poem and in detailed and comprehensive textual annotations. (2) Less ambitious editions in the intervening years similarly emphasize the many apparent borrowings that make up an important part of the weave of Marvell's poetry. (3) Such editorial emphases are hardly unusual, of course--the identification and unpacking of likely allusions is a customarily central component of an editor's work in annotating the texts in his or her care--but in Marvell's case it has long been complemented by, or perhaps has complemented, a steady reliance on echoes and resemblances in developing critical readings of his work. The twin pillars of modern Marvell criticism--J. B. Leishman's The Art of Marvell's Poetry and John Wallace's Destiny His Choice--both posit and elaborate a vast range of such connections, in support, of very different critical projects. (4) Wallace's emphasis is on the elucidation of political and ideological context, while Leishman is more concerned with how Marvell's poetry manages to borrow so extensively from his predecessors and contemporaries while remaining "unmistakably his own and no one else's." (5) Hence Wallace is principally interested in resemblances at the level of argument or idea, while Leishman's attention is more readily engaged by verbal echoes. If Wallace's focus on the political poetry and its context has generated more vigorous critical growth over the years, those who have developed his approach have had a keener eye for linguistic isomorphism. (6) Meanwhile, the full range of the poetry continues to be inexhaustibly generative of hitherto unnoticed parallels and allusions. No doubt future editors will, like their predecessors, see the gathering up of such echoes as an important aspect of the work of annotation.

Unsurprisingly, parallels are rarely noted for their own sake. In editorial and critical work alike, they are given in evidence: some offer useful or illuminating points of comparison, parallel or similar handlings of motifs, metaphors, or topoi, while others--perhaps more weightily--are deployed in support of claims regarding Marvell's reading, the dating of particular poems, the circulation of his writings, and the nature and extent of his social circles. To some extent, the emphasis on these latter is a consequence of what has usually been seen as the paucity of external evidence capable of resolving textual and biographical uncertainties. Thus, for example, both Blair Worden and Nicholas McDowell rely heavily on textual echoes in the poetry in making different, but not incompatible, cases for Marvell's connections and activities in the later 1640s. (7) The only bonds to his literary contemporaries at this time for which we have absolutely definitive evidence are his address to Richard Lovelace in commendation of Lucasta, first published in 1649, and his presence among the elegists for Henry Hastings in Lachiymae Musarum the same year; in addition, the promotion of his elegy from the addenda of the first edition to a more central position in the second, surely indicates his involvement with, or recognition by, contemporary poets and their readers. (8) Building on this relatively meager evidence, Worden and McDowell have crafted persuasive portraits of a poet at home among the London wits of the turbulent few years after the royalist defeat, engaged in amicable exchanges not just with Lovelace but also with James Shirley, John Hall, Marchamont Nedham and Alexander Brome.

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