This Newsletter was published on Thursday 7 July 2011

Marvell in the ‘Tiring-Room’

Sean McDowell

Sean McDowell

By Sean McDowell (Seattle University)

In Mr. Smirke, Or the Divine in Mode (1676), while assailing the character of his opponent, Francis Turner, Andrew Marvell advances one of his most famous comparisons of the real-life buffoonery of the Court party to the behavior of actors upon the Restoration stage. Like Sir Fopling Flutter from George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), Turner, whom Marvell dubs “Mr. Smirke” after another character from the same play, locates the entirety of his wit in his clothes. He is so “huff’d up in all his Ecclesiastical fluster” that his “equipping” is more extensive than Dorimant’s (Marvell, Prose 43). In the end, Marvell writes, the “Vestry and the Tiring-room were both exhausted, and ’tis hard to say whether there were more attendants toward the Composing of [Turner] Himself, or of his Pamphlet.” In addition to its sly commentary on the unfairness of a group of intolerant clerics picking on honest albeit unimaginative individuals, such as Herbert Croft, Turner’s animadverted victim, this comparison emerges from Marvell’s more sustained engagement with the satirical comedies of the 1660s and 1670s. This essay will investigate a specific element of that engagement: the curious indulgence of the satirist in the literary mode of those held up for critique. Rather than create a strictly oppositional linguistic space, the satirist strives to outdo his opponent according to shared aesthetic principles. This straightforward appropriation amounts to a full participation in the habits of the enemy that only winkingly challenges the norm. Marvell, I shall argue, seems most fully a Restoration writer when his outsider perspective blossoms within an insider raillery–when he speaks the language of court, stage, and coffeehouse even when his content runs counter to the dominant party line. Furthermore, he appears to have realized the full potential of this strategy for the first time in the advice-to-a-painter poems of the 1660s, his “tiring-room” for the subsequent prose works.

To see this curious indulgence more clearly, one need only examine the front matter of the published versions of contemporary plays, themselves centrally involved in the public conversations of the time, first as live performances and then as published books discussed, debated, and circulated in the coffeehouses. In the Prologue of The Man of Mode, for example, Etherege reminds his audience, “‘Tis by your follies that we players thrive,/As physicians by diseases live,” implying a separation of the dramatist from the diseases of courtly behavior (Jensen 101). Yet in the ensuing play, Etherege relishes portraying the exemplary “man of sense”; delights in Dorimant’s coxcombing of Sir Fopling Flutter, Mrs. Loveit, and Lady Woodville; and generally valorizes the system of Hobbesian power struggles responsible for amorous conquests and filial betrayals. He thereby indulges in the “diseases” of libertinism even as he faults them in some of the less witty characters. In The Plain Dealer (1675), William Wycherley similarly indulges in a mode supposedly held up for critique. In support of the ideal of “plain dealing,” Wycherley vows in his dedicatory letter not to lavish extensive praise on some high-born person desperate for attention but instead offers a “billet doux” to “Lady B–,” a well-known procuress (Jensen 184). And yet the letter offers the same elaborately argued commendations as the many other prefaces addressed to dukes and duchesses throughout the 1660s and 1670s. It reaches the same heights of enthusiasm and argument and evinces the same suggestion of the writer’s pride in his verbal wit. “In fine,” Wycherley writes, rounding off a small catalog of public goods wrought by the bawd, “you have been a constant scourge to the old lecher, and often a terror to the young; you have made concupiscence its own punishment, and extinguished lust with lust, like blowing up of houses to stop the fire” (186). The identity of the addressee renders the praise tongue-in-cheek, of course, yet the dedicatory mode still holds up strong.

Moving farther afield, John Dryden adopts a similar strategy in “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire,” when he extols the poetic skills and judgment of the Earl of Dorset in such overblown terms as to liken the earl’s activities to God’s: “The world, my Lord, would be content to allow you a seventh day for rest” (77). He, too, satirizes the conventions of dedicatory praise by rendering them hyperbolic and therefore absurd. But this satirical point could have been made in perhaps half the space. After pages of hyperbole, one wonders whether Dryden was having too much of a good time in exercising a wit he trusted his readers would appreciate. In keeping with this indulgence, Dryden’s MacFlecknoe (1682) criticizes Shadwell for his reliance on mere physical comedy but then concludes in exactly the same vein as Flecknoe plunges mid-speech through a trap door reminiscent of that used in Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676), after which the poetic mantle of dullness wafts onto the shoulders of his successor, Shadwell. If it produces a laugh while scoring a point, why not make use of the device? So the thinking apparently goes.

In the examples cited thus far, Etherege and Wycherley both were court insiders, invested in as well as critical of the modish behaviors of the dominant upper class culture. Meanwhile, Dryden, though often considered an outsider because of his class of origin, was nonetheless insider enough to work as Poet Laureate and Royal Historiographer as well as marry the daughter of an earl. Providing a clear contrast and proving the existence of free will in these artistic matters, John Milton opposed both courtly content and mode of expression in Paradise Lost, with its sustained critique of earthly monarchy. Indeed, the first edition of Paradise Lost offered a potent “dissident counterdiscourse” to the myth of the “bright future of England” under Charles II advanced in such works as Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis and Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, both published in the same year (Guibbory 80). Even Milton’s blank verse implicitly thumbed its nose at the rhymed heroic mode Dryden championed in the mid- to late-1660s. While Milton after the Restoration did not seek to engage in public discourse in the same coffeehouse fashion as the other writers so far considered, he nonetheless offers us and those contemporary readers who could read him well an example of true literary differentiation, the kind that tends to muddy the easy categories upon which modern anthologies thrive. And Marvell? While he is perennially linked with Milton in opposition to Dryden, both on the issue of tagging the verses of Paradise Lost and in regard to larger principles of liberty, a kinship nonetheless can be found between his satirical efforts and the habit of indulgent appropriation prevailing on the courtier-centered Restoration stage. The most obvious instance, perhaps, is “On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost,” in which Marvell’s manner fits the coffeehouse while his arguments support Milton’s adherence to unrhymed verse. As if laboring to contain the sublimity of Milton’s vision, which in its native form causes “delight” and “horror” at once to “seize” readers (35), Marvell conveys his back-and-forth response to the epic within couplets even more structurally balanced than those of some of his other rhymed poems:

Yet as I read, soon growing less severe,
I liked his project, the success did fear; (11-2)


Pardon me, mighty poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious, surmise. (23-4)


That majesty which through thy work doth reign
Draws the devout, deterring the profane. (31-2)

In the last verse paragraph, Marvell indicts himself for conforming to the fashion of rhyme, for adopting the mode of the opposition and thus not following Milton’s example. Yet in spite of this professed weakness, an inability that implicitly commends Milton’s achievement, Marvell also clearly enjoys the capacity of the couplet to provide a sudden, epigrammatic sting. In the middle of his reading, Marvell wonders whether “some less skillful hand” “Might hence presume the whole creation’s day/To change in scenes, and show it in a play,” the last line a sudden attack both on dramatic rules criticism and on the rapaciousness of the stage for converting and consuming literary works, such as Dryden’s then impending The State of Innocence. Similarly, while critiquing the fad of tinkling rhyme, Marvell jabs at the stubborn, horse-like insistence of Dryden’s defense of rhyme and what he considers the plodding character of its practice: the “town-Bayes writes all the while and spells,/And like a pack-horse tires without his bells” (47-8). The jab at Dryden here reminds us that it was during this same period, as Annabel Patterson has shown, that Marvell and Dryden dueled in the arena of public poetic praise and blame: While Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis seemed to counter Marvell’s charge in “The Second Advice to the Painter” that the Second Anglo-Dutch War was unjust and mismanaged, Marvell’s “Third Advice” appears to rebut Dryden’s royalist propaganda yet again (146). It is true that Marvell imitates both Milton’s verse and some of Milton’s prose effects throughout “On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost” (Corns ch. 2); but Marvell’s momentary barbs accord more with the fashionable epigrammatic raillery of cosmopolitan London than with Milton’s poem. The stage men and women of sense lob similar couplet quips at each other all the time, and throughout the later 1660s especially, Shadwell was even more aggressive in firing verbal pot shots at Dryden.

Surely, as Nigel Smith has noted, the prevalence of rebound and echo throughout Marvell’s writings suggests such chiming effects were integral to the poet’s habits of thought and thus rhyme cannot be dismissed as merely ornamental (“Rhyme,” 88-102). Even so, Marvell’s indulgence in Restoration courtly aesthetics extends beyond the tagging of verses and the chiming of pairs and encompasses an analogous appropriation of Restoration methods of satirical characterization. This interest can be seen in the advice-to-the-painter poems, beginning with Marvell’s “The Second Advice to a Painter,” which outdoes Waller’s “Instructions to a Painter, for the Drawing of the Posture and Progress of His Majesty’s Forces at Sea” (1666) by attributing to pro-war figures a humoral single-mindedness reminiscent of the fops and coxcombs of the comedies performed at the Duke’s Theatre and the Theatre Royal. Marvell’s approach to characterization differs markedly from Waller’s. In the original “Instructions to the Painter,” Waller offers a generalized depiction of the Battle of Lowestoft, in which the English and Dutch forces collide on a massive scale, and the Duke of York heroically leads the English to victory. Indeed, only the Duke is fully formed as a character, “bolder” than Achilles (ll. 127-34), more devastatingly martial than a young Mars (209-10), and most assuredly in full command of the action (deF. Lord 21-33). No other individual receives even close to the same level of development; rather, the canvas is that of a large historical scene wherein only one heavily idealized figure emerges clearly.

Waller asks the painter’s pardon for sketching a sequence of actions and therefore switching media. Marvell, too, relies on narrative in his response, except that his emphasis falls not so much on a full rendering of the military action as on the follies of those involved. More than simply a shift from praise to blame, however, his poem argues that the problems associated with the Battle of Lowestoft derive from the passion-induced corruptions of individuals, who behave more like comedic stage characters than like the true heroes the nation needed. From the first character sketch, that of Sir William Coventry, the main players appear hopelessly corrupt in specific ways:

Then, Painter, draw cerulean Coventry,
Keeper, or rather chanc’llor of the sea:
Of whom the captain buys his leave to die,
And barters or for wounds or infamy;
And more exactly to express his hue,
Use nothing but ultramarinish blue.
To pay his fees one’s silver trumpet spends:
The boatswain’s whistle on his place depends. (25-32)

Marvell paints Coventry’s ruthless greed as his singular defining characteristic in much the same way Etherege nearly a decade later would advance vanity as Sir Fopling Flutter’s or jealousy as Mrs. Loveit’s. Even the color choice–blue–contributes to this reading. As Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo noted, in A Tracte Containing the Arts of curious Painting, Caruing, and Buildinge (trans. 1598), blue is the color of aspiration, and blue garments “sheweth that they belong only to such persons, as aspire to high matters” (122). All shades of blue, including cerulean and ultramarine, carry the suggestion of this signification. Coventry’s aspirations of greatness make him into the pimp of the sea, in that he ruthlessly extorts money from captains and others who would make a living as seamen, all to preserve his own status. Only after the fees are paid may the “navy stretch its canvas wings,/Swoll’n like [Coventry’s] purse, with tackling like its strings” (41-2). The “sale” of the fleet to its captains precedes its setting “sail.”

That we have moved from visual art to drama, in spite of the addresses to the painter, becomes even clearer in the next character sketch, when the narrator describes the Duchess of York’s visit to the fleet at Harwich as a “small sea-masque,” in which the ambitious Duchess plays the part of queen, and the actual navies are reduced to mere “properties” (65-66). In the succeeding lines, Marvell underscores the quirks, personal failings, and humoral obsessions of courtiers and nobles–the Duchess’s inordinate desire and ambition, Penn’s cowardice, Rupert’s venereal disease, Sandwich’s lack of appropriate gravitas, Hyde’s gluttony and greed–to give an overall impression of incompetence in the handling of the impending battle. In each case, he identifies a negative ruling passion or unflattering trait responsible for suspect behavior, in a way similar to the comedies of manners. When we move to the battle itself, the figures on display either behave entirely like coxcombs or meet coxcombs’ ends..

In Waller’s poem, the death of Charles Berkeley, the Earl of Falmouth, along with the deaths of Charles MacCarthy, Lord Muskerry, and Richard Boyle, provides gore that splatters the Duke and shows how closely the heir to the throne risked death. Waller uses the pun on “dye”–“And dy’d his garment with their scatter’d gore” (l. 148)–to introduce a comparison of James to the Hebrew patriarch Jacob (Chambers 101-3). Despite being drenched in blood, the Duke never flinches, thereby showing his courage and fortitude. The “horrors are maximized, if anything, by the ironies of die and dye, by the horrible humor of reeling ships, and by the fiendish ingenuity of death-hastening ills” (102-3). The near-miss spurs the Duke to seek revenge.

For Marvell, however, Falmouth’s death occasions yet another humoral characterization–the incompetent fop–whose example illustrates the poor quality of the King’s closest advisors:

Falmouth was there, I know not what to act:
Some say ’twas to grow Duke, too, by contact.
An untaught bullet in its wanton scope
Quashes him all to pieces and his hope.
Such as his rise such was his fall, unpraised;
A chance-shot sooner took than chance him rais’d:
His shattered head the fearless Duke distains,
And gave the last-first proof that he had brains. (181-88)

Careerist yet unintelligent, Falmouth, these lines suggest, attended the war not out of patriotism but out of a desire for a dukedom. His death from an “untaught bullet”–a bullet not schooled in the courtly script of decorous appearances–is as random as his rise to prominence at court, and also as worthless. The “distains”-“brains” rhyme exudes verbal relish, a rhymed sting Marvell could not resist. Finally, though it cost Falmouth his life and the Duke his attire, the world now had “last-first proof” the fallen earl actually had brains–all attention to the Duke’s reported bravery in the fight for the Oranje.

Immediately after this indictment, Marvell advances other indictments, each one emphasizing the cowardice of courtiers and peers. William Berkeley, the fallen earl’s brother, himself Viscount Fitzharding,

had heard it soon, and thought not good
To venture more of royal Harding’s blood.
To be immortal he was not of age:
(And did e’en now the Indian prize presage)
But judged it safe and decent, cost what cost,
To lose the day, since his dear brother’s lost.
With his whole squadron straight away he bore,
And, like good boy, promised to fight no more. (189-96)

His cowardice is couched in rationalizations, the kind meant to save appearances, as if appearances meant more than proof. Technically, the Battle of Lowestoft was an English victory, but its tepid finish, a missed opportunity to turn the Dutch war decidedly in England’s favor, resulted directly from incompetence, as revealed in newsbooks, correspondence, and the investigation of the parliamentary committee on the embezzlement of prizes, on which both Waller and Marvell served (von Maltzahn 90; Smith, Chameleon 191-2). Rather than pursue and destroy the fleeing Dutch ships, the Duke decides to take a nap, and Henry Brouncker, who “winked” all through the battle, cowardly keeps the fleet disengaged. By the time we reach the end of the poem, we have reached the end of a tragicomedy, in which the greed and incompetence of the individuals in charge have cost the nation millions of pounds and some lives for no real gain.

Marvell’s uses of humoral characterization to trump Waller’s earlier courtly mode of panegyric proved wildly successful in an environment already schooled to appreciate such witty raillery on stage and on paper. Furthermore, as with the writers of comedies of manners, the method was intended to instruct as well as delight–to change the behavior of those indicted, or cause others not to imitate their behavior. As Marvell would go on to write in “The Last Instructions to the Painter,”

So thou and I, dear painter, represent
In quick effigy, others’ faults, and feign
By making them ridiculous, to restrain. (390-3)

Marvell subsequently deepened his reliance on the principles of humoral characterization in later works–especially in The Rehearsal Transpros’d and in Mr. Smirke, as I suggested earlier. “The Second Advice to the Painter” and its sequels suggests that he found in the advice-to-the-painter poems and related efforts from the mid- to late-1660s a satirical tiring-room that equipped him well for his forays in the pamphlet wars of the 1670s.

Works cited

  • Chambers, A. B. Andrew Marvell and Edmund Waller: Seventeenth-Century Praise and Restoration Satire. University Park, PA, and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991.
  • Corns, Thomas N. Milton’s Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
  • Dryden, John. Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays. Vol. 2. Ed. George Watson. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1962.
  • deF. Lord, George. Poems on Affairs of State: Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660-1714. Vol. 1. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1963.
  • Guibbory, Achsah. “Milton’s 1667 Paradise Lost in Its Historical and Literary Contexts.” In Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books: Essays on the 1667 First Edition. Ed. Michael Lieb and John T. Shawcross. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 2007. 79-95.
  • Jensen, H. James. The Sensational Restoration. Blooming-ton, IN: Indiana UP, 1996.
  • Lomazzo, Giovanni Paolo. A Tracte Containing the Arts of curious Painting, Caruing, and Buildinge. Trans. Richard Haydocke. London, 1598.
  • Marvell, Andrew. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. Ed. Nigel Smith. London: Pearson-Longman, 2003.
  • —. The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell. Vol. 2. Ed. Annabel Patterson, Nicholas von Maltzahn, and N. H. Keeble. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2003.
  • Patterson, Annabel. Marvell and the Civic Crown. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
  • Smith, Nigel. “Andrew Marvell and Rhyme.” EIRC 35.1 (Summer 2009): 88-102.
  • —. Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2010.
  • von Maltzahn, Nicholas. An Andrew Marvell Chronology. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005.