Marvell begins the poem by presenting Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, as a “forward youth” who must once again engage in military conflict and achieve glory. The speaker imagines Cromwell abandoning the Muses of poetry and leaving his “books in dust” in favor of taking up his armor and corslet. Cromwell is restless because his “active star,” or destiny, urges him toward the valor of “adven’rous war.”
Marvell next compares Cromwell to “three-forked lightning” that breaks through the clouds where it is first nursed in order to strike out and carve its own fiery path. Cromwell eventually blasts through the laurels of “Caesar’s head,” which is an allusion to the head of King Charles I. The speaker calls it “madness to resist or blame” Cromwell’s force, because Cromwell clearly holds “Heaven’s flame” and England owes him a lot. Cromwell left his “private gardens” where he lived a peaceful and calm life, and was able to overthrow the monarchy and “cast the kingdoms old / Into another mold” using his “industrious valour” in the military world.
Cromwell’s victories may seem to make “Justice against Fate complain,” and suggest that he has usurped the “ancient rights” of kings who once ruled over England. However, the speaker claims that these rights only hold or give way depending on the strength of the men who defend them. Likewise, nature abhors a vacuum, so when a greater body or spirit enters a particular space, the lesser spirit must “make room” for it. The speaker believes that the fields where the civil wars took place show that Cromwell’s wounds were the deepest. “Hampton,” the name of King Charles’s palace, reveals Cromwell’s “wiser art” because Cromwell managed to trap the King there and trick him into fleeing to “Caresbrook.”
Then, the poem shifts attention from Cromwell to Charles I, whom the speaker describes as a “royal actor” born to face the “tragic scaffold” of his execution while the armed masses look on and clap “their bloody hands.” The speaker claims that King Charles does “nothing common” or “mean” when facing his execution, and does not spitefully call upon God to lament his fate. Instead, Charles I meets the edge of the axe with the sharper edge of his own gaze, and “bow[s] his comely head” upon the executioner’s block as if it were a bed. The speaker believes that Charles’s execution marks the “memorable hour” for the victorious Parliament Army, as well as those who must “design” the new State. Certainly, Charles I's “bleeding head” frightens some Parliamentarians and causes them to “run” from the cause, but the speaker believes that this momentary violence leads to England’s “happy fate.”
The poem's focus then returns to Cromwell, as the speaker discuses the Lord Protector's victories. In Ireland, the Irish forces are “ashamed” to have been “tamed” after battling Cromwell’s army for only one year. Even the Irish “can affirm his praises” after being subdued by Cromwell, whom the speaker believes to be good and just. Cromwell is well prepared to serve the new English Republic because of his ability to obey the will of the people. Cromwell wins the kingdom but gives it to the Commons, along with his fame. He lays his “sword and spoils” at the “skirt,” or feet, of the public. In this regard, the speaker compares Cromwell to an obedient falcon that kills and delivers her prey, but does not return to the hunt unbidden.
The speaker imagines Cromwell and England’s united victories to come, comparing these future conquests to those of Caesar and Hannibal. He suggests that Cromwell will soon turn his attention to the nation of the “Pict” in Scotland, who will soon cower “underneath the plaid.” The poem concludes with an image of Cromwell as the untiring son of War and Fortune who must keep his sword ready and “erect,” both to frighten the “spirits of the shady night” and to maintain the power he has won.
Marvell wrote this poem to commemorate Oliver Cromwell’s return to England after a military expedition to Ireland. Cromwell defeated the Irish Catholic and English Royalist Alliance in a series of battles, thereby eliminating a major threat to the newly formed English Republican government. Marvell models his poem on the odes of the Roman poet, Horace, who fought on the side of Roman Republicans but eventually accepted Augustus Caesar's rule and the ensuing peace. The poem is ambivalent about the rule and execution of King Charles I, even though Marvell clearly praises Oliver Cromwell’s leadership. Critics continue to debate Marvell’s political leanings and question how sympathetic this poem is to Charles I (Smith). The poem is written in stanzas of four lines. Each stanza features a rhymed couplet in iambic tetrameter, followed by a rhymed couplet in iambic trimeter.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker praises Cromwell for his “restless” character and devotion to military valor. Rather than passing time idly in private or “languishing” in the “shadows,” Crowell has taken an active lead in protecting the new English Republic. Cromwell has brought his army to Ireland in order to battle the alliance of Royalist and Catholic forces. The speaker goes on to suggest that God has approved Cromwell’s power: “‘Tis madness to resist or blame / The force of angry heaven’s flame.” However, the speaker also implies that Cromwell’s victories may upset the balance of Justice, since “ancient rights” only “hold or break” according to the strength of the men defending them. Here, we see a clear example of the poem’s ambivalence toward Cromwell: his political valor and military prowess are worthy of Marvell's praise, as are his Republican leanings. In addition, though, the speaker also acknowledges the possibility that Cromwell could present a threat to the right of law, especially if he abuses his power.
Marvell maintains the poem's ambivalence when the speaker asks, “What field of all the civil wars / Where his were not the deepest scars?” The line could mean that Cromwell’s battle scars are deeper than those of any other and imply that he suffered valiantly for the civil wars. This line could also mean that the wounds Cromwell inflicted upon the nation’s “field” are, in fact, the “deepest scars.” In other words, has Cromwell bravely endured these wars for the good of England, or has the Commonwealth suffered at his hands? The speaker implies that the answer depends upon the direction that the new Republic takes moving forward.
At this point, Marvell shifts focus from praising Cromwell to describing the scene of Charles I’s execution, using theatrical language. The King mounts his “tragic scaffold” while the onlookers applaud with “bloody hands.” It is unusual that in a poem that praises of Cromwell, the speaker’s description of King Charles I's death seems highly favorable to the monarch's memory. First, the speaker claims that the King displays “nothing common… or mean” in his behavior. Charles meets his fate with a sense of dignity and magisterial presence that Marvell captures in the image of his “keener eye” gazing upon the “axe’s edge.” This description implies that the King’s look is more fierce and daunting than the edge of the axe. Moreover, Charles does not rail against fate or the Gods, which, in tragic drama, is a common reaction amongst men who are facing their imminent deaths.
In the final section of the poem, the speaker returns to praising Cromwell for his military victories in Ireland and suggests that Cromwell shall go on to reap victories anew, bringing increased glory to England. The speaker uses the term “Pict” to refer to Scotland, which many saw as the next significant threat to the newly founded English Republic because of its Royalist leanings. Cromwell did in fact invade Scotland only a few months after his victorious return from Ireland, so the imagery of Marvell’s poem corresponds to the military rumors of the moment.
The poem imagines Cromwell marching “indefatigably on” with his sword raised up in battle. Yet this final image of the ‘Horatian Ode’ is fairly ambivalent. On one hand, it asserts Crowell’s power to “fright / the spirits of the shady night,” which many scholars connect to the Stuarts' reign, due to King James I (Charles I's father)'s interest in witchcraft and demonology. Cromwell’s sword can never be lowered, though, the poem suggests, since “The same arts that did gain / A pow’r must it maintain.” To guard the new Republic against its many enemies, Cromwell must be ever vigilant – a task that the poem implies is difficult at best, and impossible at worst.