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Andrew Marvell: 400 years on

Professor Angela Leighton, Senior Research Fellow at Trinity, describes her creative response to the 400th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Marvell.

Andrew Marvell, attributed to Godfrey Kneller

31 March 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Marvell (1621-78), poet and politician, one-time student at Trinity, friend and secretary to Milton, ambivalent supporter of Cromwell, diplomat and possible spy, and for nearly twenty years, MP for Hull – to put a complex and sometimes mysterious life in a nutshell.

When I was asked to contribute a poem about Marvell to a new collection, I was deeply unsure. Commissioned poems often don’t work, and in any case I was not a Marvell scholar. But something gave me pause. I knew Marvell’s home city well, having taught in Hull for many years; I had visited the sixteenth-century brick grammar school which he attended as a boy and where his father was Master; I had taken the same route south to Cambridge on the old Roman road (Ermine Street), and of course I’d come to the College he also attended, at the surprisingly young age of twelve. Great Court and Nevile’s Court would have looked much as they do now, but without the Wren Library.

We know that Marvell was accepted as a sub-sizar, the lowest denomination of student who would have worked for his board and fees by carrying out menial tasks for other students or Fellows. We know that he took his BA four years later having been awarded a scholarship. We also know that for some mysterious reason he was required to leave in 1641 before taking his MA, either because he was not ‘keeping his days’ in residence, or for some more heinous crime, for which the records are missing.

The Fellows’ Garden

But it was another event of that same year which intrigued me. I had long known Marvell’s great love, or rather seduction, poem, ‘To his Coy Mistress’, and the section beginning ‘I by the tide / Of Humber would complain’- lines that haunted me as I mulled and prevaricated. But it was the knowledge that, in January 1641, his father drowned crossing the Humber estuary on a barrow boat, and that his body was never found, which became the seed of what I would write. I wondered if being ‘by’ that tide could be entirely innocent, and I began to imagine the elegy Marvell might have written, about the father whose death left him an orphan, largely penniless, and perhaps contributed to whatever waywardness may have led to his expulsion later that year. The topography of the Humber, with its dangerous tides and sandbanks, and the thought that, as MP for Hull, Marvell wrote many letters arguing for a lighthouse at Spurn Point at the mouth of the estuary, somehow came together as I worked. Drawing on my own memories of the place, I nonetheless wanted the ‘I’ of the poem to be, not an imitation or anachronistic imposition, but an impersonal pronoun – both his and mine, but also, as in all lyric poetry, just ours or anyone’s.

The first edition of Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’, from Trinity’s Wren Library.

In the sixth stanza I quote from the only poem we know Marvell wrote as a student at Cambridge. It is a Latin parodia, or counter-song, of one of Horace’s Carmina, published in a collection (1637) of students’ and Fellows’ poems celebrating the birth of Charles I’s fifth child. The last line is: ‘Te patre, Caesar’, ‘You father, Caesar’. This seemed to touch on the warring elements in Marvell’s own nature, between royalist and republican, between his political engagement and retreat into nature – the mind’s ‘green thought in a green shade’ (‘The Garden’) – between working as secretary, diplomat, MP and writing some of the most private, witty, conflicted poems in the language. It is also, of course, a line which hints at the presence, at some level, of his own powerful teacher and father. So:


By the tide of Humber

(In 1641 Andrew Marvell’s father was drowned crossing the Humber in a barrow boat. The poet’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ was written some nine years later.)


Which way to walk? eastwards by ebbtide,

past the stink of the upriver staiths

and a small brick school between garden and church,

to the spit of Spurn, that land’s-end shifter,


or westwards inland, the estuary shrinking

till you’d almost walk across sandbanks and mud

southwards to Cambridge—the way out, straight

by Ermine Street for a Roman departure.


Now I by the tide of Humber once more

ponder these shallows more lethal than deeps,

and a barrow boat, grounded, where a wash of water

unpicks what was lost of him bit by bit—


and think, no fine and private place

was his, just the city’s effluent waste

seeping seawards, the spirit of him held

forever in the tide’s endless erasures,


till Spurn divides sea-lippers from the still

to curb the hackling flow that pours

salt into fresh, daily, and seems

a hurt refreshed, a trouble restored.


Now I, by the tide, still whisper farewells.

Te patre, Caesar (royal head or round?)–

my warring self by such waters crossed:

fluvial, marine, knitting frets between,


where contrary currents make shifting sands

channel a rip-tide, then swing and suck

any light craft under—as if I carry

his death within, unfinished, unsung.


So I, by the waters that quarrel and kill,

stay, for contraries no war resolves,

to complain of love in verse that hides

an elegy, deep in the undertow of tide.


Angela Leighton’s ‘By the Tide of Humber’ is published in TLS, 26 March, 2021.  Her new volume of poems, One, Two, is published by Carcanet, 2021.

Photos: Trinity College, Cambridge.

You can read Trinity Librarian, Dr Nicolas Bell’s blog post on Andrew Marvell.

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