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Maria Fairfax, Andrew Marvell, pastoral poetry, nun


Andrew Marvell dramatizes the difficult choice between action and indolence in his long pastoral poem, “Upon Appleton House.” The nameless nun’s rhetorical temptation of Isabel Thwaites, as narrated in an apparent digression from the past history of the house, anticipates the poet’s own self-seduction in the woods later in the poem. Both Isabel and the poet need to be rescued from their fallen state. The tension between action and passivity is resolved by the redemptive appearance of “Maria.” The model for her providential intervention is the Shakespearean romance, in which an innocent daughter, who is rescued from danger and degradation, replaces a flawed father as the center of dramatic interest. The poem is filled with depictions of rigorous actions on the part of the bees, flowers and mowers, which implicitly call into question Lord Fairfax’s retirement. The bad behavior of the nun and the poet’s lapse into indolence are falls in the Augustinian sense. Maria, who is implicitly compared with Elizabeth Drury in Donne’s “Anniversary” poems, Lady Alice in Milton’s Comus, Marina in Pericles, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, leads the poet back to his proper calling. The poem insists that we are inescapably accountable for our actions, even among the pastoral charms of Appleton House.