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Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell

Poet, politician, civil servant and satirist, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) led a vibrant, accomplished life that scholars and historians know relatively little about. Both a sympathizer of the British royal family and a member of the government that usurped them, Marvell himself is an example of the transitional nature of English society during the 17th century. Marvell is now one of the most famous poets of his time, specifically for his metaphysical and lyric poetry. However, Marvell published very little of his satirical commentary or lyric verse in his own lifetime. Many scholars think he was worried that his critical satires would polarize his political rivals and lead to his death. Most of his well-known poems were published in 1681, three years after his death.

Metaphysical poetry: poetry that addresses personal and intellectual complexities, using devices such as conceits (unique extended metaphors), contradictions, and ambiguities.

Lyric poetry: poetry that has a musical quality and reveals the speaker's most intimate thoughts and feelings

Andrew Marvell biography

Andrew Marvell was born in 1621 and grew up in the Yorkshire town of Hull, England. His father was a clergyman and was appointed Lecturer at Holy Trinity Church and master of the Charterhouse when Marvell was three. Marvell went to grammar school in Hull and started at Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of twelve. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1639 at the age of 18 and stayed on at Trinity presumably to complete his master's. After his father drowned in 1641, however, Marvell left school and abandoned his studies.

Andrew Marvell, Trinity College Cambridge, StudySmarter

Marvell went to college at Trinity College in Cambridge and had his first two poems published in an anthology of Cambridge poets, pixabay

Marvell's first published poems, one in Latin and one in Greek, were included in a 1637 anthology of Cambridge poets. In one of the poems, Marvell honored the birth of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria's fifth child. This poem, along with his later laments of regicide, or the killing of a king, position him as a royalist sympathizer.

Marvell's activities in the 1640s and 1650s are not very well documented, leading scholars to speculate about this period of his life. Sometime in the 1640s, Marvell travelled the European continent extensively, learning Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian. In the 1650s, scholars believe Marvell worked as a tutor for the children of wealthy nobles. There is speculation that it was during this time that Marvell became acquainted and found favor with Oliver Cromwell, the English general who usurped King Charles I in the English Civil War. Interestingly, Marvell seemed to have escaped the English Civil War entirely.

The English Civil War was from 1642–1651. It was between the supporters of the monarchy (King Charles I and his son Charles II) and opposing factions throughout his kingdoms. Oliver Cromwell led parliamentary forces against the king and overthrew the Stuart monarchy in 1649. He assumed leadership of the country as Lord Protector from 1653-1658.

After Oliver Cromwell died, his son attempted to maintain power in England, Ireland, and Scotland. He failed to do so and fled the country, paving the way for the Restoration in 1660. During the Restoration, Charles II reclaimed the throne for the House of Stuart and reinstated the monarchy. Many of those who had helped to overthrow King Charles I were imprisoned.

Andrew Marvell, a statue of  Oliver Cromwell, StudySmarter

Marvell was a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, who served in a government post as Lord Protector, pixabay.

In 1657, poet and civil servant John Milton secured Marvell a government post as his Latin secretary. Marvell held that position until 1659, when he was elected a member of Parliament for Hull. When Cromwell died in 1658, Marvell's poetry seemed to hint that his allegiance was with Cromwell's son, Richard. However, when Richard Cromwell's succession was unsuccessful and he fled the country, Marvell helped restore Charles II to the throne his family had lost during the Civil War in the Restoration. Marvell used his political position during the Restoration to save Milton, who had been jailed due to his role in usurping Charles I.

Marvell made two diplomatic journeys in his early career in Parliament: one to Holland (1662-1663) and one to Russia, Sweden, and Denmark (1663-1665). After these journeys, he generally stayed in London, where he became increasingly disillusioned with Charles II's reign. He wrote scathing political satires about both factions, critiquing both the court and Parliament. The majority of his work was not published until his nephew found a publisher for Miscellaneous Poems in 1681.

Marvell suddenly died in 1678, most scholars think due to fever. Gossip at the time suggested that the Jesuits, whom Marvell had attacked in his satires, poisoned him. He is buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields, also known as the Poets' Church, in the West End of London.

Andrew Marvell's writing style

Marvell is known as a metaphysical poet, meaning that his work is full of philosophical explorations and ingenious conceits that build over the lines of his poems. For example, the speaker in 'To His Coy Mistress' philosophizes about the passage of time in relation to sexuality, building his argument that he and his mistress should have sex as a way to escape time. Marvell creates complex discussions on various topics such as satire, political events, and abstract ideas like love, as he builds metaphors, allusions, and allegorical interpretations. Most of his poetry directly contradicts itself, (consider the oxymoron "Magnanimous Despair in 'The Definition of Love') showcasing the complexities and contradictions within human beings themselves.

Conceit: a unique, creative extended metaphor that compares two very dissimilar things

Many of Marvell's poems were lyric poems, which have songlike qualities and are used to express the speaker's more intimate thoughts and emotions. Can you find an example of lyricism in 'To His Coy Mistress'?

Andrew Marvell's poems

Most of Marvell's most famous poems, including 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'The Definition of Love' were published in 1681, three years after his death. His poetry examines the complexities inherent in love, time, and outside influences to portray his most common themes like life and death, time is transient, and youth and sexuality in the 17th century.

'To His Coy Mistress' (1681)

'To His Coy Mistress' was most likely written during the English Interregnum in the 1650s, although it was not published until three years after Marvell's death in 1681. The poem is a carpe diem style poem, celebrating sexuality, youth, and life.

The speaker essentially tells his "coy mistress," the woman that he is courting who pretends to be shy and reserved as a means of flirtation, that time passes quickly and they will both succumb to death, so they might as well give in to their sexual passions now. The speaker assures her that if they had an eternity to love one another he would be fine with taking things slowly and adoring every part of her. She deserves that commitment and love, and he wants to give it to her. But he also knows that time is fleeting and before long they will lose their youth, their passion, and their lives. He argues that her virginity will only be taken by the worms, so they should capitalize on their youth and have sex now. He ends the poem by stating that they will never be able to stop time, but they can make it work for them. Themes in this poem are life and death, time is transient, and youth and sexuality.

Andrew Marvell, Connection, StudySmarter

The speaker argues that time passes quickly, so he and his lover should make the most of their passion before they're dead, pixabay.

'The Definition of Love' (1681)

Unlike the love poem 'To His Coy Mistress', the tone of 'The Definition of Love' is mournful and dejected. In this poem, the speaker asserts that his love was born of despair, making it a rare type of love. It was born of despair because their love is impossible—they will never be together. Although they are perfect for each other in every way, Fate personified keeps intervening and keeping them from one another. The definition of love, thus, defines the most special kind of love as that which is definite or hopeless from the beginning. Knowing that he can never be with his love causes the speaker "‘Magnanimous Despair." His love is all the more beautiful and divine because it is unattainable. The themes in this poem include love and fate.

Andrew Marvell: Quotes

Marvell's quotes depict many of the themes present in his poetry, such as time, beauty, and life. His most famous quotes, naturally, come from his most well-known poem 'To His Coy Mistress.'

Thus, though we cannot make our sunStand still, yet we will make him run.”

The final couplet in 'To His Coy Mistress' centers around time and the control humans have over their lives. The speaker implies that denying themselves the pleasure of their sexual passion for one another will only waste time as they run from what they both want. But seizing the moment and giving in to their sexuality, instead of protecting their virginity to maintain society's expectations, will give them control over their lives and over time itself.

But at my back I always hearTime’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”

Just like the previous quote, this one is taken from 'His Coy Mistress,' and it's also centered around the idea of time. He uses this quote to show how aware he is of his own mortality. So, as he argues above, they need to make the most of what they do have, while they still have it.

Gather the flowers, but spare the buds;"

The quote is taken from 'The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers' (1681). It subtlety depicts Marvell's themes of beauty, purity, and life. In the poem, the speaker is watching a beautiful young girl in a garden full of flowers. He speaks to her purity and warns her to only pick flowers, not buds. The buds have not yet had a chance to bloom, so they are not fully realized flowers, similarly to her who is in the process of blooming into a young lady. By sparing the buds, the girl avoids being punished by Flora, the goddess of flowers, who might "nip" (read: kill) the girl for nipping her flowers. If life is allowed to flourish without being messed with, it will bloom into something beautiful. But if it is meddled with before it has a chance to bloom, it will never reach its full potential.

 Andrew Marvell, pink flowers, StudySmarter

The speaker tells the young girl to pick the fully bloomed flowers but not the buds so they, too, have a chance to blossom to their full potential, pixabay.

Andrew Marvell - Key takeaways

  • Andrew Marvell was an English poet and politician born in 1621.
  • His poetry is now known for its metaphysical and lyrical properties.
  • In Marvell's own day, he was more famous as a political figure than as a poet. Most of his poetry wasn't published until 1681, three years after his death.
  • He was a great example of the transitional state of England in the 17th century personified: he was at one point a royalist sympathizer, at other times a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, and later a supporter of Charles II reclaiming his father's throne.
  • Marvell's most famous poems are 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'The Definition of Love.'
  • His quotes display his common themes of time, life, youth, beauty, and love.

Frequently Asked Questions about Andrew Marvell

Marvell is known as one of the best metaphysical poets.

In his lifetime, Marvell was known more for his political position than for his poetry. He was a member of Parliament for Hull. 

He wrote metaphysical and lyric poetry as well as satires. 

Marvell's work falls under the Renaissance movement, most specifically the Late Renaissance (1625-1660).

Marvell was a 17th century English political and poet. 

Final Andrew Marvell Quiz

Question

Who was Andrew Marvell? 

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Answer

Andrew Marvell was an English poet, satirist, civil servant, and politician in the 17th century. 

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Why was Andrew Marvell famous? 

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Answer

In his own time, Marvell was known for being a member of Parliament, representing Hull. He did not publish much of his poetry in his lifetime. Today, Marvell is famous for his metaphysical and lyrical poems such as 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'The Definition of Love.'

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What was Marvell's educational background? 

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His father was a clergyman and his main educational support system. He sent him to grammar school and then, at the age of twelve, to Trinity College in Cambridge. He got his bachelor's and was presumably working towards his master's when his father died and he dropped out. 

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What was Marvell doing during the English Civil War? 

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Much of Marvell's whereabouts during the 1640s and 50s are unknown. Scholars do know that he travelled the European continent at one point in the 40s, but other than that most scholars rely on speculation. Marvell seemed to avoid the Civil War entirely. 

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What were Marvell's political views like? 

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? Owing to a poem he wrote honoring the king and queen and his lament of regicide, Marvell is sometimes viewed as a royalist sympathizer. But he also wrote poetry praising Oliver Cromwell, who held a government position during his time as Lord Protector. After Cromwell, he supported Charles II's assumption of the throne. So Marvell is a really complex, dynamic figure."

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How did Marvell contributing to shifting power dynamics after the English Civil War? 

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He was a member of Parliament that backed Charles II reclaiming his father's throne. He also used his political power to free his friends like John Milton from prison. And he wrote political satires about both factions (though those were either published anonymously or posthumously). 

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What kind of poetry is Marvell most known for? 

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Today, Marvell is known for his satires as well as his metaphysical and lyrical poetry. All three enabled him to reflect on his complex feelings regarding politics, relationships, and the world around him. 

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What are Marvell's most famous poems?

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His most famous poems are 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'The Definition of Love.'

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What are the major themes of Marvell's work? 

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He examines themes of life, time, youth, beauty, and love. 

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Where do Marvell's most famous quotes come from? 

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His quotes are often taken directly from his poetry. His most famous quotes, by far, are from 'To His Coy Mistress,' regarding the passage of time and the idea of carpe diem. 

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Who wrote 'To His Coy Mistress'? 

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'To His Coy Mistress' was written by English poet and politician Andrew Marvell. It was published in 1681. 

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What is the historical background of 'To His Coy Mistress'? 

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'To His Coy Mistress' was most likely written during the 1650s when England was experiencing major social and political changes with the aftermath of the English Civil War. Somehow Marvell seems to have avoided the war completely. Interesting, there are no allusions to the war in 'To His Coy Mistress' except for a passing reference to colonialism with the mention of a river in India and rubies. 

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What is the personal background behind 'To His Coy Mistress'? 

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Marvell wrote several love poems, but there's no solid evidence that he was ever married. His housekeeper claimed they married in secret years before his death, but there was never any evidence to support her claim. 

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What is 'To His Coy Mistress' about? 

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The speaker attempts to convince the woman he has been courting to have sex with him. He uses their inevitable death as justification for them to enjoy their lives. 

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Who is the antagonist in 'To His Coy Mistress' and how does the speaker overcome his adversary? 

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Time itself is the antagonist in the poem. The speaker says that, although they cannot stop time, they can control it by making the most of their life and having sex. 

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How does 'To His Coy Mistress' begin? 

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The poem begins with the speaker telling his mistress all the ways he would love and adore her if they had an eternity together. He uses allusions and hyperbole to say that he would spend ages loving each part of her. The speaker says that is what she deserves. 

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What happens after the poem's main shift in line 21? 

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In line 21, the speaker argues that because their time on this earth is short and death is inevitable, he doesn't have time to love her forever. He goes on to say that her virginity and honor won't last in death, so she should give them to him instead of the worms. 

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What kind of imagery does the speaker use to describe death? 

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He uses images like marble vault, worms taking virginity, ashes, dust, and a vast desert devoid of life. 

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What allusions does the speaker make? 

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He uses geographical allusions to a river in India and an estuary in England to show how their love would span physical space. He also uses Biblical allusions to Noah's ark and Jewish conversion to Christianity to depict how their love would span through time. 

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What are the themes in 'To His Coy Mistress'? 

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The themes are Life and Death and Youth and Sexuality. 

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What is 'The Definition of Love'? 

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'The Definition of Love' is a poem written by English poet and politician Andrew Marvell. It was published after his death, in 1681.

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What insight about Marvell's love life is helpful in interpreting the poem? 

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Nothing. Marvell's love life is largely a mystery, and it is uncertain whether he ever married. His housekeeper claimed they married before his death, but that is widely thought to be a false claim for his inheritance. 

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What kind of poem is 'The Definition of Love'? 

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It is a metaphysical poem, meaning it uses complex figurative language to examine universal truths about life. 

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What is 'The Definition of Love' about? 

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The poem is about a man who is perpetually kept apart from his lover by fate. Although the two have never been and will never be together, he asserts that his love is rare and divine.

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What role does personification play in the poem? 

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Personification is used to make abstract ideas, namely Fate, Despair, Hope, and Impossibility, active forces in the speaker's life.  It turns Fate into the central antagonist who is actively working against the speaker.

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What role does simile play in the poem? 

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Simile is used to compare the speaker and his beloved to inanimate objects. The speaker compares them to rare objects and parallel lines. This paints a good mental image of their relationship to one another, but it also paints them as passive forces without any choice in their own lives.  

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What is interesting about the role of the lover in the poem?

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The speaker's beloved isn't described at all, physically or through ideas. She is merely the implied receiver of the speaker's love. 

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Why does Fate keep the speaker apart from his beloved? 

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Fate doesn't want to lose her control over the speaker. Letting the two be together would mean she could no longer keep them apart and under her control.

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How does the speaker say the lovers could be united? 

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They could only be united if the world caved in on itself or if the heavens fell. So never. 

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What are the themes in 'The Definition of Love'? 

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Love

Fate vs. Freewill

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