Summary and Analysis of An Epitaph by Andrew Marvell

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Introduction to the Poet:

Andrew Marvell (1621-78) was a renowned Metaphysical poet , a politician, and held a remarkable position in literature. He was born in Winstead-in-Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire, as the son of a clergyman. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a tutor to the daughter of Lord Fairfax, and wrote the best poetries during this season (1650-52).

Marvell was an acquaintance of Milton and protected him from the royal wrath. He also served as the Member of Parliament for Hull from 1659 until he died in 1678.

About An Epitaph:

‘An Epitaph’ by Marvell is a poem of mourning, one that of sorrow, grief and lamentation on the death of his beloved. Rightly named, ‘An Epitaph’ which means a commemoration for a dead person , this poem speaks of the greatness of the woman the poet so dearly loved and is now dead. Throughout the poem, the poet glorifies the woman and holds her in a high esteem. This poem stands supreme in diction and speaks passionately about the poet’s devotion and love.

Setting of An Epitaph:

The poem is set in such a situation when the poet is deeply hurt by the death of his lady love and mourns for her dearly. With the inevitable death that had drawn upon her, he writes an epitaph for her which touches our heart.
The poem is set during the Age of Milton and contains lyrical imagery, blend of passion and thought. The personal life of Marvell had been in a shadow, and the woman whom this poem is subjected to is still unknown.
In a typical Marvell’s way combining wit and imagery, this poem is an astounding creation of Marvell.

Style of An Epitaph:

Rhyme scheme: aabbbb cXbbccddccbb

Closest metre: iambic tetrameter

Сlosest rhyme: limerick

Сlosest stanza type: sonnet.

Written in the typical metaphysical style of Marvell, it is a wonderful description of the mourning of a lover on the death of his lady-love.

Poetic devices in An Epitaph:

Simile:

The poet uses simile to describe the wonderful and charming characteristics that the lady possessed. Thus, he mentions:

“Modest as morn , as mid-day bright,

Gentle as evening, cool as night.”

Imagery:

Marvell creates an imagery of the morning being modest and simple, the mid day full of brightness under the rays of sunlight. The evening is gentle as if accompanied by soothing and pacifying breeze, and at last the night is calm and cool. The lady’s attributes are compared to these periods of the day.

This creates in our mind an image of the lady and also makes us ponder over the love of the poet which was so deep that every moment of the day and night, he would think of her as the morning changes to night, ever so gradually.

Summary of An Epitaph:

The poem is a note of lamentation for the poet’s beloved. In a modal yet exquisite manner the poet comments on the lady’s disposition throughout her life. He believes that praising her and naming her after death is more futile as the wonderful deeds throughout her lifetime already made her decorously famous. He believes that the courtship he had offered to her during her lifetime had been declined and it would be unpleasant to offer her that again now that she is dead. This reflects upon the poet’s selfless love for his mistress.

Then he goes on to glorify her character. He goes on to say that even in this age, when the virtues and morality are losing their utmost gravity, when being vice and graceless are becoming too prevalent, the lady held on to her virtue.

She was not only virtuous but was devoted to pay her debts to the world. Maybe, for these virtues, the poet adored her dearly and loved her, selflessly.

Next, he compares her qualities with the various periods of the day. He uses simile to state that she was as simple and transparent, effortlessly lucid like the morning, bright, vibrant, as if filled with life like the mid day. The gentleness and tenderness of the evening was possessed by her attributes, too. He goes on to add that she was as soothing and cool as the night. This closely makes us realise how intimately he loved the lady such that every moment from the dawn to dusk, he retains her presence in joyful reminiscence.

At the end, he goes on to say that all the virtues stated by him about the lady is “weakly said”, that is, the virtues that she possessed are far greater than that the poet could pen down in this epitaph for her. Finally, the poem ends with a sense of deep anguish and pain over her death as the poet says, almost in a sigh :
“’Twas more significant, she’s dead.”

Critical Analysis of An Epitaph :

‘An Epitaph’ by Marvell is an incredible piece of literature that deals with the lamentation, grief and wailing of a lover on the eternal rest of his beloved. Filled with learned imagery and striking conceits, accompanied with subtlety of diction, the poem is achingly heart rendering.

The virtues and qualities of the lady are praised in the poem. Though he states that he had offered her courtship during her lifetime, she denied and rejected him. Thus, he finds it insensitive and unkind to offer her that, now that she is dead.  Also, her deeds in her lifetime made her famous in a graceful manner.

The influence of the Christianity over mankind is prevalent in the lines when he praised her virtues as “she lived a virgin chase” and “her soul was on Heaven so bent”. Even at a time when “vice was allowed”, that is, immorality and unchaste behaviour was prevalent, she maintained her dignity and she was to paying her debts to the world and to being a “Good Samaritan”.

As he goes on to describe that various span of the day, from morning to night, dawn to dusk it clearly draws upon us the immeasurable magnitude in which he loved her. Just as the morning is full of naïve and simple essence, with a beauty of innocence associated with each breathe of the ever-so-mild sunglow; she possessed such simplicity and modesty, too. As if the mid-day, so brightly coloured, the lady possessed brightness, too. This clearly shows us, the poet’s days were filled with bliss by her bright presence.

The gentle breeze and tranquilizing atmosphere of the evening reminded the poet of her presence and so did the cool, refreshing air of the night.

Thus he says –

“Modest as morn …………. cool as night.”

These create a feeling of warmth towards her. Just as the cycle of the day passes, without stopping, the lover is also reminded of her without a pause. Marvell beautifully transcends her journey to heaven and brings out joyful reminiscence of her through the passing moment of each day. The ever present thoughts of this woman occupy the lover’s mind in sorrow mixed with joyful reminiscence.

At last, he says that the praises for her that are penned down aren’t enough; she was more virtuous that he could ever explain.

In the end, the poem ends with a tone of sigh that the wonderful woman is no more in this world.

Central Idea of An Epitaph:

The central theme of the poem deals with the lamentation and grief of a lover on the death of his lady love. Throughout the poem, the lover glorifies the remarkable virtues of a woman with a sense of regard and graceful, non-amorous love. He goes on to describe her virtues and the sacredness that she held throughout her life. Even when the world was unjust, unchaste and immoral, she maintained her conduct and her desire to pay her debt to the world.
The theme is closely associated with the influence of Christianity on human. Paying off her debts to the world is closely incorporated with the story of Samaritan narrated by Christ.

The central idea of selfless love, sorrowful lamentation and joyful reminiscence is further magnified by comparing her with the various spans of the day from dawn to dusk to thus indicating how intimate the woman was to the lover’s heart.

Tone of An Epitaph:

The tone of the poem is modal in the beginning with the word “Enough” , punctuated by a semicolon. Throughout the first eight lines, it remains modal with the poet praising the woman.

Later, it changes to joyful reminiscence as he deals with her death by recalling her superb virtues and associating her lifetime with the most moral and upright characters.

The tone becomes yet more romantic and intimate when he compared the lady love with the phases of a day and how he is reminded of her with the cycle of each passing day.

In the end, the tone of lamentation and grief overpowers the tone of joyful reminiscence when he finally states that such a wonderful woman is dead and ends the poem almost in a heart rendering sighing note.

Conclusion:

One of Marvell’s most amazing creation, this poem stands supreme in the history of literature with its metaphysical characteristics accompanied by lyrical phrases & psychological insights.

Contributor: Bidisha Das

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