Remembering Andrew Marvell

In this month’s Pelican, Rector Alan recalls the life of the poet and politician Andrew Marvell, who is memorialised in our church.

By a quirk of serendipity, the poet and politician Andrew Marvell, described on the memorial to him on the wall of the north aisle of St Giles as ‘the ornament & example of his age,’ died on the very day this newsletter is being sent out – 16th August – 339 years ago. In June of that year a house was purchased in his name in Great Russell Street, close by Montague House, (which later became the nucleus of the British Museum), in the days when nothing but fields stretched north all the way up to Camden Town and Hampstead Heath. In July he had visited Hull, whose member of parliament he had been for many years, and while on the road back contracted what was then called tertian ague, (a kind of malaria). On his arrival in Great Russell Street he was bled, as was the custom. ‘By the doctor’s orders,’ it was reported, ‘the patient was covered up close with blankets, or rather buried under them; and composed himself to sleep and sweat, in order to escape the cold shivers that ordinarily accompany the onset of the ague-fit. [But] in the short space of twenty-four hours after the last fit he died comatose.’

NPG 554,Andrew Marvell,by Unknown artistTwo days later he was buried in our churchyard, the sexton declaring to an observer that he ‘lies interred under the Pewes in the south side . . . under the window wherein is painted in glasse a red lyon,’ the said window being a gift of John Johnson of High Holborn, whose inn bore the figure of a lion in the wilderness. If, though, your habit is to sit on the south side of the church, fear not, for we are talking about the church previous to our own (see above) so that all trace of the physical remains of the poet must long since have been erased!

Thus it happens that visitors, (admittedly solely students of 17th century English poetry and history), continue to come from far and wide to see the last resting place of this renowned poet in our own church even though he barely ever lived here. But we do not mind and will take whatever reflected fame and notoriety comes our way, if we can.

It is hard to tell if he was principally a poet who immersed himself in political affairs, or a political animal who used his poetry to advance the politics of those he favoured. I hope the former. In his later days a certain Mary Palmer claims that she had married the bachelor Andrew clandestinely in May 1667, though no evidence remains; however she did later still publish a slim volume of lyric poems previously unseen, which reveal a less politically driven poet, so perhaps the poetic muse was dominant after all. His poetry is difficult to our ears now: very terse and exact, so that its meanings, closely bound together, take some unravelling.

All things Cromwellian were his politics: the freedom of parliament from the excesses of the Crown. He seems to have idolised Oliver. This means that staunch monarchists among you may wish to avoid sitting near his memorial tablet lest something republican rubs off. An early student of Latin, he served various masters translating and copying texts and composing letters and odes on their behalf. Disturbingly, he wrote ‘An Horatian Ode,’ following Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland. We can only hope he did not know the full details of the violence of that campaign:

‘Tis madness to resist or blame

The force of angry Heavens flame:

And if we would speak true,

Much to the Man is due . . .

[who] could by industrious Valour climbe

to ruine the great Work of Time,

And cast the Kingdome old

Into another Mold.’

Marvell’s memorial was written by a favourite nephew, William Pople, some years after his uncle’s death. It was erected later in our present church in 1764 by a grand nephew, almost a century after Marvell’s death. Here the poet is described as ‘a strenuous asserter of the Constitution, Laws and Liberties of England’ and as one of ‘uncorrupt probity of life and manners.’ If the walls of our church could only speak, what times they could speak of: as here, in Marvell’s case, of Cromwell, John Milton, Samuel Pepys and of the heady, unruly