ELH, Summer 1993 v60 n2 p379(18)

The balance of power in Marvell's "Horatian Ode." Greene, Thomas M.

Abstract: Andrew Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' projects the presence of the uncanny and mysterious into history. The poem presents a prophetic perspective along with mysteries that only the heightened understanding of the speaker can answer. The Cromwell in the poem is presented as a darker version of the mysterious in human affairs with signs of apocalyptic violence. Moreover, the metaphors employed in the poem move in various directions focusing on the different aspects of the truth.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press


The attention of most students of Marvell's "Horatian Ode upon Cromwel's Return from Ireland" has been directed toward questions of fairly concrete historical specificity--questions about the poet's real opinion of Cromwell, his views on the over-throw of royalty, and his greater or lesser ambivalence, according to the reader, regarding one man's violent seizure of power in England. This attention is not surprising, in view of the poem's ostensible subject, but the lack of critical unanimity suggests the conclusion recently formulated by Frank Kermode and Keith Walker--that the poem is "baffling to anybody who wants simply to know where the poet stood with Cromwell in 1650."(1) Baffling apparently it will remain, despite the most earnest hermeneutic footwork. The essay that follows will draw upon the insights to be found in its predecessors and like them it will necessarily pay attention to certain specific historical events, but it will assume Marvell's own bafflement by that particular historical text the ode attempts to read. It will begin with the assumption that the fragment of history meditated by the ode is represented not only as inherently mysterious but arcane. The true subject of the poem seems to me to be the intrusion of the uncanny into history. In various forms this is of course a property of experience in more than one of Marvell's poems, and I want to approach the "Horatian Ode" by means of an excursus devoted to the poet's fullest development of this property in another, very different poem. Thus the ode will be read with or against the closing episodes of "Upon Appleton House," where the presence of the uncanny will come as a surprise to no one.

This presence is most notable in the remarkable section of that poem devoted to the wood at Nun Appleton (stanzas 61-78), where the speaker's promenade through his employer's property eventually leads him. This is that place in Marvell's poetry where things invite most subtly and yet most urgently an interpretation for which the text offers the term "mystick." The tone is so delicate that all exegesis must violate it, but its tantalizing impressions need nonetheless to be teased out. The whole movement of the poem until the final episode leads away from the architectural to the "magic wood" (Rosalie Colie) or the "magic grove" (Leah Marcus) where everything speaks in a prophetic language the poet miraculously understands. Here the poet becomes "a numinous human figure," who communicates effortlessly with birds and plants.(2)

Already I begin to call In their most learned Original: And where I Language want, my Signs The Bird upon the Bough divines. (569-72)(3)

This haunting episode reflects a sensitivity to things as hieroglyphs, a quality of attention to natural objects out of which the mind interprets or creates meanings. The leaves as perceptible objects are presented as signifiers to be read, leaves in a sacred book replete with lore the poem affirms but fails to communicate. The wood is a place of beneficent sacrifice, where the hewel fells an oak without pain or protest, and a place of supernatural insight.

Out of these scatter'd Sibyls Leaves Strange Prophecies my Phancy weaves: And in one History consumes, Like Mexique Paintings, all the Plumes. What Rome, Greece, Palestine, ere said I in this light Mosaick read. Thrice happy he who, not mistook, Hath read in Natures mystick Book. (577-84)(4)

The whole poem in its play of increasingly extravagant vision seems to move toward this Mosaic light, this prophetic perspective which poses esoteric mysteries apparently soluble only by the heightened understanding of the speaker. He has penetrated what he first perceives as a Night (504) formed by the grove's dense trunks, and then reaches that light which he tells us illumines mysteries. According to his account, he not only penetrates but finally assumes the arcane as simultaneous prelate and victim nailed to the earth by briars that complete his initiation.

The wood at Nun Appleton becomes a kind of Utopia of meanings to the "easy philosopher" who passes among them; everything is replete with a significance which trembles on the brink of revelation but never passes into definition. But the copia of meaning may be deceptive; it is never even perfectly clear that the contents of the mystic book ever amount to more than the whimsical notions of the philosopher's fancy. The Mosaic light, the prophetic illumination, may prove to be a dilettante's mosaic, no more permanent than the leaves trembling in the breeze which are as volatile as the leaves of the Cumaean sybil. The antique learning may only be antic. The reader moves with the "careless" philosopher through a scene whose every sight and sound signal a potential profundity which the text genially affirms but fails to communicate. The repeated motif of sacrifice might lie at the core of the proliferating hints, but no single interpretation of the motif organizes its recurrences. The foliage of signifiers surrounds the intruder, binds him, crucifies him, but finally leaves him free to leave, not transformed, not visibly illumined with a metamorphic vision. This plenitude of potential signifiers which keep their secrets is what marks the scene as uncanny but not, I submit, "magical," since it ultimately effects no transfer of arcane energy of the kind magic claims to induce. The visitor is no "Magus," as he has been claimed to be, because he brings nothing about; he remains only a supremely sensitive observer of a semiotic imbalance, the uncanny imbalance of multitudinous uninterpreted signs. He registers and perhaps multiplies the fabulous wealth of his semiotic Land of Cockaigne.

The Utopian fantasy is finally transcended, exposed as fantasy, only in the final section which returns to the garden of the house and to the master's daughter Maria. The transitional stanzas between the wood and garden (79-82) begin to invest the poet's solitude with a laxity which will then contrast with the rigor attributed to the girl as she walks in the garden as governess to the world. The hyperbole of compliment invites skepticism, but in fact Marvell seems nowhere so serious as in the celebration of that human civilizing presence which he chooses to incarnate in Maria. Here indeed one might speak correctly of magic, but of a sort that is properly understood to stem from a perceptive and responsive human consciousness.

'Tis She that to these Gardens gave That wondrous Beauty which they have; She streightness on the Woods bestows; To Her the Meadow sweetness owes; Nothing could make the River be So Chrystal-pure but only She; She yet more Pure, Sweet, Streight, and Fair, Then Gardens, Woods, Meads, Rivers are. Therefore what first She on them spent, They gratefully again present. (689-98)

What is celebrated here is a projective human power which organizes and defines its context, assigns qualities, and thus meanings, to the random objects about it: "See how loose Nature, in respect / To her, it self doth recollect" (657-58). The garden with Maria in it is not uncanny, because her presence effects that semiotic balance which the wood failed to achieve. The wood speaks with fanciful languages whose import remains elusive. Maria, we discover, is a mistress of usable languages.

She counts her Beauty to converse In all the Languages as hers; Nor yet in those her self imployes But for the Wisdome, not the Noyse; Nor yet that Wisdome would affect, But as 'tis Heavens Dialect. (707-12)

Stevens is not far off, and the Maria episode can appropriately be read in Stevensian terms.

It was her voice that made The sky acutest at its vanishing. She measured to the hour its solitude. She was the single artificer of the world In which she sang.(5)

The apparent pseudo-magic of hyperbole in "Upon Appleton House" can be regarded, should in fact be regarded, as the legitimate "magic" of human perception and re-creation, "arranging, deepening, enchanting" the world around it. This power of imagery is not a fantasy; it is that true power we do potentially possess (although vulnerable to distortion and pathology), the power eminently visible in this text.

In Marvell, as in Stevens, this power seems to derive from a circle of projection and assimilation. What Maria "spends" on her surroundings "they gratefully again present," just as Stevens's jar placed in Tennessee allows the speaker to appropriate the landscape it centers and dominates.(6) Through a creative phenomenology, consciousness projects anthropomorphisms--perceptions, names, metaphors, interpretations--on things, anthropomorphisms which assign them meanings and so permit the reader to "take them in," to apprehend and internalize things newly understood. This opening of a projective-assimilative circle is what poems do, and not least "Upon Appleton House." Like the ordering of the slovenly wilderness in Stevens's Tennessee, Marvell's garden projects a "decent order" on a world otherwise "negligently overthrown" (763, 766). It is the process celebrated by "The Garden," where the activities of projection and reception become inextricable. The mind, the ocean where all things find their resemblance, creates by projecting an oxymoronic green thought, a unified conflation of image and idea, upon the green shade which is both context and fabrication. The soul perched within the garden boughs receives the various light in order to "wave" the light in its plumes and thus humanize it. One discerns a nascent conception of human creative vision as a dual movement outward and inward, a "spending" of images and symbols that permits a simultaneous appropriation of the world thus ordered. This dual movement which reduces itself to one single act would account for an authentic magic, a fundamental, human magic raised many degrees by the artist, which "corrects" that imbalance of signs signaled by the uncanny and achieves a temporary equilibrium. Such a primary magic would not be an instrument of desire or fear, but a means of cognitive and intuitive enrichment.

The term "magical" is nothing if not slippery and I fear that it invites misunderstanding. It is commonly used almost more frequently as a metaphor (a "magical experience") than as a proper term, or it is used in a rhetorical gray area where its force remains uncertain ("magical thinking"). I would like to use it here with whatever technical precision is possible, and to this end it may be useful to cite a formulation of its supposed workings by a professional ethnographer. Claude Levi-Strauss repeatedly discusses pre-literate magic, shamanistic magic, as an attempt to right a semiotic imbalance which he sees as inherent in the intellectual condition of mankind.

In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought |attributed here by Levi-Strauss to the shaman~, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality.... Through collective participation in shamanistic curing, a balance is established between these two complementary situations.(7)

In a later text, discussing the analysis of magic by Marcel Mauss, Levi-Strauss returns to the same imbalance:

In his effort to understand the world, man always disposes of a surplus of meaning (which he distributes among things according to the laws of symbolic thought which it is the task of ethnologists and linguists to study). This distribution of a supplementary ration . . . is absolutely necessary in order that ultimately the available signifiers and the perceived signifieds remain in that relation of complementarity which is the very condition of the exercise of symbolic thought.(8)

Levi-Strauss goes on to associate what he calls the floating signifier with poetry, myth, and aesthetic creation. The weakness of his analysis lies in a post-Saussurean emphasis on more or less static semiotic relationships, an emphasis which slights the transfer of energy supposedly inherent in all magic. But the conception of a semiotic imbalance, which we have already met in the wood at Appleton House, is indeed fruitful, and one can properly follow Levi-Strauss in understanding poetry to mitigate the imbalance if one stresses the dynamism released by the projective circle which "names," metaphorizes, anthropomorphizes. Poetic naming enlarges the number of signifieds available for apprehending our world. Plato's Diotima tells Socrates that poetry calls "something into existence that was not there before" (Symposium, 205b). Poetry can be understood to carry to exceptional lengths the productivity of a creative circle which we all to some degree project. The uncanny plenitude of uninterpreted symbols in Marvell's wood would then become an exaggerated example of a human condition which it is the business of magic, shamanistic or aesthetic, to mitigate. The literalism of shamanistic magic can be regarded as a misplaced imitation of that fundamental, universally human magic which men and women need to live sanely. The stanzas devoted to the transformative presence of Maria, speaking as she does "Heaven's Dialect," might be read as an allegory of the transformations of poetic power. The circular activity of the mind resembles the activity of the drop of dew in the poem of that name which

recollecting its own Light, Does, in its pure and circling thoughts, express The greater Heaven in an Heaven less. (24-26)

The light can be recollected, regathered in the drop, precisely because it circles. The Maria episode of "Upon Appleton House," in its adumbration of this projective assimilation, this primary means of achieving meaning, would then function as a response to the uncanny Utopia of semiotic superabundance in the wood. Under the guise of genial flattery, it would assert the possibility of a creative complementarity, concluding a poem concerned with the various relations of art and nature, signs and referents, with a definitive, fundamental, and dynamic relation.


The Cromwell of the "Horatian Ode" embodies a darker version of the inscrutable in human affairs, and in his case the portents that accompany his mystifying career are signs of apocalyptic violence. Cromwell is "climacteric" (104), ominous, fatal to his enemies and even to "his own side." His awesome and blazing apparition is not amenable to judgment: "'Tis Madness to resist or blame / The force of angry Heaven's flame" (25-26). The problem posed by this turbulent and revolutionary epiphany cannot be solved by the conventional exercise of ethical reason; he is beyond ethical categories. The problem is rather how to keep one's life and one's poise in the face of a phenomenon which resists explanation, resists not only eulogy but the kind of interpretation derived from "the great work of time" which Cromwell has ruined. This is a career which cries out for rationalization but offers it no purchase; its meaning is super-human, explosive, revolutionary, but absent. Its portents are everywhere but they defy unravelling. In this perspective, the man Cromwell offers a demonic counterpart to the mystery of the wood at Nun Appleton. His inscrutability is the source of that uncanny quality which history has assumed with the advent of Cromwell; it teems with unreadable symbols. To this uncanny text of events Marvell brings his own deliberately dry and dispassionate art.

The "Horatian Ode" is framed with shadows. It begins with an emergence from them:

The forward Youth that would appear Must now forsake his Muses dear, Nor in the Shadows sing His Numbers languishing. (1-4)

and it ends with Cromwell penetrating them, not without risk:

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 Pow'r must it maintain. (115-20)

The metaphorical shadows are not presumably quite the same in both cases, but the sinister and haunted obscurity of the future into which Cromwell is disappearing in the closing lines obliges us to alter slightly our understanding of the shade from which the forward youth of the opening is to "appear." A subsequent passage will compare Cromwell's emergence to this hypothetical youth's by means of the adverb "so" ("So restless Cromwel could not cease . . ." |9~), and the shadows obscuring the youth will be implicitly likened to the clouds where Cromwell was "nursed" and from which he is represented as "breaking" like "three fork'd Lightning" (13-14). This retrospective deepening of the shadows around the forward youth only contributes to the slight hermeneutic uncertainties of the first stanza. Are the shadows nothing more than the obscurity of a reputation? Is it admirable to be ambitious, "forward," at a moment of political crisis and tragedy? Is the obligation conveyed by the verb "must" ethical or prudential? To what degree is the youth to be identified with the twenty-nine year old Marvell? Is Marvell's choice of a military theme the equivalent of the youth's abandonment of his languishing numbers, which sound like love poetry?

These questions are not clarified by the second stanza.

'Tis time to leave the Books in dust, And oyl th' unused Armours rust, Removing from the Wall The Corslet of the Hall. (5-8)

If the parallel between the youth and the poet is pressed, then the corselet might arguably be read as a metaphor of the poem we are reading. It is worth remarking that readying the armor, and not least the corselet, is a defensive preparation; the youth is not enjoined to take up a pike or sword, although in the subtext by Lucan, Roman citizens are depicted as snatching javelins and swords as well as shields (Pharsalia I, 239-43). The sword will itself become defensive at the close; it will become a talisman holding off the potentially hostile spirits of the dead, just as Odysseus uses his sword in Homer's underworld to hold off the peaceable spirits crowding about him. Marvell doubtless had no way of knowing the ancient Irish use of the word lorica, latin for breastplate, the generic term for the apotropaic spells produced by Old Irish culture. This was a term derived from the Pauline injunction (Ephesians 6:14) to put on the breastplate of righteousness, "loricam iustitiae." Marvell probably had no way of knowing this word, but his text allows us to ask whether it should not be regarded as his corselet, a protective garment under which we try to make him out as he appears and disappears in the ambiguities of his qualified tribute.

Protection is indeed a relevant need in view of the intrusion of mystical violence into history. It breaks upon events like "the three fork'd Lightning," "burning through the Air," rending "Pallaces and Temples" (13, 21-22). Protection is all the more relevant because lightning can, as we have seen, "|break~ the Clouds where it was nurst," just as Cromwell "Did thorough his own Side / His fiery way divide" (15-16). Partisans of the fulgurous hero may be exposed to the greatest dangers, since history has transcended conventional forms and assumed the apocalyptic mode. A representative swerve among many into the uncanny follows the one moment of historical description, the famous and moving evocation of King Charles's execution placed at the center of the poem. Marvell's account of that event, presented explicitly as a tragedy, provides the only non-metaphoric images given us, but it yields to a remote historical allusion which will transform the event into a portent.

This was that memorable Hour Which first assur'd the forced Pow'r. So when they did design The Capitols first Line, A bleeding Head where they begun, Did fright the Architects to run; And yet in that the State Foresaw it's happy Fate. (65-72)

These lines refer to an anecdote mentioned by several Roman authors, including Livy, Varro, and Pliny. Livy's account, the fullest, describes a "strange event, which seemed to foretell the grandeur of our empire."

A man's head with the features intact was discovered by the workmen who were digging the foundations of the temple |of Jupiter Capitolium~. This meant without any doubt that on this spot would stand the imperial citadel of the capital city of the world. Nothing could be plainer--and such was the interpretation put upon the discovery not only by the Roman soothsayers but also by those who were specially brought from Etruria for consultation.(9)

Scholars have noted that Marvell adds the architects' fright and the qualifier "bleeding." He also suppresses the principal element in the original story, the intact flesh of the head. He injects a macabre note which was missing in the sources; essentially he replaces firm flesh with blood and joy with terror. The phrasing which introduces his version of the story links it with Charles's execution, thus presenting Livy's portent as a commentary upon or even an illumination of that event's true meaning. The shedding of Charles's blood, ostensibly a tragedy, becomes a portent of the republic's happy future. This is an example of the uncanny. The crime of regicide becomes a meurtre createur like the killing of Remus; in a mysterious way, the sacrificial blood is necessary to found a state. The execution, evoked with careful detail, becomes itself an augury, an apocalyptic sign which has to be interpreted paradoxically ("And yet ..."). Cromwell the man, however fleshly, becomes an awesome portent, as lightning was once thought to be a portent, or as military victories were regarded as portents, not least by Cromwell himself. This human augury "appears" on the scene by "urg|ing~ his active Star" (12), manipulating astrological influence for his own purposes. If he has "cast the Kingdome old / Into another Mold" (35-36), the new mold introduces an arcane dimension into history which leaves beholders awed, frightened, but grudgingly respectful. It is true that Cromwell is praised for personal traits of practical effectiveness; he is said to display "industrious valour" (33) and again, in an effective phrase, to be one "That does both act and know" (76). But the poem's dominant interpretation of recent history subordinates these traits to the flame of angry heaven. This introduction of a transcendent and esoteric power into British politics emerges as the poem's underlying subject. It is perpetuated by that final apotropaic image of the sword held erect to ward off potentially hostile spirits.

The presence of the uncanny raises the problem of control. The mysterious character of Cromwell's apparition upon the politico/military stage constitutes a problem for his nominal superiors, the members of parliament; the same apparition in the ode constitutes a problem for the poet. If the latter is acknowledged only indirectly, the former becomes explicit when Marvell's impressionistic survey of past events reaches the present time, the moment of composition, as Cromwell's return from the masterful and cruel subjection of Ireland raises questions about the real center of power in the nascent republic. The text deals with these questions by praising the man of fate optimistically for his relative deference to parliament: "Nor yet grown stiffer with Command, / But still in the Republick's hand" (81-82). The "yet" and the "still" here are ominous, as though the Commander's future impatience with parliament could already be discerned. How long may we hope that the republic's hand will subdue him? Colonel Pride's purge had already occurred when the poem was written. The disturbing simile which is ostensibly intended to reassure only deepens one's disquiet.

So when the Falcon high Falls heavy from the Sky, She, having kill'd, no more does search, But on the next green Bow to pearch; Where, when he first does lure, The Falckner has her sure. (91-96)

Nothing in fact seems less sure than the future affirmed by that wan last word, its very weakness focusing the drama of precarious control over a wild rapacious thing whose docility remains in doubt. Parliament as the falconer stands waiting for the bird of prey, "heavy" because sated with meat, to return to the lure on the wrist. The bird has not yet done so, and we are left with that drama of uncertain and fateful expectation. The fact of satiety, apparently, weighs as a hopeful factor; she has already killed enough. The image carries with it a certain helplessness on the falconer's part. He can only whistle and wait; what he cannot do is reason with a force of deaf, unreasonable nature.

The poet's stance bears some analogies with this falconer's. To produce a coherent poem, the poet needs to control in some measure the uncontrollable force incarnated by Cromwell. Can it be subdued by poetry any more than by the republic? Perhaps only an arcane operation, a spell or a rite, would suffice to bring that force back to the hand. From the flattest (and most ambiguous?) lines of the poem, the reader learns that ". . . if we would speak true, / Much to the Man is due" (27-28), that Man, as the wandering sentence finally concludes, who "ruin|ed~ the great Work of Time" (34). Much indeed is due, but precisely what? Can the poem fathom the mystery of events sufficiently to tell us?

'Tis madness to resist or blame The force of angry Heavens flame.

Though Justice against Fate complain, And plead the antient Rights in vain: But those do hold or break As Men are strong or weak. (25-26, 37-40)

Perhaps a strong poem will be able to transcend a destruction of rights which is unflinchingly represented as sacrilegious.

One prominent uncanny element in the Cromwellian apocalypse is this inexplicable suggestion of providential desecration which is ambiguously justified by the portent of success. And if the whole career is marked by providential sacrilege, there can be no doubt that the supreme crime against the sacred is the murder of the king. When Marvell writes that Charles did not call "the Gods . . . to vindicate his helpless Right" (61-62), he does not mean, as John M. Wallace would have him mean, that Charles wisely surrendered his divine right by his silence on the block.(10) Marvell means rather that Charles would have had no more success, had he attempted to assert his right, than, in the allegorical debate depicted above, Justice had had against Fate in pleading the ancient and still valid "rights." Charles's silence is consistent with his dignity and distinction, surrounded with the vulgarity of Roundhead noise: "While round the armed Bands / Did clap their bloody hands" (55-56). There is no mitigation of this crime within the terms familiar to the poet and his audience. There is only an appeal to "another mold" which is tolerable because inevitable. The Horatian form of the ode, including the quiet formality, the brevity of the lines, the refusal of the incantatory, can be read as counter-apocalyptic. The poem resists that incantatory temptation as though it were crafted to remain aloof from the melodramatic and lurid mysteries it reflects upon. But this rhetorical reticence cannot disguise the fact of a subject which is radically, metaphysically ungovernable. The poetic problem cannot really be distinguished from the political problem.

The reader's problem, in any case, clearly cannot be reduced to the calculus of the poem's moral attitude toward its amoral subject. The problem might rather be said to lie in the interplay of metaphor with phenomenon. Is the poetic language primarily protective, according to the hypothesis already suggested? Does this poet want to disappear rather than to appear, like the forward youth, behind carefully crafted pseudo-compliments ("|The Irish~ can affirm his Praises best . . ." |77~)? Perhaps the mind of the speaker may not after all prove to be so very different from the "party-colour'd" or parti-colored mind of the Pict, shrinking underneath his symbolic plaid, "Happy if in the tufted brake / The English Hunter him mistake" (109-10). The Scot clearly doesn't want to appear, and an analogy might be drawn between his self-concealment in the shadowy brake and the reticence of a text that doesn't want to give itself away too facilely. But that harsh verdict doesn't really account for a text which has after all appeared as a formidable member of the small collection of major public poems our language affords.


The idea of the uncanny will lead some readers' thoughts to Freud's monograph on the "Unheimlich," and it may be worth noting that in that paper Freud curiously mentions "a severed head" as well as other dismembered bodily parts as having "something peculiarly uncanny about them." But more significant is Freud's analysis of the semiotics of the general phenomenon.

An uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us as reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of a thing it symbolizes, and so on. It is this element which contributes not a little to the uncanny effect attaching to magical practices.(11)

Freud's intuition that the uncanny effect stems from a confusion of symbol and referent is sound and sheds light on the "Horatian Ode." One can locate that uncanny blurring in a single word, the pivotal "So" which links Charles's execution with the incident on the Capitoline. Just as the execution assured the "forced power," so the bleeding head frightened the architects "And yet in that the State / Foresaw its happy fate" (71-72). Does this mean that the execution was a necessary sacrifice to assure the English state's future? The degree of causality is left vague, but the removal of Charles can be interpreted as one of Freud's "magical practices," just as the Capitoline head begins to take over "the full functions and significance" of the thing it symbolizes. The magical identification of sign and referent has virtually become an ethnographic commonplace, although it was not yet one in 1919, the date of Freud's monograph. Nonetheless it is important to maintain the distinction between an uncanny effect, which stems from a symbolic excess, and a magical practice, which lays claim to an efficacity which would mitigate the excess.

Freud's reference to magical practices is useful here if it reminds us that this humanly contrived magic, as distinct from the providential uncanny, was an integral element in those institutions Cromwell was instrumental in abrogating. That earthly magic immemorially believed to protect a king is symbolized in the "Horatian Ode" by the imperial laurel supposed to be proof against lightning, but now incapable of saving Charles.

Then burning through the Air he went, And Pallaces and Temples rent: And Caesars head at last Did through his Laurels blast. (21-24)

The great work of time now ruined depended on ritual, which properly defined always contains a core of magic. The rite of coronation with its core of royal anointment was eminently magical, and it is to this core that Shakespeare's Richard II first appeals after learning that his authority has been challenged (3.2.54-62). The doctrine of royal divine right can legitimately be glossed by Frazer's two volumes on kingship and magic and by the ethnographic synthesis of A. M. Hocart.(12) The early medieval belief that healing energy emanated from the bodies of monarchs was perpetuated in touching for the king's evil, a practice which the Stuarts did not hesitate to take over from the Tudors as the Tudors had from the Plantagenets. Charles as portrayed in the ode has seen this charismatic energy pass from him to a figure from the whirlwind ("Nature ... must make room / Where greater Spirits come" |41-44~), but the deep sense of sacrilege that infuses his execution stems nonetheless from the ritual untouchability of both his bodies.

The ode, then, bears witness to the substitution of a transcendent, uncanny force of Fate for an established ritual magic. Ritual magic lies within human control. By reifying the sign, by identifying sign and thing, this magic makes a primordial attempt to impose control, an attempt as old as culture. But the equally primordial uncanny, which invests things with an aura of inscrutable meaning, escapes human control. Thus in Marvell's ode, the ultimate significance of the royal sacrifice, if it is one, has to be divined. The execution as ritual is blurred. And the final image of the sword with force to fight as a talisman against nocturnal spirits reaches back to an atavistic sorcery. The ode is a palimpsest of magical signs. It chronicles the return and the shattering dominion of portentous history (already present passim in Livy) over ritual history.

The palimpsest indeed is even denser than this account would suggest if one considers the force of poetry as itself a type of precarious magic. The magic of "naming," metaphorizing, projecting a defining image upon the inscrutable, succeeds, as I have argued above, in reducing that superiority of portents to understandings, signifiers to signifieds, which troubles Cromwell's England as, according to Levi-Strauss, it perennially troubles to some degree the life of the human mind. Thus we might most profitably read the "Horatian Ode" as an attempt to bring to bear upon the demonic uncanny those devices of poetry which render the inchoate coherent and the illegible accessible. The poem would then become a struggle between a blind force incapable of projection, on the one hand, and on the other the projected analogies which would, if successful, permit the poet and reader to confront an ominous epiphany and come to terms with it, "receive" it as a phenomenon tolerable to the intelligence. The poem would adjust the semiotic imbalances which are so bewildering as to be intolerable, just as Levi-Strauss's shaman uses his tribal mythology to perform an analogous adjustment. The result of the contest would not be pre-ordained, since the devices available to the poet are metaphysically insecure, unlike those attributed to the professional magician. That is to say, the metaphor, the apostrophe, the anthropomorphism, are provisional constructs which have no firm ontological grounding; they only provide temporary and fleeting instruments of control. Poetic striving is necessarily dependent upon images and tropes which are either improvised or else inherited from history and thus weighted and tarnished. In this striving lies the central interest of the poem, and its outcome, as in Marvell's ode, is never assured in advance.

The elegance of the poem lies in the sparseness of its rhetorical means.

What Field of all the Civil Wars, Where his were not the deepest Scars? (45-46)

This might mean that Cromwell emerged from his battles more badly scarred than any of his fellow-soldiers. But this on the face of it is improbable, both as fact and as interpretation. The lines mean more plausibly that Cromwell inflicted deeper scars on his enemies than anyone else. This is a tribute of sorts, but not the highest tribute; it leaves a glimpse of England peopled by men gashed by the future Protector. It leaves open the possibility that the scar abides not only in the flesh. It even permits a wilder image of the fields themselves bearing the ugly marks of this one soldier's aggression. The lines "name" Cromwell as one who leaves scars behind him, in his zealous momentum. The praise for the scar-giver, if that is what it is, is precisely tempered; it tells a kind of truth which corresponds to the valor of its subject, but also to his lack of moderation. It projects a definition upon the human wonder which does not falsify or vulgarize him, a definition which allows the reader, so to speak, to take him in. It registers economically, reticently, the degree of praise he deserves, and in so doing allows us as readers to receive him as he is represented. The poem stops short of the definitive gesture which might destroy it, as the flight to Carisbrooke destroyed Charles.(13) It evades those nets which landed the gulled king, making his desperate gamble for a final resolution, in a "narrow case" (47-52) and led him to the block.

If one considers the forces which the poem attempts to render assimilable, it must be admitted that its tropes--the lightning, the Capitoline head, the falconer, the exemplary names of Caesar and Hannibal, the hunter of Caledonian deer, the erect sword piercing the shady night--these and their companion tropes do not succeed in imposing a stable order on the forces which have ruined the great work of time. The tropes collectively do not produce an order which would legitimate a given moral choice. An element of bewilderment remains, and a residue of divided loyalties. The metaphors move in and out from various directions, highlighting various facets of the elusive truth. The ode never achieves a complete prise de possession. More significantly, the one overarching, crucial occasion, the execution, never loses its fatal ambiguity as tragic drama and auspicious augury. It could be argued that the speaker as a human subject fails to acquire coherence, and the projective circle fails to provide an account of events that proves to be fully assimilable.

But this last argument would miss, I think, what coherence the ode does achieve, and with it the speaker who does truly appear in all his lucid alertness. The ode does not dispel the speaker's division but acts it out with candor. It might be said to take possession of its own uncertainties. If the text contains a true metaphor of itself, this metaphor is not a protective corselet, nor is the speaker to be identified with the forward youth pushing for notoriety. The apter metaphor would lie in a detail characterizing Charles during the last minutes of his life.

He nothing common did or mean Upon that memorable Scene: But with his keener Eye The Axes edge did try. Nor call'd the Gods with vulgar spight To vindicate his helpless Right, But bow'd his comely Head, Down as upon a Bed. (57-64)

The king's eye is said to be keener than the edge of the axe, as though there were a contest between them. This is in fact the contest which organizes the ode, the contest between cool perception and crude violence. The text seeks to attain that distinction of poise displayed by the king which is the one unambiguous virtue it can offer, a poise which could measure the danger of violence without the loss of discipline. It is this poise which avoids the vulgarity of melodrama and allows one to bow his head with grace. But the poise does not affect the force of the blow when it comes. Because the falling axe is subject to many interpretations, because like all history it leaves us with a deficiency of final meaning, the eye has to be keen that takes its measure. History produces an inadequate ritual, uncanny in its indeterminacy, and the observer keeps trying its edge, testing it with tropes, hoping to assign it magically a significance that will satisfy the needs of the mind.


1 Frank Kermode and Keith Walker, eds., Andrew Marvell (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), viii.

2 Rosalie L. Colie, "My Ecchoing Song." Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), 235-36; Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth. Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), 258. The phrase just quoted is Colie's. It is Marcus who refers to the speaker as a "divine Magus" (257).

3 All quotations from Marvell are taken from the first volume of The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 3rd ed., rev. by Pierre Legouis with E. E. Duncan-Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). Line numbers are indicated in parenthesis.

4 OED: "mystic." 1a. "Spiritually allegorical or symbolical; of the nature of, or characteristic of, a sacred mystery; pertaining to the mysteries of the faith." (first recorded usage 1382)

2. "Pertaining to the ancient religious mysteries or to other occult rites or practices; occult, esoteric." (first recorded usage 1615)

5 Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West," The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1964), 129.

6 Stevens (note 5), "Anecdote of the Jar," 76.

7 Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Sorcerer and his Magic," in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 181. Levi-Strauss would later repudiate the equivalence asserted here of shaman and neurotic, and would reformulate his ideas in the next text to be quoted.

8 Claude Levi-Strauss, "Introduction a l'oeuvre de Marcel Mauss," in Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), xlix. My translation.

9 Livy, The Early History of Rome, 1.55.6, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt (New York: Penguin, 1980), 95.

10 See John M. Wallace, Destiny his Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), 81-84.

11 Sigmund Freud, Studies in Parapsychology, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1977), 49-50.

12 Sir James Frazer, The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, 2 vols. (vols. 1 and 2 of The Golden Bough) (New York: Macmillan, 1935); A. M. Hocart, Kingship (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1927).

13 Charles left his comfortable palace arrest at Hampton Court in order to flee to the fortress of Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, where he mistakenly believed the governor supported his cause. This flight was used as a pretext for his execution. Many believed, and Marvell clearly among them, that Cromwell conspired to mislead the king into making this disastrous move.