Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Ecocritical Readings of Andrew Marvell's Fairfax Poems

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Ecocritical Readings of Andrew Marvell's Fairfax Poems

Article excerpt

Using an ecofeminist lens shows how Andrew Marvell's Fairfax poems employ traditional constructions of nature as feminine in order to shore up the power of the patriarchal subject. But this ecofeminist framework will also demonstrate how nature as a metaphor for the operations of language exposes these traditional constructions as inherently unstable and, as such, liable to a kind of internal fracturing that undercuts the very structure of masculinity it intends to support. Writing about Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax, Diane McColley suggests that Marvell "sought a kind of multiply connective language that is ecological," one that "questions human dominion over nature with other hierarchies and makes the act of perceiving produce value from nature quite apart from its value as either economic or emblematic commodity" (16, 17). McColley further states that Upon Appleton House is "not about power" and that it "unsettles conventional binary, categorical, idealizing, and mastering ways of seeing and valuing" (17). I believe, however, this poem and the other Fairfax poems (Epigramma in Duos Montes Amosclivum et Bilboreum. Fairfacio and Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilbrough, To the Lord Fairfax) are specifically about how language can operate to produce patriarchal power, as they interweave constructions of gender with representations of the natural world. It is through these interweavings that Marvell considers Fairfax's identity as a heroic masculine subject while he both affirms and contests the patriarchal imperatives of these poems: their commitment to heterosexual norms and, in relation to Upon Appleton House, the continuation of the Fairfax line through the marriage of Mary Fairfax. Thus, the Fairfax poems use the natural world to consolidate the identity of Thomas Fairfax, but also to interrogate the validity of those patriarchal consolidations through a variety of engagements with nature, especially in figures like the poet-narrator and Mary Fairfax in Upon Appleton House who simultaneously underwrite but also query the masculine values inherent in relationships of patronage and paternity.

Over the past three decades, ecofeminists have problematized traditional constructions of nature of the kind Marvell uses in his Fairfax poems, focusing on the conventional alignment of nature with the feminine and, in so doing, have outlined how these constructions advance patriarchal power. For instance, Karen J. Warren examines the links between the dualistic categories of women and nature in order to critique what she calls a "logic of domination" that "has functioned historically within patriarchy to sustain and justify the twin dominations of women and nature" (23). Victoria Davion similarly acknowledges the "conceptual links between the domination of nature and the domination of women" (11) but adds to Warren by asserting the need for a "reconceptualization of knowledge, reality, and ethics so that these current dichotomous ways of conceptualizing the reality literally make no sense" (26). Andrew Marvell registers this logic of domination in his Epigramma in Duos Montes Amosclivum et Bilboreum. Fairfacio as he constructs Fairfax's dominion over the two mountains of the title using the categories of women and nature. By invoking Mary Fairfax at poem's end, Marvell tempers the rhetoric of dominion and undercuts the patriarchal assertions of Fairfax, apparently trying to go beyond dichotomous ways of thinking to reach towards a new evaluative framework. He continues his reconceptualization of the relations between human beings and nature in his second Fairfax poem, Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilbrough, when he views nature as a kind of moral emblem for Fairfax's patriarchal identity and also considers nature as a metaphor for the complex relationship between human beings and language. The differing uses of nature in these poems suggest how Marvell attempts to transcend a logic of domination and move towards non-dichotomous modes of thought that enable him to confront and transform linguistic and sexual hierarchies. …

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