A Short Analysis of Archibald MacLeish’s ‘You, Andrew Marvell’

Literature

‘You, Andrew Marvell’ is a poem by the American modernist poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), published in his seventh collection New Found Land in 1930. The poem’s title alludes to the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78), and in particular to Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

MacLeish’s poem is about the changes that all great empires undergo as they rise and, inevitably, fall, compressing the death of Western civilisation into a single night.

You can read ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of MacLeish’s poem below.

‘You, Andrew Marvell’: summary

The poem is a meditation on the fall of civilisations, condensed into a single night. MacLeish begins his poem with his face down, looking away from the sun and down at the earth beneath him. The poem also begins in medias res with the word ‘And’, with the anaphora of ‘And here’ beginning the first two lines of the poem. Even at noon, with the sun directly above, one can feel the ‘always coming on’ of the night.

This is a variation, if you will, of the old line ‘in the midst of life we are in death’: in the heyday of a great civilisation we are nevertheless reminded that it will one day crumble to nothing.

The night is described as creeping along the east, with the ‘chill’ of dusk or twilight already in the air. This shadow of night spreads: at Ecbatan (better known as Ecbatana, an ancient city in what is now Iran), the evening light colours the trees differently, while the lower parts of the mountains above Persia (now Iran) are shrouded in darkness. At Kermanshah, another Iranian city, there are few travellers at the gate, as it is late now. At Baghdad, in modern-day Iraq, the evening comes on, too, darkening the land.

On the streets of Palmyra in Syria, meanwhile, and in Lebanon and on Crete (note how we are moving west, from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to a Mediterranean island, Crete), the darkness spreads ‘through the clouds’. It continues to spread west across the Mediterranean, over the island of Sicily at the bottom of Italy.

We reach the western point of the Mediterranean, near the Pillars of Hercules where Spain is separated from northern Africa by a narrow strait of water. The golden sand of north Africa disappears under the spreading night. The poem ends with the ‘long light on the sea’, and the ‘shadow of the night’ swiftly yet secretly advancing west.

‘You, Andrew Marvell’: analysis

MacLeish’s title, ‘You, Andrew Marvell’, sets his poem up as a kind of ‘answer poem’, responding to ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell (whose initials, A. M., are, incidentally, the same as MacLeish’s own). MacLeish uses the iambic tetrameter lines which Marvell used for many of his poems (although ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is in rhyming couplets, rather than the abab quatrains MacLeish opts to use here).

The second stanza of ‘You, Andrew Marvell’, which includes end-words ‘slow’, ‘vast’, and ‘grow’, is often interpreted as a response in particular to the following lines from Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’:

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires and more slow;

But MacLeish’s poem reverses both the growth of empires (instead, it’s a poem about the fall of great civilisations) and the rate at which it happens (that shadow spreads ‘swift’ rather than slowly). What unites the two poems, however, is a metaphysical desire to consider the whole world – and the whole history and future of the world – in the small space of a short poem.

Of course, one has to wonder where that shadow ends up at the end of MacLeish’s poem. If it has reached the end of the Mediterranean, it has the Atlantic to cross, but when it has done so – and MacLeish’s blank line of white which separates his final quatrain into a single line and a tercet echoes this journey – it arrives in the United States: the night will fall over America, too.

The poem appears to end back where it started, but there’s a subtle difference: whereas the poem began with the speaker face down beneath the sun, he ends ‘face downward in the sun’ (emphasis added). It’s a subtle difference, but the shift in prepositions creates a disorienting effect: MacLeish (or his speaker) is both beneath the sun and in it, basking in its heat and light, much as America was rising to become the world superpower in the 1920s.

It’s worth remembering that 1926, when MacLeish wrote ‘You, Andrew Marvell’, was three years before the Wall Street Crash, before which the 1920s, the ‘Roaring Twenties’, were a time dominated by the Jazz Age, flappers, indulgence, consumerism, and pleasure, at least for many Americans. America is enjoying its heyday, its moment in the sun. But that sun, MacLeish’s poem suggests, is already setting.

The world turns, and so the sun ‘moves’ in that night falls in one place and day rises in another. This process is inevitable, and so MacLeish’s poem presents the rising and falling of empires and civilisations as inevitable, natural, and unstoppable. All we can do is stand ‘face down’, prostrate and passive, as the light of the sun moves around the earth. The enjambment or run-on lines of ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ propel us forward in one dizzying sentence, much as the spread of night is unbroken and smooth.

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