When Sex Was Metaphysical

Published in: May-June 2018 issue.



Andrew Marvell, Sexual Orientation and Seventeenth-Century Poetry
by George Klawitter
Fairleigh Dickinson University
269 pages, $100.



WHAT CAN a lay reader expect to digest from this dense and richly seasoned academic fruitcake of a book? I suppose one could stop after the 27-page introduction, which alone has 78 footnotes and serves as a sort of encyclopedia entry on the subject of Marvell and the sexual content of his poetry and that of his contemporaries. The author has done a superb job of looking at what has been said on the subject of Renaissance sexuality—a very complex topic—and has added a broad yet detailed exposition of poetry of the era.

            Klawitter has done everyone a favor by taking a nuanced approach to a colorful subject and giving the reader an opportunity to consider the full range of plausible views of a given situation. But make no mistake: this is ultimately a volume for specialists, a detailed library tour through the world of 17th-century poetry built around Marvell and a few of his contemporaries and the various meanings of sexually loaded terms.

by Unknown artist,painting,circa 1655-1660

            What are the author’s theories about Marvell’s sexuality? In a nutshell, the poet did not have romantic attachments to women, did not fall within “heteronormative” desire for any such liaisons, wrote about women from a chilly distance, and appreciated women’s role in life from a somewhat clinical viewpoint. This is not to say that he couldn’t write well about the male-female norm; he did so many times, sometimes on commission. Ultimately,[/groups_member] the author concludes that Marvell had a “sexuality of one” and may not have been sexually active in the usual sense.

     But what of Marvell’s interest in men? It is to the author’s credit that he has built enough of a factual foundation to conclude: “If Marvell were himself inclined to opposite-sex activity, a reader could not guess it from most of his poetry. … [H]is only real passion for another human being surfaces in one poem, ‘The Unfortunate Lover,’ and a reader would be hard-pressed to read that poem as celebratory of opposite-sex bliss or, for that matter, bliss of any kind.” We can hardly expect a respectable member of Parliament, which Marvell was for a while, to flaunt his homosexuality in the 1650s. The author suggests that in some cases he used the “safe and satisfying, if sometimes frustrating, ploy” of having words mean more than one thing, or perhaps several things, at once, as in “The Definition of Love”:


Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.


Klawitter notes that we “are never told if gender plays a role in Fate’s jealousy: she could be jealous of the narrator loving a man she wants for herself or she could be jealous of the narrator’s loving a lady other than Fate.” Complicating any explication of poems from this era is the problem of distinguishing sexual desire from “Platonic” love and an even more abstract category of “spiritual” love.

            Marvell’s slightly scandalous “Young Love” has attracted comment, referring as it does to an ostensible fifteen-year-old of unknown gender to whom an amorous poem is written. The author suggests an alternate interpretation having to do with the fifteen years Marvell had known King Charles. Recognizing that this interpretation is new and not obvious, he also points out, referring to Shakespeare’s thirteen-year-old Juliet, that there’s nothing in 1650s England to suggest that a 15-year-old would be considered ineligible for love, provided that we’re talking boy-girl. The author speculates that “Marvell may well have lived a double life … posing as celibate tutor to Maria Fairfax in the same year that he lusted after Damon, the mower of her father’s fields.”

            One of the most rewarding parts of the book is the lucid, almost cheerful tour through “The Unfortunate Lover.” The author sets forth various facts and theories about this arguably homoerotic poem, noting that “Marvell distances himself from only adult opposite-sex coupling, not all sexualities, because anyone who reads ‘The Unfortunate Lover’ should sense in the lines a strong and tender regard for another male.” This poem can be remarkably physical, as the following lines show:


See how he nak’d and fierce doth stand,
Cuffing the thunder with one hand;
While with the other does he lock,
And grapple, with the stubborn rock


And what rhymes with “lock” and “rock”? Klawitter notes that “If indeed the poem is about a male ex-lover, one can only hope that the creation of the poem brought to the poet a therapeutic outlet for the feelings he could not share with friends or colleagues.” The author also notes some male attraction in “An Elegy upon the Death of my Lord Francis Villiers”:


Never was any human plant that grew
More fair than this and acceptably new …
And his unimitable handsomeness
Made him indeed be more than man, not less …
Lovely and admirable as he was.


     In addition to Marvell, this book contains significant material on many other writers of the period. Consider George Wither’s poetic regrets from the 14th segment of “Miscellany of Epigrams,” which reads in part:


But in our flesh we are, and must remain,
Perpetual strangers, and ourselves contain
From that embrace which marriage love allows,
Or else, I injure virtue, you your vows,
And for a short unworthy pleasure mar
Those rich contentments which eternal are,
Of which I am in hope that always we
Should in each other’s presence guiltless be.


The reader may be forgiven for thinking that the poet was in hope of something else entirely, yet defers to custom.

            One of the strengths of this book is that Klawitter examines the subtle differences between Marvell and a few of his contemporaries in how they wrote about women—how warmly or detachedly. This is especially intriguing when the work of Marvell, probably celibate, is compared to that of other writers thought to be celibate but theoretically desirous of women. He is, for example, compared with poet Robert Herrick, whose work is presented as being more in sync with heterosexual literary conventions. And there are comparisons with other poets. Indeed, so many examples are set forth with such exhaustive care and thoroughness that we do not so much read them as check them off. The author writes very well, in an academic style frequently sprinkled with humor, but there’s only so much one can do to lighten the burden of such an extensive set of literary sources written in the language of the 1600s.

            As noted before, this book is probably not suitable for most lay readers, even those with a modest awareness of Renaissance poetry, for whom pushing through this forest of literary vines may well prove onerous. Specialists in this field, however, not looking for low-hanging fruit, are sure to learn something they didn’t know.


Alan Contreras is a writer and higher education consultant who lives in Portland, Oregon.