Andrew Marvell: Poems

Andrew Marvell: Poems Themes

The Elaborate Conceit

The Elaborate Conceit is the most common trope in metaphysical poetry. It is an extended metaphor that uses a series of comparisons and associations to create a highly ornate poetic image. English poets like John Donne and George Herbert were early experimenters with this technique, while Andrew Marvell is famous for his later variations on the metaphysical theme. Sometimes Marvell’s conceits last for an entire poem, as in “The Coronet,” where the only topics of discussion are poem itself and the crown that the shepherd weaves. In Marvell's other poems, the conceit emerges through a series of images, like in “The Definition of Love.” Here, Marvell defines love differently in each stanza, and as the poem slowly develops, he connects all of the definitions.

Soul vs. Body

The idea of a soul existing apart from the body has long been a tradition in western thought, going back to Socrates and the Platonic dialogues. Plato’s claim that the soul is permanent while the body is temporary merged with Christian ideas about the everlasting nature of the soul in poetic traditions that emerged during the Renaissance. As a result, many Christian poets depicted various scenes of conflict between the body and the soul, which they imagined could never be fully integrated. This pattern in turn gave rise to the idea that love itself was split between the physical body and “Platonic love,” which existed at the level of the soul. Marvell engages the neo-Platonic traditions of Renaissance poetry, especially in his poems “The Garden” and “The Definition of Love.” Both narratives depict souls caught in conflict with the body, one due to the passionate stirrings of love and the other because of its desire to reconcile earthly pleasures with spiritual pursuits.

The Tripartite Soul

In addition to imagining the body and soul as separate entities, Marvell’s poetry depicts the soul as divided into three parts or functions. He inherited this idea of a three-part soul primarily from Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and student of Plato. According to Aristotle, there are three types of souls. The first is the vegetative or nutritive soul that is found in humans, animals, and plants and contains the basic power of growth and decay that defines all life. The sensitive soul – or the soul that can perceive, sense, and respond to environmental stimulus – is found in animals and in humans alike. Finally, the rational soul is unique to human beings, and it involves the capacity for intelligent and purposive thought. This third function distinguishes human beings from animals. During Marvell's time, the third function was associated with the Christian doctrine of humanity’s created nature, which presumed that God created human beings in his image and blessed them with the power of reason. In Marvell’s poetry, these three functions of the soul affect human beings both by connecting them to animals and plants, but also by separating them from their natural surroundings.

Art vs. Politics

Marvell’s poems have generated vigorous debate among critics about how best to read and interpret his verse. On the one hand, Marvell was clearly reflecting on the political drama of his time, from the English Civil Wars and King Charles I's beheading to the appointment of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protectorate of England and his promise for a new Republican government in England. However, Marvell’s intricate verse forms and literary allusions draw upon the work of classical poets like Horace, Pindar, Lucan, and Lucretius, which suggests that Marvell was also very capable of subordinating his political views to the demands of poetry. Such complexities emerge, for instance, in Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.’ What appears to be personal sympathy for the doomed King Charles I may actually just be a symptom of Marvell’s attempt to fit a current political situation into the classical form of the ode.

The Great Chain of Being

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the dominant assumption was that God created and ordered the natural world in a perfect hierarchy, or “Great Chain of Being.” God is at the peak of this order, followed by angels, humans, animals, plants, and finally, inanimate material things. Each entity in this chain has its specific place, and if its place is disturbed, the broader order is thrown into upheaval. This concept was especially significant in Marvell’s time because it often applied to England's well-defined social hierarchy. For example, a King or Queen was compared to God, the upper-class aristocrats aligned with angels, and other inferior ranks occupied lower rungs on the ladder. However, political and religious reformers challenged these ideas. They imagined different principles for ordering society – such as a Republican constitutional government or recognition of religious liberty. In many ways, Marvell's depiction of the English Civil Wars can be read as a direct challenge to the Great Chain of Being and the idea that a monarch possesses the divine right of rule.

The New Philosophy

Much like the poetry of his predecessor John Donne, Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical verse often addresses the rise and consequences of the “new philosophy.” During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the old scientific theories of an Earth-centered cosmos (based on writings of the ancient astronomer Ptolemy) gave way to a new model advanced by Nicholas Copernicus, the German astronomer. In 1543, Copernicus argued that all the planets revolved around the Sun. Other modern astronomers and scientists, such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, further popularized these ideas. While the old beliefs of cosmology were based on the four elements: fire, water, earth and air, the new philosophers argued that the universe was not a perfect balance of four essential substances. They used mathematics to track planetary movements. Their argument that the universe is much vaster and stranger challenged many religious doctrines of the period. Marvell responds to these advancements in his poetry by describing infinite lines and planetary conjunctions (as in “The Definition of Love”) or by suggesting new concepts of vitality (as in “The Garden”) that depart from ancient models of the world.

The Four Humors (Humours)

During Marvell's time, the term “humour” referred to the vital juice or fluid of an animal or plant. More specifically, the concept of these four organizing humors was the basis of early modern cosmology and medicine. This classical belief is rooted in the writings of Greek physician Galen, who espoused the idea that all bodies are composed of the four humors, each of which corresponds to one of the four fundamental elements: blood and air, yellow bile and fire, black bile and earth, and finally, phlegm and water. Ideally, the human body attempts to strike a balance of all four humors, and, in the Galenic system of medicine, sickness was the result of a skewed balance between the humors. An abundance of each humor supposedly caused a certain mood, disposition, or personality type, as well as particular physical features. Marvell uses the term “humour” in his poems to refer to both the bodily fluids and as well as individual temperaments that correspond to the Galenic model.