Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Sustaining Fiction: Preserving Patriarchy in Marvell's upon Appleton House

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Sustaining Fiction: Preserving Patriarchy in Marvell's upon Appleton House

Article excerpt

Many readers of Andrew Marvell's Upon Appleton House note the poem's deviation from typical country house poems, finding in this deviation evidence of Marvell's ambivalence, eccentricity, or even, in the poem's challenges to heterosexual norms, "queerness." This essay argues, on the contrary, that Marvell's apparent queerness serves to sustain, rather than threaten, heterosexual norms. Marvell's role is thus analogous to that of the early modern housewife, who, "other" as she was, was integral to the preservation of her household. This parallel between poets and housewives resonates today, as the intellectual labor that preserves culture becomes increasingly devalued and "feminized."

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ANDREW Marvell--lifelong bachelor, gleeful transgressor of generic boundaries, romancer of plants--has been of much interest to scholars of the "queer early modern." Marvell's polymorphously perverse interests in trees, solitude, and poetry itself could be read as "queer" insofar as they demonstrate a reluctance to circulate one's sexual or economic assets through socially acceptable channels, a reluctance often deemed improper, un-Christian, or criminal. Insofar as a refusal to yield to traditional literary and historical understandings, even to understandings of queerness itself, could be called "queer," Marvell's indefinite and vaguely anti-heterosexual ideas and lifestyle comport with Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon's project of queer "unhistoricism" (1) or with Carla Freccero's open-ended invitation to allow the word "queer" to continue "to exploit its productive indeterminacy as a word used to designate that which is odd, strange, aslant" and to resist the word's "hypostatization, reification into nominal status as designating an entity, an identity, a thing, and to allow it to continue its outlaw work." (2) Claims like these may help produce the inclination to associate Marvell with "queerness" in as imprecise a sense as possible, where imprecision on the part of critic and poet alike is lauded as a virtue.

The pleasure with which we locate queerness in early modern poetry, however, can blind us to the ways in which content or form that is "odd, strange," or "aslant" often helps reproduce the very normative structures it ostensibly undermines, "outlaw work" that only further entrenches the law. Marvell's ardent attention to the sexual possibilities of plants in poems like "The Garden," for example, has been celebrated as offering alternatives to heteronormative structures of desire. Writing of that poem's solitary speaker, who luxuriates in flowers and melons and prefers a life "without a mate," Marjorie Swann has claimed that Marvell's erotic tree-hugging can be understood as a version of Timothy Morton's concept of "queer ecology," because, as she quotes Morton, "To contemplate ecology's unfathomable intimacies is to imagine pleasures that are not heteronormative, not genital, not geared to ideologies about where the body stops and starts." (3) And yet, as this essay will show, pleasures and practices can be polymorphous, "not genital," and not explicitly heteronormative themselves, and still work, as they do in Marvell's poetry, in the service of heteronormative ideology.

The invitation to read queerness into Marvell's poetry is perhaps most extensively offered by the 1651 "pocket epic" Upon Appleton House. The poem's indeterminate modes and resistance to linear temporality can easily be read as subversive of poetic convention, aristocratic values, and general heterosexuality. It strays far from the expected formula of the country house poem, usually a straightforward celebration of an aristocratic patriarch who presides--with the help of his chaste and very organized wife--over a magnificent (but tasteful) estate that perfectly complements nature's harmony, just as his forefathers have done and his heirs will continue to do. In contrast to these expectations, Upon Appleton House's main attractions include sybaritic nuns, pastoral self-pleasuring, and the complication of dynastic lines, subverting the genre's conservative, deeply heteronormative conventions. …

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