This Newsletter was published on Monday 5 July 2010

Book Review: Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House: An Analytic Commentary”

Vitaliy Eyber
Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010

Vitaliy Eyber has given us a superb new tool for understanding and teaching one of Andrew Marvell’s most beloved poems, “Upon Appleton House.” I do have some concerns about the book, but they pale in face of the exhaustive work Eyber has done in trying to help readers better understand a poem simple on the surface and rich in embedded meaning. A poem that I have found generally proves rewarding reading to undergraduate students, “Upon Appleton House” can now be presented in the classroom with new vigor, given the insights that Eyber provides in a book devoted solely to the explication of this one Marvell poem.

In the introduction for Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House,” Eyber defends the purpose of his book by noting first that the poem in question is pretty much neglected in classrooms, and secondly, has never been mined for the depth of wit with which it was constructed. In order to justify his line by line commentary, which takes up ninety percent of the book, he asserts a little brashly that the poem is “the most aesthetically eventful and undemandingly complex long poem in the English language” (10). So much for Paradise Lost. So much for poor Poly-Olbion. Eyber’s claim is what my freshmen composition teacher used to call “a trumpet blast to the ionosphere.” Eyber then states that no reader to date (either “casual reader” or “professional who is observant for a living”) has truly understood what Eyber calls the “microlevels” of the “Upon Appleton House” wit, and he therefore promises “to lay out for my readers all of the poem’s wit” (13). Well, given his years (this is his first book) and the fact that many readers will have had experiences and tasted knowledge he has not yet explored, we must conclude that his readings may forever after obviate any and all creative readings of the poem that later may arise, including his own.

As an example of his methodology, Eyber cites lines 489-492 for an analysis of wit’s microlevels. His analysis is provocative for the most part as he works with multiple meanings of “wood” and “pedigrees,” but his reading loses me when he begins analysis of wit that “is felt but not noticed” (15). He gives as an example the phrase “ordinary conversation,” noting that “twelve year old boys” could sense that “ordinary” means “restaurant” (I have no idea where he gets this sense of the word) and “conversation” means “copulation” thanks to Milton (so many twelve year old boys are reading the divorce tracts these days!), and thus “ordinary conversation” conjures up public sex in a deli. We are thus in for a curious and rocking ride through a poem Eyber dubs (for a second time) a poem “whose density is…unparalleled in any other long poetic work in English” (16).

Some of Eyber’s insights are stretched. For example, he notes that the word “pedigrees” in line 491 is based on the Latin “ped” (“foot”), and this etymology, he maintains, resonates with a reader, or should resonate, fifty lines later when the reader finds the word “foot” in l. 540. But surely a lot has gone on in those fifty lines, and while an occasional reader may have caught the etymology of “pedigree,” I doubt if many, outside of Eyber, would catch a referent to such fifty lines later. It is a question of a nice insight being pushed as an obvious insight so that anyone who does not catch it without a nudge from Eyber is supposed to feel inferior for having missed it. Eventually Eyber concedes that this poem “is exceptionally easy to read” (20), and we wonder therefore why we need his almost 200 pages of notes to appreciate the poem. Is the book simply an exercise in “this is how I read the lines”? Isn’t the book then a private exercise?

In very good remarks on the background of the poem, Eyber attributes the revival of the “country-house poem” to Jonson’s “Penshurst,” but he fails to mention Aemilia Lanyer’s “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which appeared one year earlier. Lanyer deserves at least a nod. One nice contrast Eyber points out among country-house poems is that “Upon Appleton House” has an intimacy that other country-house poems lack because Marvell’s poem was, after all, penned by someone actually living in the house. Eyber also points out Marvell’s bravery in two regards: the poet directly addresses Lord Fairfax’ early retirement as well as the delicate underbelly of the poem’s dalliance with the property’s having been stolen from nuns who, if they did not own it for themselves, at least habited it legally until the king dispersed them. Eyber’s coverage of several successive Nunappleton houses is excellent and helpful.

In my first reading of the book, I have found some minor problems with Eyber’s commentary:

  • Line 36. Alliteration is being confused with consonance.
  • Line 89. Eyber misreads “that” as a demonstrative adjective instead of what it really is–a relative pronoun.
  • Line 90. Surely Marvell would not risk a bawdy pun on the family name of Lord Fairfax’ great-great-grandmother. Eyber not only has to explain away the “th” sound in “Thwaite” (a passing reference to Kokeritz is not enough), but he also has to explain away the differing vowel sounds of “ai,” a problem he does not address.
  • Line 128. “Altar’s ornaments” refers to antependia.
  • Lines 171-2. “Sweet” is not an adverb. The couplet rather works with a semi-chiamus, “perfecting” modifying “piety” and “sweet” modifying “pleasure.”
  • Line 205. Two words require variant consonants to effect a valid rhyme. What Eyber is isolating are homonyms.
  • Line 368. Eyber does not makes a strong enough case to retain “gaze” for the Bodleian MS “graze,” especially since the latter works off “meads” so well from the previous line.
  • Line 371. There is regrettably no gloss to the Levellers’ use of the Biblical text which lies behind this line. Nigel Smith notes it in his edition of the poem.

Having said what I said earlier about bombast, I still cannot imagine anyone’s attempting to teach this poem in the future without Eyber’s commentary at hand. The man has exhaustively plowed through the poem line by line, even, as he admits (21), sometimes syllable by syllable to give readers an extremely helpful tool. While seasoned Marvellians may find many of the notes unnecessary, students will find a treasure trove of insights ready at hand. A serious Marvellian should sit down soon with the poem open and Eyber’s book next to it for a most stimulating experience, one that is unquestionably going to pay off when next that same Marvellian teaches the poem to either graduate or undergraduate students. We wonder now when Eyber will tackle the Marvell satires. That should be as rewarding a ride for us as his present extended analytical commentary on Marvell’s “frivolous” (9) Appleton House poem, minus, of course, any trumpet blasts to the ionosphere.

George Klawitter
St. Edward’s University