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Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon Hardcover – 17 Sep 2010
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`...a refreshed and refined sense of Marvell's poetry...should be a standard point of reference for future Marvelling.'
--John Stubbs, Literary Review, 1st September 2010
About the Author
Nigel Smith is Professor of English and Chair of the Committee for Renaissance Studies at Princeton University. A leading expert on Andrew Marvell as well as on the political literature of the Civil War and Interregnum, he has published widely on the seventeenth century. He brought out the Longman Annotated edition of Marvell's poetry, and is the author of 'Literature and Revolution' (published by Yale) and 'Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?'.
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But Marvell was more than a poet, he mastered a wide variety of genres including elegy, panegyric and pastoral, each of which was subjected to an ironic sensibility. Aside from his literary work he excelled in his political and government work as well as in diplomacy. Indeed, "The Chameleon" of the book's title alludes to the way he adroitly attuned himself to the political to-ings and fro-ings of the time.
If, during the English Civil War, it suited his purpose to be seen supporting the Royalist cause, he manoeuvred himself into a position of favour in Charles the First's court. Conversely, if there was personal advantage to be gained by subscribing to Cromwellian politics, he did so. Moreover, his duplicity survived the collapse of the Protectorate and he was looked upon favourably by Charles the Second.
Nigel Smith, in this scholarly biography, seeks to unravel the enigma that is Marvell. By juxtaposing his literary achievements, his public service record and what is known of his private life, the author gives us a resourceful yet shy and lonely man whose poetry reflects all three aspects.
This book offers readers the robustness Marvell's writings demand. His life, career and art are centre-stage, and always the chief fascination for Smith, but the backdrop is a detailed knowledge of the historical concerns of his subject: post-Reformation Hull; the allegedly moderate puritanism of his father; the social and intellectual world of Cambridge; England's struggles of civil war, with Marvell the notable absentee; England's foreign relations (and Marvell's diplomatic missions); the necessities of political expediency in civil service and as a member of parliament during republican and monarchical leaderships; and the networks, especially in London, of nonconformists with whom he associated, and for whom he seems readily available to write some of his sharpest satirical prose.
A fascinating new contribution the book makes is the characterization we are given of the world of books, manuscripts and ideas which infused Marvell's early years and family culture. Surveying the books and manuscripts of his father, Smith offers a refreshed appreciation for Marvell's direct intellectual heritage. Smith's knowledge of Marvell's Hull and Yorkshire is also rich for its detail and insight to the character of the region, and the biography as a whole benefits from Smith's ability to sense the connections between the concerns of the historical past and the present; Marvell was, to an extent, a product of his age, but he made an indisputable contribution to its later shape, and readers will enjoy this strain of insight which runs through the book.
There is still much we need to learn about Marvell, and significant gaps in the archive, but Smith shows that there are many avenues to a deeper knowledge of him. At the centre of Smith's presentation of Marvell is a sensitivity to a writer acutely aware of his age's concern to synthesize philosophical legacies with new knowledge and practical expression. Marvell may still be the enigmatic hero here, but we can be in no doubt that the combination of his professional, private, and playful works testify to his clear vision of certain enduring principles - most especially, individual and civil liberty and toleration - values which Smith is rightly energized by throughout the book, and help him to conceive of the whole man. Smith's biography is a sterling achievement; Marvell may still be `the chameleon', but we are in a position now to see that the camouflage is waning.
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