top of page

Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II - Andrew Marvell

The political poetry of Andrew Marvell requires us to move into the scenes of the late English Civil War (1642-1651), into the contexts of the regicide and Cromwellian England. Marvell is an interesting study of the ideological conflicts of the Civil War, considering his switch in allegiance from Charles I to Oliver Cromwell and the commonwealth government. Marvell’s early poetry was highly pastoral in nature, though as the events of the Civil War progressed, his poetry became highly political in nature as he began to engage with poetry as a social tool to spread ideologies and persuade allegiances.

Thomas Healy (2016) engages directly with the social and political potential of Marvell’s poetry during the Civil War. Acutely aware of criticism that views the “topical specificity” (p. 1) of Marvell’s public poetry in a hostile light, Healy instead responds to Marvell’s poetry as a “negotiat[ion]” (p. 1). It is significant to understand the Civil War as an ideological warfare as much as it was a physical war. Marvell’s political poetry illuminates the ways in which writers were utilising poetry as a tool to work through the ever-changing and ever-conflicting ideologies and debates of the time. In this way, the political poetry of the period is an illuminating example of how poetry inserts itself into the political, in the very ways that the political inserts itself into the poetical. Healy (2016) encapsulates this idea, arguing that Marvell attempts “to shape history in poetry, to express aspects of the extraordinary social and political changes his England experienced in the mid-seventeenth century” (p. 2).

Figure 1: Andrew Marvell (Unknown, c. 1655-1660).

The context in which Marvell was writing his political poetry is highly significant to understanding Marvell’s political insertions within his poetry. Following the regicide of Charles I in 1649, a new government was established which became known as the Commonwealth, whereby power was held explicitly by Parliament. The following eleven years featured a period of intense experimentation, with England attempting to redefine and renegotiate itself as a Republic as well as learning to govern itself without the intervention of a monarch. In the Commonwealth, the House of Lords was abolished and the Commons was declared the sovereign body of the country. It is also significant to note that the military became a part of the English government. Tensions were not absent from the Commonwealth, and in 1653 rising agitation within the House of Commons led to the abandonment of parliamentary sovereignty.

Cromwell, an exemplary military leader, was appointed by the leaders of the army as the Lord Protector of England, which positioned him as the head of state, with a Council of State and a reformed Parliament that would be elected at 3-year intervals. The Protectorate had no fewer problems than the Parliament governing directly after the regicide of the king. The Parliament of 1654 directly challenged the foundations of the newly established government and the Protectorate faced a multitude of discontentment and tension. Some labelled Cromwell a tyrant and dictator, but many others respected him, especially after he refused the title of king in 1650, wishing to govern through the authority of the people as opposed to the authority of the crown.

Figure 2: Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby (Landseer, 1645).

With Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, the hope of the continuation of a reformed England began to dwindle. His son, Richard Cromwell, was elevated to the title of Lord Protector but many of Cromwell’s opponents seized the opportunity to dismantle the new government by questioning Richard Cromwell’s capability as a leader. Under the Humble Petition and Advice of 1657, an upper House of Lords was restored to Parliament and the Rump Parliament was re-established, though they were incapable of restraining and resolving growing tensions. It became apparent to many in power that the restoration of the monarchy was the only solution to the political chaos of the 17th century. In 1660, Pride’s Purge was reversed and the Long Parliament’s original members were invited to reclaim their seats, and deliberations for the return of the king began.

Within these contexts, it is also imperative to understand Marvell’s switching of allegiances, reflecting the ideological tensions and changes throughout the 17th century. Initially, Marvell was keen to support the monarchy, though he was sceptical of the royal abuse of power that clashed with his sympathy for the liberties of the people and their right to democratic rule. Much of Marvell’s initial political allegiances have been based upon his affiliation with the Royalist circle of writers such as Richard Lovelace, with Nicholas McDowell (2008) stating that “we know that Marvell and Lovelace were friends in the late 1640s” (p. 2). This is supported by the fact that Marvell even wrote a “commendatory poem” (p. 2) for Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta in May 1649. Other poetry that signals Marvell’s initial Royalist sympathies include his elegies to the King’s favourite Villiers, and to Hastings. Marvell’s loyalties, as Michael Komorowski (2012) notes, were notoriously “tortured” (p. 316). From a contemporary viewpoint, it is significant to consider Blair Worden’s argument that:

republicanism was inconceivable in England before the execution of Charles I in 1649 […] the regicides, in this view, were concerned to remove a particular king, not kingship. They cut off King Charles’ head and wondered what to do next (Qtd in Chernaik, 2005, p. 77).

Figure 3: Rump Parliament (Unknown, c. 1648-1660).

With this in view, Marvell shifted from a view of restricted monarchy which favours the liberties of the people to a democratic governmental view again in favour of the liberties of the nation. Marvell’s changing allegiances reflected the ever-shifting events and ideologies of England throughout the 17th century as it continually attempted to navigate and renegotiate the terms of its power structure.

An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland

Marvell’s poem An Horatian Ode to Cromwell (1650) is an illuminating example of Marvell’s inconsistent loyalties and attitudes to authority during the Civil War period. As Joseph Mazzeo (1960) writes, “the Horatian Ode does not give a simple or a ready answer to the question, What did Marvell think of Cromwell when he wrote this poem?” (p. 1).

Excerpts from An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland (1650) Then burning through the air he went, And palaces and temples rent; And Cæsar’s head at last Did through his laurels blast. ’Tis madness to resist or blame The force of angry Heaven’s flame; And, if we would speak true, Much to the man is due, Who from his private gardens where He liv’d reserved and austere, As if his highest plot To plant the bergamot, Could by industrious valour climb To ruin the great work of time, And cast the kingdom old Into another mould. // He wove a net of such a scope That Charles himself might chase To Carisbrooke’s narrow case, That thence the royal actor borne The tragic scaffold might adorn, While round the armed bands Did clap their bloody hands. He nothing common did or mean Upon that memorable scene, But with his keener eye The axe’s edge did try; Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite To vindicate his helpless right, But bowed his comely head Down as upon a bed.

Figure 4: Execution of Charles I (Unknown, 1649).

The title of the poem is derived from the Roman poet Horace, who wrote odes in praise of Augustus Caesar. Using this classical form as inspiration, Marvell’s intentions, at least on the surface, are clearly in favour of presenting Cromwell in a favourable light in regard to his military endeavours. The declaration “’Tis madness to resist or blame / the force of angry Heaven’s flame” (lines 11-12), adds an almost jingoistic tone to Marvell’s praise. For Marvell, Cromwell’s capabilities are indisputable, and in the opening section of the poem his royalist afflictions seem far in the past.

Framing Cromwell as a Caesar-like, almost godly figure who commands the flame of heaven, Marvell is quick to incite praise for the military leader’s combatant achievements. Parallels between Cromwell and Caeser reflect the grandeur of Cromwell’s military feats. It is significant to note that “Cromwell’s return across the Irish sea could seem as critical an event in England’s history as Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon had been in Rome’s“ (Worden, 1999, p. 98). After all, the opening lines of the poem, as Worden (1999) alerts to, directly refers to the “early passages of Lucan’s Pharsalia“ which describes Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon (p. 98). The allusion to Caesar, an elevated military leader, shows the extent of Marvell’s praise for Cromwell and reflects the triumphant atmosphere surrounding the military leader upon his return.

As Mazzeo (1960) suggests, Marvell configures Cromwell as:

a type of Caesar […] the young, ambitious, dynamic man of action who crashes like lightning through the opposition of both his party and of the enemy to the position of undisputed leadership (p. 6).

Figure 5: Oliver Cromwell's Warts and All (Cooper, 1657).

Marvell’s allusions to Horace, namely by titling his poem in dedication to the classical poet, reveals Marvell’s intentions for his Cromwellian praise within the poem. Coolidge (1965), argues that Marvell ”found in Horace the classical model of a poet maintaining a difficult kind of integrity in a time of great change” (p. 111). In this way, Marvell saw his role as a poet as an articulative force, as a way to navigate the turbulent events of his time. Referencing Horace, he seems to evoke the hope that ”a time of war is succeeding a time of peace” (p. 113), by referencing poetry that represented these very sentiments. In Coolidge’s (1965) assertion that ”Caesar figures in the poem as the agent and beneficiary of that force in the world which is incompatible with law and to which the world is given over in time of war” (p. 113), illuminates Marvell’s referencing within the poem. By alluding to classical models of the construction of Caesar, Marvell compares his hope for Cromwell’s return as a hope for a restoration of justice, and for a leader who can restore order to a turbulent and scarred country.

Marvell’s praise for Cromwell is somewhat explained by Marvell’s movement into republican and governmental circles at the beginning of the 1650s. In 1653, Marvell accepted a post as tutor to a Cromwell ward, and it is significant to note that Marvell was also a tutor to Fairfax’s, a retired parliamentary army leader, daughter. Whilst these events occurred after the poem was written, it is clear that Marvell’s Royalist afflictions were in the past, as he sought to enter into the new republican government and its circles. As such, this praise reflects Marvell’s shifting loyalties, as his allegiance transgressed from support for the monarchical constitution to the hope that Cromwell would live up to his potential as ”the civic ideal of a ruler without personal ambition, and the man of destiny moved by [...] a power which is justice” (Hyman, 2020, p. 1).

However, this is balanced by a praise that is constantly in tension with something lurking under the surface. Marvell does not doubt Cromwell’s military achievements but is careful to doubt what role he will fulfil upon his return, and how successful he will be in leading England to glory, and to peace. Double meanings surface throughout the poem, such as the evocation of “plot” (line 31) that could be read as something more sinister than ownership imagery. Cromwell’s “industrious valour” (line 33) is somewhat underlined by the vague subsequent lines. The invocation of “ruined” (line 34) hints at Marvell’s cautious admiration, whilst the imagery of casting “the kingdom / into another mould” (lines 35-6) is framed as a neutral transition, leaving it up for interpretation as to whether or not Cromwell’s actions will truly bring glory to England.

Marvell’s focus on Cromwell in 1650 reflects the military leader’s stature. As Blair Worden (1999) writes, “Oliver Cromwell was the leading personality of the regime that emerged after the execution of Charles I in 1649” (p. 98). In mid-1649, Cromwell led an expedition to Ireland, in which he was triumphant over the “Royalist and Catholic forces [that] threatened the infant republic” (p. 98). Upon his return, Cromwell offered a new hope for England, though many were cautious of Cromwell’s intentions of a country ready to be moulded. As Worden (1999) suggests, Marvell’s poem expertly reflects the contemporary views of Cromwell, the perceptions of both admiration and caution as people were wary that this new leader would not bring the peace they so longed for:

The poem's ambiguity about Cromwell's constitutional intentions is apposite to the tense uncertainty that greeted his return to England. Fear and hope, twined by Cromwell in the poem, were inseparable in the public expectation of him (p. 99).

Figure 6: Oliver Cromwell presiding over the destruction of the Royall Oake of Brittayne, which represents the Constitution based upon the Crown, the Church and the law (British Library, n.d.).

Mazzeo’s (1960) contention that “the admiration and condemnation do not cancel each other. They define each other; and because there is responsible definition, they reinforce each other” (p. 1) is a significant criticism of the poem. Marvell’s hesitant praise of Cromwell represents the outlook of many in England at the time, illuminating Marvell’s utilisation of poetry as a reflective and articulative tool of the ideologies and views of the time. By hesitating in evoking full praise of Cromwell, Marvell seeks to remind his readers that power is not absolute and is in fact a withdrawable entity. His visions of power mirror that of Milton in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, revealing his stress on the significance of the power of the people to authority structures. Marvell urges caution in giving absolute authority to Cromwell, and his careful ode reflects this.

Marvell’s representation of Charles I in the poem furthers the poet’s hesitation to fully endorse Cromwell and the vision of the new regime. In depicting the regicide, Marvell enacts a sympathetic portrayal of Charles. Whilst not going so far as to support the martyrisation that the king worked so hard to create for himself, Marvell evokes sympathy for the king in his writing. The scaffold upon which the regicide is enacted is “tragic” (line 61) and Marvell shows compassion for the way in which the king accepts his crimes against the people as he “bow[s] his comely head” (line 63). This is not to say that Marvell exhibits regret for the death of the king. It would be more precise to read the poem as holding an elegiac potential, not for the death of the king, but rather for the destruction of the old power systems. Michael Komorowski (2012) supports the reading of a tone of “tragic nostalgia” (p. 327) within the poem. Understanding the seismic and unfathomable changes to the structure and discourses of the 17th century, it is crucial to understand Marvell’s poem as a “representation of a legitimate [...] and meticulously staged transfer of power” (p. 327). Marvell’s ode, then, becomes a working through, an acceptance of the nostalgia, caution, and praise Marvell felt towards the destruction of the old order and the introduction of new institutions.

Marvell’s ode illuminates the power of poetry of that period as an articulative force of the nation’s reactions to contemporary events. Marvell’s political power lies in his ability to use poetry as a topical tool, to react to contemporary events and insert himself into such politics by writing exactly what the nation was thinking. By writing an ode full of contradictions, hopes and fears, praises and criticisms, and divided loyalties, Marvell encapsulates the mood of this era. His poetry is significant to our understanding of the uncertainty of the period immediately following the regicide and enlightens the simultaneous nostalgia for the old institutions and excitement for a new, freeing regime that was continually at the head with each other in the public eye. Cromwell was certainly an excellent military leader, as Marvell is quick to address, though his intentions for the new “mould” of England are treated with caution. Marvell reminds his readers that power is impermanent, and the people of England should be wary about placing too much faith in Cromwell in the fears that he might abuse his power and act as a tyrant against the people, just as King Charles I had so done.

Bibliographical References

Chernaik, W. (2005). “Was Marvell a Republican?” The Seventeenth Century, 20(1).

Coolidge, J. (1965). Marvell and Horace. University of Chicago Press.

Healy, T. (2016). Andrew Marvell. Routledge Press

Hyman, L. W. (1958). Politics and Poetry in Andrew Marvell. PMLA, 73(5-part1), 475–479.

Komorowski, M. (2012). Public Verse and Property: Marvell's “Horatian Ode” and the Ownership of Politics, ELH, 79(2), 315–340.

Marvell, A. (1650). An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland.

Mazzeo, J. A. (1960). Cromwell as Machiavellian Prince in Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 21(1), 1–17.

McDowell, N. (2008). Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars: Marvell and the Cause of Wit, Oxford University Press.

Worden, B. (1999). Andrew Marvell, Oliver Cromwell, and the Horatian Ode. Taylor and Francis Press.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Ella Fincken

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page