Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay Life and Literature by Rictor Norton

Queering Andrew Marvell

The balance of probability is that Andrew Marvell (1621–78) was a 'passive' homosexual. His most famous poem "The Garden" illustrates various aspects of what used to be called "sexual inversion": homoeroticism, passive receptivity, a fascination with death and castration, narcissism, hermaphroditism, and even sadomasochism.

Portrait of Andrew Marvell

The poem is usually analysed in terms of metaphysics because Marvell is classified as working within the School of Donne (some of his poems seem to be replies to poems by Donne). However, Marvell is more accurately described as working within the School of Spenser, and his poetry is best understood as part of a long tradition of homosexual pastoral verse. Many of Marvell's nymphs and shepherds derive from the Ovidian-mythological tradition, and they are transformed because they reject heterosexual consummation with a pursuing deity or because they are androgynous youths who prefer themselves to females. The characteristic process of his work is metamorphosis, which is usefully considered as a strategy for returning to the polymorphous perverse, or, as Marvell puts it, "to annihilate all that's made / To a green Thought in a green Shade."

The ideal figure in Marvell's poetry is the dismembered Orpheus (which is a projection of himself). His females are representatives of the castrating Mother Goddess. In "The Gallery" she is the primordial bacchante, "an Inhumane Murtheress" raving over his entrails. We find her even in a simple poem such as "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers": "this is She whose chaster Laws / The wanton Love shall one day fear, / And, under her command severe, / See his Bow broke and Ensigns torn." The poet willingly accepts her emasculation of him, explicitly desiring her to "disarm . . . Roses of their thorns" and "most procure / That Violets may a longer Age endure." The violet is of course the flower into which the self-castrated Attis was metamorphosed.

The poet identifies with Attis in many of his poems, notably in the group of "Mower" poems. The meaning of, for example, "Damon the Mower" is all-too-painfully obvious. The poem opens by foreshadowing his fate: "hamstring'd Frogs can dance no more". Finally, in a "phrensie", a highly symbolic incident occurs: "with his whistling Sythe, does cut / Each stroke between the Earth and Root, / The edge Stele by careless chance / Did into his own Ankle glance: / And there among the Grass fell down, / By his own Sythe, the Mower Mown." The castration displacement could hardly be more obvious. The poem is modelled on Virgil's notorious second eclogue – Formosum Pastor Corydon, ardebat Alexis.

In "Upon Appleton House", Marvell again portrays himself as a willingly castrated formosus puer (beautiful boy). He lies like Adonis "Stretcht as a Bank unto the Tide", "languishing with ease . . . / On Pallets swoln of Velvet Moss" as wind-zephyrs "winnow from the Chaff my Head" (recalling the homoerotic myths of Zephyrus and Cyparissus; later in the poem the myth of Apollo and Narcissus is also recalled). As if this ritual beheading is not enough, the poet is transformed into a crucified Christ: "Bind me ye Woodbines in your 'twines, / . . . / Do you, O Brambles, chain me too, / And courteous Briars nail me through." Engaged in the solitary pleasure of fishing (an all-male activity from which women are excluded), the poet symbolically castrates himself at the appearance of the thirteen-year-old Mary Fairfax, an amalgam of Diana and Cybele with her awesome (albeit childlike) splendor: "But now away my Hooks, my Quills, / And Angles, idle Utensils. / The young Maria walks tonight: / Hide trifling Youth thy Pleasures slight. / 'Twere shame that such judicious Eyes / Should with such Toyes a Man surprize." The poet no doubt put away his rod along with the other phallic Toyes with which he was playing, lest, like a child guiltily masturbating, he be surprised by his mother. Maria, like the Medusa, petrifies (in effect castrates) all of nature: the world becomes "wholly vitrifi'd," "benumbed": "The gellying Stream compacts below".

The poet in "The Garden" is the god Eros in search of his true homosexual identity. Marvell correctly reinterprets the heterosexual myths of Apollo's desire for Daphne, and Pan's desire for Syrinx, as narcissistic myths of self-discovery. In his Latin poem "Hortus" he was explicit about this: "Although they [the gods] have known nymphs and goddesses many times, / Each one achieves his desire [potiunter quisque cupita] better now in a tree." The poet needs no woman, for he is erotically self-sufficient, as was Adam before the creation of Eve (a view perhaps partly influenced by the Hermetic myth of an androgynous Adam before the Fall): "Such was that happy Garden-state, / While Man there walk'd without a Mate." His mind finds its own resemblance in the Chrystal Mirrour of the effeminizing waters of the pool of Hylas–Narcissus–Hermaphroditus. He is his own object of desire.

In a curious passage in "The Garden", Marvell remarks that "My vegetable love will grow/Vaster than empires, and more slow." One might be prompted to ask if "vegetable love" is to be equated with the homoerotic across the board in reading Marvell's verse? It's always dangerous to suggest anything "across the board", and I wouldn't offer a queer reading of, for example, "To His Coy Mistress", which seems to be unproblematically heterosexual. But the term "vegetable love" does of course strike an odd note, which might be clarified by critical commentary on the neoplatonic theory of three sorts of souls, vegetative, sensitive, and rational. (I would observe that these could be characterized, respectively, as ambisexual, feminine, and masculine.)

One cannot help but be reminded of the character of the aesthete Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Patience, a parody of Oscar Wilde:

Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must
          excite your languid spleen,
An attachment a la Plato for a bashful young potato,
          or a not-too-French French bean!

                              . . .
          And everyone will say,
          As you walk your flowery way,
'If he's content with a vegetable love which would certainly
          not suit me,
Why what a most particularly pure young man, this pure young
          man must be!'

Andrew Marvell's horticulture is predominantly homosexual. The central creative act in his world focuses on a man surrounded by green grass in a garden of green trees, and this symbolic nexus is really a single etymological pun upon vir (man): "green" (viridus), "garden" (viridarium), "virgin" (virgina, "a beginning green twig"), virility (vir), virtue (virtus). Marvell clearly loves men.

The homosexual reading of Marvell's pastoral verse does not rely on external biographical evidence, but upon literary influence and Jungian interpretation. Its validity, however, does depend to some extent on the fact that there is no external evidence that Marvell was heterosexual. Shortly after his death, his housekeeper claimed to be his "widow" and to have secretly married him, but I think all scholars reject this as an attempt to claim financial benefit from his works (there is no record of such a marriage). My reading is supported by substantial evidence that many of his contemporaries accused him of being a "gelding" (a joke going back to Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale", suggesting that a man was a castrated eunuch or effeminate, hence "queer", i.e. homosexual) and an "amphibian" (a seventeenth-century term for sodomite or catamite). That biographical material of course is not conclusive (it all comes from his enemies), but Paul Hammond, who reviews it all in his essay "Marvell's Sexuality", The Seventeenth Century, 11 (1996) 87–123, concludes that it is "not without foundation", and I think his judgement has been more or less accepted in current mainstream scholarship (though I haven't kept up with it).

Copyright © 2002, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List during May 2002.

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