Books: The metaphysical artful dodger

World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell by Nicholas Murray Little, Brown pounds 20
The lovely vagaries of 17th-century orthography have presented us with a prettily apt conceit. Was the surname of the poet Andrew Marvell, greatest of the so called metaphysical school, really spelled like that? Or was he in fact Mervill, Mervail, Mavile - or perhaps even Marvel, given that he was undoubtedly one of nature's prodigies? The fact is that his name was written in all these different ways at different times in his life. Why apt, though? Because Andrew Marvell, lyric poet in his youth and savage satirist in his maturity, bachelor-recluse and long-serving Parliamentarian, panegyrist of Cromwell during the Protectorate and smooth- tongued defender of Charles the Second after the Restoration, was an extraordinarily slippery man and, to say the least, something of a political turncoat.

He was born the son of a Hull clergyman, and he served Hull as its faithful Member of Parliament for the last 20 years of his life - from 1659 until 1678. After Hull Grammar School, he went up to Cambridge at the indecently early age of 12. Then came the Civil War, and the first of many odd interludes in Marvell's life, gaps in the biographical record which are not easily filled by even the most painstaking of biographers. The man who was later to be known as the author of the great "Horatian Ode" to Cromwell was absent from England during the worst excesses of the Civil War, perhaps conveniently serving as a tutor to some young man of means on the Continent.

The great Ode itself was written some time after Cromwell's bloody campaign of genocide against the Irish in 1650. Marvell was about 28 at the time - "about" because it is notoriously difficult to date precisely the order of composition of the majority of the poems. They were not published as a collection until 1681. The Ode is a marvellously balanced piece of work, neither entirely praising of Cromwell - Marvell describes him as an unstoppable force of nature - nor entirely dispraising of the hapless king who was led to the block.

In 1650 Marvell was appointed tutor to the daughter of Lord Fairfax, late Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentary Forces, who retired to his country estate in Yorkshire in his late thirties in order to pursue the life of a scholar and a gentleman. It was here, at Nun Appleton, during two brief years of leafy tranquillity, that Marvell may have written some of his greatest lyric poems. Marvell was a great lover of nature who inclined towards the contemplative life. On the other hand, he was not a man who could easily leave his great learning or his sophistication behind. This is why, though a committed pastoral poet, he was forever playing with notions of rural detachment rather than wholeheartedly embodying or endorsing them. There is great learning embedded in the poetry, and many classical illusions for those who wish to seek them out, but the scholarship is always worn lightly. We do not need to have read Hesiod in the original to enjoy Andrew Marvell.

Later in the 1650s, and back in London, the lyric poet turned civil servant and unofficial laureate to Cromwell. As a Latin Secretary during the Protectorate, he served as a deputy to the blind John Milton, drawing a handsome salary of pounds 200 a year. When Cromwell died and the nation officially wept many expensive tears, Marvell wrote a heartfelt panegyric, a much more partial tribute than the great Ode.

In spite of his loyalty to Cromwell, Marvell managed not only to survive the Restoration but to prosper, though often in some danger, as a Member of Parliament until his death. How was this possible? There is no denying his artfulness as a political operator. Here, for example, is the marvellously double - triple? - edged statement that he made during the years when he was a Restoration public figure: "I think the Cause was too good to have been fought for. Men ought to have trusted God; they ought and might have trusted the King with that whole matter." Mercifully, Cromwell was too deep underground by this time to lend a hot ear.

Unlike Milton, Marvell was not a revolutionary. Unlike many of the hard- boiled sectarians of his day, he was not a Utopian either. He did, however, believe that divine intervention was possible in human affairs. And, in later years, his destiny evidently included the need to connive with God's purposes in order to ensure his own survival.

The last 20 years of his life saw the emergence of the career parliamentarian, the dedicated committee man, and the withering away unto death of a great lyric poet, which rather reminds us of the career trajectory of Nicholas Murray's last biographical subject, Matthew Arnold. Marvell, though a reserved and unobtrusive man, was neither a coward nor a toady, and when matters political or ecclesiastical displeased him, he used his considerable powers of wit and invective against them. As a pamphleteer, he vigorously defended religious toleration against the asses of the Church of England hierarchy. Violently anti-Catholic by temperament, he became increasingly suspicious of Charles II's secret accommodations with Louis XIV of France. Yet still he clung on, cunning, pragmatic, obedient to his political masters in the Hull Corporation when occasion demanded.

Given the rise and rise of Marvell's reputation as a poet in the 20th century - it was Eliot who crowned him king of the metaphysical school in 1921 - it is rather surprising that this is only the second fully comprehensive biography of the man to have been published in 90 years. The first, written in French by Emile Legouis in 1929, was not published in English until the 1960s, and then in a modest printing of only 500 copies. Though biographers may have been reluctant to tell the story of his life, critics have not shown a similar timorousness in addressing the poetry. They have pulled him hither and thither, and, such is the tact and subtlety of his work that it is often quite difficult to pronounce one interpretation more correct than another. The poems have been commodious enough to accommodate all kinds of crackpot theories.

Nicholas Murray's fairly brief account of the poet's life - but how much more could be known? we also ask ourselves - is a quietly judicious, thoughtful and generally unexcitable one: fair, absorbing, unpartisan. Only occasionally does he lapse into silliness, such as the following small extract, apparently from an as yet unwritten "Idiots' Guide to Poetry": "Poets can handle more than one genre at a time." Another smallish criticism is that the book, yearning at every page to be just a little bit longer in order to justify the expense of buying it, is occasionally stuffed with bits of padding. The account of Marvell's secret mission to Muscovy as a secretary to Carlisle is nothing more nor less than a precis of a good 17th-century account of that miserably unsuccessful trip. Though interesting enough, Marvell scarcely figures in it at all.

And yet somehow, and on reflection, this also seems rather appropriate, and in keeping with the spirit of the subject of this book. In his correspondence Marvell seldom wrote about himself. His personal life remains largely uncharted and unchartable, his sexual inclinations unknown. He had, according to the great John Aubrey, "small acquaintance". He never married. He had no children. The woman, Mary Parker by name, who claimed after his death to have married him in secret years before, was evidently a liar on the make. We know next to nothing about the impulses which caused him to write what we most remember him for. Who was this man then? Was he a hidden adventurer, a libertine, as some of his enemies alleged? Consummately coy to the end, he covered his tracks too well for us ever to know. His greatest crime was committed against his future biographers.