Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr 1995 v35 n1 p137(21)
England Deflowered and Unmanned: The Sexual Image of Politics in Marvell's "Last Instructions."
Abstract: Andrew Marvell's poem 'The Last Instructions to a Painter' uses a pattern of sexual metaphors to satirize English politics in the wake of the Second Dutch War. The poem is in the form of instructions on aesthetic methods for painting personalities whom the poet holds responsible for England's troubles during Charles II's reign. The metaphors link abuse of sexual power with abuse of political power and moral corruption with political corruption.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1995 Rice University
Again Crispinus comes; and yet again, And oft, shall he be summoned to sustain His dreadful part - the monster of our times Without one virtue to redeem his crimes: Diseased, emaciate, weak in all but lust
- Juvenal, Satire 4
Andrew Marvell's late satire "The Last Instructions to a Painter" was written when Marvell was actively involved in national politics. In recent years, it has generally been mined by critics for its topical material on the conflicts and controversies of Charles II's reign or dismissed as a sprawling and disjointed triumph of outrage over art.(1) It has yet to be analyzed for its use of poetic language to achieve, in ways that a tract could not, an extraordinary richness of political signification. In this satire of state, Marvell exploits a powerful rhetoric of sexual insult for its political resonances, indicting a court widely regarded by its opponents as both politically abusive and sexually debauched. Written in the aftermath of England's humiliating Second Dutch War, the poem's governing pattern of metaphors represents the country's domestic and international plight by linking abuses of sexual power with abuses of political power and a collapse of gender norms with a collapse of political norms. Central to this pattern are metaphors of rape and emasculation. Enervated, corrupted, and unmanned by the unrestrained and illicit indulgence of their sexual and political powers, Britannia's statesmen lack the heroic valor to defend her against the rape of foreign invasion (the destruction of the fleet at Medway during the war). Indeed, they rape her themselves by their tyrannous and exploitative measures. Also, in their collaboration with the French, the members of Charles's court allow themselves to be made the effeminate tools of a hostile power. Although the poem reflects patriarchal assumptions when it deals with gender roles, in one regard "Last Instructions" displays a feminist perspective. The speaker-poet is outraged by the crime of rape, identifies with its victims, and understands rape's relationship to other forms of political oppression. His empathy is expressed through a pervasive theme of shame versus shamelessness, which he uses to separate the victim (and those who identify with her) from her victimizers. Ultimately, "Last Instructions" becomes a form of criminal indictment, following the abuse of the kingdom to its logical source. Beginning with attacks on the king's court and policies, the poem gradually closes in on Charles himself and "paints" him into a corner, presenting him as the country's chief violator and, unfortunately, her only hope.(2)
The poet begins his instructions with advice on aesthetic technique, telling the painter to follow the "antique Masters"(3) and adopt a form that is slight and crude, matching his style and medium with his subjects. To comply with the age, the painter should draw "dirty pictures," literally and figuratively. He can use candle soot for paint and a darkened "Aly roof" as a canvas to sketch "in shady smoke prodigious tools" (lines 9-11). Characteristically, having created an image in the reader's mind, Marvell immediately begins to play with the perspective. In "Upon Appleton House," Marvell celebrated England's heroic past by portraying men who dwarfed their world:
In which we the Dimensions find Of that more sober Age and Mind, When larger sized Men did stoop To enter at a narrow loop.
"Last Instructions" uses perspective to portray Marvell's contemporaries as insects, impressive in stature only when viewed through a microscope (line 16). The comparison of public men to Hook's "tall Lowse" with a white staff (line 18) serves as a gloss for the previous line's description of "prodigious 'tools"; the endowments of these men are at best relative. The poet's instructions create a priapic portrait of the contemporary public man that shrinks him in proportion to his swollen member - the priorities of Charles's court made visible.(4) Henry Jermyn, earl of St. Albans and that "Stallion of the old" court, provides a pattern for the new; he is to be painted "member'd like Mules" (lines 30, 34). Mules are impressively equipped, but they are also sterile. In Marvell's poem, St. Albans is a political as well as sexual mule; his potency is useless display. The poet mixes comments on St. Albans's diplomatic and erotic performance as ambassador to France:
But Age, allaying now that youthful heat, Fits him in France to play at Cards and treat. Draw no Commission lest the Court should lye, That, disavowing Treaty, ask supply. He needs no Seal, but to St. James's lease, Whose Breeches were the Instrument of Peace. Who, if the French dispute his Pow'r, from thence Can straight produce them a Plenipotence.
By definition a plenipotentiary (plenus + potens) has the full power of the monarch he represents. If the ambassador's potency (political or sexual) is all show and no action, then by implication so is Charles's. In these first two verse paragraphs, Marvell draws a risque cartoon of the court - a crowded canvas, peopled with dissolute French "tools" (diseased members and dupes of a hostile power). Hugely endowed but impotent or sterile, they are the perfect representatives of an absolute monarch who uses his oversized powers against his own people and leaves his nation defenseless to foreign invasion and continental intrigue.(5)
If, according to "Last Instructions," the men in Charles's court are impotent roues, its women are aging whores. The poet praises Anne Hyde's scientific ingenuity, having "perfected that Engine, oft assay'd / How after childbirth to renew a Maid" (lines 53-4). The duchess, whose new chastity is as real as St. Albans's restored powers, has the kind of prodigious sexuality that the poem attacks as antithetical to procreative vitality. Her abortive political ambitions are linked by her pretense of pre-marital chastity to unnaturally hastened births; in the poem the political fiction becomes scientific fact, producing children too weak to survive:
[She] found how Royal Heirs might be matur'd, In fewer months than Mothers once indur'd. Hence Crowder made the rare Inventress free, Of's Highnesses Royal Society. Happy'st of Women, if she were but able To make her glassen D_____s once malleable!
The solutions Margoliouth suggests to the textual crux "glassen D_____s" demonstrate the poem's mixture of political and sexual themes. If "glassen D_____s" is read "glassen Dukes," then the poem is referring to the marriage's short-lived, fragile children, whose deaths frustrated Anne Hyde's royal ambitions.(6) If, on the other hand, one follows the manuscript insertion in the British Museum copy of 1689, "glassen Dildoes," the duchess is another representative of sterile debauchery, frustrated because she cannot find the scientific device that turns glass into flesh.(7) In the next lines, Anne Hyde becomes a force for infertility beyond her own body. The decadence of the court cannot remain a private matter; its effects are felt throughout the nation. Anne Hyde is to be painted as a sorceress brewing poison in an attempt to murder her sexual rival, Lady Denham. The fumes spread from her experiment and begin to threaten England's natural landscape:
Witness ye stars of Night, and thou the pale Moon, that o'rcome with the sick steam did'st fail; Ye neighb'ring Elms, that your green leaves did shed, And Fawns, that from the womb abortive fled.
Her black arts injure more than the woman she targets; they stifle the moon (an attack on chastity), strip leaves from the trees (part of the deflowering of England), and cause innocent creatures to abort (one of the many unnatural or miscarried births in the poem). Even her breast, which would traditionally symbolize nurture and fertility, hides a cancer (line 74).
The poem closes in on the court's center when the painter is invited to choose Barbara Villiers, countess of Castlemaine and mistress to Charles II, as his next subject. Like Anne Hyde she is an aging whore in need of repair, and the artist is told to paint "Her, not her Picture, for she now grows old" (line 80). Typical of the court circle, Villiers embodies a decadent eroticism, abandoning Charles to pursue a servant. Unfortunately for the countess, the young man she chooses is not like the king and his courtiers - he values chastity. Thus, for prurient rather than political reasons, she, like the duchess of York, yearns to regain her virginity (line 90). The painter is told to sketch her in a pursuit that inverts traditional relationships of age and gender; here an old nymph chases and ravishes a young satyr or centaur:(8)
Great Love, how dost thou triumph, and how reign, That to a Groom couldst humble her disdain! Stript to her Skin, see how she stooping stands, Nor scorns to rub him down with those fair Hands; And washing (lest the scent her Crime disclose) His sweaty Hooves, tickles him 'twixt the Toes.
The countess lives in a world where love (desire) does indeed "reign," in England's court circle and in the person of Charles himself. The long reign of desire has had its enervating effect on erotic life at court; the countess is forced to reverse traditional roles and to stoop below her class in order to find fresh game.
In this satire of state, Marvell's agenda extends beyond ad hominem assaults on individuals. The poem continues to use representations of forced and unnatural sex, sterility, and miscarried births as it rails against institutions and events. The general excise tax proposed by the Court party in 1666 is the focus of a central episode in "Last Instructions," and it is painted as a Miltonic creature "worse than e're before / Frighted the Midwife, and the Mother tore" (lines 131-2). Tearing the mother signifies unhealthy birth, but in its violence it also resembles a rape, this time from the inside out. Like Sin in Paradise Lost, the newborn creature is ravished by its father, who in this case is so aroused by the ensuing pregnancy that he repeats the rape anally:
Her, of a female Harpy, in Dog Days: Black Birch, of all the Earth-born race most hot, And most rapacious, like himself begot. And, of his Brat enamour'd, as't increast, Bugger'd in Incest with the mungrel Beast.
In one political attack Marvell combines references to bestiality, incest, rape, narcissism, and sodomy, but he is just beginning. In defending their new "whore of State" in the House of Commons, Court party members engage in a mock-heroic battle that gives the poet the opportunity to .savage their masculinity - moving from the rape that engenders the excise to a contest that unsexes them. The first troops that are sent in are "early Wittals" (young cuckolds) who "In Loyal haste" leave "young Wives in Bed" to fight for a whore (lines 151-3). Throughout the lengthy description of the battle, the poet returns to the theme of emasculation by dissolute desire. The troop of young cuckolds fail to defend the excise, their "whore," and have to be reinforced by a squadron of "the old Courtiers." Among their leaders are two "French Martyrs" (line 168), who are French eunuchs in two senses, accomplices to their own gelding by venereal infection (the "French disease") and implicated in continental designs on their native land. Marvell includes, for example, a brief portrait of Sir Richard Powell, who, crippled by the pox, "could not ride" but "Led the French Standard, weltering in his stride" (lines 213-4).
The poem makes the case for the connection between debauchery (with its impairment of virility) and ruthless ambition by contrast as well as through direct attacks. Men like Seymore, Whorwood, and Howard are potent forces precisely because they refrain from seeking power, sexual or political. They are the defenders of Britannia's innocence and the champions of her chaste maidens.(9) Seymore's spear and Howard's lance, on which he "Broach'd whole Brigades like Larks" (line 276), are phallic instruments that easily finish off an enemy already softened by acts of indecency. The castration fantasy is sharpest in the pun that completes the portrait of "Keen Whorwood" who "in aid of Damsel frail / . . . peirc't the Gyant Mordant through his Mail" (lines 259-60). John, Viscount Mordaunt was accused of imprisoning William Tayleur because Tayleur's daughter had resisted his advances. Mordant's abuse of power makes him larger than life, a "Gyant," like the "prodigious tooles" seen earlier; nevertheless, "his Mail" is no match for one of the Country party's Davidian warriors.(10)
There are very few moments when virtue prevails in this poem. Given the state of England under Charles, the defeat of the excise is only a temporary triumph. As individuals, Clarendon's men and the members of the Court party are weak and cowardly, but the power they derive from the crown insures that they or men like them will be a persistent infestation in the nation's political life. Following his defeat in a fair fight, the "Chancellor rebounds" quickly (line 336) when the House of Commons is prorogued in February 1667. The battle in Parliament was a nostalgic interlude, and the poem falls back into the present, once again painting the struggle for political control as an uneven contest between natural and unnatural, fertile and sterile. It was a Renaissance commonplace to imagine England as a garden paradise, politically healthy and safe behind its sea barriers from the contagion of European affairs. In Marvell's poem, Elizabethan England's strength and safety are a remote dream; its civic "garden" under Clarendon has become a postlapsarian state in extremis. Everything in this dying paradise is inverted. Light is darkness, and the probing eye of Parliament is as poisonous to Clarendon and his forces as the sun to the night blooming jasmine: "So the sad Tree shrinks from the Mornings Eye; / But blooms all Night, and shoots its branches high" (lines 345-6). The ambitions of the Court party feed on secrecy (darkness), while England is "deflowered" in broad daylight. Within this former Eden's broken walls, deeds of darkness can be committed openly. Parents are imprisoned for trying to protect the honor of their daughters, while the attackers go free: "Now Mordant may, within his Castle Tow'r, / Imprison Parents, and the Child deflowre" (lines 349-50). The brazen violation of England's women forecasts Ruyter's sunny invasion of the channel, an open spectacle of shame with more witnesses than opponents.
"Last Instructions" portrays England's court alternately as a domestic rapist and an international eunuch. Thus, the court's support of the attempted violation of Tayleur's daughter is followed in the poem by a condemnation of England's emasculation by the Dutch, and, more importantly, its shameless parade of this impotence in full view of France. The poet emphasizes the sense of public, international humiliation by casting the countries in a skit of gender-role reversal, the "Skimmington Ride,"
A Punishment invented first to awe Masculine Wives, transgressing Natures Law. Where when the brawny Female disobeys, And beats the husband till for peace he prays: No concern'd Jury for him Damage finds, Nor partial Justice her Behaviour binds; But the just Street does the next House invade, Mounting the neighbor Couple on lean Jade.
The poem praises the sexist street justice of "Prudent Antiquity, that knew by Shame, / Better than Law, Domestick Crimes to tame" (lines 387-8). The poet equates the "Skimmington Ride" and its salubrious effect on those it targets with the "quick Effigy" of public humiliation (line 391) he and the painter are currently sketching. It remains to be seen whether Marvell shared his persona's optimism about the efficacy of his project; this "poet plenipotentiary," like many of his subjects, seems to have an inflated idea of his powers. Undercut by the very portraits he and the painter have drawn, the poet is unaware that he is caught in a conundrum: how does one reform by ridicule in a shameless age?
After the "Skimmington Ride," the reader is shown behavior so gutless and indecent (the conduct of the court on the eve of the Dutch invasion) that it would seem impossible for the poet to shame his subjects in portraiture more thoroughly than they have shamed themselves in life. In a state of panic, the court determines "To fly to Windsor, and inure up the Gates" (line 420). Significantly, in the midst of this cowardly rout that will leave their country open to violation by the Dutch fleet, the divided court can agree on only one thing: approving the royal pardon for the rapist Mordant (he is called "new oblig'd," which refers to the dropped charges [line 422]). Paralyzed by indecision, it can take no effective action:
Not such a fatal stupefaction reign'd At London's Flame, nor so the Court complain'd The Bloodworth-Chanc'lor gives, then does recal Orders, amaz'd at last gives none at all. (lines 423-6)
The domestic panic and greed that geld the military and leave "our Forts unman'd" (line 433) are matched by diplomatic impotence; the plenipotentiary ambassadors who try to negotiate England out of her troubles return "infecta re" (line 460). The one potent force in England, Parliament, is so threatening to the domestic hegemony of Clarendon and his men that in the chancellor's eyes the cure (the summoning of Parliament) is worse than the disease (defeat at the hands of the Dutch). Marvell analogizes Clarendon's plight with that of a gout-ridden roue facing surgical castration:
But when he came the odious Clause to Pen, That summons up the Parliament agen; His Writing-Master many a time he bann'd, And wish'd himself the Gout, to seize his hand. Never old Letcher more repugnance felt, Consenting, for his Rupture, to be Gelt. (lines 469-74)
The English navy has been incapacitated because the money required for its maintenance never seems to reach it. Ships rot, sailors go unpaid, and rather than repair the fleet, Clarendon uses the crisis as an excuse to raise a new and unnecessary "two edg'd Army" (line 480) - useless against the Dutch, who are attacking by sea, but threatening enough to the English, possibly even the beginning of a dreaded standing army. Clarendon extorts a national loan in order to cover its costs (lines 480-91), and as soon as the funds are approved, the chancellor pens a "Proclamation stout, / In rescue of the Banquiers Banquerout" (lines 493-4). Throughout the poem, Marvell uses French to signify decadence and the separation of the court from its native England.(11) Clarendon's brave "rescue" of a special-interest group, these Frenchified bankers, is more than he is willing to do for Britannia, whom he leaves naked, stripped of her defenses. The special relationship between the crown, the chancellor, and his parasites leads into Marvell's most daring use of emasculation and sexual deviance to embody contemporary politics. He depicts the court system as a daisy chain of leeches:
His minion Imps that, in his secret part, Lye nuzz'ling at the Sacramental wart; Horse-leeches circling at the Hem'roid Vein; He sucks the King, they him, he them again.
By picturing parasites "nursing" at the king's sacred breast (and anus), the poet tracks the emasculation in the kingdom to its source. The royal hermaphrodite as leech-nursing Madonna is a vividly offensive image, but its power to repel is not the product of its androgyny. Androgynes range from the circus freak to the lovely Adonis.(12) If Charles is the poem's bearded lady, Lord Douglas is its Adonis, and he is not the poem's only epicene hero.
Michael Adrianzoon de Ruyter, the sixty-year-old commander of the Dutch fleet, is a surprising choice for one of the poem's heroic young androgynes. However, its brief idyll concerning Ruyter, the invader who ravishes Britannia, has more in common with its treatment of Douglas, her martyred defender, than with the scabrous portraits of the domestic court "rapists." The effects the invasion has on the aging captain as he eases up the channel are drawn as a gentle progress from violation to emasculation:
Ruyter the while, that had our Ocean curb'd, Sail'd now among our Rivers undisturb'd: Survey'd their Crystal Streams, and Banks so green, And Beauties e're this never naked seen. Through the vain sedge the bashful Nymphs he ey'd; Bosomes, and all which from themselves they hide. The Sun much brighter, and the Skies more clear, He finds the Air, and all things, sweeter here. The sudden change, and such a tempting sight, Swells his old Veins with fresh blood, fresh Delight. Like am'rous Victors he begins to shave, And his new Face looks in the English Wave.
Ruyter is first depicted as sufficiently invigorated by the sight of innocence to ravish it and then made effeminate and vain. The process of feminization climaxes when Ruyter is transformed into a woman - and not just any woman, but the quintessential female, Cleopatra. (See lines 531-40, where the description of Ruyter's ship draws on Enobarbus's account of Cleopatra and her barge.) Although it is the poem's centerpiece spectacle of rape and emasculation, the initial portrayal of Ruyter's invasion lacks any sense of violence or rage. Ruyter may be ravishing England, but at least it is not an incestuous rape. The poem husbands its anger, directing it instead at the fathers and brothers, those cowardly officers and "feather'd Gallants" (line 597) who run and hide or stand idly by, watching England's dishonor. As Ruyter's voyage up the Thames continues, Britannia is reduced to depending on the "frail Chain" (line 586) strung across her channel - like a virgin facing rape who counts on her hymen to protect her from penetration:
Hold Chain or we are broke. But with her Sailing weight, the Holland Keel Snapping the brittle links, does thorow reel; And to the rest the open'd passage shew.
The interrelation of rape and emasculation in the poem is multiform: emasculation may be the fate of the ravisher, his victim, or those who merely witness the act. The seizure of the ship Royal Charles inside England's waterways is rape within rape. The Charles becomes "a cheap spoil, and the mean Victor's Slave" (line 619), and George Monke, one of England's few military heroes, can do nothing but watch helplessly from the bank as she is dishonored. The spectacle transforms the general into an embodiment of feminine (maternal) rage:
Such from Euphrates bank, a Tygress fell, After the Robbers, for her Whelps does yell: But sees, inrag'd the River flow between. Frustrate Revenge, and Love, by loss more keen, At her own Breast her useless claws does arm; She tears herself since him she cannot harm.
The capture and violation of the Royal Charles is such a powerful symbol of national humiliation that the mere sight unmans the spectator. Almost as if to spare his audience a similar fate, the poet interrupts his account of the ship's seizure.
The celebration of Archibald Douglas's brave death, sandwiched between the accounts of the capture of the Royal Charles, is a striking and profoundly incongruous set piece whose lines later became the nucleus of a separate poem, "The Loyall Scot." Standing alone as an ars moriendi lyric, the depiction of Douglas's honeyed and deliquescent death approaches bathos;(13) in the context of "Last Instructions," the segment is even more disturbing. Modern readers are antipathetic to the concept of a sweet and fitting death in a way that a seventeenth-century audience would not have been. So historical distance can account for some of the strangeness of the Douglas segment, but it cannot account for all of it. In Marvell's poem, Douglas's death is not just celebrated, it is eroticized. Our first glimpse of the hero is as a sex object, a young man so fresh and lovely he risks being ravished by (or mistaken for) a girl:
brave Douglas; on whose lovely chin The early Down but newly did begin; And modest Beauty yet his Sex did Veil, While envious Virgins hope he is a Male. His yellow Locks curl back themselves to seek, Nor other Courtship knew but to his Cheek. Oft has he in chill Eske or Seine, by night, Harden'd and cool'd his Limbs, so soft, so white, Among the Reeds, to be espy'd by him, The Nymphs would rustle; he would forward swim. They sigh'd and said, Fond Boy, why so untame, That fly'st Love Fires, reserv'd for other Flame?
Here the treatment of the rape/emasculation theme and the inversion of gender norms is both elevated and quaint; its model would seem to be Ovid's erotic epyllia, a genre popular in Elizabethan England that included, among its most famous examples, amorous pursuits of androgynous youths.(14)
While the segment's literary heritage complements the poem's nostalgia for an age of heroism and purity, the genre's lascivious tone is deeply disturbing to the conventional comforts of elegiac verse. However, the account of Douglas's sacrifice has a genuine sweetness that also makes it inharmonious with satire. The young Scot is an innocent, seemingly deflowered by passionate Death, and his Liebstod is the wedding night for which he has been "saving himself":
Like a glad Lover, the fierce Flames he meets, And tries his first embraces in their Sheets. His shape exact, which the bright flames infold, Like the Sun's Statue stands of burnish'd Gold. Round the transparent Fire about him glows, As the clear Amber on the Bee does close.
In the depiction of Douglas's immolation, Marvell has not just elevated the theme of rape and emasculation; he has transformed it. Up to this point, for every action that violates or unmans a subject there has been a consequent sense of shame. The Douglas sacrifice, however, produces the opposite of shame - honor. When Monk was forced to witness the capture of the Charles, his impotent rage at her dishonor tore at his heart. Marvell brings him back into the poem to watch the hero's quiescent sacrifice, and the general's presence becomes Douglas's deepest comfort: "secret Joy, in his calm Soul does rise, / That Monk looks on to see how Douglas dies" (lines 675-6). When the young Scot marries Death, it is an innocent as well as honorable union. The tone of epithalamic celebration (as he meets the flames and "tries his first embraces in their Sheets") is misleading. The reader expects the youth to be deflowered, but the flames do not penetrate. Enfolding Douglas in an immortal embrace of rescue, they preserve him as a jewel - a bee in amber. The fire is to Douglas what the tree was to Daphne, an eternal refuge from dishonor.(15) The segment's eroticism emerges as strategic, presenting patriotism and courage as fiery passions one can experience without shame. Like seventeenth-century religious allegories of rape as an ecstatic union with the divine, Marvell's poem raises erotic energy to fuel a transcendent impulse, grasping his readers by the libido to lead them to the love of honor.(16) However, even if Douglas's sacrifice does succeed in raising the sights of those who witness it (and that remains an open question), it cannot undo the basic fact of the Dutch invasion or the craven behavior of the vast majority of England's "defenders."
Marvell drops his reader from the anagogic heights of the Douglas episode back onto the deck of the Royal Charles, its dishonor still in progress:
The Seamen search her all, within, without: Viewing her strength, they yet their Conquest doubt. Then with rude shouts, secure, the Air they vex; With Gamesome Joy insulting on her Decks. Such the fear'd Hebrew, captive, blinded, shorn, Was led about in sport, the publick scorn.
Ruyter's gentle penetration of the channel has degenerated into a sordid gang rape; the Royal Charles is covered within and without by "Seamen." The captive's gender is ambiguous from the start, and Marvell bends it again for good measure. Ships are usually considered feminine, but since this one bears the name of the king, it is also masculine. The ship is treated as a surprisingly strong female ("Viewing her strength"), a virago that is seamlessly transformed into an emasculated male. With the introduction of the shorn and captive Samson, the distinctions that separate gender, rape, emasculation, and shame collapse.
Like a victim of posttraumatic stress, the poet turns back to the capture of the Charles in the next section, obsessively reliving the pain. He attempts to extend his fixation beyond the private realm by making the anniversary of the battle of Medway a kind of national antiholiday. England's shame is to be commemorated by the day's destruction - it will be replaced by a "redoubled Night" (line 742), represented as unnatural birth followed by cannibalism: "Black Day accurs'd! . . . Thee, the Year's monster, let thy Dam devour" (lines 737-40). The day is a deformed whelp implicated in Britain's dishonor. It is a passive witness, shining on the shameful act:
When aged Thames was bound with Fetters base, And Medway chast ravish'd before his Face, And their dear Off-spring murder'd in their sight; Thou, and thy Fellows, held'st the odious Light.
The day and its "Fellows" (the men of the times) are pictured as voyeuristic accomplices who intensify the victim's humiliation by holding a light on her while she is ravished. The violation of Medway also has one unwilling witness: the Thames, Medway's aging husband, tied up and forced to watch his wife's rape, his daughter's abduction, and his children's murder. The personification of the Thames as a weak old man is a shift in both gender and perspective. Previously the river was a part of Britannia's body. By transforming the Thames into a man, the poet collapses national into individual, female into male, and victim into witness. In other words, when the country is violated, everyone shares the pain, guilt, and shame. Making the rivers an aging couple who suffer a vicious attack also adds pathos, particularly since they have known better times:
Sad change, since first that happy pair was wed, When all the Rivers grac'd their Nuptial Bed; And Father Neptune promis'd to resign His Empire old, to their immortal Line!
By evoking the Spenserian epithalamion celebrating the rivers' union in the midst of a Clockwork Orange scene, the poet adds insult to injury, teasing his audience with a normative standard that is out of reach.(17) The few positive moments in the poem are either locked in the past or its ephemeral echoes, contained in its pervasive nostalgia for the Elizabethan epoch, a time when a foreign navy would never have dared a brazen daylight violation of England's waters. Marvell continues to compare Britain's heroic past and degenerate present by exploiting a simple irony: the last time the country saw a virile sovereign, Elizabeth was on the throne. Now a "female Stewart" has spent her maritime empire:
The Court in Farthing yet it self does please, And female Stewart, there, Rules the four Seas. But Fate does still accumulate our Woes, And Richmond here commands, as Ruyter those.
The model for Britannia on medals and coins was Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, a beauty who caught the king's eye. Although the coins' motto claims dominion over the seas, the poet knows the seas belong to Ruyter. Britannia is reduced to being less powerful than her model, a woman who can dominate her uxorious monarch by appealing to his lust.(18) The "female Stewart" is Frances Stuart, but obviously it could also refer to Charles, providing one more opportunity for the poem to emasculate the king at a remove. After having limned Charles's stand-ins (his plenipotentiaries, the court, its parasites, his mistresses, the ship that bears his name, and so on), "Last Instructions" is at last ready to paint the king.
The poet chooses to portray the king in the chiaroscuro tones of a waking dream. He instructs the painter to
Raise up a sudden Shape with Virgins Face, Though ill agree her Posture, Hour, or Place: Naked as born, and her round Arms behind, With her own Tresses interwove and twin'd: Her mouth lockt up, a blind before her Eyes, Yet from beneath the Veil her blushes rise; And silent tears her secret anguish speak, Her heart throbs, and with very shame would break.
Her arms bound with her own hair, blindfolded, gagged, humiliated, and in tears, the vision that confronts Charles is a ravished innocent. There are two reactions a man can have to a rape victim: empathetic outrage or pornographic arousal. It should not surprise the reader that Charles's reaction is the latter:
The Object strange in him no Terrour mov'd: He wonder'd first, then pity'd, then he lov'd: And with kind hand does the coy Vision press, Whose Beauty greater seem'd by her distress.
The "kind hand" that the king extends to the victimized girl is not in the spirit of "kindness" (charity or rescue), but an action "in kind," a repetition of the rape. However, as he reaches out, he feels the apparition's coldness and "soon shrunk back" (line 903); he looses his hold and the lady vanishes. After his libido withers, Charles can exercise his reason: "In his deep thoughts the wonder did increase, / And he Divin'd 'twas England or the Peace" (lines 905-6). In the poet's vision, the king's rape of the nation is thwarted by the chilling realization that his intended victim is a phantom.
The fantasy slides into full-blown nightmare as Charles is confronted by more ghosts: the king's murdered ancestors - his grandfather, Henry IV of France, assassinated in 1610, and his father, Charles I, who shows him the "purple thread about his Neck" (line 922). The dead kings whisper in his ear and Charles converts, abandoning the decadent court. Significantly, we are never told what the king hears. However, considering the effect it has on Charles, the inescapable conclusion is that the apparitions are delivering a none-too-subtle de casibus warning: change your ways or risk being killed by your people. The poet/painter cannot deliver the threat directly, and it is not simply political discretion that mandates this indirection. The ideology as well as the practice of absolutism cuts off access to the king from below and makes anything but self-reform virtually impossible. Although the poet and the painter can evoke visions, in the final analysis, the only advisor an absolute monarch can have is a king. His political education must be either patriarchal or heuristic; in this case, it is both. The poet/painter surrenders his project of reform to his subject:
Painter adieu, how will our Arts agree; Poetick Picture, Painted Poetry. But this great work is for our Monarch fit, And henceforth Charles only to Charles shall sit.
The surrender of the project is, of course, more strategic than real. The poem ends with a separate message, "To the King." In one sense it is a further narrowing of the focus of the poem, from country to court to king. Charles is pictured as the sun, whose light has been obscured by sunspots that may "seem his Courtiers" and "are but his disease" (line 952). The choice of "spots" to represent the corruption in the kingdom is a further collapse inward on the king - "spots" are as integral to the subject and as incurable as the disease that causes them, the pox.(19) (Had the poet chosen "clouds," for example, the focus of the analogy would have been more clearly on the courtiers.) In another sense, however, the poem's last piece of advice is an expansion of the target area, a move from personal attack to ideological critique. Through an extended play on ideas of separation and union, it suggests that the corruption of the king and kingdom originates in a type of government, Stuart absolutism. Charles's courtiers are unhealthily close to him; at the same time they act as a force to "Isle the Monarch from his Isle" (line 968). The court is both too close and too far from the people, violating their liberties but indifferent to their needs. This abusive relationship will end if England can return to a system of independent counsels, men "born to Virtue and to Wealth" who "as in Love, on Parliaments can stare" (lines 983, 988). Marvell suggests here what he will state explicitly in "An Account": the court employment of men without estates or consciences encourages corruption and arbitrary rule, and only the economic independence of those who participate in government can guarantee against abuses (pp. 328, 412). In an ideal contrast to the imagery of sexual deviance that has dominated the poem, "To the King" envisions a union of court and people that is a lawful and loving marriage - a model of autonomy that ultimately enhances the king's closeness to his people ("Give us this Court, and rule without a Guard" [line 990]). The conclusion emerges as an affirmation of limited monarchy that gives real political significance to the nostalgia for Tudor England expressed earlier in the poem.(20) But the nostalgia itself conveys a sense that the past is irretrievable. The restoration of the kingdom to health and purity can be accomplished only by a monarch thoroughly implicated in its decline, and though the poet can picture a glorious rebirth for the king and the English state, his slender hopes are riding on a miracle of self-healing.(21)
1 For discussions of topical material, see especially John M. Wallace, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968); Annabel M. Patterson, Marvell and the Civic Crown (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978); and Steven N. Zwicker, "Lines of Authority: Politics and Literary Culture in the Restoration," in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 237-46. A typical dismissal of the poem on aesthetic grounds is George de F. Lord's: "Coming from the subtle balance and meditative detachment of the lyrics one finds the commitment to political action a real shock . . . It is perhaps even harder to believe that a lyric poet of unexcelled grace and sensitivity could have produced such a poem as Last Instructions to a Painter, a poem that is often derisive, tendentious, cynical, and ugly" ("From Contemplation to Action: Marvell's Poetical Career," PQ 46, 2 [April 1967]: 207-24; rprt. in Andrew Marvell: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George de F. Lord [Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968], p. 57).
2 Interpretations of the poem's politics vary widely. For Wallace, the poem is an affirmation of the king's prerogatives and an expression of what he terms Marvell's "loyalism" (pp. 163-83). Patterson sees "Last Instructions" as an attack on the king's ministers, but not on the king. Specifically, it is an attempt to "place blame for the war's failure on the shoulders of those actually responsible, the notable exception being, of course, Charles himself" (p. 158). However, Zwicker finds in the closing scene of the poem a brilliant satiric attack, "a daring and subtle attempt on the character of the king" (p. 242).
3 All citations of Marvell's poems are from The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, 3rd edn., ed. H. M. Margoliouth, rev. Pierre Legouis with E. E. Duncan Jones, 2 vols. (London: Clarendon, 1971). Editors usually gloss "Antique" as an obsolete spelling of antic, meaning grotesque. See Margoliouth, 1:350. However, as the original usage of antic implies, there was no necessary separation between the meanings of antique and antic in this period - ancient and grotesque styles were deemed synonymous (hence the similar etymology of grotesque). A reading that retains the conflated meanings of this term allows the poet to evoke the classical authority to be grossly explicit. Roman political satire, which was the model for much of seventeenth-century political verse, often used grotesque sexual descriptions to attack its targets. Thus, Marvell's poem is in the tradition of the "antique Masters" in every sense.
4 References to this king's penchant for gratifying desire at the expense of civic duty can be seen in other sources, for example Rochester's satire on Charles II in The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. Keith Walker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984):
Him no Ambition mooves, to gett Renowne Like the french Foole who wanders up and downe Starving his People, hazarding his Crowne. Peace is his Aime, his Gentlenesse is such And Love, he loves, for he loves fucking much.
In the rest of the poem Rochester attacks Charles as indifferent to matters of state and dangerously vulnerable to sexual desires that distract him from his kingly duties. Like Marvell, he connects political ineptitude with sexual enervation, ending his poem with a graphic description of the king's inability to perform in bed. It is also interesting to note that Rochester associates this particular style of rule with the French - a theme that pervades Marvell's political poems and tracts.
5 Ten years after writing the painter poems, Marvell returned to many of the same concerns about Stuart absolutism in his anonymous prose work An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, rprt. in The Complete Works of Andrew Marvell, ed. A. B. Grossart, 4 vols. (1875; rprt. New York: AMS Press, 1966), 4:245-424. This political pamphlet can serve as an especially useful gloss on "Last Instructions." In the brilliantly subversive introductory section, Marvell detaches the king's prerogative and the fiction of his infallibility from the eternal realm of divine right and reattaches them to the realm of political contingency - valid only if consistent with respect for his subjects and for English law:
His very Prerogative is no more than what the Law has determined. His Broad Seal, which is the legitimate stamp of his pleasure, yet no longer currant, than upon the trial it is found to be legal . . . Nothing is left to the King's will, but all is subjected to his authority: by which means it follows that he can do no wrong, nor can he receive wrong; and a King of England keeping to these measures, may without arrogance, be said to remain the onely intelligent Ruler over a rational People. In recompense therefore and acknowledgment of so good a Government under his influence, his person is most sacred and inviolable; and whatsoever excesses are committed against so high a trust, nothing of them is imputed to him, as being free from the necessity or temptation; but his ministers only are accountable for all, and must answer it at their perils.
In the Account, Marvell goes so far as to attack the introduction of absolutism into England as a treason worse than regicide: "For, as to matter of government, if to murther the king be, as it certainly is, a fact so horrid, how much more hainous is it to assassinate the Kingdom? and none will deny, that to alter our Monarchy into a Commonwealth were treason, so by the same fundamental rule, the crime is no less to make that Monarchy absolute" (p. 261).
6 The children were Charles, Duke of Cambridge (1660-1661), James, Duke of Cambridge (1663-1667), and Charles, Duke of Kendel (1666-1667); in Margoliouth, 1:353, note to line 60.
7 Margoliouth, 1:148, note to line 60.
8 This female pursuit of a reluctant male was, however, not unknown in classical poetry. See note 14 on the Ovidian erotic epyllion and the Douglas episode.
9 For a treatment of the figure of Britannia, see Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (New York: Atheneum, 1985). Warner describes the monarch's symbolic relation to the allegorical representation of the nation: "Nor was Britannia usually conflated with the monarch himself. He is seen rather as her champion, her beneficiary, her agent, or even her violator, for she often represents a libertarian opposition to established authority" (p. 47).
10 It is interesting to note that for hundreds of years in England (until the close of the thirteenth century) castration as a punishment for rape was statutory law, and that the victim could rescue her assailant from mutilation by agreeing to marry him. See Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 25-7. This ancient "solution" to the rape/castration dilemma finds a parallel in Marvell's poem.
11 Marvell's frequent attacks on the French in this poem have an important contemporary political context. He and his party feared (and their fears were not unfounded) that Charles was in league with the French crown. Recent revelations regarding the secret clauses the king was to sign in the Treaty of Dover - promising the French that he would convert to Catholicism, for example - would have confirmed their suspicions. See Patterson, pp. 39, 201,252. However, the poem's attacks on the French have an ideological as well as a local political significance. Absolutism was regarded by many seventeenth-century Englishmen as a continental style of monarchy. Thus, calling Charles's men "French tools" is as much a reference to the king's unlimited power over them as it is to their questionable ties to a foreign power.
12 The complex tradition of the androgyne as an aesthetic ideal and as the allegorical embodiment of perfection is traced by James M. Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986). In a fascinating application to the political realm of the general principle of androgyny as perfection, the French produced an androgynous (and one assumes official) portrait of Francis I as a bearded virago with a distinctly female body (now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris). See Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. and enl. edn. (New York: Norton, 1968), plate 80. In contrast, Phyllis Rackin points out that after the sixteenth century, "the high Renaissance image of the androgyne as a symbol of prelapsarian or mystical perfection was replaced by the satirical portrait of the hermaphrodite, a medical monstrosity or social misfit, an image of perversion or abnormality" ("Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage," PMLA 102, 1 [January 1987]: 29). This historic movement of androgyny from ideal to grotesque fits in nicely with Marvell's contextualization of the heroic androgyne, Douglas, within a distinctly Elizabethan genre and his portrait of Charles II as an hermaphroditic monster.
13 Michael Seidel says, "In one sense, the Douglas sequence barely manages to skirt bathos (or modal burlesque); in another, it allows Marvell to work a legitimate hero into a poem and world that is generically insufficient for his literary image" (Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979], p. 142). Other readers like Margarita Stocker in Apocalyptic Marvell: The Second Coming in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1986) and Warren L. Chernaik in The Poet's Time: Politics and Religion in the Work of Andrew Marvell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983) view the episode without mixed feelings. Chernaik states that the function of the episode is clear: "It provides, after a manner familiar in satire, an explicit statement of the ideal against which the deviations from that ideal can be measured" (p. 78). I tend to agree with readings that consider the Douglas segment to be at least as disturbing in its tone as it is affirming in its theme.
14 In Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" the youth is called "Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man" (The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], line 9). In Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" the androgynous perfection of the young man is more explicitly handled: "Some swore he was a maid in man's attire, / For his looks were all that men desire," and the poem includes a sea chase of Leander by Neptune in which the young man protests to the god, "You are deceiv'd, I am no woman, I" while Neptune continues his assault (The Poems of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Millar Maclure [London: Methuen, 1968], lines 83-4, 192). For a detailed discussion of the role of androgyny in Elizabethan Ovidian poetry, see William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1977). Keach also points out the relation of the epyllion to late Elizabethan satire - a relationship that might help to make generic sense of Marvell's Douglas episode.
15 I am indebted to Elisabeth Magnus for the comparison of Douglas to Daphne.
16 Murray Roston, in Renaissance Perspectives in Literature and the Visual Arts (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), looks at sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century uses of eroticism to express elevated religious themes. For instance, he cites numerous painters and poets, one of them Spenser, whose "use of the human orgasm and indeed of rape itself to depict the soul's ecstatic union with the celestial would have come as no surprise to a contemporary reader, the ravishment inflaming the entire body with burning passion" (p. 173). According to Roston, the seventeenth century was, if anything, even more fond of using sexual allegories to represent religious experience than was the sixteenth century (p. 313).
17 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, bk. 4, canto 11.
18 In classic political theory, the tyrant was represented as effeminate, weak, and uxorious as a result of his essentially erotic nature. (Early modern political writers used the term uxorious more broadly than it is used today; they called tyrannical kings uxorious if the monarchs were led away from their duty by their desire for women. For example, in Paradise Lost, Milton describes an "uxorious King, whose heart though large, / Beguil'd by fair Idolatresses, fell / To Idols foul" The Works of John Milton, ed. Frank Allen Patterson, vol. 2, pt. 1 [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1931], 1.444-6.) This view dates back to Plato's Republic, where Socrates speaks of the tyrant as a character who may seem to control others but who is, in reality, his own slave, helpless in the face of his passions. See Rebecca W. Bushnell, Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), which explores the theory of the uxorious tyrant and points out its popularity in Renaissance political thought and dramatic literature.
19 From the time of the Tudor morality plays onward, "spots" were used to signify moral as well as physical sickness. Spots, pock marks, sores, etc., became immensely popular images among Jacobean dramatists, who frequently used them to represent political and/or sexual corruption. See Annette Drew-Bear, "Face-Painting in Renaissance Tragedy," Rend n.s. 12 (1981): 71-93.
20 Tudor monarchy was considered by many Renaissance Englishmen to embody the principle of "crown in Parliament," a harmonious and mutually respectful marriage of the monarch and his or her counselor body.
21 At the conclusion of the Account, as in the conclusion of "Last Instructions," Marvell, having done the diagnosis, leaves the "cure" of the king/kingdom's disease to the only political physician who has the power to affect it: this advice has been offered so that "his Majesty, having discerned the disease, may with his healing touch apply the remedy" (4:414).
Barbara Riebling is assistant professor of English at the University of Toledo. Along with Nancy Easterlin, she is the coeditor of After Poststructuralism (1993). She has also written on Shakespeare's and Milton's treatment of Machiavellian political theory, and she is currently working on a study of counsel literature and early modern drama.