The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton

By John Rogers | Go to book overview

3
Marvell and the Action of Virginity

Nothing is superior to chastity in its power to restore mankind to Paradise.
-- THEOPATRA, in Methodius, Symposium: A Treatise on Chastity
Virginity is the name of whatever is capable of being absolutely lost.
-- ANGUS FLETCHER, The Transcendental Masque

The participatory labor of creature and creation envisioned by Paul formed one of the bases, as we have seen, of a mid-seventeenth-century fantasy of a passive revolution. The Pauline doctrine in Romans 8 of a bodily redemption occasioned by a creation "groaning in labor pain" was felt to authorize a theological heresy that at least some figures in the 1650s held accountable for the passions that led to civil war.1 We have examined, in Chapter 2, how Marvell uses Upon Appleton House to explore the attractions of this visionary alternative to the shooting and killing, the squaring and hewing endemic to a revolution that, even after the establishment of the republican Commonwealth in 1649, still possessed a propensity for violence. We need still to explore, however, Marvell's investment in an important, if curious, corollary to the doctrine of the passive revolution. I argue here that the attraction not only for Marvell but for a few of his contemporaries of the Pauline vision of natural redemption can be traced in large part to the considerable prestige Paul accorded the bodily condition of virginity.

The pastoral ideal of many of Marvell's poems is unquestionably an ideal of sexual abstinence, the paradisal retreat envisioned in "The Garden" as the "happy Garden-state, / While Man there walk'd without a Mate." Poems such as "The Garden," the Mower lyrics, and Upon Appleton House consis-

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1
Joseph Frank, in The Levellers: A History of the Writings of Three Seventeenth-Century Social Democrats ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), cites articles from two Royalist newspapers of 1648 that "complained that the Mortalist Heresy was one of the more subversive ideas engendered by the Civil War, and that it was partly responsible for the revolutionary nature of that conflict" (p. 299). The best account of the mortalist heresy is Norman T. Burns, Christian Mortalism from Tyndale to Milton ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).

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