Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Marvell's Critical Reception
The history of Marvell's critical reception is one of shifting focus and sharp reversal. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Marvell's reputation was that of a major statesman but a minor poet. He was lauded as an upright politician, and his name became synonymous with disinterested patriotism. His poetry, when it was considered at all, was judged to be admirable but of secondary importance to his public career. In the twentieth century, Marvell's lyric poetry has come to be seen in an entirely new light, largely due to a pivotal essay by T. S. Eliot in 1921. Eliot emphasized for the first time Marvell's metaphysical wit, the recognition of which has both enlarged and redefined subsequent critical thought. Poems once considered simple and straightforward have been reinterpreted in light of their evident ambiguities. Many critics believe that the ambiguities are far more than clever devices and that Marvell's recurring themes exemplify the nature of ambiguity itself. Indeed, such critics claim that underlying all of Marvell's poetry is a unifying and omnipresent concern with a central ambiguity, the tension and duality of opposites, and that this is most often and most successfully expressed through his treatment of the duality of the body and the soul, the temporal and the divine. The dualities of mind and emotion, action and contemplation, and conventionality and nonconformity are secondary, yet related, thematic oppositions that commentators have also observed in Marvell's poetry. All these tensions, critics have noted, place the poems in a fundamentally spiritual or moral context, as each involves opposing human attributes or choices. Likewise, such political poems as "An Horatian Ode" and "Upon Appleton House" have prompted much critical debate due to their ambiguity. As Raman Selden writes, "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' has proved to be perhaps the most controversial of all seventeenth-century lyric poems." He goes on to say that "most critics … have treated the 'Ode' either as historical document or as autonomous artifact, and have been unable to discover a mode of interpretation which both restores its historical uniqueness and preserves its poetic integrity." The same statement could be mode of the critical response to the other Cromwell poems. However, of the political poems, "An Horatian Ode" has sparked the most controversy. Most critics interpret the poem as a gauge of Marvell's political stand and the degree of support he espoused for the Royalists and Puritans. Some scholars, however, have moved beyond this debate to question Marvell's contradictory tone and to explore how and why he creates contrasts in the poem. R. H. Syfret argues that the tone reflects the uncertainty of the age while Michael Wilding argues that Marvell wanted the reader to find the poem ambiguous and detached in order to sway the reader towards the side of the revolution. Critics agree that both the contradictory tension and thus the quality are abated in the subsequent Cromwell poems.