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The following entry presents criticism of Marvell's "Cromwell Poems."
One of the last of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, Marvell is noted for his intellectual, allusive poetry, rich in metaphor. His work incorporates many of the elements associated with the metaphysical school: the tension of opposing values, metaphorical complexities, logical and linguistic subtleties, and un-expected twists of thought and argument. Although in the past his work has been considered of minor stature next to the artistic genius of John Donne, the most renowned of the metaphysical poets, Marvell has come to be viewed as an important poet in his own right. The poems generally thought to be his best, including "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Garden," are characterized by an ambiguous complexity and a thematic irresolution which critics believe both define his talent and account for his appeal. In the latter half of the twentieth century, critics have paid increasing attention to Marvell's Cromwell poems, particularly "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland."
The son of an Anglican clergyman and his wife, Marvell was born in Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire. He received his early education at nearby Hull Grammar School, and later attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1638 or 1639 and remained until 1640. He spent approximately four years traveling the European continent, and was not in England when the English Civil War erupted in 1642. Scholars suspect that up until this time Marvell's sympathies were with the Royalists. There is no evidence that he had transferred his allegiance to the Puritans until writing "An Horatian Ode" in 1650. After this time, Marvell became increasingly involved in politics and the Parliamentary cause. He became tutor to the daughter of Sir Thomas Fairfax, former commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian forces. Marvell wrote the bulk of the lyric poetry on which his reputation rests during this period. Later, Marvell became tutor to Cromwell's charge William Dutton.
Through the influence of his friend John Milton, the Latin secretary, Marvell was appointed Assistant Latin Secretary. In 1659 he took a seat in Parliament as a representative for Hull, at which time he shifted from writing poetry to political satire and polemics. A conscientious statesman, Marvell channeled his energy and talent into his political career, serving in Parliament until his death. Although rumors persist that his death was the result of poisoning by his political enemies, it is generally accepted that Marvell died of an accidental overdose of medicinal opiates.
Traditionally, Marvell's work has been divided into four classifications—religious poetry, love poetry, pastoral poetry, and political poetry. In the twentieth century, however, commentators have argued that these distinctions are valid only superficially; though Marvell may have made use of these established poetic conventions, his poetry cannot be so neatly categorized or explained. In one of Marvell's most famous poems, "To His Coy Mistress," the narrator implores a woman to become his lover, arguing that the transience of life and the inevitability of death necessitate their immediate enjoyment of sensual pleasure. Many critics believe that complexities and ambiguities within the poem undermine the ostensible message; the suspicion of narrative irony and the curiously inappropriate imagery of the poem cast doubt on its true meaning. The concepts of ambiguity and duality have become recognized as central to the understanding of Marvell's work. In such overtly religious poems as "A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure" and "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body," Marvell directly addressed the theme of the duality of spirituality and temporality. As their titles indicate, both of these poems are discussions between the body and its pleasures on the one hand and the soul and its spirituality on the other.
Issues of ambiguity and conflict are also inherent in Marvell's Cromwell poems, a series of poems written about and dedicated to Oliver Cromwell. "An Horatian Ode" chronicles the demise of Charles I and Cromwell's rise to power. However, unlike other poems dedicated to Cromwell in this era, "Ode" is neither completely critical of Charles nor totally admiring of Cromwell. In fact, some scholars contend that Cromwell is depicted as a necessary evil. Other critics suggest that subtle hints in the poem indicate the poet's belief that Cromwell's base of power, founded as it was on usurpation and bloodshed, may have been inevitable but can hardly be praiseworthy. Marvell's tone becomes more complimentary through the years as noted in The First Anniversary of the Government under His Highness the Lord Protector and "A Poem upon the Death of His Late Highness the Lord Protector." "Upon Appleton House," which is also usually grouped with the political poems, outwardly appears to praise the retirement of Marvell's benefactor Fairfax from the political arena. The extent to which this praise may be regarded as sincere has long been a critical stumbling block, as the rest of the poem seems to endorse action and movement. Marvell dealt again with the tension between retirement and action in "The Garden," which, like many of Marvell's best poems, presents a critical enigma. Garden imagery, which recurs throughout Marvell's poetry, represents a tranquil and idyllic retreat, a sanctuary in which one can address one's spiritual concerns. In "The Garden," Marvell explores the individual's spiritual journey; however, the validity of the narrator's pastoral retreat as a refuge from earthly cares and passions is compromised by Marvell's description of the garden itself, which is couched in lush, sensual language and imagery.
The history of Marvell's critical reception is one of shifting focus and sharp reversal. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Marvell's reputation was that of a major statesman but a minor poet. He was lauded as an upright politician, and his name became synonymous with disinterested patriotism. His poetry, when it was considered at all, was judged to be admirable but of secondary importance to his public career. In the twentieth century, Marvell's lyric poetry has come to be seen in an entirely new light, largely due to a pivotal essay by T. S. Eliot in 1921. Eliot emphasized for the first time Marvell's metaphysical wit, the recognition of which has both enlarged and redefined subsequent critical thought. Poems once considered simple and straightforward have been reinterpreted in light of their evident ambiguities. Many critics believe that the ambiguities are far more than clever devices and that Marvell's recurring themes exemplify the nature of ambiguity itself. Indeed, such critics claim that underlying all of Marvell's poetry is a unifying and omnipresent concern with a central ambiguity, the tension and duality of opposites, and that this is most often and most successfully expressed through his treatment of the duality of the body and the soul, the temporal and the divine. The dualities of mind and emotion, action and contemplation, and conventionality and nonconformity are secondary, yet related, thematic oppositions that commentators have also observed in Marvell's poetry. All these tensions, critics have noted, place the poems in a fundamentally spiritual or moral context, as each involves opposing human attributes or choices. Likewise, such political poems as "An Horatian Ode" and "Upon Appleton House" have prompted much critical debate due to their ambiguity. As Raman Selden writes, "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' has proved to be perhaps the most controversial of all seventeenth-century lyric poems." He goes on to say that "most critics … have treated the 'Ode' either as historical document or as autonomous artifact, and have been unable to discover a mode of interpretation which both restores its historical uniqueness and preserves its poetic integrity." The same statement could be mode of the critical response to the other Cromwell poems. However, of the political poems, "An Horatian Ode" has sparked the most controversy. Most critics interpret the poem as a gauge of Marvell's political stand and the degree of support he espoused for the Royalists and Puritans. Some scholars, however, have moved beyond this debate to question Marvell's contradictory tone and to explore how and why he creates contrasts in the poem. R. H. Syfret argues that the tone reflects the uncertainty of the age while Michael Wilding argues that Marvell wanted the reader to find the poem ambiguous and detached in order to sway the reader towards the side of the revolution. Critics agree that both the contradictory tension and thus the quality are abated in the subsequent Cromwell poems.