In Andrew Marvell's historically and politically astute poem, "An Horation Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland," ambiguity and irony are intentionally entwined to delineate Cromwell's 1650 subjugation of Ireland. Moreover, the complexity of the poem has elicited scholarly praise and debate both as a historical account of the period and as a poem of great artistry.
What was Marvell's attitude toward Cromwell in 1650? The question is critical both to an understanding of the history of the time and to the manner in which a great poet reflects this history. Following the "Ode," Marvell was to write several poems in praise of Cromwell. In fact, Marvell was to become the assistant of John Milton in his post as Latin Secretary to Cromwell. However, earlier in Marvell's career, in two poems published in 1649, Marvell clearly declared his pro-Royalist sentiments.
Clearly, the "Ode" stands at a pivotal moment in Marvell's political and intellectual development. Perhaps, the poem reflects changes taking place in the conscience of English intellectuals of the turbulent age. The poem expresses a highly ambivalent and ironic attitude: both Royalist principles and admiration for Cromwell's achievement are present in the poem.
Even in the first complimentary statements about Cromwell in the "Horation Ode," the speaker's ambiguity is evident. Cromwell is described as a "forward youth" (line 1). As found in the Oxford English Dictionary and explained by essayists Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, "forward" in itself presents an ambiguity in its possibility of definition. "Forward" may mean no more than "high-spirited,""ardent," or "properly ambitious." However, it can also be argued that "forward" includes such definitions as "presumptuous," and "pushing," or "excessively aggressive" (3). Indeed, Cromwell, likened to the forward youth can no longer "in the shadows sing/ His number languishing" (lines 3-4). He must forsake his doubts and step out of the shadows to become a man of action.
The speaker has been careful to indicate that Cromwell's motivation is more intricate and complex than any mere thirst for glory. Indeed, lines 13-16 suggest that Cromwell is like an elemental force--he is as relentless as lightening. The clouds have produced this lightening bolt, but the bolt tears its way mercilessly through the clouds. As Brooks and Warren note, "The question of right, the imagery insists, is beside the point. If nature will not tolerate emptiness, nor will it allow two bodies -- Charles and Cromwell -- to occupy the same space. The lesser spirit must make way for the greater" (17).
While the poem suggests that Cromwell represents "angry heaven's flame" (line 26) , there is justice on Charles' side as well. In the poem, these differing kinds of rightness are explored, but never fully reconciled. As Marvell asserts, "Though Justice against fate complain/and plead the ancient rights in vain/But those do hold or break/As men are strong or weak" (lines 37-40). These apparently unchanging royal values or verities are, in fact, subject to human action and political circumstance.
It is clear that the speaker has chosen to emphasize the virtues of both Cromwell and King Charles as men and as leaders. The speaker neither attempts to belittle Charles or to absolve him of his "helpless right" (line 62). Brooks and Warren state that "Instead, he emphasizes the dignity and fortitude of Charles, and what has finally to be called his consummate good taste" (4). As George deF Lord concludes, "Cromwell is-- to use Aristotle's distinction-- the man of character, the man of action, who 'does both act and know.' Charles on the other hand, is the man of passion, the man who is acted upon, the man who knows how to suffer" (76).
Indeed, as Brooks and Warren further observe, Charles is presented as the "royal actor" (line 53). He is assigned a part and plays it with dignity. He truly adorned the scaffold like a stage "While round the armed bands/Did clap their bloody hands" (lines 55-56). Marvell again leaves ambiguity and irony in this statement. Did the men clap at Cromwell's decision to kill the king, or did they clap to show their support of the king's unwavering bravery?
The death of the king in line 65 can be regarded as the beginning of the second part of the poem. At this point, the speaker takes a more pragmatic view of Cromwell, accepting the fact that he is now the head of state. Cromwell is now presented as a falcon -- trained and controlled, a responsible and disciplined power. Cromwell is presented in laudatory terms. The speaker presents Cromwell as a ruler with all of the power of a mighty king at his disposal, who chooses nevertheless to remain a citizen, and for his country to remain a republic.
Ultimately, the question remains whether the speaker truly supports Cromwell in his heart. The speaker has seen Cromwell in virtually every possible way. He sees Cromwell as a brute force of nature and as a responsible, careful ruler. He sees his vast capacity for destruction and regeneration. Indeed, he sees Cromwell very much as history will come to view him. He foresees the ambivalence that people will have for Cromwell, the odd blend of respect and the disdain for his role in British history. However, to assume that Marvell approves or disapproves of Cromwell in an ultimate sense would be to over-simplify and distort the meaning of the poem.
The relationship of history and literature is indeed complex. History and literature compliment each other; together they elucidate the feelings of human beings as they confront the challenges of their world. Marvell's "Horation Ode" is a document that exemplifies the ambivalence people feel when they live through times of significant upheaval and political change.
Marvell, Andrew. "To His Coy Mistress" and Other Poems. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950.
deF Lord, George. Andrew Marvell: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.