Earlier this year on 24 January, I rose early in Swine, a village with a Norman church on the north east side of Hull, and ran down the track of the disused railway line running out from Hull toward the North Sea at Hornsea. Out into Marvell country. I had come to Marvell’s hometown (as it was to him; now it is a city) of Kingston upon Hull to give a lecture about him at the University, where I was an undergraduate now sadly more than thirty years ago. I ran across that flat landscape, across a field and a big drainage ditch, on a grey but dry morning past a man out walking his dog. ‘’Aller’, he said in the local accent (think ‘ter’ for ‘toe’; ‘boek’ for ‘book’). Years later that extraordinarily big East Yorkshire sky and the flat land extending as a plate to the sea still humbles me, and I’m sure Marvell thought much on it (if less drained in his time) as did his poet-successor Philip Larkin: the River Humber “Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.” After the talk, I was taken to a local restaurant near to where I had once owned a small house with some friends: it costs all of £900 in 1978. The company was great; the food reassuringly and diabolically bad.
At the next annual meeting of the AMS, during the SCRC gathering in New Orleans, 8-10 March, 2012, I shall step down from my two years as President of AMS. Where has AMS come in that time? The society has managed to establish itself quite steadily and determinedly with increasing solidity. Slightly more members have come to the gathering at SCRC: we are no longer quite in the position where nearly every member is also a society officer – not quite there anyway. And we have begun a presence at the annual conference of the Renaissance Society of America; we managed one session at the meeting in Montreal last March: the speakers were Nicholas McDowell, Nicholas von Maltzahn and Gordon Teskey. The medium-sized room was full and a fruitful discussion followed some very lively and intelligent papers. I was able to pass on to George Klawitter a long list of people interested in joining AMS. I thank all those who have given papers at the conferences, and those willing to be officers.
During this time too it has been possible to observe the growth of Marvell studies. It’s often said that this last decade has seen a flowering of critical interest in Marvell in the wake of the new editions of the poetry and the prose (the first ever properly annotated edition of the prose), and a first rate chronology, although there was surely a strong collection of work before that, some books being reissued in revised form in this last period, notably Annabel Patterson’s Marvell: The Writer in Public Life (2000). We’ve also seen some important critical, historical and scholarly statements, some of which began life before the editions, such as David Norbrook’s Writing the English Republic (1999) and Blair Worden’s Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England (2007).
The best thing that substantial statements of scholarship can hope to do is inspire more valuable work. That’s why it has been so rewarding to hear at AMS/SCRC so many fine papers at the last few conferences: for instance, and just a few examples, Tim Raylor’s fascinating and important discussion of Marvell’s dialogues as probable song lyrics, Emma Wilson’s interrogation of the role of logic in Marvell’s verse, George Klawitter’s different disquisitions on the matter of sexuality in Marvell’s lyrics, Martin Dzelzainis’s illuminating discussion of the textual, political and geographical complexity of Marvell’s relationship with the Second Duke of Buckingham, and the St. Louis conference was treated to a preview of Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker’s important interrogation of the passions in Marvell’s poetry in the light of his life of service, with its claims of necessary secrecy and limited or encoded disclosure.
The attention to Marvell doesn’t stop for me at AMS. I wrote last year after an Oxford conference on Marvell and London that I ran with Diane Purkiss. We hosted in Princeton this last June a mirror conference. Diane Purkiss led a team from Oxford (including Johanna Harris and Tom Roebuck) working on Marvell and manuscript sources; in addition to reconsidering Bod., MS. Eng. poet d. 49, papers explored Marvell’s Latin MS poetry (with some new texts and attributions) and Marvell’s relationship, partly known through letters within the nonconformist and country party circles of Sir Edward Harley. Nicholas von Maltzahn gave a typically superb lecture exploring the implications of Marvell’s particular form of handwriting, not least as it related to his career as a secretary. Just as significant was a powerful discussion by John Marshall of Marvell’s ideas of toleration in the context of late 17th-century political thought: it will be important in the future for more historians to work on Marvell, and here was a fine and welcome example. Michael Komorowski and Chris Orchard added property and colonial economy to the categories of analysis in discussions of “An Horatian Ode,” while there were plenty of lively discussions compassing psychoanalysis, jealousy, mourning, the relationship between dissonance and dissent, the meaning of stasis in the poetry, fruit in Marvell and Milton, Marvell’s sophisticated use of Mennippean satire, Marvell’s use of medieval north country texts to refashion an understanding of death in his own time, and the intriguing matter of apparent dialogue between Marvell’s verse and that of several mid-17th-century female poets. Giulio Pertile broke new ground in showing how extensively indebted Marvell was to the French poet Théophile de Viau, and also Viau’s notorious materialist philosopher guide Julius Caesar Vanini. Others have seen Viau’s presence in Marvell, but not to the extent and quality of a deep and melancholic view of nature, plausibly underpinned by the “dangerous atheism” of Vanini, whose follower he was.
From this material, the Oxford team led by Diane Purkiss will be forming one of the seminar sessions at RCA, as announced by Joan Faust in the last newsletter, while Pertile will form one member of another panel on Marvell that will also feature Nicholas McDowell on Marvell’s sense of allegiance in Cromwellian England.
All of this activity is evidently producing new, valuable and eventually published work. It also enables many newer members of the academic profession with an interest in Marvell to meet and exchange ideas. Next 24-29 June I intend to do something similar on the topic of Marvell’s lyric and public poetry, leading a Mellon-funded week-long seminar at the National Humanities Center, “Open to scholars who have received a Ph.D. within the last ten years and who teach in departments of literature or other relevant disciplines at colleges or universities in the United States, the seminars will concentrate on the detailed analysis of literary texts.”
I step down from the presiding officer at AMS to preside instead next year at the Milton Society of America, and to continue to organize a conference at Princeton in August 2013, my main task as president of the International John Bunyan Society. Shakespeare aside, keeping the name of any great author alive takes effort. In AMS, I think we’ve proved what can be achieved.
Last but not least I would like to acknowledge the great effort and character of George Klawitter in AMS. George will retire from St. Edward’s University at the end of this summer after decades of fruitful service and will move closer to his family in Indiana, and to some part-time teaching. Without his persistence AMS simply would not be. On behalf of AMS I would like to offer George warm congratulations on such redoubtable and outstanding service over many years. We all much look forward too to seeing and hearing George in the work of AMS in the future.
14 December 2011