Marvell and Milton's literary friendship reconsidered

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 2006 by John McWilliams

Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence need not be swallowed whole in order to suspect that even the most apparently warm of literary friendships are often charged with something more than straightforward mutual admiration. (1) Ben Jonson's tribute to Shakespeare--one of the more audacious pieces of poetic-canon making in the English language--is nevertheless laced with Jonson's desire to, as it were, put Shakespeare in his place. Jonson puts himself and, by extension, his own folio of Works before Shakespeare and seems to take a sly swipe at his great theatrical rival when he archly worries that he should "not give nature all" in his assessment. (2) John Dryden, perhaps overstating the case, remarked that Jonson's poem was "an insolent, sparing, and invidious panegyric," and yet this opinion is supported by Jonson's own more forthright comments elsewhere about Shakespeare's overflowing "facility" which "sometime ... should be stopped" and by Jonson's conclusion that "a thousand" of Shakespeare's lines might have been "blotted." (3) A good example of a literary encounter from another age with a similarly dark undercurrent is W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939), which boldly reverses Yeats's own self-epitaph "Under Ben Bulben" (1939) and thus becomes, as Lawrence Lipking asserts, "Less a tomb than a cremation." (4)

Andrew Marvell's poetic career encompasses more than its fair share of such antagonistic literary maneuverings, and he wrote two poetic "tributes" that were strikingly, perhaps shockingly, hostile to their subjects. "Tom May's Death" (1681) invokes Jonson--and Jonson on Shakespeare--to devastating effect in hounding the poet Thomas May beyond the grave. Less well-known is "The Loyall Scot" (1697), in which Marvell raises John Cleveland from the dead with the devilish purpose of having him turn his coat and eulogize, for Parliament, a heroic Scot. To promote the royalist cause, the real-life Cleveland had chided Scotland at length in "The Rebel Scot" (1644), a discrepancy which gives a good idea of the extent of Marvell's hostile audacity. Also, Marvell's poetic encomium to Richard Lovelace shows signs of tension: his copious praise of Lovelace is matched, unsettlingly, only by his complete assurance that no one else will agree. Marvell's assertion that "Our Civill Wars have lost the Civicke crowne" leads him into an extended catalogue of the "degenerate times" and their failure to appreciate Lovelace's poetry. (5) If Jonson argued--in a positive moment--that Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time, Marvell seems to argue that Lovelace is stuck in his age and will never be appreciated again.

Despite this honorable tradition of somewhat dysfunctional literary relationships, and Marvell's own history of literary savagery, one of the most intriguing of such friendships has, more often than not, been taken as a straightforward alliance: Marvell's friendship with Milton has typically been viewed as an uncomplicated affectionate tie. The tag "friends" comes readily to all who talk about these two very different literary figures. Tom Paulin, echoing William Wordsworth, makes this a specifically political friendship in his poem "The English Republic" (1999), in which the two are cozily placed with Lucan as "republicans." (6) This view is indebted to Christopher Hill, who argued that "Marvell and Milton remained true to the beliefs which had united them in the early 1650s and which ... continued to unite them until Milton's death in 1674." (7) Barbara K. Lewalski, Milton's most recent biographer, describes Marvell as a "good friend" of Milton who, with "On Paradise Lost," "offers a fitting tribute to Milton, and in doing so defends individuality and inspiration wherever found." (8) Indeed, readings of Marvell's great poetic encounter with Milton, "On Paradise Lost" (1674), have, along these lines, generally stressed the decorous praise of the poem and argued that it would "help to sell the book." (9) G. F. Parker, for example, describes Marvell's poem as "a wonderfully tactful mediation between the poem [Paradise Lost] and its Restoration readership." (10) Given the evidence of other such literary "alliances"--and of Marvell's extraordinary literary hostilities--might there be grounds to be slightly more wary? Were these two writers--insofar as any such thing is ever simple--simply friends? What follows will suggest that the relationship, as is evidenced in the correspondence between the two authors and in the hostilities surrounding Marvell's The Rehearsal Transpros'd (1672), was more complex than simply friendship and that, most importantly, Marvell's "On Paradise Lost," through a deliberate and damning set of echoes of Paradise Lost itself, represents a far more difficult, and potentially harmful, assessment of Milton's epic than has previously been acknowledged.

The first key document charting this relationship seems, at first glance, to fit the idea of friendship: Milton's letter to John Bradshaw of 1652 is one of recommendation, promoting Marvell for employment with the Interregnum government. Milton writes:

    to morrow upon some occasion of business a Gentleman whose name is    Mr. Marvile; a man whom both by report, & the converse I have had    with him, of singular desert for the State to make use of; who alsoe    offers himselfe, if there be any imployment for him. His father was    the minister of Hull & he hath spent foure yeares abroad in Holland,    France, Italy, & Spaine, to very good purpose, as I beleeve, & the    gaineing of those 4 languages; besides he is a scholler and well read    in the latin & Greeke authors, & noe doubt of an approved    conversation; for he com's now lately out of the house of the Lord    Fairefax who was Generall, where he was intrusted to give some    instructions in the Languages to the Lady his Daughter ... it would    be hard for them to find a Man soe fit every way for that purpose as    this Gentleman ... This my Lord I write sincerely without any other    end than to performe my dutey to the Publick in helping them to an    able servant; laying aside those Jealosies and that aemulation which    mine owne condition might suggest to me by bringing in such a    coajutor. (11) 

This is a friendly gesture, certainly, and indicates that Milton thought highly of Marvell and that he was familiar with Marvell's recent movements, education, and family background. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Milton claims to have had "converse with him," his subsequent assertion that Marvell is "noe doubt of an approved conversation" suggests that his personal knowledge of Marvell is not especially detailed. Also, one might detect, in the rather tortuous final clause, a certain wariness on Milton's part. He is at pains to point out the neutrality of his decision to promote Marvell, but the manner of achieving this--mentioning the possibility of emulative jealousy developing between them--argues that the conjectured presence of this brilliant young man was a source of anxiety. "Friends" does not adequately describe the relationship hinted at in this letter; instead, we see an older man (and, of course, one who was severely incapacitated by loss of sight) promoting a younger talent not without a hint of anxiety about just how able that young man might be.


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