A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try ....

Praise for Charles – or for a good performance? Ambiguity is systematic: ‘clap’,
applaud or drown his words; ‘mean’, base or intend; ‘scene’, stage or platform; ‘edge’
(Lat.acies), eyesight or edge; ‘try’, assess for sharpness or for justice.
After Cromwell’s Irish victories, ‘What may not others fear / If thus he crown
each year? / A Caesar, he, ere long to Gaul, / To Italy a Hannibal.’ Lofty compar-
isons! Yet Caesar was assassinated, Hannibal defeated. A final exhortation and
But thou, the war’s and fortune’s son,
March indefatigably on,
And for the last effect
Still keep thy sword erect:
Besides the force it has to fright
The spirits of the shady night,
The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.

Marvell, a satirist on the Parliamentary side, wrote after the Civil War that ‘the Cause
was too good to have been fought for. Men ought to have trusted God; they ought
and might have trusted the King with the whole matter.’ But Marvell’s prose satire
was usually rough, in contrast with the silkiness of his lyric verse. The reason is
generic: lyric was supposed to sing, satire to grate. A similar contrast is found in the
work of Ben Jonson.
The keenness of Marvell’s mind recalls that of the French mathematician and
theologian Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). In ‘The Mower to the Glowworms’ and other
poems, Marvell uses aesthetic appeal to express the unreason of mortal love:

Ye living lamps,by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night
Her matchless songs does meditate ....

Marvell’s grave religious poem ‘The Coronet’ is in the baroquestyle, which
always has a kind of displayfulness about it. ‘Bermudas’, on Puritan migrants to
America – ‘Thus sung they in the English boat, / An holy and a cheerful note’ – has
similarly marvellous imagery: ‘He hangs in shades the orange bright, / Like golden
lamps in a green night.’ Marvell’s poems are lucid, decorative, exquisite and pene-
trating, but also enigmatic.

John Milton

Poetry in the 17th century came from the Court, the Church, the gentry or the
theatre. The grand exception is the late work ofJohn Milton (1608–1674), after the
gr eat crisis ofthe Civil War. He wrote for a spiritual élite.Paradise Lost, he prayed,
would ‘Fit audience find, though few’, echoing Christ’s saying that many are called
but few are chosen (Matthew 20:16). He invoked for his epic the Spirit ‘that dost
pr efer / Before all temples the upright heart and pure’. A Puritan, he chose to


baroque A term in art
history for the ornate style
which succeeded the
classicism of the High

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