Rediscovering a relevant, almost contemporary poet
by Nigel Smith
Yale University Press
$45.00 List Price
Imagine if the most cunning and cosmopolitan poet of our era—John Ashbery, say—were a progressive US senator from a small state far from Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, along the lines of Bernie Sanders. Envision, too, that this poet/politician hides out in the margins of his poems, such that his angle on any subject, philosophical, religious, or political, atomizes into irreconcilable fragments—except that he also writes fierce, polemical pamphlets, though often without signing his name to them, and maneuvers under threat of exposure and censure. Consider that he has no fixed abode; vanishes abroad, after the fashion of Valerie Plame, on obscure intelligence operations; might not be married to the woman who says she is his wife; and once memorialized his own experiences in a letter as “But I my self, who live to so little purpose.” Try to resolve these shadows before rumors slip into legend, and the upshot is someone like Andrew Marvell—The Chameleon, as Nigel Smith dubs him in his exhaustive, shrewd, wary new biography.
Why Marvell? Why now? First there is the claim of art. This preternaturally sophisticated seventeenth-century poet will be familiar to modern readers from a scattering of exquisite anthology set pieces, notably the witty, borderline creepy “To His Coy Mistress” (“My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires”) and “The Garden.” These are, respectively, the most audaciously original carpe diem and garden poems in English. Yet if one were inventorying a sort of best-of-genre checklist, Marvell would in turn be the author of the finest, and