The Poet as Witness, Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.

The above poem is a gloriously vicious account of the circumstances leading to the Second Dutch War which in 1667 saw the Dutch fleet sail up the Thames with impunity, steal our flag ship, set fire to a few towns and sail away without loss. This was going to be a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with other primary sources (Pepys and the Calendar of State Papers) in an attempt to differentiate between the official, the personal and the poetic but then I got sidetracked into another line of enquiry which I should tackle first.

Re-reading the ‘Instructions’, I came across Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, who is one of the first political figures to fall under Marvell’s scrutiny. In the poem he is portrayed as a kind of seventeenth century sex machine and pointedly crude reference is made to his alleged affair with Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen. Being struck by the severity of Marvell’s gaze I (in the interests of balance) decided to look at Jermyn’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB article on Jermyn contains a reasonably objective account of Jermyn’s life in terms of posts held and the ‘close’ relationship with Henrietta Maria. Dealing with Jermyn’s role after 1660, we get this-

” Andrew Marvell’s great satire on the conduct of the war, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, attacked St Albans’s alleged lack of ability, his appearance, and his overindulgence in the pleasures of the court:
Paint then St Albans full of soup and gold,
The new court’s pattern, stallion of the old.
Him neither wit nor courage did exalt,
But Fortune chose him for her pleasure salt.
Paint him with drayman’s shoulders, butcher’s mien,
Member’d like mules, with elephantine chine.
Well he the title of St Alban’s bore,
For Bacon never studied nature more
But age, allaying now that youthful heat,
Fits him in France to play at cards and treat.”

So, poet as witness becomes poet as ‘official’ recorder. The Jermyn article is written by his only recent biographer and yet he chooses to include part of Marvell’s diatribe as part of the objective record which wasn’t part of Marvell’s intention. The poem portrays a high degree of political incompetence and corruption but Marvell was no innocent bystander, he had been MP for Hull since 1659 and was therefore part of the dismal political malaise that infected British public life during the 1660s and beyond. As an act of polemic, the poem needs to be considered as part of a series of ‘advice’ poems penned by Marvell and others and should perhaps be read both as testimony and as a demonstration of poetic skill.

There is a ‘point to this dismal tale and that is that the King, who is addressed directly in the poem’s closing lines, should pay more heed to the advice of the landed gentry rather than his courtiers and their parliamentary supporters. The primary reason given is that the gentry have substantial and enduring wealth and are not dependent on royal patronage and the corruption that this entails.

As well as being a scathing account of contemporary events and a polemic against the corrupt and sexually charged culture of the court, ‘Instructions’ contains a memorialisation in oddly erotic terms of Archibald Douglas who chose to stay aboard his burning ship whilst the rest of the crew fled. In a subsequent poem, ‘The Loyal Scot’, Marvell uses Douglas’ heroic example to suggest that national distinctions shouldn’t be given prominence in political debate.

So, poem that bears witness to a national disaster by recording both the circumstances and the disaster itself, a poem that acts as polemic against contemporary incompetence and corruption, that provides pithy descriptions of a range of powerful characters and, in the process, presents a vivid portrait of the culture and concerns of the ruling elite.

Incidentally, both Milton and Marvell eulogise characters who chose to stay on board sinking ships. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ is an elegy for Edward King who drowned in 1637 after deciding to pray on deck rather than try to escape. It strikes me that we wouldn’t think of either of these deaths as in anyway heroic now (stupid, but not especially brave) yet this does seem to have been an act worthy of praise in the 17th century.

I’d like to conclude by means of comparison with a more recent piece of witnessing. David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ memorialises the Somme offensive, that great British disaster of WWI but for other reasons. Jones does not seek to berate the dismal incompetence of the generals that sent so many men into this carnage, his stated aim is to mark the turning point in the British army with the arrival of new-fangled technologies that reduced much of the good natured camaraderie of the first two years of the war. Notwithstanding Jones’ aim the poem is a first hand account of soldiers moving up to the front and the initial suicidal assault on Mametz Wood. Jones resists polemic and even the scenes of death and dying are handled in a lyrical and moving way which is far removed from the anger so evident in many other war poets.

It can be argued that all poetry bears witness but Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions’ seems to cover most forms of testimony, apart from the eye-witness account, and also makes a significant contribution to the wider cultural landscape of his time. For those who are interested, it is especially rewarding to follow Pepys’ account of the same period (as well as having some responsibility for the naval fiasco, he read the poem in manuscript form) and the official records which show a government immobilised by panic.


8 responses to “The Poet as Witness, Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.

  1. An interesting article. I am the biographer of Henry Jermyn to whom you refer, who wrote his notice in the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’. Actually, I didn’t include the Marvell quote. It was inserted later by the dictionary’s editors, presumably to add poetic colour to the narrative, and they state that is ‘lack of ability’ which Marvell attacked was only ‘alleged’. In fact, Jermyn was an extremely able politician, whose failure to prevent France joining the Dutch side in the war against England was due to the limited nature of the instructions he received from Clarendon in London – a circumstance about which he could do nothing at the time. I have explained the whole story in detail in my book ‘The King’s Henchman’, a revised biography of Jermyn which, I am absolutely delighted to tell you, is being publish by Gibson Square this August. Yours faithfully, Anthony Adolph.

    • This is remarkable, in my naivety I was of the view that this kind of gratuitous interference didn’t go on at the DNB even in the interests of ‘local colour’. I know that Jermyn is a complex character and I look forward to the revised biography but my point is that on occasion poetry, even scurrilous sixth-form poetry, gets inserted into the national record because it’s memorable and (usually) succinct.

      • I don’t think it was interference. Had they given me a longer word-count, I’d probably have included it in the piece myself, and I certainly quote from the poem in my book. Being mentioned in poems, plays and so forth confers on the subject a form of immortality, and in all cases these should be quoted, discussed, and explained. In the case of this poem, the references to him were extremely colourful, but inaccurate – and this inaccuracy has been properly discussed and explained. It was my good fortune as Jermyn’s biographer to find him mentioned in a number of different pieces of literature, especially the works of his friend William D’Avenant, and this enriches what we know of him a great deal.

  2. I’ve been reading Pepys in sequence and have reached June 1667. I’d never heard of the Medway Raid. (I’m an American with a vaguely professional interest in 17th century history.) The excellent notes in the Latham & Mathews ed. of Pepys referred to Marvell. What a fascinating poem! Since I’m away from my library, I haven’t access to the L&M index. I’m assuming Pepys notes he saw Marvell’s poem? I’d certainly welcome a more detailed post on ‘Last Instructions’.

    • Peter,
      Pepys does record how a manuscript copy was shown to him and that he was stricken by its accuracy. This particular poem isn’t one of Marvell’s best but it does respond in detail to the great issue of the day. The British have managed to erase any mention of the Second Dutch War from our national story and the Medway incursion in particular. I will have another look at ‘Instructions’ because of the place it seems to have occupied in the chattering classes of the time. Incidentally, Pepys’ account of his wriggling out of blame for this particular fiasco is an absolute joy. The man had no shame.

      • Until your last word, I hadn’t thought of Pepys in terms of ‘Shameless’…. But, yes. I find the poem fascinating in how closely it alines with Pepys’s account, at least through the end of June. Their takes on personalities seem remarkably close. I picked up Pepys eight years ago mainly to get to the Plague and the Fire. I had no idea what an astonishing number of paths he’d lead me down — from Constitutional law to naval history to environmental history to medical practise to the naked civil servant to the unchanging ways of bureaucracies…. Much less after 55 years to rediscover ‘My Coy Mistress’….

      • I love and am appalled how, at the same time, he colludes with the incompetence and corruption that led to the Medway fiasco yet is also careful to prepare a trail of ‘evidence’ that will minimise his role. He was summoned to Parliament and was convinced that he would be taken straight to the tower but he used his defence speech to roll out this evidence and saved the day. What is most wonderful about the diaries is his honesty with himself (mostly).

      • A brilliant civil servant, Pepys was. Perhaps my own experience or queasy conscience makes me unwilling to be ‘appalled’ by Pepys, the brilliant political animal. (His beatings of his wife and servants, those appall me.) I am beyond astonished, however, that he violated the first and most essential political rule: put nothing incriminating — self or other — in writing. But then so did Marvell. How much poorer I would be had I not read Pepys on the Restoration! The Medway is a revelation. Here’s my first post on it:

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