Marvell’s historical moment is marked by conflict between social content and the larger, political form encasing that content. The transformation of a culture from an emergent within is, as Raymond Williams says, the effective penetration by alternatives to the dominant social order. The emergent culture “depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptations of form” to account for the evident transformations in the content or the character of society.
(An illustrative example of this would be the transition from the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican. Hans Blumenberg: “To describe the innovation initiated by Copernicus as the simple interchange of the position of the earth and sun is to make a molehill out of a promontory in the development of human thought. If Copernicus' proposal had had no consequences outside astronomy, it would have been neither so long delayed nor so strenuously resisted.” The difficultly in establishing the argument for a transition out of the Ptolemaic model of the universe was rooted in the lack of a larger paradigm in human thought that could validate the new facts presented by Copernicus and allow his model for the universe to transplant the old in a more immediate manner. Content preceded form but form had to eventually reevaluate and restructure itself to account for the transformations in the content of a society’s development. The genesis of the Copernican world, tr. Robert Wallace (Cambridge 1987), 1,772.)
The conflicted orders in Marvell’s political moment are the immemorial monarchy and the emergent Republicanism of the puritan revolution. Beside the distinct structures of power that such a transformation bridges, the emergence of Republicanism also produced a different sense of time, history and contingency. J.G.A. Pocock posits that Republican theory necessitates and, in its implementation, imports a certain kind of historicism:
The republic… was at once universal, in the sense that it existed to realize for its citizens all the values which men were capable of realizing in this life, and particular, in the sense that it was finite and located I space and time. It had had a beginning and would consequently have an end; and this rendered crucial both the problem of showing how it had come into being and might maintain its existence, and that of reconciling its end of realizing universal values with the instability and circumstantial disorder of its temporal life.
Unlike monarchical time, in which law and sense of self-legitimation presuppose immemorial custom, republican time has no prescriptive foundation upon which to legitimate its presence. It must make its own myths to promulgate an argument for its necessity. The central action Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” seems to be the ratiocination of the role of historical agents in different kinds of time. The notionally perlocutionary poem weighs one timescale against another:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
Although the British Raj had not yet been instituted in India, the East India Tea Company had had a Royal Charter since 1600 and, as shown by ‘The Great Case of Monopolies” in 1683-85, there was already legal contention to the fact that the monarchy had given monopolistic sanction to the Company in Marvell’s time. The mention of the lady’s presence in India must then be read as associated with commercial empire. The timescale of empire as evoked the poem, were it a possibility for these lovers, would be one in which passive courting would be possible.
As the poem goes on to assert that such patience is not possible, with “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” that timescale is repudiated in favor of one in which individual agency is so aggressive that it makes even the sun run. In the line previous to this last, however, the poet admits that they cannot make their sun stand still. Having admitted that the lovers have no capacity to control the sun’s immobility, it cannot stand to reason that they should have a capacity to control the sun’s mobility.
Marvell’s investment in a republican sense of time—-or one in which individual agency amounts to historical events—-is undercut by the autonomy of events (the sun’s autonomy), while simultaneously underscoring the urgent need for the kind of individual agency required in republican theory (making the sun run). Pocock might argue that this is essentially a dialectic failure inherent to republican theory of the time, in so far as he understands the English revolutionary moment to have been:
[S]ubjected to strain by the republican decision to pursue universal values in a transitory form…
The crux of the issue seems to be that Marvell is attempting to position himself in a double time—-at once needing to assert the political stasis and reflexivity of naturalized institution (a reliant sun), while allowing—and indeed arguing for-—the revolutionary emergence of republican historicity. That is, the poet here expresses a sense of responsibility to the contingency of events albeit in a vestigial frame of timeless, naturalized custom.
In a previous post I've suggested that the Metaphysical moment was a sort of political reaction--or even a physical response to the political terms as exhibited in the corpus of some 17c poets. In thinking about Marvell against Crashaw and Herbert, something beneath the surface seems similarly disembodied.