The greatest Marvell poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Andrew Marvell (1621-78) is widely regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the seventeenth century. His work is often associated with the Metaphysical Poets. But which are Marvell’s best poems? Below we’ve selected ten of Andrew Marvell’s most famous and popular poems and said a little bit about them. The title of each poem leads through to the text of the poem.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood …
As well as being a seduction lyric, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is also a carpe diem poem, which argues that we should ‘seize the day’ because life is short. Marvell, addressing his sweetheart, says that the woman’s reluctance to have sex with him would be fine, if life wasn’t so short. But such a plan is a fantasy, because in reality, our time on Earth is short. Marvell says that, in light of what he’s just said, the only sensible thing to do is to enjoy themselves and go to bed together – while they still can. The poem is famous for its enigmatic reference to the poet’s ‘vegetable love’ – which has, perhaps inevitably, been interpreted as a sexual innuendo.
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing …
It’s been speculated – by William Empson among others – that Andrew Marvell may have been gay, and the references to a ‘parallel’ love in this poem may be a coded way of suggesting, in seventeenth-century terms, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. Marvell announces that his love was born of despair – despair of knowing that the one he loved would never be his. Indeed, only Despair, rather than Hope, could have shown him what it was like to experience ‘divine’ love – in other words, the truly special love is that which is hopeless, because we know we cannot have the person we desire. Hopeless love often strikes us so much more powerfully than hopeful love where we think something may come of our desire.
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 …
In 1653, Andrew Marvell became tutor to William Dutton, 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, and Marvell appears to have written ‘Bermudas’ as a compliment to Oxenbridge and his new role. 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. Much of the rest of the poem comprises their song.
Within this sober Frame expect
Work of no Forrain Architect;
That unto Caves the Quarries drew,
And Forrests did to Pastures hew;
Who of his great Design in pain
Did for a Model vault his Brain,
Whose Columnes should so high be rais’d
To arch the Brows that on them gaz’d …
The longest poem on this list is ‘Upon Appleton House’, which is an example of a ‘country house poem’. Marvell wrote the poem for Thomas Fairfax, the father of the girl he was tutoring in the early 1650s, just after the end of the English Civil War, and the poem reflects many of the contemporary political issues of the mid-seventeenth century. ‘Appleton House’ is the Nun Appleton estate belonging to Fairfax in Yorkshire.
How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose …
This is one of Andrew Marvell’s most famous poems, and takes the form of a meditation in a garden; this setting has led critics to interpret the poem as a response to the original biblical garden, Eden, while other commentators have understood the poem as a meditation about sex, political ambition, and various other themes. Its celebrated lines about ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade’ are especially memorable and evocative.
‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’. As the title of the poem suggests, ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is spoken by a ‘mower’ (traditionally, one who cuts the grass with a scythe), who addresses the glow-worms lighting the mower’s way through the field. This was one of a series of ‘mower’ poems Marvell wrote. The mower praises the glow-worms for providing light, but laments the fact that their light is wasted because the speaker’s mind is not on the task of mowing the grass – his mind is distracted or ‘displac’d’ by thoughts of Juliana, the woman he loves.
When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
With many a piercing wound,
My Saviour’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to redress that wrong:
Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers),
Dismantling all the fragrant towers
That once adorned my shepherdess’s head …
Like much poetry written by the Metaphysical Poets, ‘The Coronet’ uses an extended metaphor – here, that of the crown, or garland, or ‘coronet’ – to discuss the poet’s attitude to Christ. The garland of flowers which the poem describes also serves as a metaphor for the poem itself: Andrew Marvell the poet is writing a poem about the act of making a garland, both acts of creativity, both designed to glorify God.
‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try …
So Marvell describes the execution of King Charles I in this fair and even-handed ode to Oliver Cromwell, which also praises the courage and fortitude of the doomed king, who had been executed the year before Marvell penned this poem. (Horatian odes are often marked by their emotional restraint.) The even-handedness with which Marvell views Cromwell and the recently deceased king in this poem can partly be attributed to Marvell’s Royalist sympathies, until as recently as the year before he wrote ‘An Horatian Ode’. This poem reflects Marvell’s evolving attitude towards Cromwell at this time.
Alas, how pleasant are their days
With whom the infant Love yet plays!
Sorted by pairs, they still are seen
By fountains cool, and shadows green.
But soon these flames do lose their light,
Like meteors of a summer’s night:
Nor can they to that region climb,
To make impression upon time …
Young love is fresh and exciting and keenly felt – but will that initial fervour and passion wear off? And what if one is left abandoned by love, and by one’s lover? This is the subject of this wonderful Andrew Marvell poem, which, like ‘The Definition of Love’, examines the less sanguine side of love.
‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’.
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart …
This angry and impassioned discussion (though it’s more of an argument) between the soul and the body sees the soul lamenting the fact that it must exist inside a body until the body dies; the body, since it will perish one day, despises the soul for giving it life in the first place.
Marvell’s poetry is witty, clever, thoughtful, but also powerful and memorable. We strongly recommend The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), which contains all of his poetry along with extensive notes. For more classic seventeenth-century poetry, check out our pick of Robert Herrick’s best poems, our analysis of this classic poem about prison from Richard Lovelace, and our selection of George Herbert’s finest religious poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (bottom): Glow-Worm – ‘Lampyris Noctiluca’ by David Evans via Flickr.
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To his Coy Mistress – “time’s winged chariot” – just one of the best!