“Forward youth” and Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode”

“Forward youth” and Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode”

Matthew Harkins

MARVELL’S “AN HORATIAN ODE” opens with that unquiet figure, the “forward youth”; and yet, despite his prominence, we have never properly understood that figure. Many readings have nodded to him in passing; those who have more closely examined the youth explore buried meanings in Roman poetry to argue that Horace’s verse or Lucan’s Pharsalia sufficiently explain his mysteries. (1) This essay contends that sources and analogues have led us astray: Marvell’s “forward youth” may gesture to classical precedents, but his presence alludes, more importantly, to the poet’s preoccupation with youth and the culturally contested role of the young at a particular historical moment. By identifying the forward youth as a recognized social figure we can better grasp his mysteries and the broad political argument about age, authority, and precedent that Marvell’s poem offered its audience. (2)

In mid-seventeenth-century England, “youth” carried specific cultural weight; and so too the adjective “forward.” Together they must have provoked–and have power still to provoke–strong responses. In their famous debate, Cleanth Brooks and Douglas Bush touched this issue when Bush claimed that Brooks had misidentified the historical resonance of “forward,” and continued debate over the proper seventeenth-century definitions of these two words might have given us a deeper understanding of the poem. (3) And yet, no one has properly historicized Marvell’s idiom and the work of historicizing this crucial phrase has largely been abandoned. (4) My essay aims to remedy this neglect by showing how a reading responsive to the historical meanings of the “forward youth” offers crucial insight into the poem’s temper, allegiances, and occasion. In choosing to begin his poem with this figure, Marvell consciously deploys a contested cultural archetype as a lens through which the reader might observe and then more deeply comprehend England’s political troubles, and in ways that are both comfortingly and strangely familiar.

With our own knowledge of Marvell’s oeuvre, the poet’s strategy of focusing “An Horatian Ode” around the forward youth should come as no surprise, for the questions youth face and decisions they make shape much of Marvell’s poetry. This preoccupation stems from the poet’s insistence on framing youth as a site of contemplation separate from and yet proximate to a politically active adulthood. Of course, contrasting the contemplative life to the vita activa is hardly a Marvellian innovation, but Marvell’s explorations of this topos regularly turn to youth with an intensity seldom matched by his contemporaries. Retirement offers a similarly distanced perspective on the vita activa, a perspective Marvell examines through the narrator in “The Garden” and Lord Fairfax in Upon Appleton House. Yet even in these two works the poet’s attention returns to youth, through the pre-marital “happy garden state” shaping the close of the first poem or the meditations on the youthful tutor and his pupil closing the second.

But Marvell’s focus on youth reflects more than a personal interest; it reflects a larger cultural anxiety about youth’s status and character. In “An Horatian Ode,” Marvell opens his deliberations into Cromwell’s qualities through “the forward youth,” a figure whose particular position allows the poet a vantage point from which to assess Cromwell’s “forwardness.” The difficulty of controlling the forwardness of youths had long been a concern in early modern England. Marvell’s ode masterfully incorporates this concern within a larger discussion of the political crisis England faced in 1650. In essence, Marvell uses a cultural debate about the proper transfer of power between generations to present Cromwell as less threatening and transgressive than many saw him in 1650. In imagining Cromwell as a forward youth, Marvell anticipates those who might have wished to criticize the general as dangerously forward; the analogy allows the poet to defuse such criticism and present Cromwell’s troubling behavior as a natural complement to the vigor and zeal of youth.

But further to understand the “forward youth” of Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode,” we must explore its meanings within the poem’s historical context. “Youth” as a concept was remarkably elastic in early modern England, with regularly shifting boundaries. Still, we can establish some parameters–roughly the transitional period between the onset of puberty and the achievement of full adult status. For males this status was generally determined by reaching three markers of maturity (often, but not always concurrent) in early modern England: marriage, assumption of household headship, and inheritance of one’s patrimony. This lengthy period could continue well into a young man’s late twenties; yet it provided occasions for further subdivision as well. (5) Writers across the early modern period discussed “youth” both as a broad chronological category and as a term needing more careful delineation. Some texts, such as Ascham’s The Scholemaster, exhibit both impulses simultaneously: “from seuen to seuentene, yong ientlemen commonlie be carefullie enough brought vp: But from seuentene to seuen and twentie (the most) dangerous tyme of all a mans life, and most slipperie to stay well in) they haue commonlie the reigne of all licens in their own hand, and speciallie soch as do liue in the Court.” (6) Ascham notes the various degrees of control exercised over youth of different ages–control that the author finds woefully absent over older youth who “haue commonlie the reigne of all licens in their own hand.” Since “in their own hand” may refer not only to “have” but also modify “licens,” this phrase suggests both a personal power–these older youth act with a free hand–as well as a certain restraint. These older youths remain under the limited control of their elders, lacking the political and capital resources to affect policy, but they retain a liberty of their own immediate person and effects: they have license in their own hand. The grammatical ambiguity of this passage reflects cultural ambiguity about the relative power of youth in early modern England. Youth belong to a dangerous and “slipperie” time, and uncertainties about the scope and nature of their power produce considerable unease for older writers who fear for both England’s youth and the country these youth will inevitably lead.

Ascham’s comments focus on young, privileged, elite males, rather than lower class youth or young women. The titles, wealth, or educated status of these male youths would bring them to positions of political and economic authority. The “forward youth” opening Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode” is one of these privileged few as well, leaving a comfortable hall filled with books and armor to seize military power. In other poems Marvell describes youths both male and female, both rustic and sophisticated. “An Horatian Ode” however, concerns itself at once with a male youth who rushes to grasp power, and older males used to holding it. Although female and lower-class youths provoked anxiety in figures of male adult authority, “An Horatian Ode” focuses on the unease surrounding the transfer of power from one generation of males to another.

This unease stemmed, in part, from conflicting ideas of youth’s inherent qualities–ideas which in turn shaped debates about how much control should be exercised by, or over, early modern English youth. Ascham’s lament in 1570 over the “licens” allowed those between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven finds a counterpoint in the words of an Elizabethan minister who admitted “If there were any good to be done in these days, it is the young men that must do it, for the old men are out of date.” (7) The conflict between these two perspectives continued late into the seventeenth century. In 1688, thirty-eight years after Marvell wrote “An Horatian Ode,” an anonymous pamphlet titled Advice to the English Youth: Relating to the Present Juncture of Affairs, offered an even more detailed critique of views such as Ascham’s. In explaining why he chose to address youth rather than adults, the pamphlet’s author writes:

You have not as yet entered upon Business and Affairs of the World,

but are fitting your selves for the same; you stand clearer, and

have few or no Fetters on you; and some of you have not chose your

Side or Party, (as some call it) your Religion as yet: And

therefore, Advice to you I reckon the more proper; and with

Submission be it spoken, many of you may be better Judges than some

of greater Authority and Years: For those that stand by, often see

more than those who are concerned in the Action. (8)

Youth’s distance from the active world is an asset. Unlike adults whose engagement clouds judgment, youths can use their as yet disinterested position in the shadows to see more clearly. Ascham’s concern was that youth inhabited a dangerous and “slipperie” time of life–a moment troubled by the lack of stable bonds or “fetters.” But in Advice to the English Youth, this lack of bonds is an asset rather than a liability. Ascham’s worries spill over into larger questions about the ordering of Elizabethan society: “innocencie is gone: Bashfulnesse is banished: moch presumption in yougthe: small authoritie in aige: Reuerence is neglected: dewties be confounded: and to be shorte, disobedience doth ouerflow the bankes of good order, almoste in euerie place, almoste in euerie degree of man.” (9) In both cases, youth provides a clear reference point for addressing social anxieties and unease. The destructive liberty Ascham finds in youth has implications for a culture suffering everywhere from disobedience and disorder. By contrast, the author of Advice to the English Youth, finds in youth the qualities that can invigorate a weary nation.

These polarities reveal the differing ways early modern writers might perceive youth. In “An Horatian Ode,” Marvell employs youth to frame a difficult historical moment within a familiar, if still troubling, context. The proper regulation of privileged youth seeking adult authority was perpetually difficult. Yet the passage of time decreed that these youths would inevitably attain such authority; the commonplace nature of this transition could make the troubles connected to the transition seem less threatening. Similarly, the political realities forced upon a nation suffering the after-effects of civil war and regicide were sobering indeed. Yet Marvell could mitigate criticism about Cromwell’s role in England’s current crisis by recasting the general’s behavior through a common cultural metaphor; Cromwell’s actions were no more threatening than those of the “forward youth” moving “restlessly” toward adult authority.

But at first glance Marvell’s analogy seems shockingly inappropriate. Why begin “An Horatian Ode”–a poem ostensibly about a fifty-one year old general-with an anonymous “forward youth”?

The forward Youth that would appear

Must now forwake his Muses dear,

Nor in the Shadows sing

His Numbers languishing.

‘Tis time to leave the books in dust

And oil the unused armour’s rust:

Removing from the wall

The corselet of the hall.

So restless Cromwell could not cease

In the inglorious arts of peace,

But through adventurous war

Urged his active star.

Lines 1-12 describe this youth for us, his seemingly pastoral existence singing among the shadows, and his subsequent decision to abandon books and take up arms. Cromwell enters the poem in line 9, yet the phrase “So restless Cromwell” links the general with this forward youth without explaining the nature of this link. Are we invited to see this youth as Cromwell? Or are this youth’s forward actions simply an example of those undertaken by Cromwell in his rise to power? Either reading would be problematic, since there seems initially little reason to frame a fifty-one year old Cromwell as a poetical, pastoral youth. One historian notes that when Cromwell moved to St. Ives in 1631 he was “clearly sliding down the social scale,” selling almost all of his property and “adopting the lifestyle of a yeoman farmer rather than a landowning gentleman.” (10)

This biographical detail might provide a basis for a pastoral (or, more exactly, georgic) description of the general as a youth, yet Marvell curiously insists on imagining a young Cromwell with his own “muses.” Was the young Cromwell a poet? Would Marvell have known if he were? The general apparently wrote some poetry, (11) and yet this youth’s actions seem less historically specific than these questions would warrant, gesturing rather towards Marvell’s figure of the archetypal or “timeless” pastoral youth and seeking to align Cromwell with such a figure.

This seemingly illogical tie between the mature general and the forward youth is no accident; Marvell intends to give us pause. Since the poet takes pains to consider Cromwell’s rise to political heights–a rise that took place largely during the general’s adulthood–through the image of a “forward youth” deciding to abandon his artistic studies, we must consider the cultural significance of the retired space this youth leaves. Marvell outlines a particular path for this youth, sketching the archetypal movement from study and aesthetics to the vita activa of the soldier and statesman. As the opening of Marvell’s poem suggests, the youth’s habitat seems a fit place for the pastoral arts: verse, music, and sheltered contemplation. These shadows allude to a natural preserve of youth; as one critic writes, “By its very nature the public, active life is adult, while the private, natural world is a protected domain of the young.” (12) The arts and muses inhabiting this space were linked clearly in the early modern mind with the proper education of youth. Writing of the significance of a university education in 1622, Henry Peacham describes both the geographical grounds of the school and this interval in a youth’s development as the “Paradise of the Muses,” where “the least neglect and impression of Errors foot, is so much the more apparant and censured, by how much the sacred Arts have greater interest in the culture of the mind, and correction of manners.” (13) The Renaissance (and Horatian) adage that poetry should “delight and instruct” should be remembered; poetry was not meant merely to please youth, but to play a substantial role in shaping their “mind” and “manners” so that they might be prepared for the complex social and political negotiations of adulthood. At least one critic of the poem has seen echoes of a classical Roman disdain for “life ‘in the shadows'” in a time of war, even though the arts practiced there “in other contexts … are … a main part of the basis of society.” 14) Yet “An Horatian Ode” demands of its readers the discretion inculcated by such arts. The subtle work Marvell accomplishes in this poem relies heavily on the skills produced by this youthful pastoral education–too heavily for us to imagine Marvell discounting its value at the poem’s opening. “Numbers” sung from “the Shadows” formed a crucial part of a youth’s education. “The study of literature was an adjunct to rhetoric, whose object … was the knowledge of men, their passions and affections, and how these are influenced by speech.” (15) If nothing else, “An Horatian Ode” displays the poet attempting to reach some “knowledge” of Cromwell, of his “passions and affections,” and seeking both to evaluate and communicate this knowledge through the poem itself.

Yet, if the study of poetry was “an adjunct to rhetoric,” it wasn’t necessarily subordinate to it. Milton’s 1644 essay “Of Education” outlines an ideal system for educating youth, and its author advocates marrying logic and rhetoric with poetry at the end of a young man’s education:

Logic, therefore, so much as is useful, is to be referred to this

due place with all her well-couched heads and topics, until it be

time to open her contracted palm into a graceful and ornate

rhetoric, taught out of the rule of Plato, Aristotle, Phalereus,

Cicero, Hermogenes, Longinns. To which poetry would be made

subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less subde and

fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate…. From hence, and

not till now, will be the right season of forming them to be able

writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be

thus fraught with an universal insight into things. (16)

Milton distinguishes poetry from rhetoric, but refuses to subordinate the former to the latter. Together, these two subjects crowned a youth’s education. Studying poetry and rhetoric provided a foundation for a wise and productive adulthood, giving these figures on the cusp of maturity “an universal insight into things.” Milton sees this insight as contingent on following properly the course he outlines; elsewhere in the essay he explains that most university youth lose patience with a poorly designed curriculum and enter adult occupations precipitously. These students “grow into hatred and contempt of learning … till poverty or youthful years call them importunately their several ways, and hasten them, with the sway of friends, either to an ambitious and mercenary, or ignorantly zealous divinity.” (17) Milton offers examples of other professions these poorly prepared youth enter, and he places the blame for these premature decisions on the failures of the university system. Yet the social disasters he attributes to poor education stern directly from the ill-timed haste of students leaving what Peacham calls the “Paradise of the Muses”–leaving the shaded space of youth before achieving a necessary “universal insight into things.” Youth must leave this paradise, of course, but they must have absorbed first the wisdom they will need outside of it. A forward youth’s success hinges on the quality of his forwardness; is he apt and ready, or reckless and woefully unprepared?

Such questions into the nature of a youth’s forwardness comprise an integral part of Marvell’s argumentative strategy in “An Horatian Ode.” The forward youth’s decision to “forsake his Muses” is calculated to raise questions about the propriety of such a course of action.

The forward Youth that would appear

Must now forsake his Muses dear,

Nor in the Shadows sing

His Numbers languishing.

Does this forwardness signal readiness and precocity or ambitious ignorance? Does “languishing” modify “Numbers,” or the youth himself–his own state of mind–languishing through justified or unjustified impatience? This youth’s poetic endeavors are not self-evidently useless, nor do we know if in his forwardness this youth has adequately absorbed the lessons such a pastoral existence might teach him. Marvell allows both the pejorative and positive interpretations of this act to coexist. This coexistence, however, is hardly an example of the poet’s refusal to commit to a clear argument; it stands as the very cornerstone of his argument. In effect, Marvell reminds his audience that forward youths take risks, opposing the youthful state that “inclose[s]” them; they break away from their education and act assertively before anyone knows if they’re ready. Peril lies in such forwardness, but so too does promise.

Brooks was perhaps the first to stress the dual meaning of “forward.” Most subsequent critics addressing the term have adopted a definition supporting their overall view of the poem’s political sympathies. Worden’s meticulously studied analysis of the historical and textual setting of the poem, for instance, stresses the parliamentary government’s approval of a military book that favorably addresses “the apt and forward soldier” and “the young soldier.” (18) Yet this contemporary reference should by no means assure us Marvell meant the term to carry only a positive connotation. Elsewhere in his article Worden notes the importance of Sir Fulke Greville’s Life of Sir Philip Sidney (printed in 1652) and makes passing reference to this book’s description of Sidney as a “forward young man.” (19) Greville’s statement about Sidney, however, reads as follows:

… the Earle of Leicester his unckle … told me … that when he

undertook the goverment of the Low Countries, he carryed his

Nephew over with him, as one amongst the rest, not only despising

his youth for a Counsellor, but withall bearing a hand over him as a

forward young man. Notwithstanding, in short time he saw this Sun

so risen above his Horizon, that both he and all his Stars were glad

to fetch light from him. (20)

The argumentative pattern of this quotation reveals how being “a forward young man” could be viewed negatively, rather than positively. Though Sidney’s uncle saw his mistake “in short time,” he initially brought his nephew along as “one among the rest”–one whose youth not only made him an unfit counselor, but whose forwardness also required a controlling hand over him.

For a seventeenth-century writer, a forward youth could be precocious, or dangerously zealous. (21) Both meanings were available to Marvell, and both are consistent with Marvell’s description of Cromwell in “An Horatian Ode.” This ambivalence might suggest yet another example of the poised ambiguity so often noted in this poem; yet a far more interesting maneuver is in play. Marvell refuses to gloss over the contradictory values assigned to forward youths, just as he refrains from whitewashing the disruptive violence of Cromwell’s actions. “An Horatian Ode” acknowledges the destructive violence brought about through a youth’s zealous disregard of age-based cultural restrictions. Abandoning the educative arts of youthful shadows, Cromwell bursts into the troubled political world of maturity, using his “courage high” (17) to devastating effect: “Then burning through the air he went, / And palaces and temples rent” (21). His searing ambition has brought an element of stability to a troubled land, penetrating nature’s emptiness, but has also played a crucial role in creating the void needing to be filled. “So much one Man can do, / That does both act and know” offers Marvell, in what seems at first to be an unqualified assertion of Cromwell’s laudable strengths. But a less supremely confident man–one whose forward instincts could have been mitigated by youthful contemplation in the shades–might have arrested his own ambition somewhat and avoided ruining “the great Work of Time” (34).

Yet Marvell brilliantly reverses the argumentative direction of his metaphor. He plays on cultural notions of youth’s forward zeal to deepen his audience’s sense of Cromwell’s transgression, then neatly changes polarities. The very fact that dismay over forward youth was so common allows Marvell to domesticate and thus mitigate criticism of the general. The “forward Youth” lets the poet present Cromwell’s ascent within the context of a generational shift of power. What could be more familiar? We have already seen how part of the cultural anxiety surrounding youth in early modern England originated from differing perspectives about the age and circumstances needed for the proper assumption of power by a new generation. In 1609 the Earl of Northumberland had advised his son directly about such generational anxieties, asserting that “Imperfections of age in fathers grow tedious to a forward youth, neither do vanities of young men ever best suit with old conditions.” Speaking of these fathers and sons respectively, he writes further: “the one … looks peremptorily to be observed out of custom” while “the other … desires liberty out of nature.” (22) Four years earlier, Shakespeare presented Edmund capitalizing on such generational strife in a letter falsely attributed to Edgar. “I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny” (I.ii.49-50) the letter explains, giving voice to youth’s dissatisfaction and prompting age’s anger–a volatile combination at the heart of the play itself. Northumberland’s passage resonates with “An Horatian Ode” where we see Cromwell as a forward youth who clashes with “old conditions,” who “cast[s] the Kingdome old / Into another Mold” (35-36). Northumberland’s observation about a forward youth’s eagerness for “liberty out of nature” appears consonant with Marvell’s assertion:

Nature that hateth emptiness,

Allows of penetration less:

And therefore must make room

Where greater Spirits come (41-44).

“Nature,” of course, is a slippery term in almost any culture, and particularly difficult to pinpoint for a poet as intrigued by the natural world as Marvell. Nevertheless, Marvell’s use of the term here bears a productive resemblance to Northumberland’s. Both writers imagine nature as something beyond “custom,” as an innate tendency of the world to operate in a particular manner.

For both writers as well, nature becomes a site for the transfer of power, and such transfers of familial or political power in early modern England tended to play out within a generational context. In such a patriarchal culture, images of the king as paternal authority were, of course, nothing new. Indeed, disturbing political and social changes often participated in a language of generational distinction. Decades before Marvell wrote his poem, Greville described Sidney’s troubles in seeking to negotiate the Netherlands’ role in an international political scene. Greville explains that incorporating together the power of separate nations would create an “uneven ballance of State; the very reflexion of scorn between age, and youth.” (23) These dangerous changes demanded a familiar and familial metaphor through which their newness might be rendered comprehensive, or even diffused. Years after Marvell addressed Cromwell’s power through the notion of generational change, the exiled Earl of Clarendon remembered the interregnum as a time of profound discord between parents and children: “there were never such Examples of Impiety between such Relations in any Age of the World, Christian or Heathen, as in that wicked Time, from the Beginning of the Rebellion to the King’s Return.” (24) Clarendon not only asserts that this familial discord existed, but he stresses a particular alignment between age and politics:

Parents had no Manner of Authority over their Children, nor Children

any Obedience or Submission to their Parents; but every one

did that which was good in his own Eyes. This unnatural Antipathy

had its first Rise from the Beginning of the Rebellion; when the

Fathers and Sons engaged themselves on the contrary Parties, the one

choosing to serve the King, and the other the Parliament. (25)

It is difficult to imagine that political factions split as evenly along generational lines as Clarendon suggests: fathers supporting the king and sons choosing parliament. But this simple dichotomy reveals Clarendon’s argumentative strategy and its broader, cultural context. The Civil War was a rebellion not only against the king’s political authority, but against a natural familial authority as well. Clarendon links these two instances of rebellion, allowing the “unnatural” elements of generational struggle to color his view of an “unnatural” political revolt.

Writing from a conservative point of view and well after the Restoration, and, we might note, as an old man, Clarendon registers displeasure at the thought of youth seeking power at the expense of age. In 1650, England’s political scene was unsettled enough that Marvell, twenty-nine years old at the time, could suggest the converse of Clarendon’s argument: perhaps Cromwell’s military and political zeal were as natural as the imperfect but talented attempts of a forward youth to step into a world of maturity. In presenting Cromwell’s forwardness as a youth’s “greater Spirit” stepping into a vacuum of power left by the previous generation, Marvell offers youth as a metaphor to mitigate criticism of Cromwell as a forward general.

In his Essays, published in 1625, Francis Bacon mused upon the various qualities of youth and age, noting how they may complement each other:

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will

be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may

correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men

may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for

extern accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favor and

popularity youth. But for the moral part, perhaps youth will have

preeminence, as age hath for the politic. A certain rabbin, upon the

text, ‘Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall

dream dreams’, inferreth that young men are admitted closer to God

than old, because vision is a clearer revelation than a dream. (26)

For Bacon youth and age may work in tandem, each benefiting from the virtues of the other. Such a system promotes a smooth transition of power from one generation to the next; it is “good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors.” The forward youth of “An Horatian Ode” rejects the gradual transition recommended by Bacon, choosing instead to leap precipitously from learning to action, and much of the rest of Marvell’s poem seeks to understand how Cromwell’s swift seizure of power may be reconciled with traditional notions of age-graded authority. Presenting the general as a forward youth who propelled himself into a position that demanded mature political skills, Marvell displays a Cromwell fully up to the task. We are apprised of his “wiser art” (48), of his formidable military and political capabilities, and reminded that even though the general has taken an almost unprecedented step into active adulthood, he nonetheless offers a kind of filial deference to the will of the nation. “Still in the Republick’s hand,” Cromwell, the nation should know, is “fit … to sway”–both to wield power and to be swayed by those who doubt that his judgment has caught up with his eagerness. Just as Sidney’s uncle initially underrated his nephew’s abilities as a forward youth, England runs the risk of making a similar miscalculation about Cromwell; and just as Sidney exceeded expectations, so too will the general.

Bacon’s assertion that youth may bear a “moral … preeminence” offers a context as well for the disturbing opacity of God’s providence. “‘Tis madness to resist or blame / The force of angry heaven’s flame,” explains the poet, who, in attempting to justify Cromwell’s actions politically, recognizes this forward youth as an instrument of God. Yet, if Bacon is correct, this access to God’s vision declines with age, and the “greater spirit” rising in the first half of the poem will have to face other “spirits of the shady night,” at the poem’s conclusion. Worden has noted that “around the poem there are shadows: the shadows of song three lines from the beginning, the shades of night three lines from the end.” (27) These shades may differ only in perspective; the forward youth burning to implement God’s vision at the poem’s opening becomes the old man troubled by clouded dreams at its close. (28) Cromwell has risen as “the War’s and Fortune’s son,” but as the general moves “indefatigably on,” so too does time.

The unorthodoxy of Cromwell’s forward rise may be mitigated somewhat by comparing it to a generational shift of power. Yet this shift remains a metaphor that cannot completely elide the violent precedent set by civil war and regicide. Marvell, however, employs this metaphor so skillfully that it even responds to the Machiavellian echoes some critics have found in the poem–particularly to the curious link between the “forward Youth” and Machiavelli’s admonition in chapter twenty-five of The Prince:

Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary if you wish to master her, to

strike and beat her; and you will see that she lets herself be

vanquished more easily by the bold than by those who proceed more

slowly and coldly. And therefore she is always a friend to the

young, because they are less cautious, more fierce, and master her

with greater audacity. (29)

But if we see Machiavelli’s assessment–that the young naturally succeed through fierce audacity–reflecting on the “forward Youth” of “An Horatian Ode,” the implications of such age-dependent power are far reaching. As Harvey Mansfield explains in introducing his translation of The Prince: “The young men who master Lady Fortune come with audacity and leave exhausted, but she remains ageless, waiting for the next ones. One might go so far as to wonder who is raping whom.” (30) If such potency belongs to youth, each generation can hope to master fortune only momentarily. Cultural conventions keep the young from power until they are properly educated; if one “forward Youth” breaks from such societal restraint, he cannot expect future youths not to do so as well.

Marvell uses youth in “An Horatian Ode” to consider a moment of profound political upheaval. The tensions between an adult political world and a secluded youth shape much of Marvell’s poetry, and he consistently offers poetry itself as vehicle for trafficking between these two sites. “An Horatian Ode” is no exception. It is tempting to imagine Marvell writing this poem as an offering to his future patron, Lord Fairfax. (31) Fairfax’s wife had famously cried out in dismay during the king’s trial, and Fairfax had not only refused to sign the king’s death warrant, but had decided to retire soon after the regicide in what was widely seen as a gesture of protest against Cromwell’s overreaching. In making use of conflicting cultural ideas about youth, “An Horatian Ode” seems perfectly calibrated to appeal to the views Marvell might have expected Fairfax to hold: support for the parliamentary cause, horror at the regicide, and an appreciation for Cromwell’s talents mitigated by dismay for his ruthless political tactics. A poem framing Cromwell as a disruptive and yet perhaps ultimately rejuvenating force–as a forward youth–could very well have appealed to a man such as Fairfax. “An Horatian Ode” would have gratified Fairfax’s sense of outrage and given him the opportunity to imagine Cromwell perpetually tormented–accosted by “spirits of the shady night”; yet he would have found justification for embracing Cromwell’s authority as an asset to the country and a practical necessity by considering the future Lord Protector through the metaphor of the forward youth. (32) Whether or not the poem was expressly written for Fairfax, it proposes ideas about Cromwell that Marvell might have expected Fairfax to hold–ideas, indeed, doubtlessly shared by many Englishmen in 1650.

Yet while the “forward youth” shapes the poem’s representation of Cromwell, it simultaneously offers insight into the role of the poet. At twenty-nine, the far edge of what many in early modern England might have termed youth, Marvell took a step forward from youthful poetic seclusion into the mature public arena of politics. Rosalie Colie has noted that in both “An Horatian Ode” and “Upon Appleton House” Marvell presents himself as “both apprentice poet … and apprentice adult, finding his range, making his tentatives toward choice.” (33) Critiquing the behavior of one’s elders was widely seen as culturally transgressive. In a poem printed in 1620, Sir Thomas Wroth presented himself as such a forward young poet: “I pra’y faire Ladyes pard’ne my forward youth, / If I haue slaunder’d you in telling truth; / You shall noe more me thus offensiue finde; / But if you mend not, in a worser kind.” (34) While the ironic assurance of Wroth’s lines claims an authority to criticize women, the poet acknowledges the argument that he behaves as a “forward youth.” Though he may not be a figure culturally licensed to criticize adult society, as a “forward youth” he sees the truth and remains predisposed to speak it. In writing “An Horatian Ode,” Marvell treads on more dangerous ground than Wroth. Early modern gender disparity allowed a youth to write a conventional satire against women; questioning great figures of state was a far more assertive step.

The risks of Marvell acting as a forward youth, if not identical to, are certainly consonant with those faced by Cromwell. We have already seen the implications of the general’s forward behavior and, whatever else it does, “An Horatian Ode” forces its readers to contemplate the desirability of Cromwell’s particular qualities. Is Marvell ready to abandon the muses of the shade, to set aside the pastoral poetry traditionally associated with youth in order to step poetically into a world of mature political action? Has he achieved that “universal insight into things,” what Milton saw as the gift of the fully educated youth? Does Marvell risk, in writing this ode before he may be ready, committing a sort of interpretative violence, acting as rashly and capriciously as Cromwell’s bolt of lightning? Milton explains that insufficiently prepared youth often find themselves following “ambitious … mercenary, or ignorantly zealous” paths; these adjectives haunt the forward Cromwell in “An Horatian Ode,” and Marvell must have wished to avoid their sting as a young forward poet as well. Yet Marvell seems ready to take the risks associated with reimagining Cromwell for Fairfax or other like-minded figures; like Cromwell, he might be overreaching, acting prematurely, but he also has a vision to offer.

Despite cultural reservations about youth interfering with matters best left to adults, Marvell repeatedly returns to the decisions faced by youths on the cusp of adulthood. Learning quietly in the shadows, these figures gain a perspective on the problems of a mature political world. Marvell steadily counterposes the acts of men against the poise of youth–a poise remarkably consistent with that the Advice to Youth finds in “those that stand by” and thus “often see more than those who are concerned in the Action.” Despite (or perhaps because of) her naivete, the nymph of “The Nymph Complaining” critiques an adult world seemingly inured to acts of casual cruelty. In “Upon Appleton Hosue,” Mary Fairfax becomes the figurative embodiment of an estate imbued with figures of youth, produced by the trials of a young Fairfax and a virgin Thwaites, and sheltering both a youthful tutor and his charge as they peer anxiously at the mature world encroaching on the grounds of Nun Appleton. The imaginative allure of youthful figures would so engage the poet in “The Last Instructions” that he elected to refashion the poem’s mature hero, Archibald Douglas, as an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, stepping into a political world that desperately needs the calm eye of those that stand apart from the action–yet a world that cannot wait until its youth reach maturity.

Youth was not the only vantage from which to comment on this world of maturity; adults could and would do so with considerable acumen. Yet for Marvell youth would remain the site of luminous potential–his youthful figures wander through his poems, sometimes eloquently, sometimes silently–usually leaving the impression that they have something to tell: a message difficult to articulate from their perspective, and difficult to hear from ours. “An Horatian Ode,” though, stands as an early and brilliant attempt to straddle the space separating these two perspectives. Distilling cultural transgressions through the filter of the “forward youth,” Marvell offers a more hopeful perspective on England’s unsettling political circumstances than some might have then deemed warranted. In so doing, he dramatizes himself pushing forward as well, offering a much-needed poetic vision in a fashion some, however, might find presumptuous and premature. Marvell’s meditations on the merits of youthful contemplation and forward action, on the possibilities of influencing contemporary events from the perspective of one who “stand[s] by,” would take a number of forms, but few would prove as productive as that of the youth standing adjacent to, but not quite part of, a world of maturity. The very indeterminacy of youth in early modern England was a tool the poet would use repeatedly in his career in order to explore one of his own abiding themes: the malleable and mysterious boundaries between artistic contemplation of and active participation in a world of political maturity.

Washington University


(1.) A.J.N. Wilson suggests, curiously, that in Ode 1.29, Horace inverts the Roman tradition of scorning youthful study during a time of war, and that Marvell takes this poem as a model, only to switch argumentative polarities again and reassert traditional Roman values: A. J. N. Wilson, “Andrew Marvell: ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland’: The Thread of the Poem and Its Use of Classical Allusion,” Critical Quarterly 11, 4 (1969): 325-41. For readings of this youth based largely on Lucan, see: Nicholas Guild, “The Context of Marvell’s Allusion to Lucan in ‘An Horatian Ode,'” Papers on Language and Literature 14 (1978): 406-13; and John Wallace, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 72-74.

(2.) Questions as to the scope and nature of this audience remain, of course, vexed. We do not know if the poem circulated in manuscript, or who might have read it if it did. Only two known copies of the 1681 folio include the poem; it was cancelled from all others.

(3.) Douglas Bush, “Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode,'” Sewanee Review 60 (1952): 365. For a useful overview of the Brooks/Bush debate, see Marion Campbell, “Rehistoricising the Marvell Text,” Southern Review 20, 2 (1987): 126-27.

(4.) Bush’s reading of “forward” as an essentially positive term has largely gone unchallenged. See David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 256-65; Blair Worden, “Andrew Marvell, Oliver Cromwell, and the Horatian Ode,” Politics of Discourse, eds. Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 147-80; Joseph Mazzeo, “Cromwell as Machiavellian Prince in Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode,'” Journal of the History of Ideas 21, 1 (1960); and Rosalie Colie, “My Ecchoing Song”: Andrew Marvell’s Poetry of Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), 67-68, 104. See also Wilson and Guild. George de Forest Lord entertains dual readings of “forward,” but leaves them largely unexplained in his Classical Presences in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 91.

(5.) See Keith Thomas, “Age and Authority in Early Modern England,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, June 16, 1976 (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 227; also Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 11.

(6.) Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, ed. Edward Arber (1570; reprint, Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1898), 108.

(7.) Thomas, 247.

(8.) Advice to the English Youth Relating to the Present Juncture of Affairs, printed by George Larkin (London, 1688), 1.

(9.) Ascham, 116-17.

(10.) Barry Coward, Cromwell (London: Longman, 1991), 11-12.

(11.) Patsy Griffin, The Modest Ambition of Andrew Marvell (Newark: University of Delaware Press / Associated University Press, 1995), 90.

(12.) Steven Marx, Youth against Age: Generational Strife in Renaissance Poetry (New York: P. Lang, 1985), 29.

(13.) Henry Peacham, The Complete Gentleman (1634; reprint, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1906), 39.

(14.) Wilson, 328.

(15.) William T. Costello, The Scholastic Curriculum at Early Seventeenth-Century Cambridge (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 62.

(16.) John Milton, “Of Education,” John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 233.

(17.) Ibid., 229.

(18.) Richard Elton, The Complete Body of the Art Military, quoted in Worden, 157-58.

(19.) Worden, 161, 331.

(20.) Fulke Greville, Sir Fulke Greville’s Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1652; reprint, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907), 29.

(21.) See adjectival definitions for “forward” in the OED: particularly “A.6.c.” “A.6.c” and “A.7” for positive definitions, and “A.8” and “A.9” for more pejorative ones.

(22.) Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, Advice to His Son (1609: reprint, with a preface by G. B. Harrison, London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1930), 57. For an intriguing story about a twenty-three-year-old Northumberland attacking “his father’s cousin-german and chief dealer in matters of his living” (the passage’s grammer makes it difficult to know whether this cousin dealt in Northumberland’s or his dead father’s living), see the quotation from E. B. de Fonblanque’s Annals of the Hosue of Percy, 1887 (Harrison’s preface, 9). Northumberland blamed his mother for siphoning off the estate’s movable goods and the servants for not helping him to protect his assets (78-80).

(23.) Greville, 59-60.

(24.) Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, The Life of Edward Earl of Clarendon, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Printing House, 1759), 40.

(25.) Ibid., 39-40.

(26.) Francis Bacon, The Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 97-98.

(27.) Worden, 172.

(28.) One cannot help but think of the troubled dreams coming to an aging Charles II at the close of The Last Instructions: the ghost of his father and a mysteriously bound young virgin.

(29.) Quoted in Mazzeo, 7.

(30.) Harvey Mansfield, introduction to The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), xxiv.

(31.) Margoliouth noted, yet discounted, possible connections between the poem and Fairfax’s sympathies as early as 1927.

(32.) For an alternative perspective, see Norbrook, 251.

(33.) Colie, 278. See also de Forest Lord, 91. Thomas M. Greene entertains the notion of identifying Marvell with the forward youth, but argues, eventually, that the youth is Charles: Thomas M. Greene, “The Balance of Power in Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode,” English Literary History 60, 2 (1993): 379-96.

(34.) Sir Thomas Wroth. “Apologia pro seipso. Ep. 72.,” The Abortiue of an Idle Houre, addendum to his translation of Virgil’s The Destruction of Troy, or The Acts of Aeneas (London, 1620), 16.

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