Saturday, August 05, 2006

a Marvell

I've been reading Andrew Marvell's poems lately, not for the music in them, but to guage reaction among the literate classes to the scientific revolution of his time (his life overlapped with Newton's, Hooke's, Wren's, Boyle's, and a host of other intellectual adventurers). And indeed Marvel writes of these men and aludes a bit to their work (notably in his Last Instructions to a Painter).

Surprisingly, given its great distance from everyday life, he uses "holy Mathematicks" in one of his best, Upon Appleton House, writing of "The Circle in the Quadrature!" which -- at the time Marvell wrote -- Wallis vainly sought, and which -- years later -- Brouncker may have found, and Newton made good.

It's easy to scan Marvell's poems for new-science references and easy too to overlook their "fine relish to the ear" as Birrell puts it (using Lamb). It's particularly easy to overlook his poetic virtues because our age hasn't Birrell's ear, hearing as we do sing-song jingles which compare poorly to Marvell's immediate predecessors, such as Milton. Nonetheless Marvell deserves a careful reading with attention to his nuances, contrasts, and use of balance. And some of his work requires little work, it's so easily accessible and satisfying. Take for example:
An Epitaph Upon ...

Enough: and leave the rest to Fame.
'Tis to commend her but to name.
Courtship, which living she declin'd,
When dead to offer were unkind.
Where never any could speak ill,
Who would officious Praises spill?
Nor can the truest Wit or Friend,
Without Detracting, her commend.
To say she liv'd a Virgin chast,
In this Age loose and all unlac't;
Nor was, when Vice is so allow'd,
Of Virtue or asham'd, or proud;
That her Soul was on Heaven so bent
No Minute but it came and went;
That ready her last Debt to pay
She summ'd her Life up ev'ry day;
Modest as Morn; as Mid-day bright;
Gentle as Ev'ning; cool as Night;
'Tis true: but all so weakly said;
'Twere more Significant, She's Dead.


Addendum: Marvell's life, like that of his contemporaries among the scientists and mathematicians, was pleasingly varied and eventful. As assistant, he provided eyes when Milton's failed, was tutor to the daughter of the famous Thomas Fairfax (Commonwealth hero), later secretary to Cromwell's council, then Member of Parliament, and, following the return of the Stuarts, eloquent in opposition to religious dogmatism, monarchial absolutism, political corruption, and the venality of the Royal Court.

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