In the woods with Andrew Marvell

Weng Naiqiang - scene from the Cultural Revolution

In December Michael Schmidt provided a thoughtful response to the piece on ‘Upon Appleton House’ and I’d like to respond and cover some of the areas that I didn’t cover last year.

The poem is Marvell’s longest and is ostensibly ‘about’ the Fairfax estates in Yorkshire where Marvell was employed as tutor to Mary Fairfax between 1650 and 1652. Last year I focused attention on the woodpecker and what the references to ‘traitor-worm’ and ‘treason’ might signify but now I want to thinks about the section on the estate’s woods in the context of the rest of the poem

The poem seems to be trying to do a number of things, the first being to pay tribute to the Fairfax family and then to use the grounds of Appleton House as both a place of rest from the cares of the world and the site of poetic experimentation

Nigel Smith usefully divides the poem into six main sections:

  • the first ten stanzas deal with the architecure of Appleton House as a reflection of Fairfax’ modesty and humility;
  • the second section tells a story about the union of the Fairfax and Thwaites families and explains how this is tied up with the origins of the house as a convent;
  • this is a description of the garden which is presented (oddly) in military terms;
  • the fourth section is the most technically ambitious and describes the meadows and the effects of the floods that occasionally occur
  • this concerns the woods although the eighteen stanzas are interrupted by three ‘about’ the river;
  • the last sixteen stanzas focus on the river and describe the onset of evening and the arrival of Maria Fairfax- the poem close with further praise of the Fairfax dynasty.

One of the many good things about Andrew Marvell is that he is so difficult to pin down and much critical energy is wasted in trying to position him within the mid to late 17th century. This if further compounded by the conflicted and deeply factional times in which he lived and the fact that he seemed to occupy both ‘camps’ in fairly rapid succession. There’s also the fact that most of the poems seem to point in more than one direction at the same time.

According to Smith, there was a bit of a fashion for writing about landscape during this period and I read the section on the meadows as Marvell’s successful attempt to overgo his peers. We’ll start with the mowers:

To see men through this meadow dive
We wonder how they rise alive.
As, under water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go.
But, as the mariners that sound,
And show their lead the ground,
They bring up flowers to be seen,
And prove they've at the bottom been.

The above is an example of Marvell the technician, he combines his image with complete control over language and the poetic form. It can be argued that this is mere mimesis but the seafaring analogy sets us up for the flooding in the later part of this section so that the reader is already thinking of the meadows as ocean. There’s also other stuff going on, rising ‘alive’ and providing proof of plumbing the depths both of which have obvious religious connotations – and God was very big indeed during the Protectorate. The most impressive aspect (to me) is the absence of frills, there are no describing words and what needs to be said is said with the minimum fuss.

Before we get to the flooding, we have this political aside:

For to this naked, equal flat,
Which Levellers take pattern at,
The villagers in common chase
Their cattle, which it closer rase;
And what below the scythe increased
Is pinched yet nearer by the beast.
Such, in the painted world, appeared
Dav'nant with th'universal herd.

Smith’s gloss, as is the norm, goes on at great length about the levellers and also throws in the Surrey Diggers and Winstanley but kind of skirts around the central ‘issue’ which appear to be enclosure and the related debates about encroachment on common land. The sub-text would appear to be that the Levellers are campaigning for something that the labourers on the Fairfax estate already have. Given that Fairfax was involved in the suppression of this particular group of eccentrics, I fondly imagine his discussions on all things radical with his daughter’s tutor (when they weren’t discussing Spenser, obviously).

As a fully paid-up Spenserian, I warmly applaud the snook that is cocked at William Davenant (who declared Spenser’s language to be obsolete and the immortal Spenserian stanza to be ‘unlucky’) but I’d also like to point out that this isn’t political per se but a conscious effort to please Fairfax and to efficiently overgo one of the prominent literary figures of the time. Needless to say, Fairfax was a committed Spenserian and would have vehemently disagreed with Davenant’s view.

This isn’t to deny that politics play a part in the poem but that the views expressed or alluded to are more readily attributed to Fairfax than to the poet. I’d also like to argue that it’s technically difficult to get so much stuff into an eight line stanza.

We now move into the wood which has a similar tone to that of ‘The Garden’ (which I’m still claiming as a sequence rather than a single unified poem) but it does have a dedicatory element:

The double wood of ancient stocks
linked in so thick, an unison locks,
It like two pedigrees appears,
On the one hand Fairfax, th'other Vere's:
Of whom though many fell in war,
Yet more to heaven shooting are:
and, as they Nature's cradle decked,
Will, in green age, her hearse expect.

Smith doesn’t gloss ‘green’ and he should because it’s the only way to make any kind of sense of the last two lines, if indeed sense is altogether desirable. As I’ve said before, the seventeenth century was a very different place and we should think much more about these differences rather than about the apparent similarities. Of course, there are poems and bits of poems from the period that we can relate to but there are also some aspects that we’ll never get to grips with. The colour green, for example, was packed which much more ‘meaning’ in 1651 and is likely to have been used so frequently by Marvell because of it’s radical ambiguity and its deployment throughout the cultural landscape. Suffice it to say that ‘green’ here may not mean either natural or young or that it could mean both of these and six or seven more.

I wrote recently about ‘The Garden’ and had a bit of a moan about the current tendency to equate the mention of soul with the Neoplatonic. Marvell’s soul might make an appearance in these woods too-

Thus I, easy philosopher,
Among the birds and trees confer:
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the fowle, or of the plants.
Give me but wings as they, and I
Straight floating on the air shall fly: Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted tree.

I’d like to make a claim for a parallel with the soul that flies in ‘The Garden’ but I’d also like to remove the Neoplatonic connotations and supplant it with something about the Edenic quality of the wood and the apparently simple qualities that are explored by the ‘easy philosopher’ but that makes a number of assumptions that I want to make because it fits with what I want to think about with regard to Fairfax’ decision to retire from public life which nicely chimes with the act of reflection that Marvell appears to admire.

A final thought- the line on treason (written about in the first post) is glossed by Smith as a straightforward condemnation of regicide but is it another reflection of the Fairfax family stance on this rather than what Marvell thought? The regicide isn’t equated with treason in the ‘Horatian Ode’ but Charles’ courage on the scaffold is praised….

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