Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Sacred Violence in Marvell's "Horatian Ode"

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Sacred Violence in Marvell's "Horatian Ode"

Article excerpt

Two main approaches have dominated interpretation of Andrew Marvell's notoriously ambiguous "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland." One is what David Norbrook has criticized as the supposed "'balanced' reading," exemplified by Cleanth Brooks' seminal essay on the poem (165). This interpretation stresses the poem's ironies and ambiguities and attempts to organize them around a notion of Marvell's brilliance as an observer, his "cool perception" (Greene 395). By contrast, the readings performed by Norbrook and others stress the poem's engagement with the politics of its moment, the summer of 1650, and emphasize its commitment to Cromwell, despite any reservations Marvell may have about him. I say "stress" and "emphasize" since readings of either type generally recognize that the poem contains both praise and equivocation. While not denying an element of admiration in the poem's tone, this paper itself will focus on Marvell's use of irony and equivocation to depict the deeper cultural situation within which any political commitment on his part must be made. As Blair Worden notes, the poem's ironies "yield most when we explore them not in search of a partisan allegiance on the poet's part but with a willingness to accept the poem's openness" (173). In a recent exploration of this openness, Thomas Greene uses anthropological theory to address the role of the sacred in the poem, invoking Levi-Strauss and Freud, among others, to argue that the "Ode" pits the magic of language against "the intrusion of the uncanny into history," in the form of Cromwell (379). My argument will also consider the poem's references to the sacred or uncanny, but will apply Rene Girard's revolutionary insights about the hidden mechanism that cloaks violence behind supernatural appearances. Specifically, I will attempt to show that the unity of this enigmatic poem, with its paradoxical tributes to two foes, lies in its disclosure of the logic of sacred violence during the English Civil War, both in the martial mystique surrounding Cromwell and, as a comparison to Milton and other contemporaries will highlight, the sacrificial purpose behind the execution of Charles I.

Cromwell's mystique in this poem may be fittingly described through Girard's commentary on the Greek concept of kudos: a "semidivine prestige" or "mystical election attained by military victory" (152). Girard's understanding of kudos originates in his fundamental notion that human desire is imitated and hence--since not all objects of desire can be shared--inherently rivalrous. Oft-resisted in striving for the object of another's desire, the subject of mimetic desire comes to identify such resistance--indeed, violence itself--as the transcendent other that that subject longs to become. Kudos is the sacred aura that mimetic desire, fascinated by the obstacles to desire, attributes to violence: "Violence strikes men as at once seductive and terrifying, never as a simple means to an end, but as an epiphany"; thus kudos is "the fascination of superior violence." As mimetic rivalry intensifies, "kudos alone becomes the ultimate object." The rivals' mutually exclusive goal is personal deification: "To be a god is to possess kudos forever, to remain forever a master, unchallenged and unchallengeable." As an "eminently desirable" prize "that men strive constantly to wrest from one another," kudos is the essence of what Girard calls the sacrificial crisis, a breakdown in the sacred system of prohibition and ritual that maintains a social order: "As long as the concept of kudos exists ... there can be no transcendent force capable of restoring peace. What we are witnessing in this struggle for kudos is the decomposition of the divine, brought about by violent reciprocity" (152-53). In its ironic admiration of Cromwell's kudos, the "Ode" suggests that just such a crisis has accompanied his rise to greatness.

The opening lines anticipate this irony in an ambiguous call to arms. …

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