This Newsletter was published on Sunday 22 April 2012

Review of the Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell

The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell, ed. Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Reviewed by J. Mark Heumann, Independent Scholar


The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell is a collection of eleven original essays by major Marvell scholars. The essays cover the range of modern scholarly approaches, and the book is most suitable for scholars, teachers, and graduate students who want to bring their awareness of Marvell studies up to date.

This review emphasizes aspects of the essays that are of most value  to these audiences:

  • Surveys of contexts for Marvell’s works: literary, social, political, religious, biographical
  • Examples of scholarly approaches, including poststructuralist, gender/feminist/queer, cultural/environmental, and social history
  • Examples of scholarly methods and their applications
  • Application/demonstration of standards for scholarship
  • Readings of specific works, especially those most taught.

The review is organized as follows:

Essay-by-essay commentary is provided on the reviewer’s blog.

List of essays

  • James Loxley, “The social modes of Marvell’s poetry”
  • Paul Davis, “Marvell and the literary past”
  • Matthew C. Augustine, “Borders and transitions in Marvell’s poetry”
  • Diane Purkiss, “Thinking of gender”
  • Michael Schoenfeldt, “Marvell and the designs of art”
  • Phil Withington, “Andrew Marvell’s citizenship”
  • Andrew McRae, “The green Marvell”
  • Joad Raymond, “A Cromwellian centre?”
  • John Spurr, “The poet’s religion”
  • Nicholas von Maltzahn, “Adversarial Marvell”
  • Nigel Smith, “How to make a biography of Andrew Marvell”

General review of the volume

The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell is a snapshot of Marvell scholarship as it was a very few years ago and probably still is. It is not a pretty picture.

Approaching Marvell’s “private poetry”

Paul Davis tells us that there is “a crisis in Marvell studies”: “The poetic wood, a number of Marvellians now warn, is in danger of becoming blocked from view behind scholarly trees” (27). He is referring to critical studies of (mostly) the lyric poems and especially to source studies.

But the problem reaches farther. The fascination with the play of Marvell’s language, its debt to classical and contemporary literature; the recovery of Marvell’s career, personal history, and even personality–these are articulated in a body of analytic scholarship that is, strange to say, introspective in the extreme.

Our collection of essays participates in that crisis. One recurrent word is “interrogation”: Marvell is constantly “interrogating” the assumptions underlying a genre, a trope, a figure. But it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish Marvell’s questions and imaginings from the scholar’s. Thus do questions and imaginings, many of them valuable as starting points for further work, swirl around the text. Paragraphs get longer as argumentative structure gets murkier. Process becomes more important than product.

Our authors are concerned. Purkiss and McRae warn against the naive application of their approaches: gender/feminist/queer, cultural/environmental. Davis takes Ben Jonson’s theory of imitation as an analytic standard.

Smith pins his vision of salvation on historical scholarship infusing literary criticism. He tells us that the “body of growing knowledge meets the ongoing interpretation of writing, which itself seems ever able, almost deliberately so, to suggest a code to decipher its author’s secret self,” while warning that “we must be wary” of replacing one myth with another (215, 216).

Spurr, whose assigned domain is “The poet’s religion,” overthrows the game entirely. He writes off that whole body of criticism that takes the religious lyrics seriously as religious expression. For him–and he is insistent on it–Marvell’s religion is a matter of social relations, political positions, argumentative strategies, and the manipulation of language. Spirituality? Not to be entertained.

Few are saved. Often what we need is an appreciation of the norms of practice: what the poets, ancient and modern, English and Continental, were habitually doing. What we get instead, if anything, is a professorially authoritative statement-in-passing that such-and-such was a commonplace in Marvell’s time. Of course, what Smith calls “the inevitable effects of compression” (203) are felt in  these essays. Nonetheless, as the scholars comment repeatedly on Marvell’s imagery of violence, it might help the reader to know how Marvell differs from his contemporaries in this regard.

What, then, characterizes the best essays that treat the lyrics and other “private” (mostly pre-Restoration) poems? One consistent feature is a clear sense of the audience and respect for teaching.

In “A Cromwellian centre?” Joad Raymond addresses the supposed “trilogy” of Cromwell poems. He prosecutes his case consistently and systematically. Like an experienced teacher, he provides models for argument and scholarship, explains difficult terms, and generously offers opportunities for further research. His readings of the poems move fast but do not frustrate validation. His use of historical research and his contributions to it are exemplary.

Of this group of essays, Michael Schoenfeldt’s “Marvell and the designs of art” is the least footnoted and the most indebted to pre-1985 scholarship. It is also very well designed, skillfully argued, and highly accessible. The scholar starts with painting (“The Gallery”), proceeds to architecture (“The First Anniversary” gets his best), and then shifts to issues of decorum with “Tom May’s Death” and the Restoration satires, arriving finally at “The Last Instructions.” He traces principles of Marvell’s use of art over the course of his career. Even on familiar ground, Schoenfeldt helps the reader see things anew.

Matthew Augustine’s “Borders and transitions in Marvell’s poetry” seems sometimes an elaborate and provocative game. “Mobility and professional itinerancy” are not, as announced, the subject of the essay in any explicit sense. The borders and transitions engage no physical boundaries. Instead, we get discussions of puns and wordplay, otium and negotium, liminality, and dialectics.

As Augustine considers The Unfortunate Lover and The Nymph Complaining, he aims polite questions toward allegorizing critics. His treatment of A Poem upon the Death is worth reading in tandem with Raymond’s. He demonstrates rather than merely explains the voyeurism in the Lady Castlemaine and Archibald Douglas passages of The Last Instructions. Given the essay’s position in the volume, his method makes it a peaceful retreat, rather like the wood in Upon Appleton House.

Approaching Marvell’s public poetry, prose, and biography

This is the realm of historical scholarship. These essays seem, more so than the critical essays, to be describing a real person. They address Marvell’s life and the circumstances of his life and work. They have the structural advantage of narrative. And they are usually composed for an advanced readership: graduate students and scholars of various stripes.

Of these essays, the most notable are by Withington and von Maltzahn.  Phil Withington’s “Andrew Marvell’s citizenship” presents the most reassuring and accessible Marvell, a man very much of his time. His civic identity is shaped by concepts, attitudes, and institutions that, though undergoing change, were fundamental to constituting “reality” as he and his peers knew it. (Pace Professor Spurr, English Protestant Christianity provided a comparable basis for religious identity.)  Withington’s argument is systematic, refined, and clear, showing his command of English political history and the history of ideas. He is admirably sensitive to his readers, stating his positions and arguments explicitly, summarizing key secondary sources, and providing definitions.

Withington draws his account of the knock-down-drag-out of Hull politics from unpublished materials in the Hull City Archives. That section may not interest undergraduates, but history junkies and committed Marvellians will find more than a good read. It provides direct exemplary evidence and sets a standard for scholarship.

Nicholas von Maltzahn’s “Adversarial Marvell” is less immediately accessible, but very rich. It defines the genre of the animadversion, then addresses in systematic fashion the four major animadversions in Marvell’s prose corpus: The Rehearsal Transpros’d (both parts), Mr Smirke, and Remarks Upon a Late Disingenuous Discourse. Because von Maltzahn is most interested in Marvell’s “habits of mind and of voice” (178), including dialectic, he discovers these qualities in the lyrics and, more comfortably, in the Restoration satires.

Of considerable interest, for content and method, are

  • The account, drawn from correspondence in the Hull City Archives, of Marvell’s father as theological disputant (176-77)
  • The scholar’s comments on Marvell and contemporary journalism (177-78), addressed more fully by Raymond (147), and
  • A demonstration of how to read a Marvell letter like a Restoration playbook (181-82) and, consequently, how to read a Restoration play.

Considerations of style

The contributing scholars, restricted to twenty or so pages of small type, seeking space where there is none, have often adopted tactics such as

  • Omission of evidence and documentation
  • Arcane allusions
  • Long, complex, pregnant sentences, 50 to 80 words and more, demanding three or more readings at one go.

One can forgive the omissions, even as they are observed and noted. No one can expect any scholar to say all that could be said. Besides, they afford opportunities for students and young scholars.  The sentences and allusions are a different matter. On the field of scholarly political competition, they are common tactics. They challenge the reader to prove serious allegiance or retire in ignominy:

  • “Don’t you have the reading skills?”
  • “Don’t you know the primary and secondary literature?”
  • “Do you think you can measure up to ME?”

They are petty psychological victories, but ones that can damage and discourage the nascent scholar. And they have a more general cost: ambiguity. Marvell himself provides enough ambiguity without the scholar adding to it.

A concluding note

There is much of value in all of these essays. In the best, that value is given the advantage of clear statement and good form. In others, that value exists as scattered insights that the industrious student or scholar must collect, collate, validate, and accept or reject.

The book’s index will not help much with that process. The index points to the extended treatments of named works by Marvell. When, instead, the scholars adduce those works for confirming (or contradicting) evidence, those mentions go unnoted.