John Aubrey, to whom we are indebted for so many fascinating details about the notable men of his time, wrote a tantalising “brief life” of the poet, MP, and polemicist Andrew Marvell. Marvell’s poetry has been celebrated for its elusiveness, for the way it masks the private commitments of the man (whatever they may have been) behind a flawless surface of ambiguity and generic manipulation achievable only by a poet who was also an extraordinary reader of the poetry of others. The self-effacingness and self-possession of the poetry found their parallel in the chameleon-like character of the writer, according to Aubrey:
He was in his conversation very modest, and of very few words: and though he loved wine he would never drinke hard in company, and was wont to say that, he would not play the goodfellow in any man’s company in whose hands he would not trust his life.
But this abstinence when in company was not duplicated in private. When Marvell was alone he would drink deeply (though how, one wonders, did Aubrey come to know this?):
He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drinke liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits, and exalt his Muse.
It is interesting that Marvell anticipated Aubrey’s description of himself in his satirical attack on Samuel Parker in The Rehearsal Transpros’d, where he mocks his enemy for being so bent upon his book that “he sate up late at nights, and wanting sleep, and drinking sometimes wine to animate his fancy, it encreased his distemper”. It would not be the first time that a satirist’s target is imagined to reflect some aspect of the satirist himself—a curious feature of polemic, as if even the most savage denunciations need to be seasoned with an undertow of recognised, if not acknowledged, closeness between the satirist and his prey.
If Marvell’s muse was exalted by wine, that source of inspiration doesn’t show itself directly in his verse. In his lyrics wine appears only rarely, and even then in an innocent, barely-fermented form, as in “The Garden”:
What wond’rous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head.
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine.
This takes us far from the secret drinker and the wary companion. It is however not quite the perfect fantasy it seems. Marvell seems in fact to have believed that “the generousest wine drops from the grape naturally without pressing, and though piquant hath its sweetness”. Maybe during his travels in Italy Marvell saw wine being made from free-run juice.
For Marvell had a certain amount of professional contact with the wine trade. His nephew William Popple was a merchant who lived in Bordeaux from 1670 to 1688 and shipped wine to England. A good deal of Marvell’s time as an MP was spent dealing with wine licences. These were a lucrative source of income for the Duke of York, who since 1661 had enjoyed all the profits from the sale of licences for the retailing of wine. In 1668 the apprentices of London had rioted in Moorfields and pulled down various houses including two taverns. Pepys records the Duke of York complaining “merrily” that he had thereby lost two tenants who each paid him £15 a year for their licences. Later in the reign of Charles II the wine licences were “farmed” by a consortium of merchants for £600,000 a year—and, as Marvell drily assured his constituents, “you may be sure they have covenants not to be losers.”
Wine was not just an occasional subject of public business for a Restoration MP. It might also lubricate the conduct of that business, particularly if the latter had been tricky. Writing to Popple on March 21, 1670, Marvell described an interaction between Charles II and his MPs which was both mildly sinister and slightly comic. It was a difficult moment. The MPs were suspicious about how some of the funds voted for the recent Dutch War had actually been spent. In addition they were involved in a two-year-long dispute with the House of Lords which was threatening to derail the work of Parliament. Charles, who had a good command of both the more and less amiable instruments of persuasion, exerted the full range of his talents:
The King, being exceedingly necessitous for Money, spoke to us Stylo minaci & imperatorio; and told us the Inconveniences which would fall on the Nation by want of a Supply, should not ly at his Door; . . . that he himself had examined the Accounts, and found every Penny to have been employed in the War; and he recommended the Scotch Union. . . . When we began to talk of the Lords, the King sent for us alone, and recommended a Rasure of all Proceedings. The same Thing you know that we proposed at first. We presently ordered it, and went to tell him so the same Day, and to thank him. At coming down, (a pretty ridiculous Thing!) Sir Thomas Clifford carryed Speaker, and Mace, and all Members there, into the King’s Cellar, to drink his Health.
It is significant that Marvell should dismiss this instance of royal hospitality as “pretty ridiculous”. For whatever his personal and private attachment to wine may have been, in his poetry wine tends to appear as a symbol of all that is wrong with the Restoration court. The commendatory verses printed in the 18th-century editions of his works present him as one who resisted a corrupt, papistical, and absolutist court sodden in drink:
While lazy prelates lean’d their mitred heads
On downy pillows, lull’d with wealth and pride,
Pretending prophecy, yet nought foresee,
Marvell, this island’s watchful centinel,
Stood in the gap, and bravely kept his post;
When courtiers too in wine and riot slept
’Twas he th’approach of Rome did first explore,
And the grim monster Arbitrary Power,
The ugliest giant ever trod the earth,
That, like Goliah, march’d before the host.
The same emphasis appears in Marvell’s own satirical verse—for instance, in these lines which Marvell’s 18th-century editors were happy to acknowledge as his, but which modern scholars have questioned:
Let the city drink coffee, and quietly groan,
(They who conquer’d the father won’t be slaves to the son).
For wine and strong drink make tumults encrease,
Chocolate, tea, and coffee, are liquors of peace;
No quarrels, or oaths are among those who drink them,
’Tis Bacchus and the brewer, swear damn ’em and sink ’em.
However Marvell may have embraced “Bacchus and the brewer” in the privacy of his own lodgings, in his poetry, as in company, he kept them at arm’s length.