Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'The Swelling Hall': Andrew Marvell and the Politics of Architecture at Nun Appleton House

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'The Swelling Hall': Andrew Marvell and the Politics of Architecture at Nun Appleton House

Article excerpt

Some time in late 1650, Andrew Marvell became a tutor in the household of the former Parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax, who had recently retired from public life to the seclusion of a family estate in Yorkshire. Marvell is thought to have spent time during the preceding year making literary connections in London, but the change of scene was evidently to his taste. The young author remained at Nun Appleton for two years, and he is considered to have produced some of his finest work in these surroundings, where his writing flourished in dialogue with the literary interests of his employer. The extent to which the two men were in political accord during the first uncertain years of the Interregnum, however, remains open to debate; a question that depends in turn upon the equally contentious issue of Marvell's own political allegiances at this formative stage in his career.1

The conflicting political impulses that have been identified in Marvell's poems of the early 1650s have not as yet allowed the resolution of either of these matters.2 In particular, the political alignment of 'Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax', which stands as the most substantial poem that Marvell wrote whilst in that patron's employ, has remained hard to place. The poem is ostensibly a panegyric that begins by proclaiming how the humility of Fairfax's residence reflects his laudable moral status. Yet in the initial architectural stanzas, the knife-edge of ingenious paradox upon which this praise stands poised has consistently divided commentators. As I will consider, this diversity of opinion reflects the extent to which Marvell's uncertain tone, hanging questions and indecorous imagery leave the reader to decide how far Appleton House does in fact embody the values that are being described. In view of this ambivalence, the size and style of the actual house that Marvell portrayed is crucial to the way that we interpret his commentary upon its seeming modesty as a structure that 'Humility alone designs': whether as sincere praise, or as something more provocative.3 With this in mind I offer a new examination of the design and construction of Fairfax's 'Domestick Heaven' (722), suggesting how the involvement of the former royalist architect John Webb might give a darker aspect to the apparent praise that Marvell offers up to his employer's property. How much comment or criticism, I ask, might the humble tutor-poet have been able to express from within his patron's household?

In the opening seventy-two lines of 'Upon Appleton House' Marvell considers how the inward qualities of a house's inhabitants might be made outwardly visible in the fabric of the building. He sets up several pairs of moral antitheses, suggesting the opposing natures of flamboyance or humility, of traditional and innovative styles, and of native and Continental influences. The elusive tone of this section has rendered its imagery problematic. Most strikingly, by the time of the seventh stanza, T. S. Eliot identified a total failure of taste in Marvell's hyperbolic description of architectural bulging:

Yet thus the laden House does sweat,

And scarce indures the Master great:

But where he comes the swelling Hall

Stirs, and the Square grows Spherical (49-52)

These lines Eliot condemns as 'immediately and unintentionally ridiculous' and, as I consider below, he has not been alone in finding this passage problematic.4

The ambivalent tonal register and political status of these stanzas has raised a further problem of compositional dating that has brought the structural integrity of the poem into question. Derek Hirst and Stephen Zwicker have examined the exact historical circumstances that occasioned the composition of 'Upon Appleton House', but this valuable scholarship, to which I am indebted here, has led them to the surprising conclusion that the opening stanzas concerning architecture were written significantly before all the rest. …

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