In early June of 1984, on the way back from Saudi Arabia, I made a pilgrimage to Yorkshire. I wanted to experience Bilbrough and Nunappleton, residences of the Lord General Sir Thomas Fairfax. There, in the years 1650 through 1652, Andrew Marvell had served as tutor to Mary Fairfax, and he had celebrated both places in his poetry. My hosts were Mr. Ian Gill at Bilbrough and Miss Joan Dawson at Nunappleton. They gave me a sense of the Fairfax family’s presence and continuity there in Yorkshire. Through their hospitality, I was privileged to experience Bilbrough and Nunappleton as, to some extent, Marvell must have known them.
Much has changed at both estates. All that remains of the old manor house at Bilbrough is a plaque, dated 1595, reproducing the Fairfax coat of arms. Bilbrough Hill is still the highest point of the local area, but it has been much reduced by gravel quarrying and reshaped by farming. The Fairfax family graveyard is nearby, and the Lord General and Lady Fairfax are buried in the parish church, which is situated next to the manor. Because of the family’s service to York Minster, the Minster stone masons were restoring the Fairfax tomb. The last Fairfax of Bilbrough died in 1974. According to my host, Ferdy Fairfax was a local “character,” rather forgetful, enthusiastic for the hunt, inclined to ride his horse at full gallop through the village, a perfectly useless sort–and, nonetheless, their own.
The manor house at Nunappleton  was torn down when the estate was sold to the Milners in the early eighteenth century. The house of the present day has undergone substantial building and demolition both by the Milners and by the Dawsons, who purchased the estate early in the twentieth century. The Milners were related to the Fairfaxes by marriage; Milners lie beside Fairfaxes in the churchyard at Bilbrough. When I visited Nunappleton, Miss Joan Dawson was just concluding the sale of the estate to the Samuel Smiths, the brewing family of Tadcaster. I had appeared, uninvited and unannounced, at an inconvenient time. But Miss Dawson had entertained generations of scholars, schoolchildren, and people just “Marvelling.” She was the soul of hospitality. She described the house and its history, and she answered my questions. Then she showed me through to the estate grounds. At that moment, an RAF fighter plane zipped over; Nunappleton lies in the flight path of a nearby airbase. As she was taught, Miss Dawson says a prayer for the pilot, “even if only a God-bless-you as you turn over to go back to sleep.” With that, she gave me the run of the estate, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Nunappleton has undergone many changes over the past 300-plus years, and I do not pretend to know all of them. But fundamental topographical features have not changed since Marvell’s time, and the experiential nature of the place cannot be so very different either . Yet, as I wandered Nunappleton, I was struck by the differences between the estate as it is and the estate as Marvell portrays it in Upon Appleton House. Of course, the elaborate flower garden, “laid . . . out / In the just Figure of a Fort,” is long gone. But even if the house of Daniel King’s engravings is not the house of the poem, nonetheless something of the earlier gardens seems to have been preserved. Ten gardens are laid out in two rows, with a “bastion” of sorts placed at the head of each of the five columns. The effect is very like ten regiments arrayed for review.
Right beside the garden’s former location is the Nuns’ Fish Pond. By tradition, the pond dates from the earliest period of the estate, when it was a Cistercian convent. Yet the pond is never mentioned in the poem. According to Miss Dawson, Mrs. Milner (one of them) conceived of extending the pond across the entire rear of the manor house, but the project was stopped when diggers uncovered a nun’s grave. Beyond the pond is a wood. All this–house, lawn, pond, and wood–is raised only two or three feet above the level of the water meadows, or ings, extending to the River Wharfe.
In Upon Appleton House Marvell gives us an imaginative, sensuous experience of the garden-fortress: its sentinel bees, its tulips, pinks, and roses. At the end of the tour, standing on the mock battlements, the poet “plays” his sight across the meadows, beyond the river, towards distant Cawood Castle, erstwhile residence of the late Archbishop of York. From there, our guide is transported into the meadows, “to the Abbyss . . . / Of that unfathomable grass.” Of course, in fact he can hardly have descended more than a couple of feet. Too, I doubt that the grass later in the summer would be much deeper than in June: knee-height. Nonetheless, trudging through the meadows demands a swimmer’s energy after a while. Marvell’s reflection is true to the experience:
To see Men through this Meadow Dive,
We wonder how they rise alive,
As, under Water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go.
Marvell creates a masque out of the seasonal processes of mowing and grazing, a masque that gives signs for the sorrows and terrors of war. At this point in Upon Appleton House, the poet can confront the reality of the Civil Wars only by placing it at a distance, as in a masque on a stage .
The masque closes with the flooding of the meadows. As Marvell imagines it, the sluices have been opened far upstream at Denton, another of Fairfax’s estates. In the winter, so Miss Dawson told me, the meadows were so flooded that the lady of the manor was carried to church at Bolton Percy by boat, and the church bell was kept ringing until she arrived. Marvell’s is no natural flood, but part of the irrigation that sustained hay-farming in an area, the Ainsty, known especially for its horse breeding .
Marvell emphasizes Fairfax’s control over the process of flood and drainage. He himself needs this reassurance that things are in control. After all, a flood erases boundaries; it changes the reality of place and thus it suspends the rules of ordinary behavior. The poet exploits this unseasonable flood so that he will be forced into retirement, marooned in the wood, on a sudden island. The modern UK Ordnance Survey map shows a hillock in the center of the bend in the Wharfe that marks the estate’s southern boundary. It is labeled “Mote Hill,” mote being another term for dyke, and it makes a perfect locus for the poet’s short retirement. En-isled in the wood, he is relieved of his responsibilities as a member of the Fairfax household, relieved too of the burdens of proper behavior and responsible action .
East of the Nuns’ Fish Pond, past the graves of the Dawsons’ hunting dogs, I followed a lane–or, as Mr. Gill called it, a “ride”–into the nearest wood. This lane bore the marks of truck tires. Ever so often, there was hay set out for horses or perhaps deer. The undergrowth was thick, much of it brambles. No strawberries, but ivy and oaks–and lots of big flies, lots of mosquitoes. Marvell never mentioned them. I carelessly touched the edge of a leaf and was stung as if it had been a nettle. Nettles are there too, and the ground is wet and thick with leaf mould. The birds are big and easily frightened. In a hole in a tree, deep, where I cannot see, I hear baby birds. Animal noises startle me in this strange world. It’s spooky here, and, unlike Marvell, I don’t lie down.
In such a wood, Marvell meditated on the trees and the birds. Indeed, in the poem he imagines himself become one with them. To him, the wood is a place of power and mystery, protection and renewal, affording privacy and intimacy on the one hand, fecundity and imaginative bounty on the other. There, he is privileged to surrender his self-consciousness, to relax moral vigilance, to give up obsession and guilt. In submitting to sensuous nature, the poet contacts the Other in himself: the source of fearsome images, the source too of poetic creativity.
At the end of this poetic movement, the flood subsides, and the meadow “seems as green silks but newly washt,” the grass “with moister colour dasht.” The poet reclines on the river bank, fishing. His “sliding foot” is suspended “on the osiers undermined root.” He is on the boundary between earth and water, reality and imagination.
Here, on the riverbank, at twilight, he is surprised by Mary Fairfax, his patron’s daughter. Yet, in truth, it seems entirely unlikely that she would be walking so far from the house at such an hour: night falls past 9 PM in this latitude and season. But perhaps she would walk near the Nuns’ Fish Pond, and Marvell would certainly have done some of his fishing here. The pond is beautiful, even exotic. Ducks lead their ducklings. Baby corncrakes pad across the surface as if walking on spongy ground and hide in chinks in the retaining wall. These corncrakes are the rails who are casualties of the mowing in the meadows section of the poem. As I walked the bank of the pond, a blue blur, and a whirr, flashed past me. It was the kingfisher, the halcyon that in the poem flies “betwixt the day and night,” sweeping across the scene like a paintbrush, marking another boundary and capturing a moment of perfect calm.
My conclusion is based on my experience of Nunappleton as well as on explication of Upon Appleton House. Throughout the poem Marvell plays on the relations between far and near, outside and in. For example, if we experience Appleton House from a distance, by merely looking at it, we conclude that the house is obviously too small for Fairfax; yet when Fairfax himself enters the house, it expands to fit him. In the meadows, large becomes small and small becomes large, as the poet is far from the mowing, then magically near: “Men like Grashoppers appear / But Grashoppers are Gyants there.” But whereas the poet immersed himself in the engulfing grass, when the “Tawny mowers enter,” he sits back to watch their masque. Ultimately, he contemplates the scene from an extreme distance, as if it were “A Landskip drawen in Looking-Glass.” The wood too undergoes such transformation. From outside and afar, the wood seems a “huge Bulk . . . ment / To thrust up a Fifth Element.” But when the poet enters the wood, “It opens passable and thin.”
The latter movements of the poem describe a recurring pattern of extension and recollection. Indeed, I think that for Marvell the very process of writing the poem was a process of mediating between far and near, outside and inside. In that process he brought subconscious, alienated aspects of himself into a more satisfactory relationship with consciousness. To put it another way, Marvell projects his anxieties beyond himself, towards Cawood Castle, into the masque of mowers–puts them in perspective, as it were. Then he brings them near, to make them part of a more relaxed and integrated self.
At the beginning of the woods section, Marvell contrives the flood to strand his alter ego in the woods. There, his play is regressive; as Mark Pattison has suggested, Marvell can imagine himself again a schoolboy addicted to birdsnesting. He can play at being the “easie Philosopher” and even a comic “Prelate of the Grove,” mocking his own learning and sobriety. By the end of this movement, he can admit to being the indolent fisherman, whether on the riverbank or at the pond. When Mary appears, embarrassing him, nonetheless he makes no excuses, but calls himself a “trifling Youth,” a tutor who risks being taught by his pupil. Mary represents a principle of harmony. By praising her, the poet can turn his rediscovered creativity to proper use.
What the poet himself experienced in the wood was intensely personal and individual. Yet the wood holds promise for the Lord General and perhaps his daughter as well, if only they will experience it. For as long as he could, Fairfax had endured the growing radicalization of the government and the Army. Finally, prompted by conscience, he resigned his commission and thus gave up his place in his family’s tradition of military heroism. His role in the King’s execution burdened him with guilt to the end of his life. Guilt, disappointment, frustration: Marvell understands these feelings and his patron’s need for peace of mind. As Marvell imagines it, Thomas Fairfax might ride his horse into a lane, as so often he had during military maneuvers in Yorkshire. The trees, like troop at bivouac, would divide before their commander, find a proper order. Fairfax would tether his horse and walk into the wood, perhaps to find his own source of peace.
On the other hand, if Mary followed her tutor’s example, she would perhaps enter the wood that lies beyond the Nuns’ Fish Pond, not fifty yards east of the manor house. There she would receive the same nurturing care as she has always known in the “Domestick Heaven” of Nunappleton. Marvell portrays the garden, meadow, river, and woods as domestic servants–gardener, footman, younger and older lady’s maids–responding to their mistress’s bounty:
Therefore what first She on them spent,
They gratefully again present.
The meadow Carpets where to tread;
The garden Flowers to crown her head;
And for a Glass the limpid brook,
Where she may all her beauties look;
But, since she would not have them seen,
The wood about her draws a screen.
If Mary entered the wood, her experience, like her father’s, would be personal, private, as untouchable as conscience. But what for her father would be a healing experience would for her be nurturing. The wood is near and secure; for her sake her parents have subdued the elements of the estate to a domestic order. Protected and disciplined there, she has no need to make a special act of withdrawal. Ruisdael’s painting of wheat fields, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives us a visual expression of what Marvell suggests will come: the girl will venture forth to meet her future spouse. As the poem concludes, Mary has not yet emerged into this world beyond Nunappleton. Nonetheless, she has developed the confidence, understanding, and moral awareness that will serve her when she does.
- Vitaliy Eyber provides an excellent summary of the scholarly debates about the “real” Appleton House (Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”: An Analytic Commentary [Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010], 24-29). I have borrowed Daniel King’s engravings of Appleton House from pp. 25-26. Eyber does omit mention of Michael Powell’s “Andrew Marvell, Sir Thomas Widdrington, and Appleton House, N&Q, 43.3 (Sept 1996), 281. Powell makes a renewed defense of the “new-built” house as the house of Marvell’s poem. An account by Widdrington, brother-in-law to Thomas Fairfax, of the “very goodly and fair house” built by Fairfax, appears in Analecta Eboracensia (written 1638-1660). Powell suggests that the account dates from some time after the Siege of York in 1644–most probably after the death of Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax, in 1648. He also suggests that the house was long a-building; James Grantham Turner, citing Henry Fairfax, confirms this, at least insofar as the interior decoration was concerned (“Upon Appleton House,” N&Q 24 , 547-48).
- Timothy Raylor, “‘Paradice’s Only Map’: A Plan of Nun Appleton,” N&Q, 44.2 (June 1997), comments: “Given that the bulk of Marvell’s poem is concerned not with the house itself but with the ‘woods, streams, gardens, [and] meads’ beyond it, one wonders why similar attention has not been paid to the appearance of the Fairfax estate” (186). Raylor introduces us to a map of Nunappleton dating from 1596 and now in the possession of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York. It is unfortunate that the reproduction on p. 187 is less than clearly readable.Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker, “High Summer at Nun Appleton, 1651: Andrew Marvell and Lord Fairfax’s Occasions,” Historical Journal, 36.2 (1993), 247-269, make a persuasive argument for Upon Appleton House being completed between late June and the third week of August, 1651, and they note specific “seasonal” elements in the representation of the estate at that moment (251), not the least of which is the migration of salmon upriver in August.
- “For the crisis that now loomed, this poem–with its philosophic dilations, its recapturing of past crises and its casting of the future–spread the colours of destiny broadly in front of the Lord General. By so dispersing the present, the poet locates this summer in a long context. Marvell offered Fairfax a looking-glass with which to enjoy the advantages of perspective, the comfort of distance” (Hirst and Zwicker, 256).
- Cf. Hadrian Cook, Kathy Stearne, and Tom Williamson, “The origins of water meadows in England,” Agricultural History Review51.2 (2003), 155-162; accessed 17 August 2010 at http://www.bahs.org.uk/51n2a2.pdf. Mention is made of the use of water meadows at Rievaulx and other Cistercian properties in Yorkshire in the 12th and 13th centuries; 14th c. irrigation at Kildwick, North Yorkshire, controlled by Bolton Priory; and the 15th c. water meadows of Fountains Abbey, also North Yorkshire (160-61). “Watering usually began before Christmas and continued until March. Sheep, more rarely cattle, were then put on the meadows and remained there until May, when they were removed to other pastures. The meadows were then irrigated again, so that a large hay crop could be taken in June. In some cases, a further period of irrigation allowed a second or even third hay crop to be taken in late summer” (155).E. G. R. Taylor explains the significance of this practice from a different viewpoint: “The problem of winter fodder for cattle remained a serious one for another century [after the 16th] or more. Hence the available acreage of water-meadows yielding hay was an important consideration, and the idea of draining these meadows and rendering them fit for the plough was not to be entertained. The lay-out of parish boundaries shows the anxiety of the village community to participate in meadow land, and Leland noted that there were as many as fifty-eight villages lying in, or ‘butting of’ Walling Fen in Howdenshire, Yorks.” (“Leland’s England,” in An Historical Geography of England Before A.D. 1800, ed. H. C. Darby [Cambridge UP, 1936], 348-49).
- In Annabel Patterson’s view, in the woods section Marvell is criticizing the misuse of contemplative otium: “St. Amant’s emphasis on the pleasures of solitude is caricatured as a fully libertine sensuality and laziness” (Marvell and the Civic Crown[Princeton UP, 1978], 104); “Both the poet-tutor and his model have ‘mistook’ the purpose of solitude and degraded genuine contemplation of Nature into imaginative ‘self-regard'” (106).But I see no reason to believe that Marvell held himself and his use of otium to a moral and religious standard that, for Patterson, is defined by Casimire Sarbiewski and Richard Baxter. The poet-tutor is not even neglecting his responsibilities to Mary and the family. He is equipped with fishing tackle, suggesting that a bit of fishing might not be out of place between language lessons. But when “Denton sets ope its Cataracts,” he is forced into retirement, marooned in the wood, and thus set free to enjoy and to indulge his imagination. Placing this retirement in a doctrinal perspective, I would hold that the poet is indulging his Christian liberty, the realm of human freedom that lies between what God requires and what God forbids, freedom in things indifferent, which, Calvin tells us, eases the conscience and helps us avoid superstition (Of Christian Liberty, Sec. 7).Hirst and Zwicker take the position that Marvell “locate[s] the moral dangers of retirement in the psyche of the troubled youth,” as they characterize the poet-tutor. By this tactic “Marvell allows his patron to have it both ways: watchful and wary in the garden, Fairfax enjoys retirement as escape from the stains and toils of public life and yet remains clear of the vices of ease” (257). The scholars go on to argue that one significant moral danger of 1650-51 was hermeticism, neo-Platonism, and other mystic strains, (e. g., Jacob Boehme), which had a following in left-wing religious and political circles (Ranters and Seekers), and held some appeal for Fairfax (258). In sum, “Marvell’s decision to present the narrator’s spiritual biography not simply as a lapse from protestant virtue . . . but rather as erotic indulgence is more than a little suggestive of the great bugbear of the early republic. Fairfax was alert to the theological dangers of neo-Platonism, but the threat of social and sexual upheaval is the inescapable conclusion of Marvell’s narrative” (259). I think the case is overstated, but it is worth further investigation.Hirst and Zwicker describe the anxieties attending Fairfax in that summer in 1651. Near Nunappleton lies the old Roman road, built on the narrow belt of magnesian limestone running from Ripon south across the West Riding (Lettice Cooper, Yorkshire West Riding[London: Robert Hale, 1950], 14). This was a probable route for a Scots invasion, and an opposing force was gathering at Ripon. The scholars document the pressure laid on Fairfax at that time to commit himself militarily to defend the Commonwealth (255).Certainly there were other anxieties of longer standing–in particular, the execution of the King and Fairfax’s inability to stop it. As the Short Memorials makes clear, Fairfax felt the guilt from that event to the end of his life. I count Marvell’s meditation on the fallen tree and the “holt-felster” as his acknowledgement of that guilt. It would be foolish to deny that the woods section as a whole is concerned to mitigate anxiety and guilt; and, as Hirst and Zwicker acknowledge (266-68), those feelings are not just Fairfax’s, but Marvell’s own.