A reading of a classic Marvell poem
Fancy a voice to a tropical paradise? Andrew Marvell (1621-78) provides just the poem in ‘Bermudas’. Marvell is one of the most critically acclaimed and studied poets of the seventeenth century, and his work is often associated with the Metaphysical Poets. In this post we’re going to offer a brief summary and analysis of ‘Bermudas’, one of his finest poems, which is written in tetrameter rhyming couplets.
Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th’ocean’s bosom unespied,
From a small boat, that row’d along,
The list’ning winds receiv’d this song.
‘What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the wat’ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
Where he the huge sea-monsters wracks,
That lift the deep upon their backs,
He lands us on a grassy stage,
Safe from the storm’s and prelates’ rage.
He gave us this eternal spring
Which here enamels everything,
And sends the fowls to us in care,
On daily visits through the air.
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night;
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.
He makes the figs our mouths to meet
And throws the melons at our feet,
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
With cedars, chosen by his hand,
From Lebanon, he stores the land,
And makes the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore.
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel’s pearl upon our coast,
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple, where to sound his name.
Oh let our voice his praise exalt,
Till it arrive at heaven’s vault;
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Echo beyond the Mexique Bay.’
Thus sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
A brief summary of ‘Bermudas’ may be wise before we move to the fun stuff, namely the textual analysis. But even before we proceed to summarise the poem, a few words concerning the context of ‘Bermudas’ might be useful. In 1653, Andrew Marvell became tutor to William Dutton (who was a ward of Oliver Cromwell), and both Marvell and Dutton lodged with a man named John Oxenbridge at Eton. Oxenbridge had just been made a commissioner for the government of the Bermudas (now simply known as ‘Bermuda’, the island and British overseas territory in the North Atlantic), and Marvell appears to have written ‘Bermudas’ as a compliment to Oxenbridge and his new role.
To summarise the poem, then: Marvell’s narrator introduces and concludes the poem. At the beginning, he sets the scene: in the Atlantic ocean, a group of people aboard a boat, and clearly in exile from their native land, spy the Bermudas, and sing a song in praise of the island. The next 32 lines of the poem comprise their song. The people aboard the boat praise God for leading them to this previously undiscovered island, which seems ‘far kinder’ than the island they have left behind, namely Britain. These people have endured and eluded sea-monsters and storms, and God has led them to safety on the ‘grassy stage’ of this new island. It is mentioned that they are fleeing England because of ‘prelates’ rage’, namely religious persecution.
The delicious fruits found on this new island of Bermuda exceed in richness even those offered by Ormus, an exotic kingdom in Persia. The Bermudas are a tropical paradise containing everything they need to start a new life: good fruit to eat, ambergris washed ashore (the waxy secretion of the sperm whale, and often used in perfumes and to flavour food: Charles II’s favourite dish was reportedly ‘eggs with ambergris’), and even a naturally formed temple on the island which the new arrivals can use to sing God’s praises for leading them to the island. The poem ends, as it began, with the narrator addressing us, telling us that the cheery colonists then rowed towards the island, keeping time with the beating of their oars in the water.
How should we analyse and interpret this poem? ‘Bermudas’ is about European colonisation of the New World in the seventeenth century, but it also touches upon one of the reasons why many Europeans left the Old World for the New: religious persecution. This group of English travellers in their boat are fleeing ‘prelates’ rage’, just as the pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 were famously leaving England behind because of religious differences. Marvell’s reference to ‘prelates’ rage’ is probably in part a reference to Archbishop William Laud, King Charles I’s leading ‘prelate’, whose heavy-handed High Church reforms alienated many Protestants, especially the Puritans. (Although Marvell himself was not a Puritan, it may be significant that Laud had driven Oxenbridge out of his job as tutor at Magdalen Hall in Oxford in 1634; it was shortly after this that Oxenbridge appears to have left England for Bermuda, and he would only return to England in 1641.)
As with many of Andrew Marvell’s poems, we can detect in ‘Bermudas’ a remarkable sense of order and symmetry, extending even to the number of lines he uses. Marvell’s narrator ‘bookends’ the poem neatly and symmetrically with a four-line introduction preceding the song and a four-line conclusion following it; the song sung by the travellers in the boat makes up 32 lines, which as well as being a multiple of four (the length of each of the narrator’s two sections) is also four multiplied by eight, which is the number of syllables in each line of the poem. This evokes the orderliness and calm offered by God to the English travellers on their new home of the Bermudas, after enduring the disorder of storms, sea-monsters, and religious intolerance or ‘rage’. Even those ‘sea-monsters’ conjure up the Leviathan, that huge sea-monster from the Old Testament; Leviathan, curiously, was the title of a vast work of political philosophy by Thomas Hobbes, published in 1651, just two years before Marvell probably wrote ‘Bermudas’. In Leviathan, Hobbes addresses the disorder and dissent found in England in the wake of the Civil War, arguing that something must be done to restore order and peace to the land. This disordered and decidedly unpeaceful land is, of course, the one that the English travellers in Marvell’s boat are fleeing. The Bermudas promise to restore order and harmony to the travellers’ lives, and they seem well-matched for it: remember how the poem ends with them rowing for the shore in time with each other.
In short, ‘Bermudas’ is a fine poem that repays close analysis for the snapshot of a religious community rejoicing upon finding a new home. This idea of escaping a chaotic world of change and religious division can also be glimpsed in another Andrew Marvell poem, ‘The Garden’, which provides a productive point of comparison with ‘Bermudas’.
We strongly recommend The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), which contains all of his poetry along with extensive notes. For more discussion of Marvell’s poetry, see our analysis of his ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and our discussion of his ‘The Garden’.
Image: A beach in Bermuda (author unknown), 2001; Wikimedia Commons.