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pecker, the shrill insistence of the grasshopper's. dry note, the luscious content of the drowsy, croaking frogs, the musical sweep of the scythe through the falling swathe ; all these are the work of no town-bred scholar like Milton, whose country poems are rather visions seen through the eyes of other poets, or written as a man might transcribe the vague and inaccurate emotions of a landscape drawn by some old uncertain hand and dimmed by smoke and time. Of course Milton's Il Penseroso and L'Allegro have far more value even as country poems than hundreds of more literal transcripts. From a literary point of view indeed the juxtapositions of half a dozen epithets alone would prove the genius of the writer. But there are no sharp outlines ; the scholar pauses in his walk to peer across the watered flat, or raises his eyes from his book to see the quiver of leaves upon the sunlit wall; he notes an effect it may be ; but his images do not come like treasures lavished from a secret storehouse of memory.
With Andrew Marvell it is different, though we will show by instances that even his observation was sometimes at fault. Where or when this passion came to him we cannot tell ; whether in the great walled garden at the back of the old school-house at Hull, where his boyish years were spent ; at Cambridge, where the oozy streams lapped and green fens crawled
almost into the heart of the town, where snipe were shot and wild-duck snared on the site of some of its now populous streets ; at Meldreth perhaps, where doubtless some antique kindred lingered at the old manor house that still bears his patronymic, “the Marvells."—Wherever it was,--and such tastes are rarely formed in later years the delicate observation of the minute philosopher, side by side with the art of intimate expression, grew and bloomed.
We see a trace of that leaning nature, the trailing dependence of the uneasy will of which we have already spoken, in a story of his early years. The keen-eyed boy, with his fresh colour and waving brown hair, was thrown on the tumultuous world of Cambridge, it seems, before he was thirteen years of age ; a strange medley no doubt,-its rough publicity alone saving it, as with a dash of healthy freshness, from the effeminacy and sentimentalism apt to breed in more sheltered societies. The details of the story vary; but the boy certainly fell into the hands of Jesuits, who finally induced him to abscond to one of their retreats in London, where, over a bookseller's shop, after a long and weary search, his father found him and persuaded him to return. Laborious Dr. Grosart has extracted from the Hull Records a most curious letter relating to this incident, in which a man whose son has been inveigled away in
similar circumstances, asks for advice from Andrew Marvell's father.
Such an escapade belongs to a mind that must have been ardent and daring beyond its fellows; but it also shows a somewhat shifting foundation, an imagination easily dazzled, and a pliability of will that cost us, we may believe, a poet. After Cambridge came some years of travel, which afforded material for some of his poems, such as the satire on Holland, of which the cleverness is still apparent, though its elaborate coarseness and pedantic humour make it poor pasture to feed the mind upon.
But the period to which we owe almost all the true gold among his poems, is the two years which he spent at Nunappleton House, 1650–1652, as tutor to the daughter of the great Lord Fairfax, the little Lady Mary Fairfax, then twelve years old. Marvell was at this time twenty-nine; and that exquisite relation which may exist between a grown man, pure in heart, and a young girl, when disparity of fortune and circumstance forbids all thought of marriage, seems to have been the mainspring of his song. Such a relation is half tenderness which dissembles its passion, and half worship which laughs itself away in easy phrases. The lyric“Young Love,” which indubitably though not confessedly refers to Mary Fairfax, is one of the sweetest poems of pure feeling in the language.
Common beauties stay fifteen ;
Such as yours should swifter move,
Yet for lust, but not for love.
Or the wanton kid, doth prize
For his morning sacrifice.
Thee before thy time away ;
And learn love before we may.
It is delightful in this connection to think of the signet-ring with the device of a fawn,—which he used in early life and may still be seen on his papers, -as a gift of his little pupil, earned doubtless by his poem on the Dying Fawn, which is certainly an episode of Lady Mary's childhood.
In this group of early poems, which are worth all the rest of Marvell's work put together, several strains predominate. In the first place there is a close observation of Nature, even a grotesque transcription, with which we are too often accustomed only to credit later writers. For instance, in “ Damon the Mower" he writes :
The grasshopper its pipe gives o'er,
The second line of this we take to refer to the condition to which frogs are sometimes reduced
in a season of extreme drought, when the pools are dry. Marvell must have seen a frog with his thighs drawn and contracted from lack of moisture making his way slowly through the grass in search of a refreshing swamp; this is certainly minute observation, as the phenomenon is a rare
Again, such a delicate couplet as,
And through the hazels thick espy
is not the work of a scholar who walks a country road, but of a man who will push his way into the copses in early spring, and has watched with delight the timorous eye and the upturned beak of the thrush sunk in her nest. Or again, speaking of the dwindled summer stream running so perilously clear after weeks of drought that the fish are languid :
The stupid fishes hang, as plain
Or of the hayfield roughly mown, into which the herd has been turned to graze :
And what below the scythe increast,
The mower's work, begun and ended with the dews, in all its charming monotony, seems to have had a peculiar attraction for Marvell; he recurs to it in more than one poem.