[Note to the reader: The following is an excerpt from David Getman’s paper for my “Metaphysical Poetry” class. The essay is about Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House.” The paragraphs are from the very beginning and the end of the essay; together, I think they give a powerful sense of David Getman’s ferociously talented thinking and writing. –David Marno]
Arachne and Marvell both work to reconcile their talent for spinning tales, their artistic debts, and an existential confusion over whether they be in nature “or without” (80.638). And if we imagine Arachne’s current manifestation to be the spider, she and Marvell are of a common artistic condition. Their ‘frames’ are intricately woven art objects with the potential to transfix and to refract our vision of the world. Whether it is Marvell’s intention or not, the characters of Upon Appleton House luxuriate in Ovid’s lessons of humility and ethical storytelling practice. Tracking the inhabitants of Appleton House with their counterparts in Ovid’s myth reveals the rickety scaffolding of the nature/culture divide and the actors who must be made vulnerable to secure its integrity. Analogizing Andrew Marvell and Thomas Fairfax with Arachne and Pallas Athene show how the men don’t fit into normative definitions of dignified masculinity, and how they compensate by suffocating the same-sex alliances of the nunnery. When Maria Fairfax is cast as Minerva in the final scene, her transformation of the world to glass augurs the rise of new Enlightenment traditions of knowledge acquisition. Upon Appleton House readily indulges this game of Ovidian role play as a means of tracing and ventriloquizing Marvel’s poetic politics.
(. . .)
Marvell tries to bring the ‘self’-sacrifice initiated by the poetic process to its logical telos. The figures of Minerva and Arachne are collapsed into one, he is their contemporary progeny. He asks to be bound in the twines of woodbines, “gadding vines”, and silken bondages; and if these prove too weak, then brambles and briar (77.609-616). He performs Minerva’s act of violent destruction on himself as well as Arachne’s attempted suicide. He is strangled by those features which acted as the borders for Arachne’s web, its “entangled ivy” (Ovid). He bookends the section of Upon Appleton House with symbols of his limbo between the two weavers. Marvell is “but an inverted tree” (71.568), a reversal of Minerva’s symbolic tree and the final image of her tapestry. The inverted tree derives from Plato’s conception of “the lofty nature of man – the only creature that is more of heaven than earth” (Eyber 201), but its usage here pokes holes into Platonic exceptionalism. Finally, he becomes-spider: “among the birds and trees…or of the fowls, or of the plants” (71.562-563). Like the arachnid, he is almost “floating on air” (71.565), weaving his intricate poem in the interstices of nature. As a poet he dwells in the province of the meadow and of its “crystal mirror slick; / Where all things gaze themselves, and doubt / If they be in it or without” (80.637-638). Only when the young Maria arrives does he toss away his hooks, quills, and other nature-derived tools of inscription.
Maria’s most significant influence in the closing stanzas of the poem is her vitrification of nature (86.689), a symbolic inauguration of new methods of scientific inquiry and the cessation of the emblematic world view. Glass – transparent, reflective, unyielding, divisive – is a fitting metaphor for the transformations of the inductive Baconian method. As Ashworth elaborates, Bacon rejected “the notion that the natural world is a divine language, encoded by God” and asserted that nature had no mystical meanings, no language of its own. Bacon asked, “How can the Book of Nature shed light on God’s plan, if the language of that book is devoid of meaning?” (323). As Marvell’s young pupil, she “straightness on the woods bestows” (87.691) and her own “pure, sweet, straight, and fair” (87.695) body takes precedence over the natural landscape. The “stupid fishes hang, as plain / As flies in crystal overta’en” (85.677), as if frozen for examination. Again, it’s unclear whether Marvell wholeheartedly approves of this progress or whether Stanza 92 sounds a note of regret. Perhaps there is merit to “useless study” (92.730), activities with no readily apparent uses, as opposed to minds that are filled with knowledge, but “knowledge only” (92.735). In the poem’s final lines we are formally invited into Fairfax’s house with its “decent order tame” (96.766). We seek shelter, but the coming of darkness will bring out the night crawlers, whose misshapen bodies will continue to unspool silken cobwebs in even the most sober of frames.