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  • The Vitruvian Source of Marvell’s Tortoise in “Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax
  • Dylan Goldblatt (bio)

The tortoise in Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax” (1652) is a highly perplexing metaphor that appears twice, framing the poem’s ninety-seven octosyllabic stanzas.1 The initial suggestion that “Beasts [. . .] Birds [. . .] [and] Tortoises” (11–13) inhabit spaces best suited to their anatomies creates a lacuna in the poem, which some scholars have interpreted as a critique of Appleton House.2 Is the Fairfacian dwelling, standing in Brobdingnagian scale against the backdrop of the tortoise shell, unbefitting of its owner, Marvell’s patron, Lord General Thomas Fairfax (1612–1671)? Or does the poet revere the scale and proportion of Appleton House and praise it axiomatically, through a theory of architecture articulated in the maxim: “Their Bodies measure out their Place” (16)? I argue the latter case and propose that the shared geometries of architecture and anatomy converge in the source of the tortoise metaphor: Vitruvius’s De architectura (ca. 15 BCE).

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (fl. 70–15 BCE), one recalls, was a Roman architect, engineer, and author of the ten books on architecture. De architectura not only established the basic principles of proportion and construction that inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the “Vitruvian Man” (1490), but it also influenced the Quattro libri dell’architettura (1570), the seminal architectural treatise of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). I posit that the tortoise metaphor exemplifies Marvell’s interest in the classical architectural theories of Vitruvius and Palladio, as well as the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Marvell’s tortoise is a shibboleth for the study of proportionality in nature. I propose that Marvell’s contemporary, Inigo Jones, who transferred Palladian architecture to early modern England with his designs for grand houses and palaces, served as one conduit for the poet’s burgeoning interest in proportionality.

In “Upon Appleton House” Marvell lauds his patron for the design of an idyllic estate, regarding it as “Paradice’s only Map” (775). The poet celebrates Nun Appleton, located south of York, through the presentation of its topographical organization, starting with the constructed environment.3 Marvell then visualizes an unbounded, lush landscape that gives birth to works of art such as Appleton House:4 [End Page 68]

But Nature here hath been so freeAs if she said leave this to me.Art would more neatly have defac’dWhat she had laid so sweetly wastIn fragrant Gardens, shaddy Woods,Deep Meadows, and transparent Floods.While with slow Eyes we these survey,And on each pleasant footstep stay,We opportunly may relateThe progress of this Houses Fate.A Nunnery first gave it birth.For Virgin Buildings oft brought forth.And all that Neighbour-Ruine showsThe Quarries whence this dwelling rose.

(75–88)

These couplets blur the distinction between the natural and built environments, implying that both manifest their features organically. According to Marvell, the static Appleton façade contrasts sharply with the dynamic landscape. The various settings (“Gardens [. . .] Woods [. . .] Meadows [. . .] and Floods”) are pregnant with action, foreshadowing the fortified gardens (329–66), felled trees (537–60), mowed grasses (369–460),5 and inundated rivers (470–80) of later stanzas. The sequence and pace of narration in these appear to follow the speaker’s relaxed gait as he tours the grounds.

As a tutor-in-residence to Lord Fairfax’s daughter, Marvell had familiarized himself with the management of Fairfax’s demesne. As McColley informs us, Marvell commends Fairfax for his economy, the prudent governance, management, and organization of an estate.6 Fairfax’s management style follows the path of least natural resistance. That is to say, Fairfax neither prevents the flood (623–28), which irrigates the soil, nor does he interfere with the hewel (Picus viridis L.), the woodland bird known for chiseling trees (557–60). The synergy of natural and built features in the environment suggests that Fairfax’s understanding of the relationship between economy and ecology was deeply felt. Here, the etymological relationship between “economy” and “ecology” reminds us of Xenophon’s discussion of estate management in the Oeconomicus:

[Socrates:] We agreed that economy was…[the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-3377
Print ISSN
0743-6831
Pages
pp. 68-84
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-26
Open Access
No
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