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This essay by T.S. Eliot on the poetry style of
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
was first published in the
Times Literary Supplement, March 31, 1921.
In 1932 it was re-published in Eliot's book Selected Essays.
Eliot mentions Marvell's
The Nymph and the Fawn.
This is also known as
The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn.
The essay ends in the French sentence
"C'etait une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres."
A loose translation is
"It was a noble soul, as not made anymore in London."
T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays: New Edition,
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950) pp. 251-263
It is my understanding that this work is in the public domain in the U.S.
but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.)
Be careful about republication.
Revision date (y/m/d h:m:s):
$Date: 2004/12/03 22:50:31 $
Rickard A. Parker
To allow researchers seeking out or creating a citation for a
quotation, hyperlinked page numbers (from Selected Essays)
have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file.
||Begins with the words
||Ends with the words
||are inseparable, but
||they are not the same thing.
||magnificence in language which Milton
||used and abused,
||intense levity of Catullus. Where
||the wit of Marvell
||After a close approach to the mood of Donne,
|| ... then worms shall try
||English literature just at
||the moment before the English mind altered;
||of sameness, with dif-
||fference; of the general,
||It only lovèd to be there.
||And here are five lines
||is the more serious.
||So weeps the wounded balsam; so
||nineteenth century, of the same
||size as Marvell,
||brilliant contortions of Milton's sentence!
||Who from his private gardens, where
||All creatures dwelt, all creatures that had life
||Or as the primitive forms of all
||Among the stars that have a different birth,
||And ever changing, like a joyless eye,
||C'etait une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres.
Paragraphs are also anchored and can be linked to individually with these anchor names:
Other useful anchors are:
The tercentenary of the former member for Hull deserves not only the
celebration proposed by that favoured borough, but a little serious
reflection upon his writing. That is an act of piety, which is very
different from the resurrection of a deceased reputation. Marvell has
stood high for some years; his best poems are not very many, and not
only must be well known, from the Golden Treasury and the
Oxford Book of English Verse, but must also have been
enjoyed by numerous readers. His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor
laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about
him, if there be need for thinking, for our own benefit, not his. To
bring the poet back to life--the great, the perennial, task of
criticism--is in this case to squeeze the drops of the essence of two
or three poems; even confining ourselves to these, we may find some
precious liquor unknown to the present age. Not to determine rank, but
to isolate this quality, is the critical labour. The fact that of all
Marvell's verse, which is itself not a great quantity, the really
valuable part consists of a very few poems indicates that the unknown
quality of which we speak is probably a literary rather than a
personal quality; or, more truly, that it is a quality of a
civilization, of a traditional habit of life. A poet like Donne, or
like Baudelaire or Laforgue, may almost be considered the inventor of
an attitude, a system of feeling or of morals. Donne is difficult to
analyse: what appears at one time a curious personal point of view may
at another time appear rather the precise concentration of a kind of
feeling diffused in the air about him. Donne and his shroud, the
shroud and his motive for wearing it, are inseparable, but
they are not the same thing.
The seventeenth century sometimes seems for more than a moment to
gather up and to digest into its art all the experience of the human
mind which (from the same point of view) the later centuries seem to
have been partly engaged in repudiating. But Donne would have been an
individual at any time and place; Marvell's best verse is the product
of European, that is to say Latin, culture.
Out of that high style developed from Marlowe through Jonson
(for Shakespeare does not lend himself to these genealogies)
the seventeenth century separated two qualities: wit and magniloquence.
Neither is as simple or as apprehensible as its name seems to imply,
and the two are not in practice antithetical; both are conscious and
cultivated, and the mind which cultivates one may cultivate the
other. The actual poetry, of Marvell, of Cowley, of Milton, and of
others, is a blend in varying proportions. And we must be on guard not
to employ the terms with too wide a comprehension; for like the other
fluid terms with which literary criticism deals, the meaning alters
with the age, and for precision we must rely to some degree upon the
literacy and good taste of the reader. The wit of the Caroline poets
is not the wit of Shakespeare, and it is not the wit of Dryden, the
great master of contempt, or of Pope, the great master of hatred, or
of Swift, the great master of disgust. What is meant is some quality
which is common to the songs in Comus and Cowley's
"Anacreontics" and Marvell's "Horatian Ode." It is more than a
technical accomplish meet, or the vocabulary and syntax of an epoch;
it is, what we have designated tentatively as wit, a tough
reasonableness beneath the slight Iyric grace. You cannot find it in
Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth; you cannot find more than an echo of
it in Landor; still less in Tennyson or Browning; and among
contemporaries Mr. Yeats is an Irishman and Mr. Hardy is a modern
Englishman--that is to say, Mr. Hardy is without it and Mr. Yeats is
outside of the tradition altogether. On the other hand, as it
certainly exists in Lafontaine, there is a large part of it in
Gautier. And of the magniloquence, the deliberate exploitation of the
possibilities of magnificence in language which Milton
used and abused,
there is also use and even abuse in the poetry of Baudelaire.
Wit is not a quality that we are accustomed to associate with
"Puritan" literature, with Milton or with Marvell. But if so, we are
at fault partly in our conception of wit and partly in our
generalizations about the Puritans. And if the wit of Dryden or of
Pope is not the only kind of wit in the language the rest is not
merely a little merriment or a little levity or a little impropriety
or a little epigram. And, on the other hand, the sense in which a man
like Marvell is a "Puritan" is restricted. The persons who opposed
Charles I and the persons who supported the Commonwealth were not all
of the flock of Zeal-of-the-land Busy or the United Grand Junction
Ebenezer Temperance Association. Many of them were gentlemen of the
time who merely believed, with considerable show of reason, that
government by a Parliament of gentlemen was better than government by
a Stuart; though they were, to that extent, Liberal Practitioners,
they could hardly foresee the tea-meeting and the Dissidence of
Dissent. Being men of education and culture, even of travel, some of
them were exposed to that spirit of the age which was coming to be the
French spirit of the age. This spirit, curiously enough, was quite
opposed to the tendencies latent or the forces active in Puritanism;
the contest does great damage to the poetry of Milton; Marvell, an
active servant of the public, but a lukewarm partisan, and a poet on a
smaller scale, is far less injured by it. His line on the statue of
Charles II, 'It is such a King as no chisel can mend', may be set off
against his criticism of the Great Rebellion: 'Men ... ought and might
have trusted the King'. Marvell, therefore, more a man of the century
than a Puritan, speaks more clearly and unequivocally with the voice
of his literary age than does Milton.
This voice speaks out uncommonly strong in the Coy Mistress.
The theme is one of the great traditional commonplaces of European
literature. It is the theme of O mistress mine, of
Gather ye rosebuds, of Go, lovely rose; it
is in the savage austerity of Lucretius and the intense levity of
the wit of Marvell renews the theme
is in the variety and order of the images. In the first of the three
paragraphs Marvell plays with a fancy which begins by pleasing and
leads to astonishment.
Had we but world enough and time,
We notice the high speed, the succession of concentrated images, each
magnifying the original fancy. When this process has been carried to
the end and summed up, the poem turns suddenly with that surprise
which has been one of the most important means of poetic effect since
This coyness, lady, were no crime,
... I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews;
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow. ...
But at my back I always hear
A whole civilization resides in these lines:
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas,
And not only Horace but Catullus himself:
Regumque turris. ...
Nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
The verse of Marvell has not the grand reverberation of Catullus's Latin;
but the image of Marvell is certainly more comprehensive and penetrates
greater depths than Horace's.
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.
A modern poet, had he reached the height, would very likely have
closed on this moral reflection. But the three strophes of Marvell's
poem have something like a syllogistic relation to each other.
After a close approach to the mood of Donne,
... then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity ...
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace,
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the iron gates of life.
It will hardly be denied that this poem contains wit;
but it may not be evident that this wit forms the crescendo and
diminuendo of a scale of great imaginative power. The wit is not only
combined with, but fused into, the imagination. We can easily
recognize a witty fancy in the successive images
('my vegetable love', 'till the conversion of the Jews'),
but this fancy is not indulged, as it sometimes is by Cowley or Cleveland,
for its own sake. It is structural decoration of a serious idea. In this
it is superior to the fancy of L'Allegro, Il Penseroso or
the lighter and less successful poems of Keats. In fact, this alliance
of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified) is
a characteristic of the sort of wit we are trying to identify. It is
Le squelette était invisible
of Gautier, and in the
of Baudelaire and Laforgue. It is in the poem of Catullus which has
been quoted, and in the variation by Ben Jonson:
Au temps heureux de l'art païen!
Cannot we delude the eyes
It is in Propertius and Ovid. It is a quality of a sophisticated
literature; a quality which expands in English literature just at
the moment before the English mind altered;
it is not a quality which we should expect Puritanism to
encourage. When we come to Gray and Collins, the sophistication
remains only in the language, and has disappeared from the
feeling. Gray and Collins were masters, but they had lost that hold on
human values, that firm grasp of human experience, which is a
formidable achievement of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets. This
wisdom, cynical perhaps but untired (in Shakespeare, a terrifying
clairvoyance), leads toward, and is only completed by, the religious
comprehension; it leads to the point of the "Ainsi tout leur a craqué
dans la main" of Bouvard and Pecuchet.
Of a few poor household spies?
'Tis no sin love's fruits to steal;
But the sweet thefts to reveal,
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.
The difference between imagination and fancy,
in view of this poetry of wit, is a very narrow one. Obviously, an
image which is immediately and unintentionally ridiculous is merely a
fancy. In the poem Upon Appleton House, Marvell falls in
with one of these undesirable images, describing the attitude of the
house toward its master:
Yet thus the leaden house does sweat,
which, whatever its intention, is more absurd than it was intended to
be. Marvell also falls into the even commoner error of images which
are over-developed or distracting; which support nothing but their own
And scarce endures the master great;
But, where he comes, the swelling hall
Stirs, and the square grows spherical;
And now the salmon-fishers moist
Of this sort of image a choice collection may be found in Johnson's
Life of Cowley. But the images in the
Coy Mistress are not only witty, but satisfy the elucidation of
Imagination given by Coleridge:
Their leathern boats begin to hoist;
And, like Antipodes in shoes,
Have shod their heads in their canoes.
Coleridge's statement applies also to the following verses, which are
selected because of their similarity, and because they illustrate the
marked caesura which Marvell often introduces in a sort line:
This power ... reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement
of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference;
of the general,
with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the
representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and
familiar objects, a more than usual state of emotion with more than
usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with
enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement. ...
The tawny mowers enter next
The whole poem, from which the last of these quotations is
drawn (The Nymph and the Fawn), is built upon a very
slight foundation, and we can imagine what some of our modern
practitioners of slight themes would have made of it. But we need not
descend to an invidious contemporaneity to point the difference. Here
are six lines from The Nymph and the Fawn:
Who seem like Israelites to be
Walking on foot through a green sea ...,
And now the meadows fresher dyed,
Whose grass, with moister colour dashed,
Seems as green silks but newly washed ...
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night ...
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade ...
Had it lived long, it would have been
Lilies without, roses within.
I have a garden of my own,
And here are five lines
from The Nymph's Song to Hylas in the
Life and Death of Jason, by William Morris:
But so with roses overgrown
And lilies, that you would it guess
To be a little wilderness;
And all the spring-time of the year
It only lovèd to be there.
I know a little garden close
So far the resemblance is more striking than the difference, although
we might just notice the vagueness of allusion in the last line to
some indefinite person, form, or phantom, compared with the more
explicit reference of emotion to object which we should expect from
Marvell. But in the latter part of the poem Morris divaricates widely:
Set thick with lily and red rose.
Where I would wander if I might
From dewy dawn to dewy night,
And have one with me wandering.
Yet tottering as I am, and weak,
Here the resemblance, if there is any, is to the latter part of
The Coy Mistress. As for the difference, it could not be
more pronounced. The effect of Morris's charming poem depends upon the
mistiness of the feeling and the vagueness of its object; the effect
of Marvell's upon its bright, hard precision. And this precision is
not due to the fact that Marvell is concerned with cruder or simpler
or more carnal emotions. The emotion of Morris is not more refined or
more spiritual; it is merely more vague: if anyone doubts whether the
more refined or spiritual emotion can be precise, he should study the
treatment of the varieties of discarnate emotion in the
Paradiso. A curious result of the comparison of Morris's
poem with Marvell's is that the former, though it appears to be more
serious, is found to be the slighter; and Marvell's Nymph and
the Fawn, appearing more slight, is the more serious.
Still have I left a little breath
To seek within the jaws of death
An entrance to that happy place;
To seek the unforgotten face
Once seen, once kissed, once reft from me
Anigh the murmuring of the sea.
These verses have the suggestiveness of true poetry; and the verses of
Morris, which are nothing if not an attempt to suggest, really suggest
nothing; and we are inclined to infer that the suggestiveness is the
aura around a bright clear centre, that you cannot have the aura
alone. The day-dreamy feeling of Morris is essentially a slight thing;
Marvell takes a slight affair, the feeling of a girl for her pet, and
gives it a connection with that inexhaustible and terrible nebula of
emotion which surrounds all our exact and practical passions and
mingles with them. Again, Marvell does this in a poem which, because
of its formal pastoral machinery, may appear a trifling object:
where we find that a metaphor has suddenly rapt us to the image of spiritual
purgation. There is here the element of surprise, as when Villon
Near this, a fountain's liquid bell
Tinkles within the concave shell.
Might a soul bathe there and be clean,
Or slake its drought ?
Necessité faict gens mesprendre
the surprise which Poe considered of the highest importance, and also the
restraint and quietness of tone which makes the surprise possible. And
in the verses of Marvell which have been quoted there is the making the
familiar strange, and the strange familiar, which Coleridge attributed
to good poetry.
Et faim saillir le loup des boys,
The effort to construct a dream world, which alters English poetry so
greatly in the nineteenth century, a dream world utterly different
from the visionary realities of the Vita Nuova or of the
poetry of Dante's contemporaries, is a problem of which various
explanations may no doubt be found; in any case, the result makes a
poet of the nineteenth century, of the same
size as Marvell, a more trivial and less serious figure.
Marvell is no greater personality than William Morris, but he had
something much more solid behind him: he had the vast and penetrating
influence of Ben Jonson. Jonson never wrote anything purer than
Marvell's Horatian Ode; this ode has that same quality of
wit which was diffused over the whole Elizabethan product and
concentrated in the work of Jonson. And, as was said before, this wit
which pervades the poetry of Marvell is more Latin, more refined, than
anything that succeeded it. The great danger, as well as the greatest
interest and excitement, of English prose and verse, compared with
French, is that it permits and justifies an exaggeration of particular
qualities to the exclusion of others Dryden was great in wit, as
Milton in magniloquence; but the former, by isolating this quality and
making it by itself into great poetry, and the latter, by coming to
dispense with it altogether, may perhaps have injured the language. In
Dryden wit becomes almost fun, and thereby loses some contact with
reality; becomes pure fun, which French wit almost never is.
Oft he seems to hide his face,
How oddly the sharp Dantesque phrase 'whence Gaza mourns' springs out from
the brilliant contortions of Milton's sentence!
But unexpectedly returns,
And to his faithful champion hath in place
Bore witness gloriously; whence Gaza mourns,
And all that hand them to resist
His uncontrollable intent.
Who from his private gardens, where
There is here an equipoise, a balance and proportion of tones, which,
while it cannot raise Marvell to the level of Dryden or Milton,
extorts an approval which these poets do not receive from us, and
bestows a pleasure at least different in kind from any they can often
give. It is what makes Marvell a classic; or classic in a sense in
which Gray and Collins are not; for the latter, with all their
accredited purity, are comparatively poor in shades of feeling to
contrast and unite.
He lived reserved and austere,
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot)
Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of Time,
And cast the kingdoms old
Into another mold;
The Pict no shelter now shall find
Within his parti-coloured mind,
But, from this valour sad,
Shrink underneath the plaid:
We are baffled in the attempt to translate the quality indicated by
the dim and antiquated term wit into the equally unsatisfactory
nomenclature of our own time. Even Cowley is only able to define it by
Comely in thousand shapes appears;
It has passed out of our critical coinage altogether, and no new term
has been struck to replace it; the quality seldom exists, and is never
Yonder we saw it plain; and here 'tis now,
Like spirits in a place, we know not how.
So far Cowley has spoken well. But if we are to attempt even no more
than Cowley, we, placed in a retrospective attitude, must risk much
more than anxious generalizations. With our eye still on Marvell, we
can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by
erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a
kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the
tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an
educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused
with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism
of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the
expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are
possible, which we find as clearly in the greatest as in poets like
Marvell. Such a general statement may seem to take us a long way from
The Nymph and the Fawn, or even from the "Horatian Ode";
but it is perhaps justified by the desire to account for that precise
taste of Marvell's which finds for him the proper degree of
seriousness for every subject which he treats. His errors of taste,
when he trespasses, are not sins against this virtue; they are
conceits, distended metaphors and similes, but they never consist in
taking a subject too seriously or too lightly. This virtue of wit is
not a peculiar quality of minor poets, or of the minor poets of one
age or of one school; it is an intellectual quality which perhaps only
becomes noticeable by itself, in the work of lesser
poets. Furthermore, it is absent from the work of Wordsworth, Shelley,
and Keats, on whose poetry nineteenth-century criticism has
unconsciously been based. To the best of their poetry wit is
In a true piece of Wit all things must be
Yet all things there agree;
As in the Ark, join'd without force or strife,
All creatures dwelt, all creatures that had life
Or as the primitive forms of all
(If we compare great things with small)
Which, without discord or confusion, lie
In that strange mirror of the Deity.
We should find it difficult to draw any useful comparison between
these lines of Shelley and anything by Marvell. But later poets, who
would have been the better for Marvell's quality, were without it;
even Browning seems oddly immature, in some way, beside Marvell. And
nowadays we find occasionally good irony, or satire, which lack wit's
internal equilibrium, because their voices are essentially protests
against some outside sentimentality or stupidity; or we find serious
poets who seem afraid of acquiring wit, lest they lose intensity. The
quality which Marvell had, this modest and certainly impersonal
virtue--whether we call it wit or reason, or even urbanity--we have
patently failed to define. By whatever name we call it, and however we
define that name, it is something precious and needed and apparently
extinct; it is what should preserve the reputation of Marvell.
C'etait une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye,
That finds no object worth its constancy?