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Nigel Smith. Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon.

Nigel Smith. Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon. Yale University Press, 2010. xiv + 400 pp. $45.00. Review by ALEX GARGANIGO, AUSTIN COLLEGE.

"Chime" is a word much in evidence in Marvell studies these days (rhyme words chime with each other, as do authors, subject matters, intertexts, contexts), and Nigel Smith's new biography chimes in with genial intelligence and erudition. Smith capitalizes on the 2003 edition of Marvell's prose from Yale (soon to be completed with a new and fuller edition of Marvell's letters), which has renewed interest in his overtly satirical, political, and theological writing after the Restoration (such as The Rehearsal Transpros'd and the Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government), rather than the largely pre-Restoration poetry that still gains the lion's share of critical attention (for example, "To His Coy Mistress," "A Drop of Dew," and "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland"). Marvell the politician proves at least as important as Marvell the poet--if, indeed, one can separate them. Smith's biography has many advantages over its predecessors. Perhaps its greatest insights are the following: that Marvell spent much of his life in the position of client (to, among others, Thomas Stanley; Thomas, Lord Fairfax; Oliver Cromwell; the Duke of Buckingham; the Earls of Carlisle, Anglesey, and Shaftesbury; the Hull Corporation; and perhaps, briefly, to Charles II); that part of such service may have involved spying of various sorts, especially in Holland; that Continental, especially Dutch contexts, shed new light on some of his greatest poems, such as Upon Appleton House; and that all of these chiming interconnections are audible in the close reading of passages and their intertexts that some varieties of historicism have dismissed as outmoded New Criticism and influence study. Marvell may have spoken and spied for others, but he also may have acted as a double agent, especially if his spying duties included monitoring former English Commonwealthsmen in Holland in the early 1660s, for whom Marvell may have felt some sympathy.

All of these factors help explain Marvell's genius at ventriloquizing others' voices without entirely extinguishing his own, setting himself conspicuously nearby but often outside the patriarchal fray. An important component of Smith's biographical method is the broad-spectrum, at times Namierite examination of family members, friends, acquaintances, and patrons whose interests and mindsets Marvell mirrored, sometimes with a barely discernible reluctance. In this respect (Marvell's penchant for both hiding and exposing himself, in both life and literature), Smith concurs with the psychohistorical approach to Marvell visible in the work of the editors of the recent Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell (2011), Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker. Like fellow Marvell scholars Nicholas von Maltzahn and Nicholas McDowell, Smith has a fine ear for intertextual echoes (or chimes) that aid attempts to pin down the dates and meanings of various Marvell's poems. Of course, examinations of echoes and influence are not always unequivocal: the same chime can sound in different directions without establishing incontrovertible proof that one text came first. A case in point is Alan Pritchard's dating of "The Garden" and "The Mower against Gardens" after the Restoration, rather than during the Fairfax period, on the basis of language similar to that in poems by Katherine Phillips and Abraham Cowley printed after 1660--a dating that Smith accepts. It is also possible that Phillips and Cowley were echoing and revising Marvell's garden poems, available in now lost manuscripts from the 1650s.

Smith's opening chapter identifies the stakes in current Marvell biography and criticism, which form merely the latest episode in his reception as, successively, Whig patriot, retiring poet, and defender of religious and political dissent--each label identifying something crucial about Marvell by itself, but best used in combination with the other two. Chapter 2 describes Marvell's upbringing in Hull, Yorkshire, under the care of his father, the Reverend Andrew Marvell, whose theological interests ranged widely and provided models for those of his son, especially toward the end of the latter's life. The fact that he sent Marvell off to Cambridge at the tender age of twelve suggests young Andrew's status as prodigy, and while there, he seems to have been the victim of a Catholic attempt to co-opt him to their cause as something like a new Edmund Campion, a new English advocate for Catholicism. The Rev. Marvell, however, quickly scuttled this plan, but his steadying influence abruptly ended in a boat accident in 1641. His father's premature death by drowning, combined with Marvell's still mysterious dismissal from his position as Cambridge fellow soon thereafter, put paid to any hopes for an ecclesiastical or academic career, throwing him into the almost permanent position of suppliant. As chapter 3 indicates, Marvell appears to have avoided the first Civil War (1642-6) by traveling on the Continent, probably as tutor to an unknown aristocrat on the Grand Tour, whose family would have been Marvell's first patron. When he returned to England in 1647, Marvell likely spent time in or at the edges of the circle of Royalist poets surrounding another patron of sorts, Thomas Stanley, which, as McDowell and Smith argue, may explain the various crossechoes in all these men's poetry, as well as the fact of Marvell's penning three elegies to Royalists in these years, perhaps without a wholesale commitment to their politics and religion.

In any event, once the king had lost the war and his head by 1649, Marvell needed new patrons, and he seems to have found them in the victorious Parliament's generals: first Fairfax, then Cromwell. As chapter 4 demonstrates, the time Marvell spent at Fairfax's estate of Nunappleton, Yorkshire as tutor to his daughter, Maria, accounts for the poems addressed to Fairfax--Upon Appleton House chief among them--and possibly other lyrics, although a number of them may have been composed earlier in London within the ambit of the Stanley circle. The dates and purposes of important poems that originate in this period (roughly 1647-51) remain subjects of critical debate, as we saw in the case of the garden poems. Smith reads the "Horatian Ode" as not just about Cromwell and the new, potentially republican political order, but perhaps addressed to Cromwell. Moreover, Smith weighs in on another problem in Marvell studies: the apparent about-face in "Tom May's Death," which seems to attack the dead republican poet Thomas May. Smith sees the poem as an exploration of what a poet such as Ben Jonson would have thought of May had he lived to see civil war and May's death from a Royalist point of view; "Tom May's Death" is thus an exploration of a persona's (Jonson's rather than Marvell's) thoughts about the function of poets and poetry rather than politics per se. But chapters 5 & 6 show that Marvell soon became Cromwell's client as tutor to his ward, William Dutton, and then as assistant to Milton as Latin Secretary, perhaps helping the latter write the Second Defense of the English People. Smith serves up further astute readings of the other Cromwell poems of the 1650s.

At the Restoration, as chapter 7 demonstrates, Marvell managed to turn his coat enough to survive and continue as MP for Hull, an office he had first won in Richard Cromwell's Protectoral Parliament. Marvell spent much of the next two decades serving different masters, most of whom shared his desire to ease the lot of religious and political dissenters. It was during these years, according to chapters 8 & 9, that he may have acted as spy for another former Commonwealthsman, Sir George Downing, and as something close to the status of secretary to Dissenter-friendly parliamentarians such as Philip, Lord Wharton and the Earl of Shaftesbury, as well as servant at various points to the similarly inclined Earl of Anglesey and Duke of Buckingham, for the latter of whom Marvell may have written the advice-to-a-painter poems. The garden poems may date from this period and emerge from Marvell's stays at Lord Wharton's estates and gardens in the late 1660s. However, the writings best known to his contemporaries were Marvell's popular prose satires, The Rehearsal Transpros'd and Mr. Smirke (subjects of chapters 10-11), which continued the fight for religious toleration. Probably while under the patronage of Shaftesbury, Marvell composed his damning Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government (subject of chapter 12), which alleged a plot to bring French-style Catholic absolutism to England, thereby gutting its mixed monarchy. Marvell did not live to see something very like this nightmare emerge in 1678 as a false scare about a Popish Plot against Charles II. However, the Exclusion Crisis that followed (ca. 1678-1681) saw not only the birth of political parties but the canonization of Marvell as Whig patriot--a label that would stick for much of the next century and beyond (chapter 13). The subtitle of Pierre Legouis' 1928 biography of Marvell in French (shortened, updated, and translated in 1965) had added the terms "Poet" and "Puritan" to "Patriot": Andre Marvell: Poete, Puritain, Patriote. But Smith chooses "The Chameleon" as his subtitle in order to emphasize the fluid and elusive nature of Marvell's political, religious, and literary identities, agreeing with von Maltzahn that Marvell had become a religious free-thinker by the time of his death in 1678, flirting with ideas like Socinianism that had interested his reverend father. In sum, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon, with its sensitive readings of Marvell's life, lines, and times, is now the standard biography.
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Author:Garganigo, Alex
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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