‘You, Andrew Marvell’ by Archibald MacLeish is a nine stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The stanzas conform to a loose rhyming pattern of abab. There are instances though in which the ‘a’ lines do not always rhyme perfectly. Often they are slant or half rhymes rather than full, or perfect rhymes. One such instance is in the second stanza with the end sounds, “east” and “vast.”
A reader should also take note of the moment of repetition at the beginning of the verses. A great number of the lines begin with the same word, often in the same stanza. Such as in stanza one with “And” beginning the first and second line. Or, in stanza three in which “The” begins lines three and four.
Additionally, the poem contains almost no punctuation. There is a single colon at the end of the first stanza, setting up the circular momentum of the text, but that it all. From that point on the lines come quickly one after another. This was done on purpose in an effort to mimic the constant movement of the sun and progression of night.
Before beginning this piece it is important to take the time to understand who the title refers to. Andrew Marvell was a seventeenth century, metaphysical English poet whose best-known work is ‘To His Coy Mistress.’
A reader might question after reading to the end of ‘You, Andrew Marvell’, what connection the poet has to the description of night. MacLeish was likely referencing the well-known structure of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ This piece is known as a carpe diem poem; meaning that is inspires a reader to “seize the day” and recognize that time is limited. MacLeish was clearly inspired by how Marvell tackled this theme ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and chose to recognize Marvell’s work.
In some ways, ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ is the opposite of a carpe diem poem in that it makes the reader very aware of the transitory, but also repetitive nature of time. The day is designed to repeat itself. Time is not, at least universally, limited.
Summary of You, Andrew Marvell
‘You, Andrew Marvell’ by Archibald MacLeish describes the transitory nature of the time and the unstoppable force that is night.
The poem begins with the speaker locating himself on a hill, face down, with the sun above him. He is in a meditative state, focusing on the passage of time that is happening in cities all around the world. While it is currently daytime where he is, he mentally travels to other countries where night is quickly coming.
The first place he visits is an ancient city in Iran where he looks at the leaves of a tree. He moves on to describe the mountains of Persia and a gate in Kermanshah. The following lines take him to Iraq and into the Mediterranean Sea. These places are quite different from one another, and presumably from where the speaker lives as well. To his eye they are exotic. This fact makes it all the more interesting that night touches them the same way it does where he lives.
Some of the final places he visits are Lebanon, Crete, Syria and Spain. In each country or city he takes one element of the landscape or twilight hours, and emphasizes it. The night is variously described as being stealthy, calm, and foreboding. It can take on a different persona depending on where it is and who is experiencing it.
The conclusion takes the reader back to the speaker who is still prone on the hill. ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ ends with an ellipse. This is in an effort to encourage the reader back to the beginning of the poem. MacLeish was endeavouring to create a loop in the narrative. One should feel as if the text could repeat itself, just like the hours of day and night.
Analysis of You, Andrew Marvell
And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing himself as being “face down beneath the sun.” He is on his stomach, with his back to the sky. A reader should take note of the fact that the first line begins with the word “And.” This is not a traditional way to start a poem, but lends itself to the looping of the text that becomes evident at the end of the poem. A reader should find their way back to the beginning after finishing the ninth stanza.
He goes on to add that the “earth’s noonward height” is above him. It is noon where he is, and the sun is directly above him. These statements place him in the centre of the day, in an open, undefined area. It is unclear where exactly the speaker is but that does not impact one’s understanding of the text. In fact, it helps to open up the narrative to any location.
The following lines lead one to believe that the speaker either does not, or does not want to, move from this location, at least physically. He seems to relish in the “always coming on” of the night. No matter what time of day it is, he can feel the presence of darkness coming towards him.
To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow
In the second stanza he continues his description of the coming of night. It is a force that comes “creep[ing]” towards him from the “curving east.” This is of course a reference to the shape of the earth and the way in which the sun slowly, but consistently, sets. The following lines speak of the “chill” that accompanies the setting sun and rising night. While in another narrative these elements would be painted in a negative light, that is not the case here. The speaker is listing them out as regular, but also special, parts of the day.
In the second two lines he returns to the present moment in which he is situated “Upon those under lands,” or the lands that are about to be under the night sky. The shadow cast by the setting sun, and the edging forward of night, is growing. There is something sublime about this fact. It is both beautiful and overwhelming.
And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change
The next lines begin to reference different areas around which are also transitioning into darkness. The speaker is moving, metaphorically, from place to place, and throughout time, taking note of what the change looks like. First he travels to Iran, specifically the ancient city of “Ecbatana.”
This is where he looks at the “trees” and how the lessening of light darkens each individual leaf. There is also the “flooding dark” to take note of around “The mountains over Persia.” The mountains are going through the same change as the small, innumerable leaves. The contrast between the grand mountains and the individual leaves. is the first of a number of interesting comparisons.
And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass
The fourth stanza takes the reader to “Kermanshah.” It is here he sees the “gate” that is described as being both “Dark” and “empty.” Considering that it is almost night now, this is not surprising. The “gate” in Kermanshah, a city in Iran, is one of the major importing and exporting gates in the country.
The travellers who are on the road at this time are few. It is “twilight” and no one is really passing through the gate. It is interesting to note all the action that the gate hints at. While it is quiet now, one can imagine what it would be like once the sun rises again.
And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on
The next city mentioned is “Baghdad” in Iraq. The sun is also setting on this area of the world and the “bridge” across the river is “gone.” It is so dark that one cannot see the structure. The next two lines expand the night further to cover all of “Arabia.”
The speaker clearly has an invested interest in this part of the world. Perhaps it is due to the fact that it is an area very far removed from his physical location. It might spark his interest due to its exotic seeming nature. The evening is “widen[ing]” and “steal[ing]” on from place to place. These words increase the foreboding feeling of night. It is stealing, or moving stealthily, taking city after city.
And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
high through the clouds and overblown
From Iraq the description moves to the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. The ancient nature of the area is emphasized with a description of the “wheel rut” made in the stone of the street. These are the marks made by carts rolled over stone for years on end. The dark touches them as well.
The speaker travels onward to both “Lebanon” and “Crete,” the most populous of the Greek islands. The light is fading here as well, obscuring the city from the residents, and the residents from the city.
And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls
From here the air, which seems to be carrying the night, moves over “Sicily,” a region of Italy, and the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. These lands have yet to be fully consumed by the darkness. One can still see the “gulls” moving “landward.” They are fully aware that darkness is coming and are seeking out a refuge for the night.
On the sea one can see the “sails” disappearing. They go first, before the “hulls,” as the sun moves downward below the horizon line.
And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land
In the second to last stanza the speaker moves on to Spain. This country is one of the last to be visited, and taken by the night. It and all its people “go under.” At this point the speaker has used a number of different phrases to refer to the sun setting. They each provoke a different feeling in a reader. “Go under” calls up images of sinking beneath water, or hiding “under” some covering. While previous phrases like “slowly disappear” are more peaceful. One might also refer back to “fade out,” “rising” and “creeping.”
The wide range of words used by the speaker show that he is very familiar with night and has a lot to say about it. This is a time of day he is indulging in. It is for pleasure that he mentally moves from place to place and watches the night take away all the details of the day.
The coming of night has become a unifying factor across the globe. While it may happen at vastly different times of day, the “gilded sand” of Africa and the gate of Kermanshah” will experience the same things.
The eighth stanza concludes with a peaceful image of the “low pale light” completely vanishing. The dark is total, but not in a frightening way.
Nor now the long light on the sea:
And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on..
In the final quatrain of this piece the description of the setting sun comes to a conclusion. The first line puts out the “long light on the sea.” This is the last element of the world to feel the heat, or see the light, of the sun for the day. One can now imagine the entire planet, at least in progressing portions, as being dark.
The speaker returns to his own physical location. He is still “face downward in the sun” dwelling over the “swift” nature of the hours. As was stated in the first stanza, the speaker is relishing in the coming of the night. It is a “secret…shadow” that many do not consider until it is clearly happening.
The concluding tercet ends with an ellipse and links the last line of ‘You Andrew Marvell’ to the beginning. It is from here that one should feel the desire to return to the beginning and start all over again. MacLeish made this choice consciously. It was done so that one would get a final taste of the progression of hours. The pattern he just finished describing starts all over again the next day. Night is always coming no matter the hour, historical period, or location.