Here’s the second in my occasional series of notes and observations on the poems in our Andrew Marvell collection.
As ever, what follows is merely a small handful of interesting pointers. For more, I recommend a look at the reading list on the Andrew Marvell page of this website.
If there are any questions you’d like to ask, please don’t hesitate to post them here and I’ll do my best to reply.
Bermudasby Andrew Marvell
Where the remote Bermudas rideIn th’ ocean’s bosom unespied,From a small boat, that rowed along,The listening winds received this song:
‘What should we do but sing his praiseThat led us through the watery maze,Unto an isle so long unknown,And yet far kinder than our own?Where He the huge sea-monsters wracks,That lift the deep upon their backs.He lands us on a grassy stage;Safe from the storms, and prelates’ rage.He gave us this eternal spring,Which here enamels everything,And sends the fowls to us in care,On daily visits through the air.He hangs in shades the orange bright,Like golden lamps in a green night,And does in the pom’granates closeJewels more rich than Ormus shows.He makes the figs our mouths to meet,And throws the melons at our feet;But apples plants of such a price,No trees could ever bear them twice.With cedars, chosen by His hand,From Lebanon, He stores the land,And makes the hollow seas that roarProclaim the ambergris on shore.He cast (of which we rather boast)The Gospel’s pearl upon our coast.And in these rocks for us did frameA temple, where to sound His name.Oh let our voice His praise exalt,Till it arrive at heaven’s vault:Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, mayEcho beyond the Mexique Bay.’
Thus sung they in the English boat,An holy and a cheerful note,And all the way, to guide their chime,With falling oars they kept the time.
Like most of Marvell’s poems, ‘Bermudas’ was not published in his lifetime. It first appeared in the posthumous collection ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ in 1681, three years after his death. The date of its composition isn’t known for certain, but most scholars agree that a dating of somewhere between July 1653 and December 1654 seems likely. Between those dates, Marvell was employed at Eton College as tutor to a boy called William Dutton, who was a ward of Oliver Cromwell’s. During this period, Marvell and the boy stayed at the house of John Oxenbridge, a Fellow of Eton College who was also the vicar of New Windsor. Oxenbridge had visited the Bermudas twice, and in June 1653 he was appointed a commissioner for the government of the islands. It seems likely that Oxenbridge’s accounts of his travels prompted Marvell’s poem, particularly in the light of what is widely taken to be a veiled reference to Oxenbridge’s experiences of religious persecution (see the note on line 12 below).
The poem is clearly indebted to Edmund Waller’s long, mock-heroic 1645 poem ‘The Battle of the Summer Islands’, which is set in the Bermudas (they were also known as the Summer Islands after Sir George Somers, who led the 1609 expedition which was shipwrecked there: see the note on line 6 below). Marvell’s poem is far shorter than Waller’s, and in most estimations superior, but many of the images and allusions echo those found in Waller’s work.
Line 6: ‘watery maze’: the seas around the Bermudas were notoriously storm-lashed and dangerous to navigate, with treacherous rocks threatening to wreck ships approaching the shore. The islands were discovered in the early 16th century by the Spanish navigator Juan de Bermúdez (after whom they are named), but despite several abortive attempts by both Spain and Portugal, the first nation to settle permanently on the Bermudas were the English, about fifty years before Marvell wrote his poem. It has been suggested that Shakespeare’s account of the shipwreck in ‘The Tempest’ was influenced by the misfortunes of the English flagship, the ‘Sea Venture’, which was wrecked off Bermuda in 1609 and whose survivors promptly claimed the new territory. The success of the English in colonising Bermuda was widely attributed to an act of divine providence, and it was even postulated that God had deliberately kept other seafarers away from the islands in order to preserve its bounties for its natural and rightful settlers: Englishmen, of course!
Line 9: the ‘huge sea-monsters’ are whales. ‘Wrack’ is a commonplace 17th-century variant of ‘wreck’, so Marvell is talking about God ‘shipwrecking’ whales on the Bermudan shores. In ‘The Battle of the Summer Islands’, Waller includes a long and graphic account of the settlers butchering a pair of stranded whales.
Line 12: Marvell’s punctuation is fluid at the best of times, so the precise meaning of this line is moot, and editors have used their apostrophes differently: the line might mean either ‘safe from the storms, and prelates’ rage’ (i.e. safe from [a] the storms and [b] the rage of prelates), or else ‘safe from the storms’ and prelates’ rage’ (i.e. safe from the rage of both storms and prelates): a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Either way, the ‘prelates’ rage’ is significant. Marvell’s host at Eton, John Oxenbridge, was a staunch Puritan who had ruffled a few feathers in his time and whose uncompromising religious practices had resulted in his dismissal by Archboshop Laud from a former post at Magdalen Hall. Laud’s persecution of Oxenbridge had led to the latter’s flight to the Americas.
Line 15: ‘And sends the fowls to us in care’: Marvell is fond of alluding to the episode in the Book of Exodus in which God sends quails and manna to feed the wandering Israelites. It crops up again in ‘On a Drop of Dew’ and ‘Upon Appleton House’.
Line 17 onwards: Marvell’s portrait of the Bermudas as a paradise of bounteous fruits and plants is idealized and, to an extent, inaccurate. Although fruit and bird life were certainly plentiful, the colonists endured a harsh life. Melons were in fact brought by the first settlers, and were not native to the islands as line 22 implies. Commentators have disagreed over the question of whether the ‘apples’ of line 23 are apples or pineapples; the former seems more apposite in the light of the poem’s religious themes, and furthermore pineapples don’t grow on trees – although Marvell might not have known that.
Line 20: ‘Jewels more rich than Ormus shows’: the ‘jewels’ are, of course, the seeds of the pomegranate. ‘Ormus’ is a contemporary spelling of Hormuz, an Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf which fell under Portuguese control in the 16th century. It was a prosperous trading centre, and was often evoked poetically as a paragon of wealth and opulence. Milton mentions it in ‘Paradise Lost’: ‘High on a throne of royal state, which far / Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.’ Today the kingdom is long gone, but the Strait of Hormuz remains a strategically important waterway, situated between modern-day Iran to the north and the United Arab Emirates to the south.
Line 21-22: ‘He makes the figs our mouths to meet, / And throws the melons at our feet’: compare with some very similar lines in ‘The Garden’ (‘The luscious clusters of the vine / Upon my mouth do crush their wine, / The nectarine, and curious peach / Into my hands themselves do reach / Stumbling on melons…’)
Line 28: ‘ambergris’ (pronounced ‘amber-grease’ in 17th-century usage) is a fragrant musky substance secreted by sperm whales. It floats on the surface of the ocean and was shipped back to England in large quantities from Bermuda and elsewhere, because it was highly prized as an ingredient in perfume. Ambergris was big international business, and its frequent appearances in the literature of the time evoke a sense of the exotic and the sophisticated. Marvell uses it elsewhere in ‘The Gallery’ (‘Or, if some rolling wave appears, / A mass of ambergris it bears’), and again in ‘Upon Appleton House’ (Flowers dress the altars; for the clothes, / The sea-born amber we compose’). Ambergris also crops up in Edmund Waller’s ‘Summer Islands’ poem, and in the work of Ben Jonson (‘Neptune’s Triumph’) and John Milton (‘Paradise Regained’), while Alexander Pope memorably observed that ‘Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose, it is a stink and strikes you down.’
Line 30: ‘the Gospel’s pearl’ alludes not only to actual pearls (which were believed, mistakenly, to be abundant in the seas around the Bermudas), but also to wild pigs, after the famous line in Matthew’s Gospel about pearls and swine. Wild hogs were among the inhabitants of the islands; it’s possible that they were brought to Bermuda by Spanish seafarers before the English settlement.
Line 36: ‘the Mexique Bay’ is, of course, the Gulf of Mexico. Marvell is quite possibly suggesting that the Puritanism of such as Oxenbridge will echo to godly effect through the Catholic realms of Spanish America.
Many thanks once again.
"With cedars, chosen by His hand,From Lebanon, He stores the land,"
Michael Craze in "The Life And Lyrics Of Andrew Marvell" notes this could be taken from verse 16 of Psalm 104 .
"The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted"
He also compares Marvell's lines with Thomas Carew's reworking of this Psalm:
On Lebanon His cedars stand, Trees full of sap, works of His hand.