The life of a chameleon: Extract from Nigel Smith’s acclaimed biography of poet Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon

Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon by Nigel Smith

Nigel Smith’s critically acclaimed biography Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon has  just been published in paperback. Drawing on exhaustive archival research, the voluminous corpus of Andrew Marvell’s previously little-known writing, and recent scholarship across several disciplines, Smith’s portrait is the definitive account of the British poet’s elusive life. In this exclusive extract, Smith introduces us to Marvell through his political notoriety, before examining his elusive life through the clues left behind. 

Extract from Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon by Nigel Smith

What the world has thought about Andrew Marvell and why it has thought so has much to do with the political situation in London during the days, weeks and months after Marvell’s death in August 1678. These would establish him posthumously as a hero of the emergent Whig party during the Exclusion Crisis of 1678 to 1681, and from this political conflagration Marvell’s early biographies would grow. They would tell us much about some aspects of Marvell (a lot less about others), and would involve a fair degree of fabrication, but would also leave much else in the dark.

The unfolding of political events in the months after Marvell’s death reads like the prophecy of the Popish conspiracy in church and state that Marvell had made in An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government (1677) come true. Marvell had managed to stir up the kingdom with his Account, published the previous January, and probably mostly written during the previous May. ‘Stir up’ is an understatement, since Marvell had done much more than this. By offering a close analysis of Parliamentary procedure in 1677 and political history during the previous ten years, An Accounthad shown the steady undermining of English liberties. The pamphlet laid the blame at the door of pro-Catholic courtiers led by the King’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II), and more immediately claimed it was a conspiracy of the King’s chief minister, the Earl of Danby, with the bishops of the Church of England, who sat in the House of Lords. The further and more serious implication, discernible to the reader through the layers of typical Marvellian irony, was that the King himself was guilty of misleading Parliament, the representative of the English people, by demanding funds without actually acting on the purpose for which those funds had been procured (war with France).

The previous ten years, if not longer, looked in Marvell’s view like those of a monarch not ruling as he was supposed to in Parliament, but arbitrarily, seeking to move around Parliament and govern without it, yet with an ideally limitless supply of money sanctioned by it. This was the final meaning Marvell drew from the very many intervals (called ‘prorogations’) imposed by the King on Parliamentary sessions in a single Parliament that had been elected in 1661 and that would not be dissolved until 1679.

The Account pointed a finger of accusation at Charles II and said ‘enough’: it left no doubt in the reader’s mind that Charles had governed in a constitutionally un-English way, making England more like its neighbour France, Roman Catholic in religion, and governed arbitrarily by Louis XIV. The French king had earlier secretly underwritten Charles’s military funding needs in return for a promise (again made secretly) that Charles would make England once again Catholic. Marvell’s charge was scandalous but ultimately true. By August 1678, he had a reputation as a skilled and amusing satirist on the important issue of religious toleration. Written according to Sir Robert Southwell by a ‘good smart pen’, the Account made Marvell a major political commentator and operator even though he had not owned up to his authorship: the tract and he were an utter sensation.

Keeping his identity as author secret was vital to the success of the enterprise. The evidence of a widespread conspiracy of Roman Catholics, indigenous and foreign, designed to ensure a Catholic succession of the monarchy and future for England was widely believed and caused a massive crisis in church and state. Titus Oates made his allegations of a ‘Popish plot’ in late September, and on 12 October Sir Edmond Berry Godfrey went missing. His body was discovered one week later, his murder widely suspected to be the work of Catholic agents. The immediate outcome was the fall of the Earl of Danby, the King’s chief minister, and, at long last, the summoning of a new parliament: the dissolution of the old, which had been elected in 1661, came on 24 January 1679. In the medium term, the huge political battle known as the Exclusion Crisis took its three-year course. In it the Whig and Tory parties formed as the issue of the Protestant succession of the monarchy was debated.

Perhaps early in 1679, the republican and Whig poet and conspirator John Ayloffe, who would be executed for treason in 1685, wrote the powerful verse satire ‘Marvell’s Ghost’. No longer was Marvell a composer of surreptitiously circulated poetry on affairs of state and mostly unsigned tracts: he was now a subject of the poetry itself and a hero to boot, denouncing Stuart oppression ever more strongly. Four more separate poems of this kind are known to exist, one from 1687, one from 1690, another from 1691 also entitled ‘Marvell’s Ghost’, and yet one more from 1697 perhaps deliberately designed to be published with a collection of Marvell’s state poems.

Marvell’s political verse, of which a great deal will be said in the following pages, began to have a greater impact too. The attributions of much opposition poetry to Marvell grew although many of these would prove to be incorrect: his reputation and association with a certain kind of poem (for instance, the Advice-to-a-Painter poem) was the cause. Dryden made decidedly negative allusions to Marvell at this time, comparing him to the scurrilous Elizabethan Puritan pamphleteer Martin Marprelate in the preface to Religio Laici (1682), and Tory poetry further railed at Marvell’s associations with Whig grandees such as Buckingham and Shaftesbury. This added to the names that Marvell would be called by his enemies, as well as by some more even-handed judges: ‘sneering’, ‘untowardly’.

Those who read Marvell’s pamphlet were regarded by Tories as credulous Whigs, and Marvell’s An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government (1677) was regarded as fuel, among other writings, for the Rye House Plot of 1683 against the lives of the King and his brother and heir the Duke of York. Roger L’Estrange now regarded An Account as part of a larger plot to exclude James from the succession. He even claimed that Marvell ‘dreamed’ the idea of the Popish plot and complained that the controversialist had been canonized ‘if not for Saint, yet for a Prophet, in shewing how pat the Popish Plot falls out to his conjecture’. Furthermore Marvell’s tract was evidence of a republican conspiracy, he claimed, that had its roots in a culture of lewd tavern dwellers, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, in his view the supreme aristocratic turncoat.

This was all part of a hero’s afterlife: Marvell’s biography began with this posthumous reputation as Whig patriot, hero of political liberty and religious toleration, a reputation that would be carried through the eighteenth century on the wings of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to 1689 and the Whig ascendancy that followed.


There are some concrete facts concerning Marvell’s life, and reasonably solid extrapolations that we can make from them. It is a start. He was born in East Yorkshire to a clergyman father who was making his way from humbler origins: his grandfather was a yeoman farmer from Cambridgeshire. He was educated in classic fashion at Hull Grammar School, and within a Protestant household whose head, his father, was open to the full range of difference fomenting in the English church, having himself come from the Puritan environment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He continued to be educated in humanist Protestant fashion at Trinity College, Cambridge, and by all accounts he proved the worth of his meagre scholarship by performing as a good scholar. Elected to a scholarship, he had every expectation that he would pursue a profitable career in the church and possibly the university.

Everything changed with the loss of his father and the deprivation of his scholarship. His lifeline was cut off and he had to find a new means of subsistence. This meant, perhaps disagreeably to him for much of the time, seeking the preferment of greater men for a living. A short period trying to find a way in early 1640s London, perhaps in the London households of important northern families, perhaps in search of a teaching appointment, gave way to a resolve to mortgage his property inheritance and to spend the sum he realized travelling in Europe in order to gain a thorough knowledge of other languages and cultures. He was aiming at being a secretary, and perhaps beyond it there might be a career in a higher diplomatic appointment.

But it took a long time for this to happen, and there were many, including Philip Meadows and Joseph Williamson, who would sweep past him on the secretarial route to considerable wealth and influence. He had to settle for life as a far more humble kind of educated servant: a tutor in a noble household, and a tutor in a clergyman’s household to the heir of another very rich gentleman.

He spent some time probably in London at the end of the 1640s, probably at first in Royalist company, and certainly writing in a poetry circle some of his very best poetry. Perhaps in pursuit of patronage, perhaps genuinely as an address on the cusp of a new age, he wrote his first poem about Oliver Cromwell. Some further poems in praise of the republican ethos betoken yet more gestures towards employment by writing the right sort of poem for England’s new leaders, and perhaps already Marvell was functioning as an intelligence agent in this period; that is, a spy. But then came four to five years spent in Eton and associated environs as tutor to William Dutton, the ward of Oliver Cromwell.

From this point onwards, Marvell’s life as civil servant and MP can be written with a confidence based on relatively full records of correspondence and rich Parliamentary and other political sources for the time. That life, with its subject paying assiduous detail to the committee work of the House of Commons, was marked by a reluctance and very probably an inhibition to speak in the Commons: only a very few speeches are recorded. These are in places tortuous: oral eloquence was not Marvell’s forte, and he may well have found public speaking difficult. But he did not avoid controversy: physical collisions or exchange of blows with other MPs threatened to ruin his career as a representative on at least two occasions. Nonetheless his work as a political operator is evident and was impressive for its serious application. In addition to keeping the Mayor and Aldermen of Hull abreast of affairs in Westminster, we know that he operated in favour of religious toleration, and against the threat of an absolutist monarchy.

Then there is the life of the poet, and first of all some hard realities. It was known to the earlier biographers that Marvell, like other poets, for example Jonson and Cowley, died poor, even though they were all ‘incomparable’ poets: Marvell was considered alongside Milton, Cowley and Spenser as a flower of Cambridge. Two significant perspectives are opened up immediately. The first is that Marvell was compelled to be a servant for his entire adult life, and that anxieties about his personal and social status and identity were no doubt a consequence of this indubitable fact. He was sharply aware of his non-elite status,howsoever he was also sometimes called a gentleman (and sometimes mockingly so). He wrote to Sir Henry Thompson of ‘that duty of those in our station to doe right to any gentleman’.

He lived modestly, an adult lifetime of living largely in small rooms in inns and other people’s houses. Sir Henry Thompson for one was keen to help him by identifying a rich Puritan widow who would have given him substance. The other perspective is offered by the straightforward evidence that Marvell was acknowledged at an early stage, within five years of his death, two years after the publication of the Miscellaneous Poems, as one of the great (‘incomparable’) poets. From this point of view, the assumption that he had no reputation as a significant poet until much later is one more myth.

It will also become apparent in my book that Marvell was supremely aware of himself as a literary artist. For someone who was so self-consciously aware of the way in which others around him and just before him had sounded their own trumpets, proclaiming themselves latter-day Virgils, Ovids or Lucans, Marvell is remarkable for the degree to which he is able in his verse and his prose to speculate on his own career as a poet even while refusing the terms of aggrandizement claimed by his contemporaries. This even helps us tie his poetry to his political career. Among all the kinds of imitation and echoing of ancient and modern poets that he offered in his writing, he prized above all others Ovid and considered himself in some senses a version of the great Roman poet. But this aspect of literary and biographical self-consciousness was not all straightforward and involved negation. Jonson, Milton, Herrick, Cowley, D’Avenant and Katherine Philips all took pains to make their voices major, distinctive and above or beyond the tradition that had formed them.

Marvell is a poet who denied this sense of poetic egotism by a form of studiedvimitation (echoing all of the people named above and many more) but who nonetheless made a virtue and indeed a highly creative resource of being other men’s (and women’s) mirrors. Interestingly Thompson saw this, although he chose to relate it to Marvell’s ethical excellence: ‘as men are more or less mirrours to each other, such was Mr Marvel to the world, that all men might so clearly discern perfection in him, as to dress, and even ornament themselves, by so compleat a pattern’.

And personality? We have evidence of a very hot temper, of someone who did not suffer fools gladly and who seems to have reacted with excessive violence or agitation when frustrated. Contemporaries, albeit hostile critics, saw a man with a sneer. He enjoyed snide laughter at those who deserved to be treated with contempt. This may well have been part of his psychological make-up, although there are plenty of things that would have given him cause for jealousy and frustration. He spoke of the closeness in expression between a smile and a frown, saying that there is so little difference between them, and he appeared to know the complicated and unpleasant psychology behind that closeness. One hostile contemporary portrayed him as an androgynous personality, perhaps a literal physical one too.35 If he had a sneer it was a very civilized one, and the energy of its probing intelligence and judgement runs through The Rehearsal Transpros’d even as Marvell depicts his enemies as crazed animals. His ability to see himself in others and them in him is startling, and that is as true for Samuel Parker as it was for his far less deadly enemy Richard Flecknoe. If all men were mirrors of each other, this was a device for revealing darkness as much as light.

Underneath his defence of toleration and his discussion of the relationship between liberty and necessity, Marvell names the savage within us all. Many of his friends as well as his adversaries made substantial fortunes; Marvell made very little money and remained in debt in the closing years of his life. He had plenty of cause to be resentful, and resentment may well have built up in his personality however much he tried to dispel it. A good deal of adversity that prevented him from ‘getting on in life’ culminated in a perpetual frustration. He was bitterly aware of those less talented people who had surpassed him, and whose principles he found repellent. Or was his taciturn nature and caution, read by most people as a lack of charm, a further compounding reason for his neglect and slow progress? He was obstinate and stubborn, in certain circumstances sly. This is evident in the accounts of his tactless behaviour as a diplomat. His hopes for a diplomatic career were high, but we cannot be too surprised that he was not rewarded in this way. All in all, his temperament was far better suited to being a spy, which he evidently was for several periods in his life.

The speculation based on the poetry, that Marvell was open to many configurations of sexual relationship that evaded most of his contemporaries, or that evaded their ability to write about them, demands our attention. In this field of strongly heterosexual poetry, Marvell stands out for his ability to express male-male, female-female and young-old relationships: any permutation you like, but not what we normally expect. Was he then so disposed that he himself stood outside the heterosexual norm? And is this an aspect of himself that is part of his silence and his secrecy? For answers to these questions, you will certainly have to read on.

There are psychological and social dimensions to his character that also merit further consideration. Was the quality of his torment, the source of his anger, the peculiar way in which the benefits of patriarchy were lost to him: first through the death of his father, then his own failure to progenerate? Was he a Tristram Shandy of the seventeenth century, even (to believe one of the sources) an emasculated man, an effective eunuch, unable to participate in the relationships between men and women and the making of families, and so forced either to console himself in conversation with his talented nephew, or to confront his own uselessness in the species, living a life to no purpose?

This book is an uncovering of the covering up of Marvell’s life that has taken place. It is an assembly of the documentary materials and acts of interpretation that constitute Marvell’s biography, and an explanation of how an East Yorkshire vicar’s son became the most effective political and religious satirist of his day, one of the greatest lyrical and political poets in the English language, and in his time one of the most advanced thinkers in respect of toleration and free thinking. In both poetry and the theory of toleration Marvell was a mould-breaker, remaking categories on the eve of modernity in poetry, religion and politics. For this reason, his life and his writing are worthy of anyone’s attention today: they address serious matters in today’s world of shifting values and encroachments on personal and civil liberty. The world is suffering the consequences of a financial crisis that has its origins, it is alleged, in the greed of those who operate the financial system; today, improperly equipped soldiers fall in battle on distant plains while politicians corruptly reap financial benefits from the taxpayer. Marvell would have understood all of these matters with innate wisdom, and his writings still address them. But it is the way he found revelation of the personal and connected it with the public that is so unusual and so instructive.

Nigel Smith

Nigel Smith

Nigel Smith is Professor of English and Chair of the Committee for Renaissance Studies at Princeton University. A leading expert on Andrew Marvell as well as on the political literature of the Civil War and Interregnum, he has published widely on the seventeenth century. He brought out the Longman Annotated edition of Marvell’s poetry, and is the author of Literature and Revolution (published by Yale) and Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?.

Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon is out now in paperback from Yale.

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