it’s amazing what can learn about the history of verse, even from a 1-page bio in an anthology. This morning, having settled upon Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) for some contribution today, I thought, “Ha! I knew there was a reason I’ve been carting this Norton Anthology of British Lit., Vol. I around the country lo these past 20 years.” The entry for Marvell left behind the dry voice of the orderly anthologist, and the writer’s delight in Marvell’s accomplishments was evident. For one thing, I learned that Marvell did sort of a “5th year” at Cambridge, but left without taking an M.A. Then, he “dropped from the biographer’s view” for a time, although a later letter of recommendation from none other than John Milton reveals he traveled in continental Europe for about 4 years. He became tutor to the daughter of a wealthy noble, and again, the sketch biographer notes that he must have made a most diverting instructor, since in his poetry he typically drapes great learning with playful wit. Marvell was a royalist, if one satirical of its corruption, and later on saved his patron Milton (a Puritan) from a long imprisonment and possible death in the Tower of London. He never made his living as a writer, though, and in fact after working as functionary to a number of government posts, he ran himself for MP, and served out much of his adult life as the representative for Hull, his hometown. According to the Norton, his detailed letters to constituents comprise a valuable historical record, but betray none of the wit and mellifluence of his poetic creations–most of which went entirely unknown until 2-3 years after his death.
At his death, Marvell was known chiefly as an able legislator and the author of a small handful of well-received political satires.But then a woman holding herself out as his widow–put perhaps his housekeeper?–published the lyrics upon which his reputation is chiefly based. One of these is today’s poem. The Norton editor notes that his reputation has grown steadily since that time, and has perhaps never stood higher than it does in our own day. He is labeled by this brief sketch, “The most major of the minor writers,” or, as Farmer Ted would have said, “King of the dipshits.” The current stature may have something to do with a famous essay published by T.S. Eliot on the tercentenary of Marvell’s death, about the same time that Ulysses, The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse, and all those other famous books came out. Here is Andrew Marvell as lexicographer, defining love. It’s a complicated poem, resting on well-developed astronomical metaphors. -ed.
THE DEFINITION OF LOVE
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.