The first poem I have selected is Andrew Marvell`s ‘Bermudas’, which appears to be a narrative poem with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The opening quatrain establishes an omniscient narrator, who introduces the characters (the sailors) and establishes the setting, ‘where the remote Bermudas ride…from a small boat.’ The poem is not autobiographical as Marvell never visited Bermuda, and as such this makes it unlikely that he is the narrator. He did however live in the house of John Oxenbridge, a man who had visited Bermuda twice, and this suggests that the poem may be a hyperbolic account of Oxenbridge`s experience of the Bermudas, ‘gave us this eternal spring, Which here enamels every thing.’
The shift from the first narrated quatrain to the ventriloquised sailors song appears to be Marvell attempting to distance himself from the implied criticism within the song, ‘An isle so long unknown, And yet far kinder than our own?’ This would have been for his own safety, as the poem was written at a time when criticism of Cromwell was punishable with imprisonment. The poem concludes in another quatrain, once again from the perspective of the narrator. Although it appears rather optimistic in tone, ‘Thus sang they…An holy and a cheerful note,’ the fact that the sailors are still rowing, ‘with falling oars they kept the time,’ suggests that they have not landed on the grassy stage mentioned in the song. This implies that the paradise described is fictional, perhaps even unobtainable. This could represent Marvell`s opinion of the puritans attempts to find somewhere less corrupt than England, as there is debate regarding whether Marvell was truly a roundhead (and consequently whether he was a puritan), and it has been suggested he only aligned himself with Cromwell because it made political sense.
The poem has many religious connotations which can be understood with contextualisation. The sailor’s journey and arrival at the island paradise loosely parallels the Israelites story told in the book of Exodus, and the comparison is then further developed. The line, ‘safe from the storm and prelates rage,’ suggests that the sailors are escaping religious conflict (presumably that between the Catholics and Puritans) by going across the sea, the same way the Israelites escaped. Towards the end of the poem the sailors express their desire for, ‘a temple, where to sound his name,’ which is what the Jews were promised would be established when they reached the Promised Land. The claim that God, ‘sends the fowl to us in care,’ is reminiscent of the manna sent to the Israelites when they were in the wilderness. It is an inter contextual reference also used in Marvell`s ‘On A Drop Of Dew’, where he further describes the manna as, ‘congealed and chill…on earth.’ If this is how he sees God’s gift of food then it creates a dichotomy, as a theme of the poem is God’s love for man, and yet it does not appear loving to send something inedible. This could be interpreted as a warning of sorts about the limits of God`s love, and can be linked to the line, ‘But apples plants of such a price,’ as this alludes to the apple from the Garden of Eden that was the reason man was evicted from paradise the first time.
The second poem I have selected is ‘To Althea, From Prison’ by Richard Lovelace. It is believed the poem is addressed to Lucy Sacheverell, and as such his choice of the pseudonym Althea is of note due to its notoriety in Greek mythology as that of a mother who killed her son with fire. When fire is mentioned in the poem it is juxtaposed next to the word loyalty, ‘loyal flames,’ which implies that the name may have been deliberately chosen to highlight that his love had that particular characteristic that her namesake lacked, something that would have been relevant whilst he was imprisoned.
Context is necessary to understand this poem because it was written, as the title suggests, whilst the poet was in prison. He was imprisoned for attempting to restore the Anglican Bishops that had been removed from Parliament, and this implies that it may be less of a love poem than it appears as, unlike his contemporary John Donne, Lovelace was imprisoned for politics and not love. His royalist beliefs are demonstrated blatantly, ‘The sweetness, mercy, majesty, And glories of my King,’ and this suggests that the poem is more about freedom of thought than love.
The central theme of the poem is paradoxical; in that Lovelace repeatedly claims to possess a great amount of liberty whilst in prison, ‘The Gods that wanton in the air Know no such liberty.’ He appears to be suggesting that the aimlessness of the Gods makes them inferior to himself, and this may be because his belief (in the King and his principles) gives him purpose. In the second stanza he does admit to mourning the loss of his physical freedom, ‘When thirsty grief in wine we steep,’ but even this is juxtaposed with a testament of his devotion to the king, ‘Our hearts with loyal flames.’ This constant reiteration of his loyalty may be to comfort himself, as he was an active part of Charles I battles in Scotland and may be worried about his political standing as he now cannot play an active role in the power struggle.
The fourth stanza is somewhat existential, and also indicative of how well educated Lovelace was, as he questions the nature of reality and appears to conclude that it is more mental than physical, ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.’ As such he cannot truly be imprisoned as his mind is free and his allegiance remains intact, to the extent that he is imprisoned again at a later date for his political convictions. Lovelace also demonstrates a concept prevalent in most metaphysical poetry, that of the soul and body being separate entities, ‘And in my soul am free, Angels alone that soar above Enjoy such liberty.’ If he does believe that the soul is the true form then he can never be imprisoned and his claim to liberty is true.