“Standing for Liberty”: Nigel Smith’s Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010
Nigel Smith’s Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon offers a fully imagined, painstakingly researched, and brilliant reading of Marvell’s life as a poet and political actor; the study is sure to transform Marvell studies for years to come. Smith’s narrative situates us imaginatively within the tumultuous seventeenth-century world of revolution and counter-revolution and will be of great interest not only to literary historians but also to historians of European political, religious, and intellectual history. Smith, following his own studies of radical movements in literature and politics, including Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (Yale 1994) and Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford 1989), presents us with a poet who fought imposed orthodoxy and the princely authority of prelates, publishing after the Restoration fiercely biting satires of state and church at considerable risk to himself, at times in open secret. Intimately familiar with the actors and their contexts, Smith writes as from within the historical moments he elucidates, concluding, “Marvell stands for liberty–liberty of the subject, liberty in the state, liberty of the self, liberty from political and personal tyrannies: the domination of the public self and the interior private consciousness” (343).
Smith weaves a rich historical tapestry, using as warp and woof letters, parliamentary records, the records of the Hull Company, Marvell’s poems, and a wide variety of primary documents. This book offers great and varied riches: a sympathetic unfolding of Marvell’s father’s “moderate” ministry in Hull, devoted to the service of the poor and at times in tension with episcopal authority; a plangent account of Marvell’s erotic elegy for Francis Villiers, Lord Buckingham, celebrating the Royalist hero while distancing himself from the hero’s cause; a narrative of Marvell’s encounter with a possible future self, the Roman Catholic poet Richard Flecknoe, in Rome; a description of Marvell’s likely experience of the Protestant Academy of Saumur, France, in which he witnessed tolerance among Protestants and Catholics and encountered the moderating theology of Amyraut; an analysis of Marvell’s service to Lord Fairfax and the contexts of “Upon Appleton House,” that “extraordinary, joy-giving poem” (98); a considered, complex analysis of the long friendship between Milton and Marvell; a delightful narrative of Marvell’s service to Charles II as part of an unsuccessful delegation to the Tsar of Russia, in which, despite his mastery of languages, Marvell’s characteristic choler appears to have been one among many impediments to the mission’s success; an unfolding of how the “Advice to a Painter” poems functioned as effective political subterfuge against Clarendon and his calamitously inept and corrupt government; titillating speculations about Marvell’s possible hand in helping bring William of Orange to the throne of Great Britain (282); and perhaps most interestingly, the historical and literary functions of the late verse and stage satire, in which we see the risky, skilled machinations of Marvell as he worked for liberty of conscience. Smith describes Marvell as “proto-Swiftian” (309) in his attacks on the bestial nature of “exclusive Christianity” and those who write and act in its defense (310). Smith’s careful, detailed accounts of the debates between Marvell and Samuel Parker, then chaplain to the Bishop of London, are particularly illuminating: we hear clearly the arrogant zeal of powerful voices in the Established Church as well as Marvell’s own mordant wit and voice.
The final chapter of the study, “Afterlife and Revelations,” offers a series of useful final questions. Was Marvell a private, angry, frustrated person, most at ease in his own company and distrustful of others, self-effacing and invisible in his poems, anxious about his failure to marry (or did he marry?) and have children and take his place in the social world, angry at having been failed by causes and people? “The poet is always a shadow of the object of praise,” Smith concludes, “be it the hero Oliver Cromwell or Mary Fairfax. The poet is the invisible opposite of these centres of charisma, and often Marvell confesses that it is the hero who is the real poet” (339). In his “brilliant sublimation” of frustrated energies, Smith asserts, Marvell “deconstructs the very bases of heterosexuality and patriarchalism alike” becoming, perhaps, “a freethinking proto-deist” (342). Smith gives us a hero of the freedoms of conscience and speech, a model of civically engaged, purposeful skepticism, and a maker of poems of great intelligence, nuance, and beauty. Smith’s study paves the way for developed, careful readings of Marvell’s poems in their political and social contexts and fields of meaning.