Yale, £20, 400pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon, By Nigel Smith

Andrew Marvell was a great poet, but not an especially nice man. He had few friends, and did not trust people easily. He was also an angry man, and his immediate posthumous reputation was based on a series of sharp satires. As Nigel Smith shows in this profound and often moving biography, Marvell's anger came from hurt and disappointment. He grew up a clever clergyman's son in flourishing Hull, where he went to school with richer boys. Marvell's life illustrates the idea that to become a great poet some setbacks in youth are required. The loss of his father in 1641 in a boating accident left him desolate; he never entirely recovered.

Nor was his career straightforward. The safe choice was the church, but at Cambridge he fell into disciplinary trouble, possibly connected with his brief flirtation with Roman Catholicism. As in much else, Smith has uncovered compelling new evidence here, and has given us a Marvell who is a man of Europe, who learned fencing in Spain and studied in the Dutch Republic.

Marvell's lyrics can be obdurate as a shut door: beautiful, strange, and so difficult to pin down that only the most confident will even attempt to connect the poems with the life. Smith's confidence is hard-won and comes from his deep scholarship. He suggests that the fleeing Daphne and pursuing Apollo of "The Garden" flow from the exquisite Bernini sculpture Marvell could have seen in Rome, while Marvell's funny Flecknoe, his first piece of furious anti-Popery, comes from his troubled encounter with the poet at Rome.

Such reveries were intersected by the violence of the English Civil War, which saw Marvell involved first in Royalist literary circles, and then in Fairfax's moderate circles, then in Milton's circles, and then in Oliver Cromwell's own circles, leading to what Smith rightly calls the greatest political poem in English, the "Horatian Ode on Cromwell's Return From Ireland". Horatian indeed, for Rome's lyricist and satirist had also switched sides in a civil war. Marvell's own chameleon shifts were authorised by his classical role-model.

Most readers of Smith's biography will know the lyric poet, but most readers of Marvell close to his own times knew the furious satirist. MP for Hull from January 1659, Marvell was made furious by the secret Papists he believed were threatening freedom. As the rights of nonconformists were eclipsed, he came to connect his own powerlessness with the growing might of Popery at court.

He was alarmed by the king's pro-French stance. But while he was spitting out his satires, he was also creating beautiful and enigmatic epigrams in Latin, and writing his glorious lyric "The Garden".

He engaged with debates about toleration – which meant toleration of people like Marvell, of course – and produced The Rehearsal Transpros'd: a return to the fisticuffs of Civil War pamphleteering and Protestant polemic, a slam in the mouth for Anglican compromise, and a work so wickedly funny that Charles II - well - tolerated it. Even Marvell's Catholic opponents laughed and praised its wit. The spectacle of Samuel Parker running naked and erect down the street, still spouting orotund oratory, was ribtickling for the whole of Restoration culture.

Marvell's sexual satire matches his lyric poetry in its wondering childlike glance at the sheer weirdness of sex between these strange human creatures. Smith shows us a Marvell of all sexualities, a man more inclined to shake his head at human folly than to confine himself to one role or another. He can mourn a pet's death in the voice of a girl child or nearly ravish another girl into tearing her pleasures with rough strife.

Now that London's coffee-houses were all but afire with curiosity about the anonymous author of The Rehearsal, Marvell's poems began to circulate too. He deserved the reputation he acquired, "poet laureate of the dissenters". With the revelation of the Duke of York's Catholicism, Marvell was caught up in more political pamphleteering. His defence of a would-be assassin, tortured in Scotland after attempting to shoot a bishop, sits to a modern eye very oddly with his passionate denunciation of crypto-Catholics in An Account of the Growth of Popery. His poet's imagination, his Martian view of the sheer oddness of human behaviour, struggled against the partisanship his satires exemplified. To Marvell, torture was yet another human weirdness to be recorded.

Money and poetry are not natural bedfellows. Marvell died poor, but a woman claiming to be his wife tried to salvage what she could. Did Marvell really marry Mary Palmer, his social inferior? Many Marvell fans have hated to think so, but she exploded into the limelight with the publication of the 1681 Miscellaneous Poems, our only source for some of Marvell's finest poems. Whoever she was, all lovers of poetry can thank her for the survival of much of his work. Marvell himself, so shy and lonely, seems not to have cared much about posterity. But posterity has loved him, and this new, serious and scholarly biography will enhance his already illustrious reputation.

Diane Purkiss's 'The English Civil War: a people's history' is published by HarperPress

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