- "I saw him dead":Marvell's Elegy for Cromwell
Marvell's "A Poem upon the Death of his Late Highnesse the Lord Protector" has received only minimal attention and little respect in comparison with the poet's other works concerning Cromwell. Critics have resisted or even dismissed the elegy, arguing that both of its projects are ultimately flawed: the first, lamenting Oliver's death, is too affected; the second, championing Richard Cromwell's succession, is unconvincing. But this abandonment is too hasty, ignoring a third project—one essentially congruent with the "Horatian Ode" (1650) and The First Anniversary (1655)—and leaving unasked the question of why Marvell would write the elegy at all, and why he would end it as he does. The turn to Richard in the elegy's final passage is especially problematic because, like Oliver Cromwell, Marvell was by the later years of the protectorate suspicious of the monarchical custom that transfers power automatically to the dead ruler's eldest son. Scholars have read the elegy's apparent support of Richard as an earnest, if futile, attempt to defend the new lord protector. Marvell flounders in that effort, critics argue, and is neither assured nor assuring. Because of its enfeebled ending and its reliance on generic convention, the elegy has fallen by the way side as a marker of defeat, a republican swan song, and, consequently, comparatively uninteresting.
John Wallace argues that the final "pathetic gesture" toward Richard is "tacked on" to the elegy,1 and his judgment is not unique. Scholars generally find the ending fatally unpersuasive, rendering the personal dirge all the more pathetic. Though some scholars play down the political aspects of the poem, the critical consensus is that the poet means [End Page 499] to endorse Richard's rule (and thus to accept the establishment of a House of Cromwell). David Norbrook argues that Marvell views Cromwell as "a prince who had founded a dynasty" and labors "to establish a new ethos" for Richard.2 Insisting upon the futility of that effort, Warren Chernaik reads the weakness of the elegy's finale as an indication that Marvell "grasps at straws" to find "favorable auguries" attending Richard's rule.3 Annabel Patterson too interprets the ending as a sign of resignation and suggests that in the poem as a whole Marvell "seems to sound a deliberate retreat."4 The ending, then, is seen as a valiant but unconvincing attempt to celebrate the second head of a new ruling family; the rest of the elegy receives attention most often in the search for evidence of Marvell's grim acquiescence.
To date, the readings of the elegy take for granted that it is less nuanced than the rest of Marvell's work, making it an aberrantly simple piece in Marvell's otherwise difficult oeuvre. Scholars who insist that Marvell hails Richard as a rising prince imply that throughout the elegy he celebrates Oliver as a king. I want to argue, however, that Marvell remains ambivalent about power and kingship and that we can read the ending more successfully if we apply what he actually says about both in the course of his poem. We can also make better sense of the elegy and its final passage by examining Marvell's handling of elegiac form. Patterson in particular highlights the use of traditional topoi, but she overlooks the ways in which Marvell's refusal to call his poem an elegy is significant to the ending he creates and the fact that he consistently subordinates convention to the specific moment and the actual personality being described. As do the "Ode" and The First Anniversary, this poem contemplates the complexity of historical means and the contingency of power, hailing Oliver as a leader like no other. The elegy goes further, as it must, reflecting not only Marvell's sense of Cromwell's singularity, but also—given that singularity—the exacerbated problem of succession. The turn to Richard, which I will argue is qualified rather than conclusive, is a continuation of a typically Marvellian assertion of power as conditional. The rest of the elegy, formally and rhetorically, reinforces Marvell's insistence that customs and positions are in themselves...