Marvell wrote this poem as an extended description praising Appleton House, the home of Lord Fairfax. The speaker begins by describing the architecture of the house itself. Unlike the pompous displays of wealth that exist in many aristocratic homes, the speaker describes Appleton house as having a “sober frame,” indicating its humble beauty. In this way, the home is like “Like Nature, orderly and near,” and does not present affectations of grandeur. “Humility” is the principle of design that defines Appleton House, and the speaker constructs a series of images over the course of the poem’s initial 10 stanzas that suggest “Things greater are in less contained."
After completing this account of the house’s architecture and layout, the speaker moves on to discuss the history of the house, a former nunnery, in stanzas 11-35. This section details the story of Isabella Thwaite, a nun who lives at Appleton, whom Marvell describes as a “blooming virgin." The speaker begins to address Isabella and describe the chaste lives of the women in her community. Isabella lives in the cloister and intends to live a life of devotion, despite the fact that William Fairfax (Lord Fairfax’s ancestor) is pursuing her hand in marriage.
Slowly, though, the poem begins to suggest that the nuns are in fact living instigators of vice, because they are cloistered from men and forbidden from giving in to sexual temptation. At this point, William Fairfax is faced with a dilemma. “He would respect Religion” on one hand, but on the other hand, he wants to rescue Isabella and marry her. Soon thereafter, the “court him grants the lawful form” and Nun Appleton Priory is legally dissolved and given to William Fairfax. The nuns still oppose his intention to marry Isabella, but Marvell depicts Fairfax as a heroic savior who “through the wall does rise” and liberates the nun from her cloister.
Stanza 36 identifies the union between Fairfax and Isabella as the “blest bed” from which a “hero came, / Whom France and Poland yet does fame.” This "hero" goes on to retire peacefully at Appleton House and marks his military prowess by designing the gardens as a fortress. The poem goes on to describe these gardens in greater detail and continues the military analogies that praise the career of Sir Thomas Fairfax, son of Isabella and William. At stanza 47, the speaker shifts his attention – “And now to the abyss I pass / Of that unfathomable grass” – from the gardens to the meadows that surround the estate. This section constructs a narrative of the mowers as if they were the Old Testament’s band of Israelites, and also associates them with the Parliament’s Army during the English Civil War.
The speaker tells of a flood that overtakes the meadows, and, in stanza 61, the poem turns to a discussion of the woods on the Appleton estate, which offer a safe harbor and “sanctuary” in the form of a “green, yet growing ark.” As the speaker strolls through the woods, he describes a paradisal space where the birds provide enchanting music, and the woods become a natural temple that reflects the glory of God and restores a sense of harmony to the poem.
Finally, at stanza 82, the speaker turns away from the “hooks” and “quills” – his poetic instruments figured as fishing tools – in order to give attention to Mary Fairfax. He describes her as an Edenic figure, and the estate's landscape responds to her presence. The meadows give her a carpet to walk upon, the gardens give her flowers to crown her head, the river provides a mirror for her beauty, and the woods give her a private, secluded space that guards her from the public eye. The poem concludes by suggesting that with Maria’s entrance, Appleton has become a restored Eden into which Maria and the speaker retreat.
“Upon Appleton House” is a country-house poem modeled on the tradition of Ben Jonson’s poem “To Penshurst.” These poems were popular in England during the 17th century, and poets wrote them as odes or celebrations of patrons' beneficence by constructing an elaborate description of an aristocratic country home. Appleton House was the country home of Marvell’s most prominent patron, Lord Fairfax, the father of Mary Fairfax. Marvell moved to Nun Appleton around 1650, when Lord Fairfax hired him to serve as Mary’s tutor, and he lived there for a period of two years. Marvell likely wrote "Upon Appleton House" during his time at the estate. The poem contains ninety-seven stanzas, with each stanza containing eight lines of rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter.
There is a clear structure to the thematic content of the poem, which can be described as follows: Stanzas 1-10 describe Appleton house itself, Stanzas 11-35 give a history of the house and its time as a priory, Stanzas 36-46 describe the flower gardens and suggest Sir Thomas Fairfax’s military prowess, Stanzas 47- 60 give a detailed account of the meadows, Stanzas 61-81 describe the woods, and Stanzas 82-97 are set at the river before evolving into praise for Mary Fairfax and the family line.
Marvell's description of the house praises its “humility” and simple beauty. The phrase “sober frame” chastises the overwrought designs and pomposity of the huge country estates that many other aristocrats of the period favored. Marvell relates these other men and their pursuits to the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. However, the architecture of Appleton House reflects an earthly humility grounded in “holy mathematics” (stanza 6) that prepares the Fairfax family for Heaven.
The next section of the poem, stanzas 11-35, relates the story of Isabella Thwaite and her eventual marriage to William Fairfax. The speaker now changes to the head nun at Appleton, who speaks her words directly to Isabella in an attempt to persuade her to devote her life to the cloister. The nunnery at Appleton is figured as a secure and private space, whose “bars inclose that wider den / Of those wild creatures, called men.” The nuns live their lives like Amazonian female warriors of virtue, guarding their “chaste lamps” and devoting themselves to “incessant prayer.”
The speaker goes on, however, to suggest that the cloister is in fact a place of private pleasures among the nuns, where Isabella “may lie chaste in bed” with other nuns, “All night embracing arm in arm, / Like crystal pure with cotton warm.” These implications of female eroticism and sex amongst the nuns prepare readers for the heroic entry of William Fairfax, who rescues Isabella from the false religion of the cloister, marries her, and eventually establishes the right of the Fairfaxes to take over the estate at Appleton.
Thomas Fairfax, the son of Isabella and William, is identified in stanza 36 as the “hero” produced by his parents' “blest bed.” The poem then describes Thomas’s design of the gardens to resemble a military fort, “with five bastions” that correspond to the five senses. Marvell extends this military motif through stanza 36. In stanza 37, the garden’s bees beat drums and its flowers raise “ensigns” or military flags before releasing their odors like “fragrant volleys” of musket fire. When night falls, the stars keep vigilant watch while the bees of the garden sleep. The extended military analogy continues, with the speaker figuring England as a “dear and happy isle” and the “garden of the world” whose beauty has been marred by the violence of civil war.
In stanza 47, the speaker turns from the gardens of the estate to the meadows that surround it, and compares the mowers working in the meadows to the band of Israelites in the Book of Exodus who marched across the parted waves of the Red Sea. These Biblical allusions lead up to the moment in stanza 61 when the meadows are flooded, just as God floods the world in the Book of Genesis. Like Noah’s retreat to the ark in the Bible, the speaker retreats to the “green, yet growing ark” of the estate’s woods.
In the woods, the speaker encounters a new Eden, where the forest transforms into both a temple and a natural house of praise. “The arching boughs” of the trees “unite between / The columns of the temple green,” suggesting a regenerative vitality that is both holy and secluded from the conflict of the outside world. This section symbolizes renewal through the speaker’s experience of nature and the Biblical allusions that nature appears to contain. These suggestions of recovery and rebirth prepare the way for the entrance of Mary Fairfax in stanza 82, who epitomizes Edenic purity and innocence.
Remarkably, the environment responds directly to Mary Fairfax’s presence. The sun appears to recognize her, and “Seems to descend with greater care.” The air surrounding her “sucks her azure dye” and the “fishes hang” in the water as if they are physically suspended by their awe. These many images suggest that the entire private world of the estate is transfixed by Maria Fairfax, and reinforce her virtue, her stalwart resistance to temptation, and her abundant knowledge.