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Historical Notes: Poet, politician and sophisticated republican

POETRY AND politics have often mixed but poets who are active politicians are a rarer breed. Andrew Marvell, whose best-known poems such as "To His Coy Mistress", "The Garden" or "On a Drop of Dew" might seem far removed from the turbulent politics of the English Revolution, was a diligent and hard-working MP for Hull from 1659 to his death in 1678 and the author of one of the most mature and sophisticated political poems in the history of English poetry: "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel's Return from Ireland".

On the floor of the House of Commons Marvell sometimes displayed an irascible temper and he made himself many enemies. He wrote verse satires lampooning the courtiers of Charles II, and prose pamphlets attacking, in the cause of religious toleration, prominent members of the Church of England, including the pompous Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Parker. His attack on the latter resulted in an anonymous death threat.

Earlier in his career, Marvell had worked as a civil servant for the English Republic and was a supporter of Cromwell and a friend of the defender of regicide John Milton. Marvell bravely came to the aid of Milton by speaking on his behalf in a Commons debate when he was in danger from retaliation by the restored monarchy.

Marvell's great poem on Cromwell, however, was an attempt, using the resources of the Horatian tradition, to examine the realities of political power and leadership. The poem is rooted in a particular historical moment, Cromwell's return from his bloody campaign in Ireland in May 1650, but its political significance still reverberates. Subtly it holds up for consideration various facets of Cromwell. He is seen now as an irresistible force of nature, a political strongman before whom citizens should make way, now as an instrument of the popular will, "still in the Republick's hand".

In spite of the poem's famous lines which pay tribute to the comportment of Charles I on the scaffold in January 1649 ("He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable scene"), lines which reflect Marvell's abhorrence of political violence, the poem remains a republican celebration of a man who "cast the Kingdome old / Into another mould". But it is also a warning of the danger of granting too much to the political leader or surrounding him with the aura of historical inevitability. Readers in the late 20th century, coming after the experience of the dictators, totalitarian regimes and imperilled democracy that have characterised what the historian Mark Mazower has called the European "dark continent" in this century, will read these lines in a different way from Marvell's contemporaries. But, notwithstanding the specificity of the poem's historical context, its handling of these political themes has a universal resonance.

Marvell famously wrote in 1672 of the Civil War, the greater part of which he had missed while on a Grand Tour of Europe, possibly acting as a tutor to a rich man's son, that "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 the whole matter."

Historians have argued about the true meaning of this observation. Was it a repudiation by a republican of his radical past? Or was it in fact arguing that the cause was so transparently just - as the Horatian Ode seems to take as axiomatic - that no one should even have thought of trying to resist the revolution? I prefer the earlier Marvell (whilst recognising that the later one may have had to make these comments under the censorship of Charles II) who welcomed the end of monarchy and the republican movement which was trying to cast the Kingdom old into another mould.

But then those are the lines that were borrowed by Roy Jenkins's speechwriter, David Marquand, to launch the SDP back in the 1980s.

Nicholas Murray is the author of `World Enough and Time: the life of Andrew Marvell' (Little, Brown, pounds 20)