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Marvell and the Body Politic Essay

The representation of the body in Marvell’s writing is vested with a certain political significance given the old political terminology of the body politic. The image of the body politic defined the position of the monarchy as the head of the establishment which it presided over. In reading Marvell’s poems, particularly An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland, it is interesting to see the ways in which he addresses this inherently royalist imagery of the body politic through the representations of the body. This contributes to both his representations of Charles and of the Republic which can then be used for further analysis of his representation of Cromwell.

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In the old political theology involving the body politic, the head is he or she in the case of Elizabeth I who presided over the people that made up the body. The fact that this figure of authority was a member of the royal family was an assumption but not necessarily a prerequisite. The head is then afforded an elevated degree of power in order to rule over and manage the body. More importantly, the symbol of the body politic maintained that the head was a requirement in order to facilitate the functioning of the entire body. The head was therefore inherently more powerful than the people who made up the body and as such a necessity. The theology of the Parliamentarians ran contrary to these attitudes. They sought to rid themselves of the monarchy in order to eliminate this isolated power. In viewing themselves as powerful enough to displace the monarchy they would contest this idea of power being isolated in one person or that this person was a necessity. Thus, for the Parliamentary leaders at least, the power that had previously been assigned predominantly to the head was reinvested in the body itself.

However, in An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland, Marvell does not deny this conception of the head as being invested with a certain degree of power. His lyric poetry, which preceded that of the Cromwell Era, is pervaded with images of the head as an implement of power. In A Dialogue, between the Resolved Soul, and Created Pleasure, the method of protection against attack is to, ‘Close on thy Head thy Helmet bright.’ line 3. Both the attacker and the defender acknowledge that the head is the most essential part of the body. Furthermore, Marvell makes constant references to the power of ‘Eyes’ and ‘Tears’ . This power can then be ascribed to the head from whence the tears emanate and in which the eyes are set. This can be seen to follow through into such occasional poetry as An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland.

As the king, Charles represented the head of the body politic which threatened the ethos of the Republic. In An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland, Marvell defines Charles purely in terms of his status as that head. When the title of Caesar is applied to Charles line 23, Charles does not assume the entire identity of Caesar but rather his head. It is not appropriate to use the phrase ‘merely his head’ because the significance of the metaphor also relates to the idea that the head is sufficient to encompass the entirety of Charles’ identity as monarch. It is not a question of ‘merely’ because the encompassing image of the head is not wanting. When Marvell describes the decapitation of Charles although he is initially described as the ‘Royal Actor’ this phrase is indeterminate in terms of his physical body. He is then described purely in terms of his head,

‘But bow’d his comely Head

Down, as upon a Bed.’ line 63-4

His body is insignificant in terms of imagery of the body politic and is thus not mentioned. It is his head in Marvell’s poetry that is the defining factor of his identity. He is essentially the head of the body politic that the Republic struggles to overwhelm. Marvell also ascribes power to the head,

‘But with his keener Eye

The Axes edge did try.’ line 59-60

This is in part an anti-Parliamentarian statement as it confirms the power of Charles and the head. It is through his Eye his head that Charles is still able to demonstrate power. He is passive in terms of his execution, an event which he is helpless to prevent. But his ‘Eye’ as a feature of his head is still able to wield some form of command. With a steadfast gaze the ‘head’ challenges the authority of the ‘body’ that brandishes the axe.

The relief of tension from this statement is that Charles’ power is overcome. Regardless of his former status as the head of the body politic, this is eventually quashed when he is executed. The body is released of the power of the head because Charles is executed and his head is decapitated. Yet it is a little incautious to say that the power has been eliminated. The next moment of action is when,

‘A bleeding Head where they begun,

Did fright the Architects to run;

And yet in that the State

Foresaw its happy Fate.’ line 69-70

Marvell takes this from an episode that Pliny relates about how a human head was found in laying the foundations of the Capitol and how the most celebrated priest of Etruria, Olenus Calenus, interpreted the head as a favourable omen. The decapitation of Charles is seen by ‘the State’ to signify its continual prospering subsequent to being relinquished from the grip of the monarchy. Read from this perspective, Marvell can be seen to align himself with the views of the Parliamentary leaders. The power of the ‘head’ has been vanquished and Charles’ destruction evinces the auspicious future for the Parliamentarians. Yet comparing Marvell’s retelling of Pliny’s story unveils a slightly more disturbing position. Originally, the face that was found amongst the foundations was intact. The facial features were complete and the skin was not broken. The architects did not react with fear at the sight of it but rather joy at its significance. The fact that Marvell’s head is bloody and the architects react with fear suggests slightly more sinister implications than the poem at first suggests.

The head found in Marvell’s poem is not specifically a positive sign. Far more emphasis is placed on the detachment of this head than was done in Pliny’s version. The fact that the head is bleeding draws specific attention to the fact that it has been severed from the body. The bleeding results from where it has been cut free. Furthermore, Marvell does not describe the features of the face and this further distances it from its connection with the rest of the body. The features that would identify the head with the physicality of the body are necessarily missing. This head in particular represents the head of the body politic.

The fact that the State places its judgement in the symbolism of the ‘bleeding Head’ indicates the power that is still implicit in the image of the head. While Charles’ specific power has been extinguished, the head itself still retains latent power as the head of the body politic. Marvell’s distortion of Pliny’s account implies that any successful Parliamentary party cannot merely assimilate the destruction of single authorial rule its history. The head is not simply found amongst the foundations, seen as a happy omen and incorporated into the structure. This head is the still-bleeding head of the body politic; ominously reestablishing its power through the fear it creates in its beholders. While Charles himself has been eliminated, the potential of power implicit in the head is still a present and disturbing implication of Marvell’s poem.

It is the unease that the representation of the head creates that is exacerbated by the depiction of the Cromwell’s party and also by Cromwell himself. The Republic is unsurprisingly defined in terms of the body. Cromwell is,

‘Nor yet grown stiffer with Command,

But still in the Republick’s hand.’ line 81-82

Yet the hand of the Republic is not so much an active power, to counter that of the head, but rather a containing force. In his lyric poem, A Dialogue between the Soul and Body, the Soul is contained with ‘bolts of Bones, that fettr’d stands/ In Feet; and manacled in Hands’ line 3-4. In the same way the body of the Republic is represented in An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel’s Return from Ireland as a chamber containing the strength of Cromwell. The Republic is not a force in itself but rather constrains the power of Cromwell. It is he who gains ‘a Kingdome’ and ‘to the Commons Feet presents’, ‘has his Sword and Spoyls ungirt/ To lay them at the Publick’s skirt’ It is not the Republic who is seen to be actively asserting power against the monarchy but Cromwell.

In contrast to both Charles and the Republic, the power of Cromwell is not specifically defined in terms of the representation of the body. Given his political identity, the expectation is that he will be aligned with the representation of the Republic but Marvell subverts this expectation. ‘His own Side’ in line 15 is not in fact the side of his body but a reference to the Parliamentary party of which Cromwell is the leader. While this further emphasises the representation of the Republic as the body, it goes no further to define Cromwell in such terms. By placing him outside of the restraints of either ‘body’ or ‘head’, Marvell attests to the freedom but also to the unhindered and unchained power of Cromwell. Cromwell seems to be an entity that cannot be confined to such a specific representation. He is likened to ‘three-fork’d Lightning’ line 13. He is not a ‘head’ or a ‘body’ but a bolt of dynamic force. Even as the bolt of lightning he is ‘three fork’d’; his multiplicity reflects the insatiable capacity of his power in this poem.

It is this potential for unrestrained power that pervades the imagery of Cromwell in the poem, free from the restrictions of ‘head’ or ‘body’. He is constantly defined in terms of qualifying statements about his present status in the restraint of the body of the Republic. He is ‘nor yet grown stiffer with Command’ line 81 in a way that suggests that such an event is soon to occur. While the controlling force of the Parliamentarians presently restricts him, this is only a momentary situation. Furthermore, many critics have highlighted the implications of his association with the falcon. Cromwell is intended to be the tame falcon of the Republic as the hunter. Yet falcons are not always easy to lure back; as David Norbrook states , ‘one could read the word ‘sure’ at line 96 in a number of ways’. So Cromwell is not either the body or the head, he is a lone entity and unlimited power, barely restrained within the grasps of the Republic.

The nearest Cromwell comes to bodily representation is at line 101 and this is barely comforting. His representation as Caesar recalls the fact that Charles himself had earlier had the title applied to him line 23. The fact that Cromwell is not defined as Charles was as specifically Caesar’s head could be taken as a positive representation of Cromwell as a noble Roman Emperor. However, given the previous implications of bodily representation it is all too easy to make the connection between Charles as the head and Cromwell threatening to reenact this role. This is particularly unsettling given the emphasis on the latent but still potent force of the head. If Cromwell is not to be given the freedom that his power demands then it seems that he is more likely to be allied with the ‘head’ of the body politic than with the ‘body’. While the Republic is restricted to the passive, controlling force of the body, the power of Cromwell aspires to the active, assertive force of the head.

Thus the body politic that the Parliamentarians seek to eliminate is not in fact destroyed with the execution of Charles. As long as the potential for individual authoritative rule remains, the power of the ‘head’ remains. While the future seems to lie with the Republic rather than the monarchy, this future itself then lies implicitly with the dynamic, ambitious Cromwell who is pre-eminent amongst the Parliamentary leaders. It is in this that the fate of the democracy remains uncertain. While the power and ambition of Cromwell remains in the control of the Republic and the ‘body’, the situation remains relatively stable. However, Marvell creates an atmosphere of discomfort and unrest where the power of Cromwell strives for new containment; a containment which the potential power of the ‘head’ provides for.

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Marvell and the Body Politic Essay
The representation of the body in Marvell's writing is vested with a certain political significance given the old political terminology of the body politic. The image of the body politic defined the position of the monarchy as the head of the establishment which it presided over. In reading Marvell's poems, particularly An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel's Return from Ireland, it is interesting to see the ways in which he addresses this inherently royalist imagery of the body politic through the repre
2021-07-12 23:55:47
Marvell and the Body Politic Essay
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