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Idylls in the strict sense of the word are not remarkable for including a moral ; or if they do include one it may be said that it is generally bad, and is apt to defend the enjoyment of an hour against the conscience of centuries; but in “ Clorinda and Damon,” the woman is the tempter, and Damon is obdurate. She invites him to her cave, and describes its pleasures.
A fountain's liquid bell
Or slake its drought ?
What is't you mean ?
These once had been enticing things,
The other day
What did great Pan say? Da. Words that transcend poor shepherds' skill. This poem seems a distinct attempt to make of the sickly furniture of the idyll a vehicle for the teaching of religious truth. Is it fanciful to read in it a poetical rendering of the doctrine of conversion, the change that may come to a careless and sensuous nature by being suddenly brought face to face with the Divine light ? It might even refer to some religious experience of Marvell's own : Milton's "mighty Pan," typifying the Redeemer, is in all probability the original.
The work then on which Marvell's fame chiefly subsists—with the exception of one poem which
belongs to a different class, and will be discussed later, the Horatian Ode—may be said to belong to the regions of nature and feeling, and to have anticipated in a remarkable degree the minute observation of natural phenomena characteristic of a modern school, even to a certain straining after unusual, almost bizarre effects. The writers of that date, indeed, as Green points out, seem to have become suddenly and unaccountably modern, a fact which we are apt to overlook owing to the frigid reaction of the school of Pope. Whatever the faults of Marvell's poems may be, and they are patent to all, they have a strain of originality. He does not seem to imitate, he does not even follow the lines of other poets; never, -except in a scattered instance or two, where there is a faint echo of Milton,--does he recall or suggest that he has a master.
At the same time the lyrics are so short and slight that any criticism upon them is apt to take the form of a wish that the same hand had written more, and grown old in his art. There is a monotony, for instance, about their subjects, like the song of a bird, recurring again and again to the same phrase ; there is an uncertainty, an incompleteness not so much of expression as of arrangement, a tendency to diverge and digress. in an unconcerned and vagabond fashion. There are stanzas, even long passages, which a lover of proportion such as Gray (who excised one of the
most beautiful stanzas of the Elegy because it made too long a parenthesis) would never have spared. It is the work of a young man trying his wings, and though perhaps not flying quite directly and professionally to his end, revelling in the new-found powers with a delicious ecstasy which excuses what is vague and prolix; especially when over all is shed that subtle, precious quality which makes a sketch from one hand so unutterably more interesting than a finished picture from another, which will arrest with a few commonplace phrases, lightly touched by certain players, the attention which has wandered throughout a whole sonata.
The strength of Marvell's style lies in its unexpectedness. You are arrested by what has been well called a "pre-destined" epithet, not a mere otiose addition, but a word which turns a noun into a picture; the “hook-shouldered” hill “to abrupter greatness thrust,” “the sugar's uncorrupting oil," "the vigilant patrol of stars, " “the squatted thorns," "the oranges like golden lamps in a green night," "the garden's fragrant innocence,"—these are but a few random instances of a tendency that meets you in every poem. Marvell had in fact the qualities of a consummate artist, and only needed to repress his luxuriance and to confine his expansiveness. In hisown words,
Height with a certain grace doth bend,
Before passing on to discuss the satires I may be allowed to say a few words on a class of poems largely represented in Marvell's works, which may be generally called Panegyric.
Quite alone among these-indeed, it can be classed with no other poem in the languagestands the Horatian Ode on Cromwell's return from Ireland, Mr. Lowell said of it that as a testimony to Cromwell's character it was worth more than all Carlyle's biographies; he might without exaggeration have said as much of its literary qualities. It has force with grace, originality with charm, in almost every stanza. Perhaps the first quality that would strike a reader of it for the first time is its quaintness; but further study creates no reaction against this in the mind--the usual sequel to poems which depend on quaintness for effect. But when Mr. Lowell goes on to say that the poem shows the difference between grief that thinks of its object and grief that thinks of its rhymes (referring to Dryden), he is not so happy. The pre-eminent quality of the poem is its art; and its singular charm is the fact that it succeeds, in spite of being artificial, in moving and touching the springs of feeling in an extraordinary degree. It is a unique piece in the collection, the one instance where Marvell's undoubted genius burned steadily through a whole poem. Here he flies penna metuente solvi. It is in completeness more than
in quality that it is superior to all his other work, but in quality too it has that lurking divinity that cannot be analysed or imitated.
'Tis madness to resist or blame
And if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due
(As though his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,)
And cast the kingdoms old
Into another mould. This is the apotheosis of tyrants; it is the bloom of republicanism just flowering into despotism. But the Ode is no party utterance; the often-quoted lines on the death of Charles, in their grave yet passionate dignity, might have been written by the most ardent of Royalists, and have often done service on their side. But, indeed, the whole Ode is above party, and looks clearly into the heart and motives of man. It moves from end to end with the solemn beat of its singular metre, its majestic cadences, without self-consciousness or sentiment, austere, but not frigid.
Marvell's other panegyrics are but little known, though the awkward and ugly lines on Milton have passed into anthologies, owing to their magnificent exordium, “When I beheld the poet blind yet old.”