Andrew Marvell's Upon Appleton House: a Poem of Many Parts.

The above is an overlooked jewel from the middle of the seventeenth century that, for me, embodies the spirit of that age. It isn't any easy read because it contains many elements and contexts and because some of it is quite abstract. I was spurred to write this by the current (Dec 2014) Wikipedia article on the poem that has; ". An example of a country house poem, "Upon Appleton House" describes Fairfax's Nunappleton estate while also reflecting upon the political and religious concerns of the time" which is less than helpful. This is woefully inadequate and what follows is an attempt to respond by showing just how many genres are contained within. On reflection, I don't think we've yet worked out what Wikipedia is for and this particular article is serviceable for students who perhaps want a quick overview and a few pointers to other material. Perhaps my expectations are too high but it does seem to me that a more detailed article could provide both the quick summary (wiki-lite?) and something longer which gives a bit more depth and context. my first temptation was to do a rewrite of the article and then I realised I give too much opinion and much of it is at variance with the 'standard' line.

An initial digression.

The seventeenth century was probably the outstanding period in English poetry. Spread throughout the century there are several of the greatest poets our language has known from Donne and George Herbert through Milton and Marvell to Dryden. The middle of the century also saw the biggest period of political disruption that our country has known, My interest was initially with the history and the ferocity of the arguments centred around Christopher Hill, later I read Spenser and Milton in fairly rapid succession and have been 'involved' with Milton, Marvell and Herbert ever since. Of the three, Marvell's career outside poetry is the most successful but his politics appear to have been unusually fluid, having some involvement on both sides of the fence during the Civil War. His work is very varied and his longer work shows a great deal of skill and invention. Marvell is considered by some as our best minor poet, I'm not entirely sure what 'minor' means in this context but I hope I can put together a case that undermines this judgement.

A further digression.

Arduity regulars might know that I'm against lit crit generally and get particularly exasperated when ideology, in any form, takes over the conversation about a particular poet. With Marvell this co-option has trundled along for the last thirty years and is a Very Bad Thing because it tends to overshadow discussion about the poems as poems. With that in mind, I'm going to try and avoid anything at all about Marvell's seemingly fluid politics. As with Spenser, this decision does open up far more of the poem to poetic scrutiny and readerly reward.


The poem isn't too difficult to follow, once the reader has become accustomed to the language and grammar of the time. Superficially, it describes Nun Appleton House and its estate but it does contain more than a few classical and biblical allusions that most will struggle with. The best way to gain a full appreciation is to read an annotated version, preferably Nigel Smith's notes and commentary in the Longman edition. I'm ambiguous / undecided about the value of notes, there are some that are so cursory that they may as well not be there whilst others are so detailed that they manage to overwhelm the poem(s) that they are meant to be enhancing. Smith has received some critical flak for erring towards the overwhelming but I don't think the information provided is superfluous although I readily admit that there is a lot of it. The other alternative is to undertake your own research via the glories of the interweb which is more rewarding but time-consuming

The label problem.

Smith identifies several poetic types contained within AH:

This, I think, exemplifies the label problem whereby we try to fit material onto shelves that are already present and labelled. Given the complexity of the work, it seems unlikely to me that Marvell sat down thinking he was going to write any of the above but more of an experiment to create something different from any of the above. It appears that many critics have commented on the complexity of AH without considering the possibility that Marvell is attempting to give voice to something that is probably more complex than any poem can manage.

Labels, no matter how many or how subtle, can define and direct the way that we read. Close examination also reveals that they are built on sticky foundations at best and meaningless at worst. Instead, I'll try and demonstrate the value of the obvious, it's a long poem and, like many long poems, it says a lot of different things in different ways.


Between 1650 and 1652 Marvell was tutor to the daughter of General Thomas Fairfax at Appleton House. Ever since the Civil War(s), Fairfax has been seen as one of the few good guys on either side. A brilliant military commander for Parliament, he also vehemently opposed the trial and execution of Charles I. Fairfax retired from public life in 1650 when many felt he was much more of a viable leader of the republic than Cromwell. I'm particularly fond of Fairfax because he was a Spenserian who called his horse Brigadore and wrote Very Bad Poetry.

The poem is long, consisting of 97 eight-line stanzas with each stanza containing four rhyming couplets which are used to great effect. Apparently there was a bit of a fashion for country house poems in the 17th century and AH's most significant forerunner in this regard is 'To Penshurst' written in 1612 by Ben Jonson but Marvell expands on this in several different directions. The poem starts with a narrative about two of Fairfax's ancestors, Isabel Thwaite and William Fairfax and how Isabel was rescued by William from the clutches of wicked and corrupt nuns:

    But the glad youth away her bears, 
    And to the nuns bequeaths her tears:
    Who guiltily their prize bemoan,
    Like gypsies that a child had stol'n
    Thenceforth (as when th'enchantment ends,
    The castle vanishes or rends)
    The wasting cloister with the rest
    Was in one instant dispossessed.

    At the demolishing, this seat
    To Fairfax fell as by escheat.
    And what both nuns and founders willed
    'Tis likely better thus fulfilled.
    For if the virgin proved not their's,
    The cloister yet remained her's.
    Though many a nun there made her vow
    'Twas no religious house till now.

To my small brain, this takes the poem away from the country house straight back to a previous upheaval I won't pretend that I chose these two stanzas at random, I want to use them to illustrate a couple of things. The first (and this is really important) is that the couplet structure does not get in the way of what's being said. This is important for the sentiment behind these lines is essentially an attempt to exonerate the Fairfax family from profiting from the Reformation and this could easily have been done by means of anti-Catholic bombast. Marvell instead decides to leave his readers to work out the gist of his argument, the nuns are likened to gypsy kidnappers, and Nun Appleton only became a religious house when occupied by the Fairfax line. The other main element of note occurs in lines 5 and 6 of the first stanza, Smith detects a reference to Britomart's rescue of Amoret in Book III of the Faerie Queen and reminds us that Marvell's patron was a Spenserian and would have picked up on this allusion. Whether this is the case or not, the reference is fairly gentle and clever without detracting from what's being said. My own view is that this is probably overreading but it's a nice thought.

Psychology and virtue.

One of the main debates in 17th century culture centred on the idea of virtue and doing good in accordance with scripture. Although this had, and has, many shades, it is unlikely that the appropriation of religious buildings and property during the English Reformation will have been seen as a virtuous thing to do. Appleton House was constructed from the ruins of an abbey. So, there's a bit of a stain on the Fairfax pedigree, a less than virtuous bit of background that might impair the reputation and honour of the Fairfax lineage. Lady Fairfax was a strong and independent-minded woman who protested from the public gallery at the trial of Charles' I and may have been concerned, as Smith points out, by the possible charge of sacrilege for those who misappropriated former religious buildings.

Being a 21st century ex-social work type, I'm seeing this as an attempt by Marvell to soothe his employers' personal, rather than theological, unease by insisting that the house only acquired its genuine religious status after it was taken over by the Fairfax family. If my supposition is correct, then somebody who is genuinely troubled by this background is unlikely to be swayed by this kind of reasoning.


Marvell's An Horatian Ode is recognised as the greatest political poem in the language and he shows his abilities again in AH:

    The good he numbers up, and hacks,
    As if he marked them with the axe.
    But where he, tinkling with his beak,
    Does find the hollow oak to speak,
    That for his building he designs,
    And through the tainted side he mines,
    Who could have thought the tallest oak
    Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

    Nor would it, had the tree not fed
    traitor-worm, within it bred.
    (As first our flesh corrupt within
    Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
    And yet that worm triumphs not long,
    But serves to feed the hewel's young.
    While the oak seems to fall content,
    Viewing the treason's punishment.

There's a lot going on in this. Smith is correct to note that the description of the oak isn't 'just' a straightforward reference to the execution of Charles I but is also pointing to the demise of "a kind of civilisation". I think it's doing a bit more than that. The Fairfax family were well known for their opposition to the trial of the king with Lady Anne Fairfax famously shouting her disapproval from the public gallery at the trial. So, Marvell is echoing his employer's known views and expresses similar regret in the 'Horatian Ode'. The rhetorical question at the end of the first stanza refers more to a particular idea of national identity than the king.

The execution of Charles I drove a wedge down the middle of the winning side, alienated those in the middle and understandably outraged the Royalists. It ranks a close second to the dissolution of the monasteries in the national psyche and continues to divide both academic and political opinion. Marvell was writing almost at the moment of this rupture whilst in the employ of a Roundhead hero who refused to agree to the act that most of his colleagues eagerly supported.

The second stanza is therefore a more complex analysis of political power and how it functions. The straightforward reading would be that Marvell is identifying the regicides as the villains of the piece and (correctly) prophesying that justice would quite quickly catch up with them. I'd like to point out the use of 'bashful' to describe sin and that it is our corrupt flesh that is doing the tempting.

The last couplet belies what might also be aimed at. The oak's contentment, whilst being defeated / altered / transformed, at seeing not the traitor-worm but treason itself receiving the punishment. We then get into the following complexities: 1. Why is it that the oak is said to seem content rather than is content? 2. What or who might the traitor-worm be? 3. Given that I can't find any other uses of this compound until the age of computer hacking, why did Marvell choose it? He rarely does things by accident. 4. The reference to sin isn't either 'orthodox' or Puritan theology. Is it?

Naturally, I don't intend to attempt any kind of sensible response to any of the above. I just want to point out that thinking about them is a very satisfying and rewarding thing to do and that Marvell is full of these and always rewards the attention that the reader is prepared to give.


I've thought quite hard about the above heading, others have used 'surreal' or 'impressionistic' but my first reaction was 'drugs'. This concerns the oddness that is the middle section of the poem dealing with a) grass and b) water but dealing with these in really odd un-17th century ways to create what some mahy consider to be a fanciful effect. First we have the mowers at work:

    And now to the Abbyss I pass
    Of that unfathomable Grass,
    Where Men like Grashoppers appear,
    But Grashoppers are Gyants there:
    They, in there squeking Laugh, contemn
    Us as we walk more low then them:
    And, from the Precipices tall
    Of the green spir's, to us do call.

    To see Men through this Meadow Dive,
    We wonder how they rise alive.
    As, under Water, none does know
    Whether he fall through it or go.
    But, as the Marriners that sound,
    And show upon their Lead the Ground,
    They bring up Flow'rs so to be seen,
    And prove they've at the Bottom been.

    No Scene that turns with Engines strange
    Does oftner then these Meadows change,
    For when the Sun the Grass hath vext,
    The tawny Mowers enter next;
    Who seem like Israelites to be,
    Walking on foot through a green Sea.
    To them the Grassy Deeps divide,
    And crowd a Lane to either Side.

Those who have some experience tell me that certain kinds of narcotic can bring about this heightened sense of reality and that some of these are especially 'visual' in effect. I'll just point to the last two lines of each of the above stanzas as examples of this kind of hyper-perception. There's a sense of something quite magical going on coupled with a sense of childlike innocence. Calling from between the green spires, waving flowers and parting the sea of grass is an outstanding progression that brings the reader up close to what's going on even if it does sanitise the brutal nature of agricultural work.

As well as the visual element, there's also the emphasis in the last stanza on change as the meadows are ready to be mown as we move from the nautical to the Old Testament. The sounding mariners with their lead is a wonderfully satisfying and brilliantly put together.

The Flood

The next part develops the OT theme:

    Then, to conclude these pleasant Acts,
    Denton sets ope its Cataracts;
    And makes the Meadow truly be
    (What it but seem'd before) a Sea.
    For, jealous of its Lords long stay,
    It try's t'invite him thus away.
    The River in it self is drown'd,
    And Isl's th' astonish Cattle round.

    Let others tell the Paradox,
    How Eels now bellow in the Ox;
    Horses at their Tails do kick,
    Turn'd as they hang to Leeches quick;
    How Boats can over Bridges sail;
    And Fishes do the Stables scale.
    How Salmons trespassing are found;
    And Pikes are taken in the Pound.

    But I, retiring from the Flood,
    Take Sanctuary in the Wood;
    And, while it lasts, my self imbark
    In this yet green, yet growing Ark;
    Where the first Carpenter might best
    Fit Timber for his Keel have Prest.
    And where all Creatures might have shares,
    Although in Armies, not in Paires.

The second stanza continues with the hallucinatory mode with eels shouting at the cattle, the fish climbing the stables and the pike getting trapped in the animal pound. There are two bits of technical bravura in the first stanza, the bracketed 'what it but seemed before' (ie before the grass was cut) and the last two lines which are a fine demonstration of poetry's ability to compress with razor-sharp precision. The third stanza mixes the military and the scriptural, Smith notes that 'prest' here means being pressed into service, usually in the navy, as well as its more common sense of pressure being applied.

With regard to the theology, some have seen this flood as some kind of redemptive act, citing the reference to Noah. I'm not sure about this because I'm not entirely clear what redemption may have to do with the poem as a whole, unless we're back at the misappropriation of the abbey.

Mary Fairfax.

Following the retreat into the woods, we get to perhaps the oddest part of the poem, Marvell's description of his pupil, Mary Fairfax:

    But now away my Hooks, my Quills,
    And Angles, idle Utensils.
    The young Maria walks to night:
    Hide trifling Youth thy Pleasures slight.
    'Twere shame that such judicious Eyes
    Should with such Toyes a Man surprize;
    She that already is the Law
    Of all her Sex, her Ages Aw.

    See how loose Nature, in respect
    To her, it self doth recollect;
    And every thing so whisht and fine,
    Starts forth with to its Bonne Mine.
    The Sun himself, of Her aware,
    Seems to descend with greater Care,
    And lest She see him go to Bed,
    In blushing Clouds conceales his Head.

    So when the Shadows laid asleep
    From underneath these Banks do creep,
    And on the River as it flows
    With Eben Shuts begin to close;
    The modest Halcyon comes in sight,
    Flying betwixt the Day and Night;
    And such an horror calm and dumb,
    Admiring Nature does benum.

    The viscous Air, wheres'ere She fly,
    Follows and sucks her Azure dy;
    The gellying Stream compacts below,
    If it might fix her shadow so;
    The Stupid Fishes hang, as plain
    As Flies in Chrystal overt'ane,
    And Men the silent Scene assist,
    Charm'd with the saphir-winged Mist.

I have a confession to make, there are parts of this final section that I can't, as of yet, fully grasp. This isn't for want of trying and perhaps I'm put out of kilter by a poem of such praise addressed to a 13 year-old girl. Smith's notes are of enormous help but this level of praise just seems silly in this context although I'm also aware that young people of this age were regarded more as youthful adults than as children. In these opening stanzas I've relied on Smith for an explanation of the 'Halcyon' lines that close the third stanza. The OED, gives this definition for the noun:

A bird of which the ancients fabled that it bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was specially calm during the period: usually identified with a species of kingfisher, hence a poetic name of this bird.
and this as the verb:
To calm, tranquillize.

Smith adds that the Royalists looked back to the 'halcyon days' of the 1630s as the period of calm and tranquility before their world was turned upside down. Although here the association is with Maria, the inference extends to her father and his role in public life. I think it's fair to point out that by 1651 the nation was exhausted by the wars and the factional strife on all sides and many yearned for a period of tranquility after what must have seemed like a major trauma with no end in sight. So, this action of the halcyon should be read as political as well as personal.

Another element that the wishy-washy liberal in me finds tricky is the praise given to the 'discipline severe' that characterises Maria's upbringing. I know that children were viewed differently then and that Maria was being groomed to make a good marriage for the sake of the Fairfax name but it still leaps out of the page in the now even though then it was probably greeted with nods of approval.

I hope I've shown that this poem does pack in many elements of British public and private life and does so in a compelling way. I'm currently thinking of it as a loosely woven cloth rather that a collection of threads because these seem to be pulled together in a way that describes the way in which many things come together at the same time to form what goes on in the world. There's much more in AH that I've omitted and I could go on for a very long time about the political, military and religious contexts but I hope this is enough to encourage others to read it through.