Marvell’s poetry doesn’t seem very popular these days except for ‘To his coy mistress’ which is one of the finest love poems in the English language. This is a pity because some of his other stuff is very good indeed. I’m particularly fond of ‘Upon Appleton House’ but here I wish to draw attention to ‘An Horatian ode upon Cromwell’s return from Ireland’.
This is a political poem and it is very, very clever. The civil wars of the 17th century carry all sorts of baggage in English culture and I’m wary of imposing modern values on that contested period. The poem was written in the three week period between Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland and his journey north to do battle with the Scots. The ode celebrates Cromwell as the decisive man of action and urges him on to defeat the Scots. However the poem also paints a very positive picture of Charles I on the scaffold and also hints that Cromwell may want the crown for himself. There is also presented as fact the suspicion that Cromwell engineered Charles’ flight from Hampton Court so as to hasten his execution.
Critics have argued over whether the poem was written in support of Cromwell or Charles but I don’t think that this is the issue. I think it is a sophisticated study of power and of the effects that power has on individual men. The stanzas set out below are the first in the poem to suggest that this may be more than just a song of praise:
Who, from his private garden, where
He lived reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot,
to plant the bergamot.
Could by industrious valour climb
to ruin the great work of time.
and cast the kingdoms old
Into another mould.
I needed Nigel Smith in the excellent Longman edition Of Marvell’s poetry to tell that a bergamot is a type of pear considered to be the pear of kings. These lines more than hint at Cromwell being a man of immense personal ambition wants to destroy the past and seize the crown for himself. I don’t think that to accuse someone of ruining the great work of time is particularly complimentary.
Marvell is particularly effective (and direct) as to Cromwell’s ‘skill’ in engineering Charles’ move from Hampton Court to the Isle of Wight-
Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
He wove a net of such a scope
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrook’s narrow case:
That thence the royal actor born
The tragic scaffold might adorn,
Smith tells us that this view of Cromwell’s role was fairly commonplace at the time but I don’t think anyone expressed it more succinctly than Marvell. I’m particularly fond of ‘twining subtle fears with hope’ as it sums up how you would persuade somebody to do something against their best interests. It doesn’t lessen the strength of these lines that Cromwell was entirely innocent of this accusation- they reflect what people thought at the time.
I won’t add to the heap of stuff that’s been written about the description of Charles’ behaviour on the scaffold other than to note that it has an elegiac, haunting quality that is absent from the rest of the poem.
Cromwell had just returned from Ireland where he had committed atrocities at Drogheda and Wexford, Marvell’s reference to this campaign takes up a mere four lines-
And now the Irish are ashamed
To see themselves in one year tamed.
So much can one man do,
That does both act and know.
Of course the Irish were never tamed and the brutality of this campaign continues as a running sore to this day. I’ve long held a theory that the English don’t really care about Ireland and I think these four lines epitomise that kind of willful ignorance that’s been around for centuries. Incidentally, the Scots don’t come off much better in the poem.
The last six lines of the poem show just how clever Marvell is. Smith glosses these as a warning to be wary of those defeated who may come seeking revenge. My view is that these lines point out that Cromwell, who has won power by killing others, must go on killing ad infinitum purely because the is that position that the various power matrices have put him in-
And for the last effect
Still keep the sword erect:
Besides the force it has to fight
The spirits of the shady night;
The same arts that did gain
A pow’r must it maintain.