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. …