Andrew Marvell at 400

The poet and patriot Andrew Marvell was born on 31 March 1621 in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He attended the Grammar School in Hull, where his father had been appointed Master of the Charterhouse. Two of his teachers in Hull were graduates of Trinity College Cambridge, but he would later comment rather sardonically that they had taught him the liberal art of scanning Latin verse without any obligation to understand the meaning of the words. It was probably under their influence that this precocious child was sent to Cambridge at the age of only 12, where he was admitted to Trinity College and matriculated in the University on 14 December 1633. His young age meant that he had to spend more than the normal 12 terms before graduating as Bachelor of Arts in Lent Term 1639. We know frustratingly little about his time in Cambridge, but a few intriguing details are preserved in the College archives.

Andrew Marvell, portrait attributed to Godfrey Kneller, Trinity College Cambridge

The only poems known to date from his years as a student are some Greek and Latin verses on the birth of Charles I’s fifth child, the Princess Anne. This flirtation with royalism might seem unexpected in the future supporter of Cromwell. He also had a brief teenage dalliance with Catholicism, when it was reported that some Jesuits took him to spend a few months in London. But throughout his life Marvell would wisely keep his exact political and religious views ambiguous enough to survive the personal dangers of the Civil War and the Restoration: he would later be elected MP for Hull during the Protectorate, but on the Restoration he was able to claim, again with quick wits, that he had only been a governmental functionary, and thereby remained in parliament for the next two decades.

Page from the Admissions Book, Trinity College Cambridge

Marvell was elected to a scholarship at Trinity in 1638, and duly signed the Admissions Book on 13 April, as ‘Andreas Marvell discipulus’. This remains the only example of his handwriting in the College today, though there are several other documents in his hand in other collections, including in the University archives. His scholarship brought him an annual stipend of 13s 4d, with a shilling a week for food. He continued to draw this stipend each quarter during the academic year of 1639-40.

A few weeks after his admission as a Scholar, Marvell received news that his mother had died. His father remarried a few months later, but drowned while crossing the Humber in January 1641. Marvell had graduated as BA in the spring of 1639 and seemed on course to proceed to an MA and perhaps in due course to join the Fellowship of Trinity, but these plans seem to have been thrown off course by his father’s death. Instead he travelled again to London, perhaps to seek his fortune or perhaps in search of other intrigue. He seems to have travelled abroad as a tutor to boys of noble birth, though our only evidence for his movements is Milton’s later assertion that he spent four years in Holland, France, Italy and Spain. This meant that he sidestepped the entirety of the First Civil War, a happy coincidence which he later explained, somewhat unconvincingly, by proposing that ‘the Cause was too good to have been fought for’.

The precise moment at which Marvell left Trinity for London remains unclear, but various speculations can arise from this entry in the ‘Conclusion Book’, the College’s formal record of decisions made by the Seniority of the Fellowship. Towards the end of the Long Vacation in 1641 an entry records: ‘It is agreed by the Master and 8 Seniors that Mr Carter, and Ds Wakefeild’s, Ds Marvell, Ds Waterhouse, and Ds Maye, in regard that some of them are reported to be maryed and the other looke not after their dayes nor Acts, shall receave no more benefitt of the College, and shalbe out of their places unles thei shew just cause to the College for the Contrary in 3 months.’

Page from the Conclusion Book, Trinity College Cambridge

Of these two offences, there is no evidence that Marvell had married, and it therefore seems more likely that he was among those removed from the books for ‘not keeping Days and Acts’. This rather enigmatic phrase refers to the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts to proceed to the Master of Arts, which then as now were rather minimal. In the previous century it had been required that a BA must remain in residence for a further 9 terms in order to be admitted to the MA, but this requirement of ‘keeping days’ had been removed in 1608. The ‘Acts’ required occasional attendance at public exercises in the Schools, but again these were very limited at this time. The unusual decision to expel Marvell and four of his contemporaries hints at some more serious misdemeanour, but no evidence has yet come to light of its cause. It may simply be that he had already left Cambridge much earlier in the year, perhaps soon after his father’s death. By February 1642 we know that he was living in Clerkenwell, but for the five years following this the documentary record remains elusive, during which we assume he travelled widely on the Continent.

Andrew Marvell, Miscellaneous Poems (1781). H.10.107

From the 1650s until his death in 1678 Marvell was best known for his religious pamphlets and prose satires. It was only three years after his death that a collection of 51 shorter occasional poems was published, from papers fortuitously kept by his housekeeper, Mary Palmer. The delay in publication was probably caused by a legal case in which Mary Palmer successfully claimed to be Marvell’s widow, thereby obtaining the administration of his rather substantial estate. This collection expanded the scope of his work and reputation into the territories of the verse dialogue, the pastoral, love poetry and Latin epigrams, on which his reputation today as one of the great metaphysical poets rests. His most famous poem, ‘To his Coy Mistress’, is among those printed here for the first time.

To listen to alumnus and actor Pip Torrens reading ‘To His Coy Mistress’ as well as a poem specially composed for the anniversary by Trinity Fellow Professor Angela Leighton click here.

One thought on “Andrew Marvell at 400

  1. Fascinating background and story to another wonderful Trinity painting.
    Surely it is time for the College´s keeper of the paintings to commission a book, publishing illustrations from this fine collection of ´Trinity Faces’ so that, at the very least, members of the College can enjoy the works of art (so often not readily accessible), the background on the subject and artist; in this case Kneller is interesting in his own right.

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