Nigel Smith's new biography of Andrew Marvell impressively locates the poet and politician within the significant religious and political upheavals of the middle six decades of the seventeenth century. Not a cameo view of a poet's private life, the book instead expands outward, tracing Marvell's associations with many important figures of his time (e.g., Thomas Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, John Milton, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, etc.) and in the process, revealing how Marvell was a key player in the rise of the liberal tradition in England. Richly descriptive and compellingly told, the book may appeal to readers of Restoration literature interested in both the political history of England during these decades as well as England's relationships with other European nations, especially the Netherlands.
Within the field of Marvell studies, Smith's book makes a significant contribution, in that it is the first comprehensive biography in more than fifty years. For most of the twentieth century, the landmark life of Marvell was Pierre Legouis' two-volume, André Marvel poète, puritain, patriote, 1621-1678 (1928), which began to shift scholarly attention away from the view of Marvell the politician (the focus of readers in the 18th century) to an emphasis on Marvell the poet, a fascination spurred by the publication of H. J. C. Grierson's anthology, Metaphysical Poets (1921), and by the advocacy of T. S. Eliot in the 1920s. Yet as influential as Legouis' work has been, it reinforced the treatment of Marvell's life as a gloss for his poems. As Smith notes, of the 449 pages of Legouis' text, only 144 are devoted to Marvell's life apart from his verse. Smith offers a corrective, in that while he considers much of Marvell's poetic canon, including many long-neglected poems, he portrays the poems and influential prose works as outgrowths of a dedicated career of public service rather than as ends in themselves.
Additionally, no biography prior to Smith's has built upon the exhaustive chronological work of Nicholas von Maltzahn (2005) and the research underlying the two-volume Yale edition of Marvell's prose (2003). Indeed, the 2000s have seen an explosion of interest in Marvell, and Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon focuses its [End Page 1] energy into a vivid representation of Marvell as a complex figure whose poetry and prose emerged from a full participation in public life and a keen interest in politically and social causes Marvell deemed vitally important.
The title of the book presents, in miniature, Smith's answer to one of the major questions in Marvell studies: How could the career of a prominent civil servant within the Cromwellian Protectorate survive and transform into a long parliamentary career during the Restoration? Smith contends Marvell's success derived from his savvy adaptability. Astute at reading political landscapes and endowed with an "ability to talk to men of all opinions, and to appear to be open to all possibilities," Marvell possessed a chameleon's ability to accommodate himself to his constantly shifting environment.
A Royalist in the late 1640s, he shifted to a staunch republicanism in the 1650s; a "civil servant with considerable influence on the working of diplomacy" in the early 1660s, he "ended" his career in the 1670s as "agent of opposition politics, where that opposition was compelled to use surreptitious and subversive tactics" (211). Marvell's adroitness accounts for the contours of his career.
Yet while the chameleon thesis frames Smith's narrative, Smith refrains from urging it as a totalizing summation of the poet-MP's life trajectory, the way R. C. Bald's landmark biography of Donne treats ambition, or the way John Carey's biography of Donne treats apostasy. Marvell emerges as a survivor in Smith's account, but not as the devious Machiavellian he was sometimes accused of being by his opponents in the pamphlet wars of the 1670s. Instead, he is a politician infused with equal measures of wit, courage, and common sense. It is a nuanced representation, one that tracks with the evidence...