This Newsletter was published on Thursday 3 December 2009

The President’s Corner

Sean McDowell

Sean McDowell

Sean McDowell, Seattle University

One of the most intriguing of Marvell’s qualities as a poet is his almost Yeatsian capacity to imagine how historical events might be perceived after his time. In his satirical work especially, his species of truth-telling appears to arise from a desire to cast the final word on a subject, what might be a consensus historical judgment in a later time. This habit is akin to his approach to literary kinds more generally: rather than write simply another carpe diem poem or another wreath poem or another Horatian ode, he appears to have wanted to corner the poetic market, so that not even he could write another of any of these kinds.

A few months ago, I was reminded of Marvell’s gravitation toward the final word when I met Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most respected poets, at a crêpes cafe less than a block from Trinity College, Dublin. The author of more than twenty books of poetry, Kennelly is one of the most popular and respected Irish poets of roughly the same generation as Seamus Heaney. The conversation we began over the aftermath of lunch moved with us to the bookstore Hodges & Figgis next door, where Kennelly signed my copy of Cromwell (Bloodaxe Books, 1983), the work many Irish poets consider Kennelly’s masterpiece.

Cromwell is a book-length poem composed of many smaller poems that range freely in time from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and draw upon a number of discursive modes (letter, newspaper article, history, legend, folktale, fantasy), yet maintain a constant, often sardonic and sometimes angry focus on the nature of human brutality. As Kennelly says, the “poem tries to present the nature and implications of various forms of dream and nightmare, including the nightmare of Irish history” (6). While the fictitious “hero” of the poem, M. P. G. M. Buffon Esq., serves as a mouthpiece for Kennelly, the poet also adopts the personae of a number of other characters, including Edmund Spenser and Cromwell himself, to describe imagistically the relationship between Irish and English history, a “relationship that has produced a singularly tragic mess.” Kennelly unblinkingly addresses the gory details of English efforts to suppress, punish, and otherwise control the colonized Irish and the resulting counterviolence.

Throughout, Cromwell operates as an agent of destruction, an explanation for murderous conflict even decades or centuries after his death. “Men die their different ways,” he informs his brother in a letter,

And girls eat cherries
In the Christblessed fields of England.
Some weep. Some have cause. Let weep who will.
Whole floods of brine are at their beck and call.
I have work to do in Ireland. (“Oliver to His Brother,” 23-8)

The nature of that work becomes clear in other poems, as “Blood continues to run in the streets / Warmer now than ever it ran in human veins / Because the soldiers have set fire to the city” (“The Soldiers,” 12-14). Amidst these descriptions of violence, Cromwell and Buffon, an Irishman stuck in Cromwell’s company, exchange complaints and meditations as part of what Buffon characterizes as their “fear” / “hate” relationship. “The muderous syllables of your name”–the same name Cromwell celebrates as music elsewhere –“Are the foundation of my nightmare,” Buffon says during an extended rant (“A Relationship,” 5-6).

Yet as we read of English horses stabled in Catholic churches, public executions, ritual humiliations, babies ripped from wombs, women half-hung and then buried alive, and the casual way in which a pathological perception of God’s favor can be used to justify all, another theme emerges, one that resonates with readers of Marvell–the notion that Cromwell not only embodies the foibles of a faith-blinded man, but also rides some macrocosmic force like the crest of an ocean wave. ‘Only a man of faith will do,’ Cromwell tells Buffon, ‘will rise and do

What he must do, be it smooth or rough.
A man of faith is a ready blade
Cutting through the bluster of himself, his time,
Friends, enemies. He lives for what is true
In himself. I am such a man, not more, not less.
Some say my faith is lies, my best deeds crimes.
I believe in God Who believes in what I do.’ (“A Man of Faith, 7-14)

Cromwell’s English contemporaries are shown to espouse a similar notion:

May God bring Cromwell safe to Dublin
To propagate the Gospel of Christ
Among the barbarous, bloodthirsty Irish
Whose cursing, swearing, drunken ways
Dishonour God by sea and land.
Visit them, Oliver, like God’s right hand.
(According to The Moderate Intelligencer,” 12-14).

Visit them he does, and with an uncanny, deadly success. Repeatedly the poem references the controversial sieges of Drogheda and Wexford (September and October of 1649), where thousands of troops and civilians were massacred after the towns no longer could defend themselves. While historians debate the extent to which Cromwell was responsible for what some have called the genocidal treatment of the Irish in the 1649-50 campaign, Kennelly’s poem locates the blame squarely within the providential vision espoused by The Moderate Intelligencer. Cromwell refers to it numerous times:

‘At Drogheda, I saw His judgement executed
Upon these barbarous wretches
Whose hands were thick with innocent blood.
As well as that, God’s judgement meant
Less blood would be shed in the future.
The sword is an expert teacher
Like a drowning cry or the smell of burning.
Blood shed in proper quantities prevents
More shedding. Men are quick at learning.’ (“An Expert Teacher,” 6-14)


‘If I conducted terrible Surgery
On some, I pity them. They are pitiable enough.
Yet the Lord’s hand guided me right.
Whenever I killed, I killed from His love,
His hand in mine, His ways my ways.
For all I’ve done, I tender Him all praise.’ (“Praise the Lord,” 9-14)

When Cromwell meets with a friend who teaches History at Oxford, and the subject of History comes up, his knowing smile is maddening. ‘Cromwell,’ his friend declares,

your smiling has always attacked
My views of history. What is history, then?
You tell me.’
I let him wait for my reply.
‘History is when I decide to act.’ (“History,” 11-14)

I cannot say for certain whether Kennelly had Marvell’s Horatian Ode expressly in mind while writing any of the Cromwell poems alluding to the perception of Cromwell as an eerie cosmic force wreaking havoc upon the Irish with a barbaric ferocity. Kennelly’s perspective is informed by English and Irish scholarship uncovering the depth and extent of the atrocities Cromwell and his army perpetrated against the Irish populace. It has the benefit of more than 300 years of hindsight. Yet the example of Kennelly’s Cromwell shows all the more how remarkable Marvell’s emphasis on Cromwell’s apocalyptic agency must have been for someone moving, as Blair Worden has suggested, toward an “embrace” of the “new, post-royalist world” (Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England 102). Rather than simply praise the man for military achievement, Marvell’s lightning and fire imagery implicitly create a space between Cromwell and those sympathetic to his cause, especially in the ambiguous lines, as when Cromwell “divide[s]” his “fiery way” “thorough his own side” (15- 16), or when he burns “through the air” to “rend” “palaces and temples” (21-22). “‘Tis madness to resist or blame / The force of angry heaven’s flame,” Marvell concludes–madness for anyone to resist or blame, regardless of whose side one favors. Yet Marvell manages to balance this fearsome dimension of Cromwell’s power and success with enough praise to salvage his epideictic purposes. In so doing, he captures as much as he can within his rhetorical frame how Cromwell must have seemed to those who opposed him.

Of course, Kennelly and many Irish people then and now would take issue with two of Marvell’s later stanzas, in which the Irish “are ashamed / To see themselves in one year tamed” and now can affirm his praises best, And have, though overcome, confessed How good he is, how just, And fit for highest trust: (73-80) These lines strain credibility, especially in light of the antipathy the Irish still have for Cromwell. The seams show in Marvell’s efforts to praise. But earlier in the poem, Marvell managed to grasp and render the seemingly supernatural inevitability of Cromwell in such a way that his epideictic requirement to praise does not quite lacquer over the uncomfortable truth. Remove this commitment to allowing what seems the ultimate historical judgment to be voiced, and the Horatian Ode loses its complexity just as much as if the lyrical, sympathy inducing lines describing Charles I’s dignified end were excised.

The search for the necessary Marvellian nuance, the hallmark off Marvell’s complexity as a writer, characterizes the best of Marvell scholarship today, and once again, the Marvell sessions of the South-Central Renaissance Conference in March will invite that search to take the form of lively conversations as Marvell scholars from North America and England gather to present their latest insights. At the Omni Hotel Marina Tower, beside what we hope will be a warm and sunny Corpus Christi Bay, the Marvell Society will sponsor four sessions, as detailed later in this newsletter. Moreover, we will have the distinct pleasure of hosting Martin Dzelzainis who will give the 2010 Louis L. Martz lecture on “Andrew Marvell and George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham.” Finally, at the end of the conference, Nigel Smith will begin his two-year term as President of the AMS. As I approach the last weeks of my presidency, I am mindful once again of the vibrancy of Marvell studies and of our fine fellowship. I look forward to seeing many of you in Corpus Christi, where we will trade questions and ideas with each other and hoist a glass or two together.

Sean McDowell
Andrew Marvell Society President