Andrew Marvell was a contemporary of John Milton and John Donne. As a poet, he is a far lesser light than Donne or Milton, although as far as poems read in their entirety, Marvell may be the better known, as he was the author of “To His Coy Mistress,” the classic “let’s make hay while the sun shines” seduction poem. It was Donne who wrote such memorable lines as “for whom the bell tolls” (in a sermon that is rarely read anymore) and Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost (and other huge poems that few people read today), it was Marvell who made the marvelous line, “my vegetable love grows ever grows / vaster than empires and more slow.” Donne and Marvell are typically remembered as members of a group of “metaphysical poets,” which Donne certainly was, though Marvell wears the title reluctantly: “One final piece of advice if you seek to become a poet,” Christopher Peachment’s fictional Marvell says. “Resist the temptation.”
In Peachment’s slow-off-the-mark novel about Marvell, his life and times, the poet is an especially reluctant metaphysician. The autobiographical Marvell of The Green and the Gold is, rather, a naughty spy of both the voyeuristic and espionage types, and an egoist who loves talking about his own poetry (even though he insists he never talks about it). The book is spotty because, although the title of the novel includes the word “politician,” the fictionalized Marvell merely mentions in passing that he was a Minister of Parliament, then brushes that fact aside, saying, Forget about that. And while the first battle of the Civil War, one that resulted in the loss of King Charles’ head and the tyrannical reign of Oliver Cromwell, is drawn in excruciating detail, much of the rest of the War is ignored. The book’s slow opening scenes — one from childhood, the next from young adulthood — are so slow that many readers may well put the book down before working through the first fifty pages.
But for the reader who does wade through the first fifty pages, there’s a treat in store. Once Peachment settles down and lets Marvell narrate the events that really interest him, the book gets good and funny. What interests this Marvell is sex, manipulation, and his own poetry (even though he insists he never talks about it — one of the inconsistencies that make the character come alive). Inasmuch as the novel is an investigation of the origins of some of Marvell’s more famous poems, it works pretty well, even if Peachment’s investigations are largely speculative. For instance, there’s what amounts to a shaggy-dog story about the couplet from “To His Coy Mistress” which runs: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” This “translates,” of course, as “hey babe, we’re all going to die, so let us take our pleasure now while we may.” But the back story Peachment invents is a literal tale of a near-death experience, giving the couplet in its, so to speak, pre-publication form as: “And at my back I clearly hear / Ten Spanish cut-throats hurrying near.” One Don Coyote, a malapropism that adds leaven to this sometimes-uneven novel, saves Marvell from these cutthroats.
The “great long streak of piss of peace, [the] decade of bible-thumping and God-bothering and general all-round sniffiness” of Cromwell’s Puritan rule finally gives way to the Restoration of Charles II. For Marvell the spy, this brings new problems, but the amazing true fact is that he stayed in the good graces of both Cromwell’s regime and the new king. The Marvell of The Green and the Gold is a man of action, by God, so he says, “It is hard to do nothing. You should try it some time.” To stir things up a bit, he starts the Fire of London in order to blame it on the Catholics, who are thought to be wooing the impoverished Charles II (They were, through the offices of Louis XIV, the moneybags King of France). As if to demonstrate that politicians never change, Marvell says he “sat on the Parliamentary committee which was convened to investigate the cause of the fire…. [W]e finally came to the conclusion that it probably was not the Catholics who caused the fire after all, though that didn’t stop me from circulating anonymous pamphlets claiming that they did.”
Second novelist (after Caravaggio) Peachment has produced an interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, occasionally brilliant novel that will interest readers wanting to add color to the cheeks of Marvell’s poetry, or who are otherwise interested in the seventeenth century. The narrative is quirky, which seems a proper reflection of the man who could write the carpe diem sex poem he’s so famous for as well as the contemplative poems about mowing grass (a labor Marvell only ever observed, never engaged in). If the first few chapters disappoint readers, much better is in store, including some truly insightful ruminations on the composition of poetry.