Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon

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The seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) is one of the most intriguing figures in English literature. A noted civil servant under Cromwell’s Protectorate, he has been variously identified as a patriot, spy, conspirator, concealed homosexual, father to the liberal tradition, and incendiary satirical pamphleteer and freethinker. But while Marvell’s poetry and prose has attracted a wide modern following, his prose is known only to specialists, and much of his ...

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Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon

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Overview

The seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) is one of the most intriguing figures in English literature. A noted civil servant under Cromwell’s Protectorate, he has been variously identified as a patriot, spy, conspirator, concealed homosexual, father to the liberal tradition, and incendiary satirical pamphleteer and freethinker. But while Marvell’s poetry and prose has attracted a wide modern following, his prose is known only to specialists, and much of his personal life remains shrouded in mystery.

Nigel Smith’s pivotal biography provides an unparalleled look into Marvell’s life, from his early employment as a tutor and gentleman’s companion to his suspicious death, reputedly a politically fueled poisoning. Drawing on exhaustive archival research, the voluminous corpus of Marvell’s previously little known writing, and recent scholarship across several disciplines, Smith’s portrait becomes the definitive account of this elusive life.

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Editorial Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

"Superlative. . . the fullest portrait we have to date."--David Yezzi, The Wall Street Journal

— David Yezzi

The Washington Post

"Nigel Smith. . . has certainly mastered everything that can be learned about this elusive, shadowy and very private man."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

— Michael Dirda

The New York Times Book Review

"[A] worthy biography."—Megan Buskey, The New York Times Book Review

— Megan Buskey

The New Criterion

"He offers the fullest available account of Marvell''s political activities, fully contextualized. . . . [An] indispensible guide."—Paul Dean, The New Criterion

— Paul Dean

America

"Nigel Smith 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. . . . [Smith''s] is probably the most complete biography of Marvell we are likely to see."—Jerome Donnelly, America

— Jerome Donnelly

Bookforum

"[An] exhaustive, shrewd, wary new biography...Thepoet as craft chameleon in Smith''s smart and resonant readings is also the poet as skulking, threatened double agent."—Robert Polito, Bookforum

— Robert Polito

CHOICE

"It is an achievment of astonishing depth and equally impressive scope, covering a fascinating, complex period of English history. The book is must reading for early modern scholars."—M. Cole, CHOICE

— M. Cole

Library Journal
Writing during a period of great intellectual ferment and shifting political stresses that included the Civil Wars, Restoration, and Exclusion Crisis, English satirist and poet Andrew Marvell (1621–78) stood out among his contemporaries, including his friend and colleague John Milton. Like his successful peers, Marvell remained gainfully employed as a civil servant by deftly navigating the tumultuous political seas from Cromwell to Charles II, in the process becoming the "Chameleon." Drawing on an expansive knowledge of Marvell and his poetry, which he edited for the Longman edition, Smith (English, Princeton Univ.; Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?) skillfully places the sometimes enigmatic author's great poems, such as "To His Coy Mistress," "Upon Appleton House," and "An Horatian Ode," in proper historical context, providing readers with valuable insight into Marvell's intellectual milieu. VERDICT Meticulously researched and scholarly in tone, this noteworthy study provides a suitable balance of historical context and literary criticism. Strongly recommended for students and general readers of 17th-century English literature and history.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
Megan Buskey
Smith asks the right questions about Marvell's life and times, and he works assiduously in helping to lay "a new foundation of the documentary knowledge."
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
Nigel Smith…has certainly mastered everything that can be learned about this elusive, shadowy and very private man.
—The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal - David Yezzi

"Superlative. . . . The fullest portrait we have to date."—David Yezzi, The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

"Nigel Smith. . . has certainly mastered everything that can be learned about this elusive, shadowy and very private man."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
The New York Times Book Review - Megan Buskey

"[A] worthy biography."—Megan Buskey, The New York Times Book Review
The New Criterion - Paul Dean

"He offers the fullest available account of Marvell's political activities, fully contextualized. . . . [An] indispensible guide."—Paul Dean, The New Criterion
America - Jerome Donnelly

"Nigel Smith 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. . . . [Smith's] is probably the most complete biography of Marvell we are likely to see."—Jerome Donnelly, America
Barnes and Noble Review - Adam Kirsch

"Smith makes an excellent case for the enduring power of Marvell's occasional poems and satires."—Adam Kirsch, Barnes and Noble Review
Bookforum - Robert Polito

"[An] exhaustive, shrewd, wary new biography."—Robert Polito, Bookforum
CHOICE - M. Cole

"It is an achievment of astonishing depth and equally impressive scope, covering a fascinating, complex period of English history. The book is must reading for early modern scholars."—M. Cole, CHOICE
Books and Culture

“Insightful, provocative.”—Books and Culture
The Hudson Review - William H. Pritchard

"Nigel Smith's massive effort . . . obviates the need for any further such survey of Marvell's life and art . . . [Smith's] grasp of seventeenth-century English history, politics, religion, society, is beyond impressive, and he is also a sensitive reader of poetry."—William H. Pritchard, The Hudson Review
The Weekly Standard - Barton Swaim
“Nigel Smith… has now filled [a] void with this authoritative Life.”—Barton Swaim, The Weekly Standard
Huntington Library Quarterly - Curtis Whitaker

"Smith's meticulous archival research . . . allows a portrait of the young Marvell to form from relatively few life records. . . . Smith is able to identify relationships between [the political ideas of the prose and the depictions of love and sexuality in the lyric poems] in provocative ways."—Curtis Whitaker, Huntington Library Quarterly
Choice - Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the English and American category.

Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
“This context of danger, where revelations of identity can mean a beheading, permeates the poet’s literary as well as his political work, as this scholarly biography shows.”—Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
Biographers' Club - HW Fisher Best First Biography Prize Shortlist

Shortlisted for the 2011 HW Fisher Best First Biography Prize
Times Literary Supplement - Helen Hackett

"Smith delivers fresh insights into Marvell’s experiences and character…. a fascinating psychological portrait of Marvell."—Helen Hackett, Times Literary Supplement
Annabel Patterson

"From reclusive poet to undercover pamphleteer, Andrew Marvell has always been a mystery man. But nobody knows him better than Nigel Smith, who now follows his definitive edition of the poetry with an up-to-date and state-of-the-art biography."—Annabel Patterson, Yale University
David Norbrook

"The remarkable depth of Nigel Smith's research makes new sense of a celebratedly elusive writer."—David Norbrook, author of Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance
Gordon Teskey

‘Nigel Smith's definitive biography of Marvell is a gripping read, opening up a world of surprisingly intense interactions between poetry and politics in England's most turbulent modern century. Smith brilliantly illuminates the two sides of Marvell's poetical character--the engaged, parliamentary brawler and controversialist, and the weirdly detached observer of the world--but he also shows how the mysteriousness of Marvell's character resides at last in the very independence and privacy for which Marvell so publicly fought."—Gordon Teskey, Harvard University
Michael Wood

"Rich in detail and impeccably lucid, this remarkable study allows us to understand the subtle poet and elusive politician as we never have before. If Marvell was a mirror to the world, as one of the book's sources says, Nigel Smith is the perfect guide to the mirror and its world, master of the difficult art of looking-glass history."—Michael Wood, Princeton University
John Kerrigan

'The chameleon that emerges from this badly needed, deeply researched study is not just the subtle lyricist familiar from the anthologies but a vigorous verse satirist and an ambitious prose controversialist, whose views still resonate today. Historical sleuthing and literary analysis combine brilliantly in this landmark account - the fullest, most wide-angle picture of Marvell ever produced." —John Kerrigan, Professor of English 2000, University of Cambridge
Daily Telegraph - Nick Laird

"Engaging, intensely researched…. Smith is very good on the historical and political contexts surrounding Marvell…. Smith’s book is a welcome contribution to Marvell studies."—Nick Laird, Daily Telegraph
The Scotsman - Michael Kerrigan

"[An] illuminating study."—Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman
Literary Review - John Stubbs

"The result of Smith’s scholarly close readings is a refreshed and refined sense of Marvell’s poetry, and his biography should be a standard point of reference for future Marvellians."—John Stubbs, Literary Review
Review of English Studies Vol.62 No.256 - A.D Cousins
“Smith’s comprehensive study of Marvell’s many guises will influence critical thinking for years to come.”—A.D Cousins, Review of English Studies Vol.62 No.256
Contemporary Review

"A highly laudatory biography of the republican poet who praised regicides, hated Catholics and exposed in memorable verse corruption in those places he chose to investigate."—Contemporary Review
The Barnes & Noble Review

On the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Andrew Marvell's poems, the reader is greeted with a detail from a period portrait: an extreme close-up of an extreme décolletage, accented with a blooming pink rose. It is an image meant to seduce, and it confirms the widespread idea of Marvell as a poet of seduction. That idea is based, of course, on his most famous poem, the anthology piece "To His Coy Mistress," in which the speaker deploys every rhetorical trope in the arsenal of 17th-century poetry to get the woman he loves into bed:

Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song; then worms shall try That long-preserved virginity;
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

If you are used to thinking of Marvell as a poet of erotic sophistication, however, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon, the new scholarly biography by Nigel Smith, will come as a shock. Far from being a seducer, Marvell was "an outsider slightly outcast," "a frequently frustrated and disappointed person" given to "outbursts of anger." When his enemies attacked him -- and the political-literary discourse of 17th-century England makes our own look positively gentle -- they suggested that he was a eunuch, or that he had, in Smith's delicate paraphrase, suffered "genital damage in an unfortunate but obscure circumstance." Whether this had any basis in fact is, like many things about Marvell's life, impossible to know for sure -- it is not even certain whether he was married -- but Smith writes that the "most solid" evidence suggests that "Marvell liked being alone...he had few friends and generally did not trust people."

It is a grim picture; but trusting no one was probably a good policy in the dangerous world of seventeenth-century English politics. Though he is remembered today primarily as a poet, in his lifetime and long afterwards Marvell was best known as a political figure -- "a Whig patriot, hero of political liberty and religious toleration." After the execution of Charles I, in 1649, Marvell worked for the republican government of Oliver Cromwell, and his "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" is considered perhaps the greatest political poem in English. But when the monarchy was restored under Charles II, in 1660, Marvell made his way adeptly in the new regime, as well, serving as a Member of Parliament from 1661 until his death in 1678.

It was a time when poetry was a crucial part of politics and diplomacy, as Smith vividly shows. When Marvell took part in an embassy to Russia, he caused an international incident when he wrote a verse addressing the Tsar as "Illustrissime" (most illustrious) rather than "Serenissime" (most serene), the preferred adjective. Most of Smith's book, in fact, is devoted to Marvell's political poetry and prose; and while few non-specialist readers will have the appetite for the minute details of Marvell's career, Smith makes an excellent case for the enduring power of Marvell's occasional poems and satires. And if, at the end of the biography, Marvell remains a remote, unknowable figure, that is probably the way he would have wanted it. As he wrote in another masterpiece, "The Garden," "Two paradises 'twere in one/To live in paradise alone."

--Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300112214
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Nigel Smith is professor of English and codirector of the Center for the Study of Books and Media at Princeton University.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgements

Chapter 1 Introduction: The Problem of Andrew Marvell 1

Chapter 2 Roots 12

Chapter 3 A Decade of Crises 37

Chapter 4 Poetry and Revolution 64

Chapter 5 The Tutor 102

Chapter 6 Civil Service 136

Chapter 7 Cavalier Revenge 166

Chapter 8 The Painter and the Poet Dare 187

Chapter 9 Cabal Days 212

Chapter 10 Indulgence and Rehearsal 246

Chapter 11 Brute Divines 279

Chapter 12 Arbitrary Power 314

Chapter 13 Afterlife and Revelation 334

List of Abbreviations 344

Notes 346

Index 379

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