Criticism, fiction and other writing
This note is based on a passage from my thesis on “Andrew Marvell’s Ambivalence about Justice” (2012). I now think that a thesis on the subject of justice is not the ideal place for a brief discussion of ambition and preferment, but that the discussion might make a useful standalone note.
Andrew Marvell was no admirer of bishops. Examples of his antipathy can be found throughout his writings, for example in his “Epigram: Upon Blood’s attempt to steal the Crown”. This verse was occasioned by an incident in 1671, when Colonel Thomas Blood entered the Tower of London with the aim of stealing the Crown jewels. Blood was disguised as a priest, “The fittest mask for one that robs a crown” (l. 4). If he had killed the keeper of the Tower instead of just wounding him, he might have escaped with the jewels. (He was subsequently pardoned by the king.) Marvell comments:
With the priest’s vestments, had he but put on
A bishop’s cruelty, the crown had gone. (ll. 7–8)
The Blood epigram is included in it entirety as lines 192–199 of “The Loyal Scot”, Marvell’s poem on the death of Captain Archibald Douglas in a Dutch attack on Chatham in 1667. In that poem bishops are portrayed as a major cause of division between England and Douglas’s native Scotland. The reader is left in no doubt as to Marvell’s contempt:
In faith erroneous, and in life profane,
These hypocrites their faith and linen stain. (ll. 170–171)
One of the things that angered Marvell was the bishops’ insistence on interfering in the legislative process by taking seats in the House of Lords, when they might be expected to provide leadership in matters of faith. In ”The Third Advice to a Painter” (1666), he wrote:
The Lords’ House drains the houses of the Lord
For bishops’ voices silencing the Word. (ll. 241–242)
It is true that this complaint is uttered by Marvell’s “Cassandra”, rather than by the authorial voice, but there is no doubt that it reflects the poet’s own opinion: compare lines 224–225 of “The Loyal Scot”.
“Upon Appleton House” is earlier than any of these poems, dating from the summer of 1651. Marvell was already a critic of episcopacy but his attack here may seem a little less vituperative than the later ones. Instead of taxing the former occupant of Cawood Castle with cruelty or hypocrisy, Marvell instead draws attention to his ambition, a quality that might be undesirable in a bishop but which had its role to play in the personality of a retired general or his daughter.
The sight does from these bastions ply,
And at proud Cawood Castle seems
To point the batt’ry of its beams.
As if it quarrelled in the seat
Th’ambition of its prelate great. (ll. 361–364)
The tone of this passage is not easy to pin down. The battery consists of the colours of banks of flowers, joyful rather than warlike. “As if” reminds the reader that the quarrel is imaginary, not least because “the seat” has not been occupied by the archbishop since the war started, some nine years earlier. Yet, there are real grounds for thinking that ambition is dangerous. Fairfax
… did with his utmost skill,
Ambition weed, but conscience till.
Conscience, that heaven-nursèd plant,
Which most our earthly gardens want. (ll. 353–356)
The contrast seems to be clear: conscience is to be cultivated, ambition rooted up and destroyed. However to “weed” ambition is not necessarily to treat it as a weed — it might be to pull up the weeds (such as presumption) which surround it, and give it space to grow healthily. That the poet is not critical of ambition in all circumstances becomes clear at the end of the poem, where Fairfax’s estate is urged to:
Employ the means you have by her,
And in your kind yourselves prefer;
That, as all virgins she precedes,
So you all woods, streams, gardens, meads. (ll. 749–752)
The woods, streams, gardens and meadows of Nunappleton do not as a matter of course surpass the various wonderful places that are listed in the following stanza. If they are to do so, they must actively “prefer” themselves, and the poet exhorts them to do so. The complexity of Marvell’s views on ambition and preferment may be seen in stanza LXXIV:
The oak leaves me embroider all,
Between which caterpillars crawl;
And ivy, with familiar trails,
Me licks, and clasps, and curls, and hales.
Under this antic cope I move
Like some great prelate of the grove. (ll. 587–592)
Earlier, in lines 365–6, Marvell has associated prelacy with the kind of ambition that might provoke a quarrel. In the light of this, and of Marvell’s known hostility to bishops, it is a little surprising that his speaker in “Upon Appleton House” refers to himself as a prelate. The word is related to “prefer”, deriving from the past participle of praeferre, to carry before. The speaker resembles a “prelate of the grove” (emphasis added) because he presents the appearance of having been preferred by the grove, which has crowned him with oak, classically the reward for civic virtue. The sense of these lines is thus very close to that of the beginning of “The Garden”, where the poet jokingly berates those who are ambitious to be
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid; (ll. 4–6)
Ambition is mocked but ambivalently: the speaker’s recommendation, in “The Garden”, of a complete withdrawal from all society cannot be taken literally, however attractive it might temporarily appear; and it is clear from the Lovelace poem that the loss of “the civic crown” is not something that Marvell looks on with equanimity. The implication of the references to ambition in “Upon Appleton House”, taken together, is that the drive for preferment will usually be a dangerous temptation, but not invariably so, and that the need to discern when it is appropriate and when not calls for the development of an acutely discriminating conscience.
Posted by Art on 02-Aug-2020.