Our book today - the last in our batch of what turned out to be mostly very superannuated musty old biographies cleared out of church basements in Iowa (ah, the wonders of Stevereads) - is Andrew Marvell, a slim, sparkling 1929 volume by the great Vita Sackville-West. It was supposed to be the first volume in a new series called, somewhat unfortunately, "The Poets on the Poets," although I'm not sure the series ever really took off, poets being so notoriously awful about deadlines. The first curiosity of the thing today is the governing identification of Sackville-West as a poet at all: it would have been routine in her own day, but to the very limited extent she's known to the common reader today, it's as a novelist or even a biographer of her ancestral home, not as a poet.
Still, 90 years ago she was well enough known to kick off this "The Poets on the Poets" series (as far as I know, it petered out almost immediately), and she chose to write a very slim volume on Marvell by concentrating almost exclusively on reading through his poems rather than retailing the facts of his life and times. She states up front that she won't be indulging in more than a scraping of biography, intent instead on concentrating on the poems. In a brochure for next summer's series of seminars at the National Humanities Center, we're told: "Scholarship over the last fifteen years has made it plain that Andrew Marvell's poetry cannot be adequately studied apart from his life" - and it's safe to say Sackville-West knew that even in her own day (one of her cited sources, a life of Marvell by the great Edwardian critic Augustine Birrell, specifically makes that same National Humanities Center claim). Her pose of aesthetic purity - just the poems, not the tawdry life - is just that: a pose, an old and trusty trick to let a freelancer off the hook of doing a load of extra research. And at least she's eloquent about it:
The apparent facts of a man's life are rarely absolute, even to himself; he draws the strokes, one by one, and is surprised at the final design of the picture. What hope is there, then, for the reconstruction of the biographer? It is no reconstruction that he can hope for, but merely interpretation - a rather more well-intentioned form of fiction.
The reader - if this thin volume had any readers anymore, which I doubt - can more readily tolerate such stuff because a) it speeds us to Sackville-West's thoughts on the poetry, and b) she doesn't really ignore biography anyway - some of her comments are almost admonishing in their personal tone:
Two strange reflections her suggest themselves. The first, that Marvell should never have published any of these poems - did he not know how good they were? The second - which appears almost to grow out of the first - that so true a poet should have abandoned the writing of poetry and turned, as the old lady said, to writing sense instead. From first to last, it was certainly a cavalier way of treating so pretty a muse. Marvell's muse, indeed, if her spirit survives, has much to complain of. Not only did Marvell himself behave towards her with the utmost ingratitude and nonchalance, but posterity for well over a century did very little better.
Like many critics before her, Sackville-West locates the bulk of Marvell's first-rate poetry early in his life, during the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell, dismissing most of the later work and implying that most work of all poets should be likewise dismissed:
Poets vary, but most are more prolific than they should be; less fastidious than they might be, that is to say, in the chosen residue of their work that they expose to the judgment of the world. (Yes fecundity in itself is often a measure of a poet's greatness, provided the quality maintain a sufficient, even though intermittent, standard; and no poet, as experience proves, can be expected to act as his own editor. Wordsworth and Tennyson, not to mention Swinburne, were their own worst enemies.) Time and posterity, fortunately, act as sieves, and in the end it is often for a few pages of print, at most, that a poet is remembered; a few moments distilled out of all the years of his life.
It's hard not to read a note of personal experience into lines like those, but then, Andrew Marvell is a very personal essay, an informal and somewhat unstructured reflection of one writer on another - with perhaps more attendant ironies than Sackville-West herself ever saw. She tsk-tsks at how long it took the literary world to realize the worth of Marvell's work - and her own work is waiting for exactly that kind of realization. And we won't even hold our breath for poor Birrell.
(One last thing: my own much-battered copy of this particular book didn't come from a church basement in Iowa - it was a gift from an old friend, who formally bestowed it on me only after he noticed that I'd pinched it from his shelves without his knowledge)