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Lines 1-2 The basic theme of the poem is announced from the beginning, that time lays waste to youth and life passes quickly, so people should enjoy youth now and “seize the day.” In the first section of the poem (to line 20), the speaker uses subjunctive mood verbs such as “would” and “were” that give a delicacy and tentativeness to his style. The speaker presents his “argument” to a listener, a young woman who holds back from reciprocating with her expression of love. The speaker says that coyness would be acceptable if time were in endless supply and if the world was big enough to accommodate all of his admiration for her. Lines 3-4 Assuming time continues forever, the poem describes the leisurely pace of life spent in courtship and praise of the beloved, silent mistress. Lines 5-7 Beginning with line 7 and continuing to line 20, the speaker embarks on some remarkable hyperbole to describe the praise he wants to bestow upon his mistress. He selects two rivers, India’s Ganges, which is sacred to the Hindu religion and thought of as the earthly embodiment of a goddess, and England’s Humber, which flows past Marvell’s hometown of Hull. The wide distance of two hemispheres separating the rivers compares with the time needed to spend adequately in courtship. That the mistress would find rubies in the Ganges underlines the exotic nature of a river in India. The Humber river in England, by comparison, is a slowmoving, dirty estuary where one is more likely to find old shoes than precious stones. The distance between the speaker (by the Humber river) and the mistress (by the Ganges river) is a metaphor for the luxurious, leisurely consumption of time spent in praise. Lines 8-10
In these lines, the speaker describes the amount of time it would take to love his mistress and how much time she would be allowed to turn his love aside. The poem invokes eschatological or “end of the world” events to compare the allotted time — the great Flood by which God cleanses the earth in the Bible or the conversion of the Jews popularly thought to happen immediately prior to the Last Judgment. These excessive comparisons stress the unimaginably large amount of time it would take to adequately define the speaker’s love for his mistress. Lines 11-12 The speaker creates the metaphor of “vegetable love” that grows very slowly but amasses enough bulk to be larger than a great dynasty or colonial empire. Because of the depth of his love, the speaker’s “vegetable love” covers much of the earth’s surface, as did the British empire during its peak in the nineteenth century. Lines 13-18 The speaker fills out the hyperbole begun in line 7. This catalogue of the amount of years devoted to worship of each of his mistress’s physical attributes is outrageous; we find staggering overstatement in the 100 years for her face, 200 years for each breast, and 30,000 years devoted to the rest of her body — an exponential increase! The speaker devotes at least one generation to praise of each part of his mistress, especially to praise of her pure heart, which is saved for last because of its special place as the seat of amorous passion. This catalogue resembles and perhaps parodies the style of Petrarchan sonnet writers, who used standard metaphors to describe their mistresses. However, Marvell’s comparisons are notable for their excessiveness and originality. Lines 19-20 In this close of section I, the speaker introduces a monetary metaphor: loving at a certain “rate,” like an interest rate charged by a bank for lending money. The speaker implies that the mistress deserves this “state” of lavish praise because of her beauty. Lines 21-22
This is the logical turn of the poem, shifting from wild exaggeration to somber images of the grave. The subject of death intrudes into this love poem, turning the mood away from the subjunctive to focus on the limitation of time. Time is personified as a driver in a chariot. In popular culture, Time is usually pictured as a robed old man holding a scythe — a sinister figure inspiring fear. The verb choice of “hurrying” introduces anxiety and darkness into a formerly light and extravagant, lyric poem. Lines 23-24 The image of vast deserts begins a macabre list of comparisons having to do with sterility. Deserts are hot and barren, a denial of the life-giving processes of love and sexual activity. No wet, living “vegetable love” can be found in Marvell’s desert. Lines 25-27 These lines emphasize the loss of beauty that happens to all people over time, especially pertaining to the mistress. The “marble vault” is the resting place for the deceased mistress’s corpse. The speaker’s song of praise will go unheard and unsung when death levels them both; thus the implication is that death is a final stopping place beyond which no magnificent love can escape. Lines 28-30 The speaker’s grotesque image of the worm penetrating the virgin corpse as it consumes the rotting flesh shocks many readers. The point is that such preserved virtues mean nothing when stretched over the expanse of time. Thus, the speaker offers another persuasive reason for the mistress to give in. “Quaint honor” reflects that fact that virginity will seem a quaint but useless treasure at the end of life. The speaker alludes to the Biblical phrase of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (commonly used at funerals) to emphasize his thriving, passionate lust being reduced to oblivion, just like the mistress’s virginity. Lines 31-32 With the close of section II, the poem uses understatement and irony, praising the grave as a “fine” and “private” place. This is a perfect transition
to the carpe diem theme of section III. The speaker uses a grammatical pause to interrupt line 32, making him seem humble and modest. The speaker’s charm and tactfulness are implied by the restraint he uses to punctuate line 32. (In poetry, taking a pause in the middle of a line is a called a caesura.) Lines 33-34 Section III returns to the theme of youthful lust. The speaker uses imperative mood verbs that give commands, exhortation, and urgent directions to his mistress. While youth is present, the mistress’s skin glows in vitality like the morning dew. This simile as originally published used the word “glew” instead of “dew.” Some scholars suggested that “glew” was a dialectal form of “glow,” as in “the skin’s healthy glow.” The alternative possibility that “glew” means “glue” is not attractive to the tone of the lover’s argument. Probably the best choice in modernizing a seventeenthcentury poem would be to substitute “dew” as in the present text. Lines 35-37 The speaker says that the young soul of his mistress breathes out through her beautiful skin in “instant fires” of enthusiasm and passion for love. The speaker wants his mistress to yield to his lust now while she can still respond before time takes its toll. Lines 38-40 The speaker makes use of a set of harsh images that lend intensity and force to his expression. The simile of “birds of prey” is an unexpected choice for a love poem; some might consider it bizarre for the poem to compare a lover and his mistress to birds of prey who want to eat, not be eaten by Time. The comparison says that the speaker wants to devour Time like a hawk devours a rabbit caught in the fields — rapidly, in the heat of the moment, unthinkingly and instinctively. Time with his “slow-chapt power” is imagined as slowly chewing up the world and its people; thus the speaker implies he and his mistress are in a desperate fight against Time. Lines 41-44
In these lines, the poem uses the metaphor of a cannonball of “strength” and “sweetness” rolled into a concentrated package of energy that “tears” through the barriers of restraint. The juxtaposition of “strife” with “pleasures” indicates the ferocious breakthrough of the speaker’s argument winning over his mistress. Lines 45-46 In the concluding couplet, the speaker and his mistress triumphantly turn back the destructive forces of Time, avidly eating Time instead of being eaten by it. The speaker and his mistress force the sun to race them instead of passively begging the sun to stand still like Joshua did in the Bible, when he pleaded with God to make the sun stand still so the Israelites might defeat the Amorites in broad daylight. Media Adaptations
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Milton and 17th Century Poetry was released on video cassette by Films for the Humanities in 1988. An audio album by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, titled Poetry of the XVII Century, is available from Caedmon Records. An audio cassette titled The English Poets, #6: Richard Lovelace; Charles Cotton; Andrew Marvell; Samuel Butler; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; and John Milton was released by Longman Group in 1979. Andrew Marvell, an audio reel, is available from the University of Colorado.
Choose 2 poems of Marvell which throw light on the politics of the time and show how he does this Both “Bermudas” and “An
Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return
from Ireland” deal with the politics revolving around the Civil War and
its outset, though “Bermudas” is much more oblique in its reference to religion. Marvell distances himself from the views held within the poem by putting the poem in the form of a sailors’ song. This allows him to create characters with their own poetic voices, making the question of whether
Marvell is projecting his own views somewhat equivocal. True to his source of inspiration (Horace), Marvell presents a balanced view of the Civil War in “An Horatian Ode”, again sparking much debate about his own political views. Written for Marvell’s Puritan employer Lord Fairfax, “Bermudas” commences with a steady, maritime rhythm to reinforce the lonely image of sailors rowing somewhere in a vast ocean, trying to cheer themselves up with their future, utopian prospects. The first lines of the song itself has definite biblical overtones – “What should we do but sing his praise” and the element of escape is reminiscent of Exodus. The “isle” clearly represents an Elysian place free from persecution and whatever else the sailors may have suffered. The potential of new beginnings is reinforced with the strong presence of water (“watery maze” and “huge sea-monsters”) and “eternal spring” – both significant literary symbols of regeneration. One of the few hints the reader receives about what precisely the sailors are escaping is “prelate’s rage” – indicative of the growing struggle between Catholicism and Puritanism before the Civil War, and Lord Fairfax’s own attempts to set up a
haven for Puritans in the Bermudas. Conversely, “An Horatian Ode” abandons religion almost entirely, focussing more on the two main figures of the war – King Charles and Cromwell – and weighing their faults and merits equally. the poem opens with a small introduction, in this case about a youth whose identity is debatable. This anonymity is not without significance – he may represent Marvell himself, particularly as poet who must “leave the books in dust” or he may be a general figure for unprepared soldiers who were called to war with “unusèd armour”. This leads into what may be interpreted as a subtle criticism of the warmongering Cromwell, who Marvell satirically describes as unsatisfied with “the inglorious arts of peace”. Yet this is immediately followed by an almost celestial description of Cromwell as a weapon of Zeus – “lightning” with the three fatal forks of religion, Charles’ decapitation and his defeat of the Irish. His brutal (“fiery” and “blast”) destruction of the monarchy is symbolized by a graphic metaphor, with Cromwell blazing through the air to smite Charles who, for all his divine right, was not saved by his protective “laurels”. This seemingly careless reference to “Caesar” is another oblique indication of Marvell’s own views regarding divine right itself – Charles’ laurels are futile and in the same way, perhaps believing in the divine right of kings was merely folly. The paradoxical application of “angry heaven’s flame” to Cromwell is puzzling, but perhaps it is a further indication of Marvell’s views. While Charles
considered himself heaven’s chosen ruler, it is in fact Cromwell who is heaven’s choice of weapon to strike the king down. It is such violence from which the soldiers seem to wish to escape, as they anticipate the calm pleasures in the Bermudas, where all is smooth (“enamels”) in perhaps more ways than one. The biblical references become stronger as the language becomes more exotic – the “fowl…on daily visits through the air” recall God’s daily delivery of manna to the travelling Israelites, and the sheer abundance of this isle echoes that of Eden. Marvell particularly indulges his wit here with both horticultural and geographical knowledge, as well as subtle allusions to Judaism. Though the “apples” ostensibly reinforce Marvell’s wit and the abundance of the island, they also seem to refer to the downfall of man as apples which certainly came with a price. Cromwell too seems to wish for exotic gardens in which to plant “the bergamot”, a suggestion by Marvell perhaps of Cromwell’s hypocrisy in annihilating any remnant of luxury (“palaces and temples rent”) while simultaneously aspiring to great heights himself. While Marvell admits that Cromwell may have been unjustified (“though justice against fate complain”), he indicates that Charles did not have the capacity for power, thus he was consigned by Nature to be ousted by Cromwell, whose “greater spirits” must fill the vacuum left by Charles’ weakness. The fact that Cromwell manages to be both unjust as well as “angry heaven’s flame” is never reconciled, drawing further attention to the ambiguity of the speaker’s opinion. This neatly avoids any forthright statement on the part of the poet, who appears to have chosen to extol the virtues of both men while wreathing his praise in ambivalence and irony. Charles’ execution itself is described carefully, with no obviously sycophantic phrasing but ambiguous indications of the Roundheads’ guilt (“their bloody hands” and “forced power”) in contrast to Charles graceful acceptance of his fate – “He nothing common did or mean”. The overall impression is that of an admiration for Charles and a lamentation of his apparently unfair death. Cromwell’s lightning qualities are brought to the fore once again with “the Irish are ashamed/to see themselves in one year tamed” though the hidden irony of “That does both act and know” belies the apparently laudatory tone at this point – whether Cromwell’s swift destruction of a nation is so praiseworthy remains equivocal, though the speaker quickly moves on to say that the Irish themselves would “confess” that “they can affirm his praises
best”. Yet Cromwell’s ability to “sway” his captors indicates that he had to do so by force, and his laying his “spoils” at the “Commons’ feet” has connotations of larceny. Marvell’s use of imagery renders his meaning somewhat more oblique, allowing the speaker to be more daring in his suggestions – in this case he asserts that Cromwell is now at his most vulnerable, much like the falcon just after the hunt. The fate of the “isle” of England remains unclear, though surrounding nations apparently fear Cromwell’s constant wins – “thus he crowns each year”. The rapid flow of images switch constantly between an ambivalent mix of disdain and admiration for Cromwell, in itself a prediction of the English people’s own feelings for their new ruler perhaps. Towards the end of “Bermudas” the soldiers seem to extend their comparison of themselves to the Jews and their exodus (“Lebanon”), echoing their hopes of a promised land made by God and the founding of a Church – “A temple, where to sound his name”. This ending is clearly a dream of what the sailors are prevented from doing, presumably in England, in a haven free from persecution. The conclusion of “An Horatian Ode” is rather more solemn after the mockery of the Scots, ending with somber advice for the new ruler. Echoing Cromwell’s earlier dissatisfaction with the “arts of peace”, the speaker advises him to “keep thy sword erect”, as a policy of living by the sword may lead to his dying by the sword – “A power must it maintain.” Though both poems deal with different aspects of the Civil War, Marvell avoids repetition with his skilful manipulation of form and subject matter. It is impossible to conjecture the poet’s own political standing, as even in “Bermudas” the speakers avoid any particular criticism of their persecutors save the “prelate’s rage”. The poems provide, however, a useful indication of the general feeling of the time and prevent the reader from simplifying the works by attempting to cast either Charles or Cromwell into the stereotypical roles of hero and villain
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