Andrew Marvell wrote numerous lyric poems throughout his life, but few of them were published until after he died. His contemporaries knew him mainly as a writer of prose and satire, and as a politician and member of Parliament under the governments of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. Although much of the extant scholarship on Marvell's work focuses on the wit in his poetry, the implications about gender and power relations in The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn invite us to read the poem through a twenty-first century lens and examine Marvell's portrayal of women through the character of the Nymph. In the introduction to her book, Ventrilioquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts, Elizabeth Harvey refers to the practice as transvestite ventriloquism (Harvey 1) and defines the concept of ventriloquism as an instance in which a male author writes in the voice of a female character. In so doing, the author appropriates that voice but thereby deauthenticates and contaminates it.
In The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn, Andrew Marvell not only usurps a female voice through the Nymph, but he uses it to reaffirm what have become recognizable stereotypes about women, specifically that they are emotionally weak, naïve, forgiving beings who have no reason to live once their innocence is lost.
[...] This incident illustrates the act of linguistic rape because a man has forcibly gained power over a woman in the verbal sense. Later in the text, another act of linguistic rape occurs. It is established that the Nymph received the fawn from “Unconstant Sylvio” (line 25), a lover who later leaves her “his fawn, but [takes] his heart” (line 36). In spite of this betrayal, the Nymph remains optimistic because she now has the fawn as a companion to “replace” Sylvio: “I set myself to play / My solitary time away, / …very well content” (lines 47-49). [...]
[...] By virtue of his masculinity and distinctly male perspective, Marvell cannot accurately convey the thoughts or emotions of a female character. Therefore, he must invent a voice in order to write from a female perspective. The concept of “constructing” a voice immediately tells us that what Marvell is doing is not natural to him, and that unnaturalness undermines the female experience conveyed in the poem. In this way, the female experience that Marvell attempts to communicate becomes false. In addition, Marvell's portrayal of the Nymph's character and situation through her own voice undermines women by reaffirming what twenty- first century readers see as common gender stereotypes. [...]
[...] However, since the Nymph's words actually come through Marvell, his masculinity contaminates them. First, he forms a sharp contrast between the meek, easily forgiving Nymph and the “ungentle” hunters who have thoughtlessly killed her animal companion. Through such a distinction, Marvell confirms that the separation between the male and female genders; the men act as if there are no consequences, and the female character is quick to forgive their actions. The Nymph forgives the hunters who, as men, possess power over her. [...]
[...] For the time being, few women apart from Mary Palmer have had the privilege of leaving their mark on Andrew Marvell's poetic legacy. In the nineteenth century, the scholarly and critical spheres were dominated by men, and that still remains the case. Interestingly, current academic work on Marvell's poetry includes relatively few contributions by women. Harvey does not specifically discuss Marvell in Ventriloquized Voices, and there is generally almost a complete lack of study by female scholars pertaining to Marvell. [...]
[...] It was this claim that allowed her to become involved in perpetuating Marvell's memory and the legacy of his work. Additionally, Marvell's mother died when he was about seventeen (Wheeler xi), which represented a significant loss, especially in terms of his opportunities to gain experience with and exposure to women. The fact that Marvell had little association with women during his life presents a unique issue: it both causes and allows us to question Marvell's sexuality, which would have had a bearing on how he chose to approach his work. [...]
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