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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: March 2011

3 - Marvell and the literary past


The literature of the past has a strong presence in the writings of Marvell. In phrase, in genre and in theme, his verse is what he famously calls it in To His Coy Mistress – ‘echoing song’ (line 27) – and his prose works too, for all their polemical topicality, reverberate with memories of earlier authors and texts. Of course, we expect the poets of Marvell’s generation to imitate: originality did not become a touchstone of literary value until the middle of the eighteenth century. Many of Dryden’s poems cannot properly be understood without a knowledge of Virgil, Horace and Ovid, and even Milton, whose brawny originality exempted him (in the view of Harold Bloom) from the ‘anxiety of influence’, has in fact been shown carefully to negotiate with a whole host of ancient and modern predecessors. But Marvell is different. The extraordinary extent of his allusiveness has been a central element of his critical reputation ever since T. S. Eliot’s famous essay published to commemorate the tercentenary in 1921 of his birth. Eliot heard ‘a whole civilization’ in four lines of To His Coy Mistress:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near:

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

(lines 21–4)

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