Fickle Freethinker

Book cover
Andrew Marvellby By Nigel SmithYale Univ. Press. 416p $45

The British poet Andrew Marvell died in 1678, a few months after he had anonymously published a book-length diatribe that accused “conspirators” of plotting to introduce into England “absolute tyranny” and “downright popery.” Those who are familiar with Marvell are unlikely to be at all familiar with this side of him and probably know only his poetry—“To His Coy Mistress” and perhaps a few of his other fine lyrics, like “The Garden.” Only in recent years have Marvell scholars revisited his ideas and politics. This is fitting because Marvell served for two decades as a member of Parliament and was an important, if anonymous, controversialist in prose.

Nigel Smith—a professor of English at Princeton University—attends skillfully to the poetry, but he also provides extensive information about the period as well as the complicated development of Marvell’s political and religious views. Much is unknown about Marvell’s life, as Smith acknowledges, and his is probably the most complete biography of Marvell we are likely to see. Marvell was a secretive person; and even though he had a public career, he left few traces of how he used much of his time. He allied himself with powerful people who could further his career, yet he was not a social creature and, indeed, had a repellent manner.


His father was low-church, a Puritan-inclined cleric in the trading port city of Hull. While a student at Cambridge, Marvell became interested in Catholicism and, “alarmed by a rumor that his son was about to become a Jesuit,” Marvell Sr. tracked him down and “remonstrated with him.” The son relented and from that time consistently supported toleration for dissenting sects toward which his father leaned and for the values of the city that had provided his father’s income. After travelling on the continent during the Civil War years, he became the tutor to the daughter of Thomas Fairfax, who formerly had commanded the rebel forces, until he refused to make a pre-emptive invasion of Scotland and was replaced by Cromwell. During this period, Marvell wrote his "masterpiece," “Upon Appleton House.” During Cromwell’s protectorate, Marvell worked as an assistant to John Milton, then the Latin secretary, a government office whose duties included censorship. At the demise of the Cromwellian government (1659), he was elected to Parliament, where he served until he died, dutifully representing the business interests of Hull, which had sustained his father’s church. His parliamentary career was largely one of silence during the legislative debate. He was more effective behind the scenes and with his pen, writing anonymous political pamphlets, variously attacking the bishops, the monarchy, the French or Catholicism.

Smith presents all we are ever likely to know about Marvell, though his myriad speculations on everything from his travels to his sexuality draw attention to how much of Marvell’s life remains a mystery. Why Marvell was expelled from Cambridge without a degree; how he spent his time on the Continent, to which he went during the Civil War; what he was doing when in 1662 he absented himself from Parliament and spent 18 months in Holland; and whether he was married to his housekeeper, as she claimed after he died at 57, are just a few of the many unanswered questions about his life.

The Whig hagiography of Marvell institutionalized in the 18th century remains largely intact even now among the coterie of scholar-critics who have created a veritable Marvell mini-industry. Smith says that Marvell “resisted all corruption in an age of corruption,” even though he was a conduit for bribes, took some himself, became part of a fifth column consorting with Dutch Protestant spies and almost certainly spied for the Dutch, even as England was still technically at war with Holland. Smith refers vaguely to Marvell’s “surreptitious and subversive tactics,” yet seems uncomfortable in explicitly discussing them. He is more forthcoming about a scheme in which Marvell assisted a crooked Hull banker in a criminal enterprise to hide money.

Marvell’s book-length pamphlet, An Account of the Growth of Popery (1677), stokes fears of Catholicism, arguing that conspirators in league with France were attempting to turn England into an “absolute tyranny” and its religion into “downright popery.” Smith refrains from quoting any of the pamphlet’s opening pages of religious hate-speech, and he passes off Marvell’s anti-Catholic tirade as simply “a form of political behavior.” This implies that, following the pamphlet’s publication, neither the increase in pope burnings, the ensuing and false allegations of a popish plot, and the jailing and execution of Catholics were also simply “political” and had nothing to do with religious hatred. Smith, like other Marvell critics, leaves the false impression that Marvell was a champion of religious tolerance, even though he opposed toleration for Catholics.

The fever that killed Marvell might have been contained had he been willing to take quinine, but he may have refused it because of its religious association with those who had introduced it into Europe. It was commonly known as Jesuit powder. (Smith omits this incident.) Marvell died 10 years before the Revolution of 1688, too soon to see the triumph of the politics he had promoted as M.P. The change in government under William of Orange led to the rise of the Whigs, who had opposed monarchy but now supported a new version of kingship. The difference, as the historian Derek Jarrett puts it, was that England would now be ruled by a “government of men of property for men of property.” Marvell’s contribution to that shift is perhaps his most lasting legacy.

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