Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Nigel Smith's new book, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon has received quite a few good reviews.[1] The one that's impressed me most is Robert Polito's in Bookforum.

Polito quotes this little piece of the long poem, Upon Appleton House:
They seem within the polished grass
A landskip drawn in looking-glass.
And shrunk in the huge pasture show
As spots, so shaped, on faces do.
Such fleas, ere they approach the eye,
In multiplying glasses lie.
They feed so wide, so slowly move,
As constellations do above.[2]
He gives the stanza's context and then a lovely explication. He tell us Marvel is observing a herd of grazing cattle and these "cattle soon enact a comedy of slippery, mutating scale, as neither the world nor the language for describing that world will stand still. By way of a pun on "polished grass" and "polished glass," Marvell thinks the cattle look like they are within a landscape painted on a mirror — a seventeenth-century art vogue. Next he imagines someone looking into the mirror, so that the cattle resemble blemishes on a face. The diminished cattle, now "spots," remind him of fleas, but fleas then viewed through a microscope ("multiplying glasses"), such that they—simultaneously cattle, spots, and fleas—emerge as large as stars." Polito calls this a "delirious loop de loop of cattle/spots/fleas/stars." He sees echoes of this whirligig style in three modern American poets[3] but then comes back to the timeframe of the poem itself, saying its genius comes forth in imagery that forces attention on the concurrent English Civil War: in the country-house verses violence arises everywhere —
the playful "silken ensigns," "fragrant volleys," and "gentle forts" of Fairfax's garden flowers, and, most powerfully, the careless savagery of the mowers: "These massacre the grass along . . . where . . . the plain / Lies quilted o'er with bodies slain." Even that little farrago about the cattle, spots, fleas, and stars ends up as Marvell's protest about how impossible it is for us to see and comprehend such civic horrors.
Polito tells us Marvell was truely the chameleon that Nigel Smith sees in him, as difficult for his contemporaries to comprehend as for us who inspect him from afar. Polito ends by praising the deftness of Smith's touch as "he rolls up barrels of documenting particulars without disturbing [the poet's] core eeriness."

{Andrew Marvell ca. 1657; source: varia on tumbler}



[1] Here are links to some. [2] You can read the whole poem here: Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax

[3] Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England," James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover," and John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."

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