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Joan Faust, Andrew Marvell's Liminal Lyrics: The Space Between
by Raymond-Jean Frontain

Faust, Joan. Andrew Marvell’s Liminal Lyrics: The Space Between. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2012. x + 233 pp. ISBN: 978-1611494105. $75.00 cloth.

When I first began to explore Marvell’s canon as a graduate student in the 1970s, I read him under the then-powerful influence of Earl Miner’s and Joseph Summers’s bifurcating paradigms of the metaphysical (that is, private) and Cavalier (public) modes, or of the competing Schools of Donne and Jonson. At the time, rather than accept the challenge to address Marvell’s canon as a coherent entity, most readers seemed content to group individual lyrics with those by other poets about whose values we felt more confident. Thus, we read Marvell’s “The Coronet” in the context of Herbert’s “The Wreath” and Donne’s “La Corona” to discuss the impulses of devotional poetry; Marvell’s “On a Drop of Dew” alongside Donne’s “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” in order to explain the function of a metaphysical conceit; and Marvell’s Upon Appleton House alongside Jonson’s “To Penshurst” as explorations of the possibility of order during times of social transition and/or political upheaval. Individual Marvell lyrics received close readings as Cleanth Brooks-designated “well wrought urns,” but Marvell’s mind set and literary operations failed to invite the kind of descriptive generalizations that one could then confidently make about most other major period writers. In such a climate, not surprisingly, book-length studies of Marvell tended to concentrate upon a single aspect of his canon, such as the pastoral or the political poems. The pattern in his carpet simply did not seem to be as coherent as those in carpets woven by Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Rochester and Dryden.

But, as Dinah Washington might sing, “What a difference a few decades make.”  Beginning in the 1980s, Upon Appleton House, the Cromwell odes, and “Last Instructions to a Painter” engaged the attention of the New Historicists as seriously as the New Critics had been preoccupied in the 1940s and 1950s with “The Garden” and “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn.” The past twenty years have witnessed the appearance of a well-annotated edition of Marvell’s poetry and a substantial two-volume edition of his prose. In a recent biography of the poet Nigel Smith has made a virtue of what once presented itself as a conundrum: Marvell is not the Cheshire Cat who fades to a taunting grin every time an interpreter gets too close in performing an anatomy of his canon, but a “chameleon” poet whose “art is a kind of negation: it is an imitation of someone else’s art even to the extent of gathering so many fragments of others together that they return as the final integrated fulfillment of a great number of clichés.”[1] Accepting the impossibility of ever pinning Marvell down, scholarly readers have learned to enjoy and, even, celebrate his resistance to classification.

Joan Faust both consolidates and advances the current state of Marvell studies by reading his most frequently anthologized poems in terms of their inscribed liminality—that is, the ways in which their staking a claim to “the space between” two sharply defined antitheses proves the most telling feature of Marvell’s imagination. In what proves to be the most illuminating approach to Marvell’s work that I’ve found, Faust draws upon Victor Turner’s influential theory of liminality, in which an initiate is freed from restraint and his creativity empowered by his position on the threshold between two physical or emotional states of being; she then concentrates on the ways in which Marvell plays with familiar tropes in order “to explore possibilities that might be” (16). She finds strong support for her method of reading Marvell in Leonardo da Vinci’s theory of perspective in painting.

[A]s Leonardo keenly observes, objects perceived, particularly from a distance, really do not have sharp boundaries, and the greater the distance of the object from the viewer, the less distinct are the boundaries. Reality on canvas, as in life, is actually portrayed at the boundaries of those dichotomies of dark and light, in the liminal space that is neither light nor dark, an area Leonardo advises should be painted “in the manner of smoke without strokes or marks.” Thus Leonardo’s practice of blurring boundaries, his signature technique of sfumato or “smoke-like” appearance, produces a liminal area that is neither light nor dark yet a mixture of both… .

What is more, Leonardo’s technique of sfumato invests the viewer with responsibility for supplying what has been omitted, incorporating as a major part of the image’s dynamic the phenomenon that art historian E. H. Gombrich terms “the Beholder’s Stare.” In every aspect of his life and canon, Faust demonstrates, Marvell is the English master—as Leonardo is in portraiture—of “blurring those very features in which the expression, the personality resides, ‘compelling us to complete the act of creation’” (25). Consequently, in his personal life Marvell manifested “an in-between sexual orientation”; in his political life as a member of Parliament he proves “a man seemingly able to remain in the uncertain area between sides”; and in his writing he oftentimes delivers himself (as Marvell himself confesses in The Rehearsal Transpos’d) as a voice suspended “betwixt Jest and Earnest” (25).

The most provocative portions of Faust’s book are her reading of Upon Appleton House as “a series of reflective tableaux in vague or nonexistent boundaries” (37), and her analysis of the mirror images in “On a Drop of Dew,” “Eyes and Tears,” and “The Gallery” that leave the reader uncertain of what is actually being represented. Additionally, I am engaged by her consideration of the ways in which “The Garden” addresses the disconcerting relationship of nature to art; her analysis of the play of light and shadow in the Mower poems and “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn” that blurs the border between tableau and frame in order to unsettle the reader’s expectations of the artist’s role in pastoral; her sensitivity to “the gap between concept and its portrayal” (158) of the words “definition” and “love” in “The Definition of Love”; and her reading of the inconclusive dialogues between soul and body, and between Thrysis and Dorinda, that ask readers “to be engaged in the ‘Beholder’s Stare’ [and] continue the omitted parts of the disputation in their own minds” (200). Throughout his poetic canon, Faust concludes, Marvell aims to leave the reader “in the liminal realm of uncertainty” (201) and, thus, force that reader to seek his or her own resolution of the ambivalent or seemingly contradictory values that inform each poem.

Faust’s greatest strength is her knowledge of art history and of period treatises on perspective in painting. Marvell’s poems are illuminated by Faust’s deft analyses of the principles of Renaissance portraiture, Mannerist trompe l’oeil practices, and even the self-referential challenges offered the viewer by the images of Escher and Magritte. The University of Delaware Press is to be applauded for the generous number of illustrations included and their sharp quality. (Would, though, that the press had been more exacting when copy-editing, for it allows the Reformation to be mistaken for the Restoration [25], the biblical Witch of Endor to be included with Circe, Armida and Medea in a list of femmes fatales [142], and the nineteenth-century coinage “nymphomaniac” to inform the title of a seventeenth century poem [99].)

Paradoxically, the three aspects of Faust’s procedure which I think require buttressing derive from some of her other important strengths. First, Faust is to be commended for her superb marshaling of secondary sources, as though she found her argument implicit in much previous scholarship and simply needed to strip away the extraneous stone of their reasoning as Michelangelo said an artist does in order to recover his sculpture from the block—or, to switch metaphors, as though she felt that she simply needed to turn a previous critic’s lens a few degrees to bring the larger picture into clearer focus. But too often she lets her sources do the talking for her, which leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that (to switch metaphors yet again) pre- existing pieces are simply being repositioned on the board. Faust’s modesty and scrupulous fairness to her secondary sources may obscure the fact that she is making a highly original argument and drawing important conclusions.

Second, Faust’s concentration upon Marvell’s best-known poems, while making this book an excellent introduction to the poet (and the first place to which I will now send students interested in Marvell), reinforces the reader’s sense of the familiar. Would that Faust had reserved for her final chapter a detailed reading of a relatively neglected or frequently overlooked poem like “Two Songs at the Marriage of the Lord Fauconberg and the Lady Mary Cromwell,” whose reliance upon Greek mythology in the first and upon Spenserian pastoral tradition in the second evinces a “coyness” (one of the poem’s words) that has always left me uncomfortable. Faust’s emphasis upon the liminal and inconclusive aspects of Marvell’s poetic might go far in explaining why each of the two songs contains not two, but three voices.

Finally, by focusing so tightly and profitably on the liminal nature of Marvell’s procedure and its pictorial analogues, Faust ignores the need to address the larger question of why Marvell’s mind found so congenial and returned again and again to “the space between.” Some mention needs to be made of the religious and political extremes that raged in Marvell’s day that drove him to coopt the liminal mode, whether as an act of self-protection or, Faust seems more likely to believe, in order to fashion an object lesson for his readers regarding the need to negotiate more circumspectly the passions of the period if society and culture were not to be leveled entirely. (She actually does this in passing on page 64 when she suggests that “The Garden” was written partly in response to the destruction of royal forest preserves during the Civil Wars.) In this regard Faust’s book offers to its readers the same challenging lack of a resounding resolution that she demonstrates Marvell’s poems offer to theirs, but most probably without the same intended effect.

Raymond-Jean Frontain
University of Central Arkansas

[1] Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (New Haven: Yale UP, 2010), 339.


  • Rialto Concrete Co. 4 months, 1 week ago

    The pattern in his carpet simply did not seem to be as coherent as those in carpets woven by Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Rochester and Dryden.

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Cite as:

Raymond-Jean Frontain, "Joan Faust, Andrew Marvell's Liminal Lyrics: The Space Between," Spenser Review 44.2.41 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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