Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' as a Political Poem

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

26 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of Contents








I. Introduction

The relationship of poetry to history is a most important one, since poems arise out of the process of history and are written by men who are living in that process. Andrew Marvell’s Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland undoubtedly is a poem of great artistry, but above all it provides an excellent example for political poetry of seventeenth century Great Britain. Since Marvell’s poem deals with historical figures and comments on a historical occasion, there is a temptation to see the poem merely as a historical document. But while it is generally recognized that the poem provides a historical account of the period, it is indeed quite complex and by no means free of political judgement. As Brooks and Warren put in their essay on the poem, “distinguishing between a poem as a work of art and a poem as a historical document seems necessary in order to explore the intimate relationship between them” (1950: 165).

While the prosodic majesty and metrical poise of Marvell’s poem has sustained universal acclaim among critics, the attention of most students of Marvell’s Horatian Ode has been directed towards questions about the political ideologies expressed in the poem. We know that Marvell was not only a poet but also a political figure, but there is still no real consensus as to what Marvell’s political attitudes were ‘really’ like. The ambiguous political views and attitudes Marvell held throughout his lifetime seem to correspond with the political ambiguity in the Horatian Ode. Critics such as David Norbrook argue that the Horatian Ode“clearly expresses great political commitment to Oliver Cromwell” (1990: 153), while other interpretations stress that the Ode is quite explicit in its Royalist bias. Based on these readings, the question arises whether assuming that Marvell approves or disapproves of Cromwell in an ultimate sense would not mean to over-simplify the meaning of the poem.

In the following paper, I will attempt to find out about the poem’s engagement with the politics of its moment, the summer of 1650. I want to approach the Horatian Ode by means of an excursus devoted to the manner in which Marvell reflects on the historical occasion of Charles’s beheading and Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland. Specifically, I will attempt to show that the poem expresses a highly ambivalent and ironic attitude, and that both Royalist principles and admiration for Cromwell’s achievements are present in the poem.

In order to understand the political and cultural implications of Marvell’s poem, background information on the historical events of the period, as well as Marvell’s political and intellectual development need to be taken into consideration. So before moving on to explore the political implications of the poem by examining the three main sections of the Ode – the portrait of the present moment, the recent past of the king’s execution and finally the future of the republic - I will be concerned with significant details of Marvell’s personal and professional life and provide a short introduction to the historical events alluded to in the Horatian Ode.

Historical and biographical background information provided in this paper are largely based on works by Annabel Patterson (1994: 3-24), The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry (Corns 1993: 275-280), the Norton Anthology of Literature Online Edition (NAEL 2003: 7.1.1684) and the Longman Annotated English Poets Collection (Smith 2003: 267 – 273). Previous readings and interpretations I will refer to in the following paper include essays by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1950: 165-177), Thomas Greene (1993: 360-379)

Thad Bower (1999: [Online]

and Rene Girard (1977: 150 – 157).

II. Historical Background

Marvell’s Horatian Ode deals with historical figures and comments on a historical occasion. Before starting to explore the deeper relationship between Marvell’s poem and the historical and political implications it bears, it may be useful to present a brief summary of the historical events alluded to in the Ode.

The ascent of James I. to the throne in 1603 inaugurated a profound cultural shift as Elizabeth’s styles of self-representation were replaced by those of a king who saw himself as an absolute monarch. James defended royal absolutism grounded on the divine rights of kings. Puritans pressed for more reformation in doctrine, worship, and church government to eradicate “papist” elements, while on the political side, the essential issue became the location of sovereign power in the state. Charles insisted on absolute prerogatives and governed without a parliament for 11 years. The quarrel between Charles I. and the Parliamentarians broke out into open hostilities in August 1642. In the following battles, Oliver Cromwell proved himself to be the most vigorous general the ‘Roundheads’ had. Cromwell organized an army which inflicted a crushing defeat upon the royal army in 1645. Charles surrendered to his Scottish subjects, who later turned him over to the English in 1647.

Charles was kept in custody at Hampton Court, from where he fled in 1647. Many English shrank from the prospect of executing him, since they acknowledged him as the legal head of the state. Finally, a group of men in the Parliamentary party led by Cromwell, drove out of Parliament members opposed to such extreme measures, tried Charles for treason and executed him on the scaffold on January 30, 1649. The following year, Cromwell invaded Ireland and, as predicted in Marvell’s Ode, speedily broke the Royalist forces in Scotland. As Lord Protector, Cromwell ruled England until his death in 1658 ( cf.The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7.1.1684: [Online Edition]

Marvell’s Horatian Ode appears to have been written between Cromwell’s arrival in London in June 1650 and his departure for Scotland a month later. Marvell responded to the occasion of the invasion of Scotland in a way that showed not only the poet’s understanding of the event but also placed the event in a larger national history. It was in an atmosphere of expectation and uncertainty that Marvell felt impelled to give form to his thoughts about the

killing of the king and the emergence of a new military leader. Cromwell’s emergence and the radical change in temper and plans of the new government certainly presented a challenge peculiarly attuned to Marvell’s habits of mind.

III. Andrew Marvell: Life and Development of Political Thinking

To begin to understand the action of An Horatian Ode some consideration must be given to Marvell’s career and his development of political thinking.

Born in 1621, Andrew Marvell grew up in the Yorkshire town of Hull where his father, Reverend Andrew Marvell, was a lecturer at Holy Trinity Church. At the age of twelve, Andrew began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he matriculated and took his B.A. in 1639. Due to the scarcity of information about his personal life, little is known about Marvell’s following years. It seems as if he travelled extensively on the Continent during the 1640’s, working as a tutor in Holland, France, Italy and Spain. Marvell returned to Great Britain in 1648 and came to reside at Nun Appleton house in Yorkshire, the seat of Lord Thomas Fairfax, where, from 1650 to 1652, he acted as tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary. Scholars believe that it was under Lord Fairfax’s roof that, as far as literature is concerned, Marvell did his best and most enduring work. There are certain inconsistencies and ambiguities as far as the exact dates of Marvell’s work are concerned, but it seems as if the first products of his pen, at this time, were The Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, and his famous poem Upon Appleton House (cf. Ward & Trent 2000: [Online]).

After Marvell had left Appleton House, he found employment as a tutor to Cromwell’s ward. The development of his relationship with the Lord Protector (the title Cromwell assumed in 1653) is marked in several poems Marvell wrote at that time. In later Cromwell poems, Marvell continued and revived themes and metaphors first encountered in the Horatian Ode. Marvell seemed to struggle to reconcile his allegiance to republican virtue with his perception of the providential significance of Cromwell (cf. Corns 2003: 276ff.). The hopes that surrounded Cromwell’s rule collapsed at his death in 1658, and the failure of his son Richard brought on the restoration of Charles II. In the same year Marvell was elected as Member of the Parliament of Hull and served there until his death in 1678. During that time he wrote primarily satirical poems on the state of domestic and international politics under the Restoration monarchy, many published anonymously.

From 1662 onwards, Marvell was engaged in three absorbing activities: he represented his home town of Hull and its commercial interests, reporting to its governors often several times a week in letters of such extensive detail that they remain among the richest resources of historical documentation for the reign of Charles II. He criticized and characterized in satirical verse the major events and political figures of the time and wrote a number of prose tracts devoted to the definition of reasonable and effective modes of debate. When we consider the main body of Marvell’s Satires, extending from about 1667 to the end of his life, we may conclude that he seemed increasingly embittered by the degradation of his country and the corruption that reined the court and in public departments.

In 1678, after 18 years in Parliament, Andrew Marvell died rather suddenly of a fever.

It should be mentioned that Andrew Marvell, now considered one of the greatest poets of the seventeenth century, published very little of his political satires and complex lyric verse in his lifetime. While his Poems were published in collected form in 1681, his Satires on the court and the court party remained, for they threw curious light on the history of the reigns of Charles the II. and James II., unpublished until the revolution of 1688 had become an accomplished fact.

III . i . Poetic Themes and Literary Influences

As far as literary tradition is concerned, Andrew Marvell is neither Metaphysical nor Cavalier but seems to stand between them, taking elements from both traditions but embracing neither fully. His works blend the best of Cavalier wit and courtesy with the quiet gravity of a humane Puritan. While Marvell is generally considered a Puritan poet, then, his career illustrates not purely Puritan ethics or principles. Although classed among the poets of the reign of Charles II., it is generally recognized now that he really belongs to the earlier time, and that his place is with Herrick and Lovelace rather than with Dorset or Rochester. Marvell’s verse is certainly the product of European, that is to say Latin, culture. His work is shaped by his classical training, and especially his study of Horace. Apart from his political poems and satires, Marvell also showed intense critical interest in different literary genres. Marvell reflected deeply on the nature of poetry, ancient and modern, classical, Renaissance and contemporary, European and English (cf. Friedman 1993: 276)

He was an anticipator of Wordsworth in his sheer enjoyment of open air and country life. In poems like The Garden, Marvell seems to throw himself into the very soul of the garden with an incredible imaginative intensity. The quarrel between the allure of goods of the world and the commands of the life of the spirit is another important theme in Marvell’s poetry. Typically, Marvell transforms the traditional genre of the moral debate into a dialogue, creating voices for what in religious tracts are more properly epistemological and ontological points of view. In A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body, Marvell focuses on the implication of spiritual consciousness with fleshy sensitivity. Marvell makes the reader realise the meaning of the struggle between the lower passions and the higher nature of man.

Throughout his lifetime, Marvell remained fascinated by but ambivalent about the nature of his own art, particularly with respect to the relation between the mysteries of craft and the ethical responsibilities they bear. The act of writing is hardly ever treated directly in his poems – Marvell rather relies on traditional symbols (such as the soul as a singing bird) and allegorical figures to examine the creative sources of speech and representation. The pervasive scepticism of his writing is a different aspect of the characteristics of his verse that criticism has always regarded as essential: wit, wordplay and ambiguity.

His sense of a gap between the written word as a concrete object and the “thing” as it stands for – an idea or feeling – marks all of Marvell’s writing.

The identity of the poet and his responsibilities to public and private realms occupied Marvell’s mind throughout his lifetime. His polemical verse appears to reflect on the very relationship between text and context, as words arrange and rearrange historical personalities and events. Marvell’s verse is a reflecting surface, or think tank, for a number of themes: male, female and androgynous sexuality, the relative moral positions of the creative human mind and the natural world it operates on, the sources of civil power and the place of religious belief in authorizing it, and the relation of tradition to innovation in the creation of art. In all these respects, Marvell’s poetry offers a coherent response and a view of the civilized legacy offered by literature that is as admirable as the larger bodies of work produced by his contemporaries Milton and Dryden. (cf. Smith 2003: 267f.)

III.ii. Horace: Andrew Marvell’s literary and intellectual model

Marvell’s intent in The Horatian Ode has been associated with a variety of political positions, ranging from the celebration of Cromwell’s ascent to power, to qualified support of the republican government and the Commonwealth, to ironic criticism of Cromwell and lamentation for the collapse of the monarchy. In order to achieve a better understanding of Marvell’s political attitudes and the political judgements expressed in The Horatian Ode, a short introduction to the life and work of Marvell’s literary and political model Horace seems appropriate.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), born in 65 B.C. near the border of Apulia, was educated in Rome and Athens. From 44 B.C. to 42 B.C., he served the dying Republic as a military tribune in the army of Brutus and Cassius, served at Phillipi, and soon afterwards returned to Rome where he started working as a clerk in a public office. He soon attracted the attention of Maecenas and became acquainted with Varius and Virgil, henceforth devoting himself to literary pursuits. His first work, the first book of Satires, was published in 35 B.C. Towards the end of his life, Horace was recognized and honoured by the friendship of Augustus, who commissioned him to write the fourth book of Odes. Horace celebrated in verse the peace that prevailed under Augustus’s rule, and his poetry became a model for royalist panegyrics.

The ode, an elaborate and stately lyric poem in stanzas of varied metrical pattern, dates back to the Greek choral songs that were sung and danced at public events and celebrations. The Greek odes of Pindar were poems of praise and glorification, arranged in stanzas patterned in sets of three - a strophe and an antistrophe, which had an identical metrical scheme, and an epode, which had a structure of its own. The ode as a literary genre itself was not a fully naturalized form in English poetry, and Ben Jonson was its only true master during the early decades of the 17th century. Different writers, such as Herrick and Milton, adapted the form of the ode by using a tripartite structure, but Marvell fully adopted Horace’s structure and devised a metrical pattern, namely an alternation of tetrameter and trimeter couplets, that is perfectly suited to the general rhythm of thinking and rethinking in the poem. Marvell’s choice of form might have been made in the shadow of Johnson, who had converted the ode’s elevated language and episodic structure, in some cases, to personal and polemic uses (Corns 2003: 267.). Marvell understood Jonson’s explicit and implicit claims to give voice to the fundamental standards of civilization and to instruct its leader.

But Marvell went further in designating the poem ‘Horatian’, and invoked both the perspective and the historical circumstances of Horace. Horace had created a mode that celebrated and criticized at the same time, in the service of an ideal of humane conduct – ‘Horatian’ in this understanding meant cultivating perception, analysis and evaluation to preserve a sense of personal integrity and maintaining distance from the events that provided occasion for public utterance, and also to insist on the interdependence of the poet’s privilege and responsibility to speak truth to power. Hence, in choosing to write a ‘Horatian’ ode, Marvell did not only express his great admiration for the Roman poet’s political identity, intellectual life and ways of expression, but was also making several implicit statements about his approach to the subject of Cromwell’s entrance onto the political scene (cf. Corns 1993: 277f.).


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Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' as a Political Poem
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Andrew Marvell's Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland undoubtedly is a poem of great artistry, but above all it provides an excellent example for political poetry of seventeenth century Great Britain.While the prosodic majesty and metrical poise of Marvell's poem has sustained universal acclaim among critics, the attention of most students of Marvell's Horatian Ode has been directed towards questions about the political ideologies expressed in the poem.
Marvell, Horatian, Political, Poem
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Stephanie Fuchs (Author), 2004, Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' as a Political Poem, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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