The Golden Man and the Golden Age: The Relationship of English Poets and the New World Reconsidered

David McInnis
University of Melbourne

David McInnis. "The Golden Man and the Golden Age: The Relationship of English Poets and the New World Reconsidered". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 1.1-19<URL:>.


  1. When confronted with what Stephen Greenblatt calls the “crisis of representation” occasioned by the discovery of the New World (133), Europeans attempting to write about the Americas seem to have been assisted in the formidable task of describing utterly new (and therefore unrepresentable) phenomena by turning to poetry. With their frame of reference and consequently their very language in a state of crisis, European poets turned to metaphor and allegory, especially as derived from the discourses of classical literature, in order to write about the strange New World for which no adequate words yet existed.[1] In what follows, I wish to analyse works by Chapman, Drayton and Marvell, in order to better appreciate some of the ways in which poetry responded to the task of conveying the American experiences to European readers. In particular, through reconsideration of the political interpretation of these poems (primarily Chapman’s) which regards them as propagandistic, I wish to explore what I find to be the more engaging epistemological issues inherent in these poetical interactions with the New World. Beginning with Chapman, whose epic poem, I will suggest, ought to be regarded as a crucial transition piece in the poetical tradition of American representation, I will attend closely to what at first seems a remarkable prominence of classical myth and Christian allegory in early-modern literature pertaining to the Americas (remarkable, that is, given that such texts are ostensibly about a part of the world untouched by classical or Christian traditions). From evocations of the pantheon of identifiably Mediterranean deities to intertextual references to the classical literary tradition, poetry taking the New World as its subject is ostentatiously furnished with classical allusions. Likewise, the overtly Christian undertones of Marvell’s work are seemingly incongruous with his subject matter: a land as yet untouched by the Judeo-Christian message. In addressing the relationship between poetry and the state of discursive crisis, I will attempt to explain how we might account for this apparently anachronistic phenomenon. 

    I. Chapman

  2. George Chapman’s De Guiana, Carmen Epicum (1596)[2] is generally thought to represent a propagandistic attempt, through poetry, to muster support for Walter Raleigh’s colonial enterprises in the New World.[3] Out of favour at court in the 1590s due to his clandestine marriage to one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour (Elizabeth Throckmorton), Raleigh experienced increasing difficulty restoring his reputation and securing adequate funding for his proposed ventures into the New World. Not only had the New World colony established by Raleigh in 1585 vanished without a trace, but the fabulous tales of cities paved with gold (exploited by Raleigh as an incentive for American voyages) lost credence as more and more missions failed to uncover the secret El Dorado. Hence, as Jonathan Hudston notes, it was in “an effort to vindicate himself and stimulate enthusiasm” that Raleigh promulgated his The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guaina, with a relation of the great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spanyards call El Dorado) in 1596 (Hudston 414). Hudston contends that Chapman’s De Guiana was “probably commissioned as part of the same propagandist process, either by Ralegh himself, or perhaps by Thomas Harriot, who was the expedition’s scientific expert,” (Hudston 414). Moreover, its inclusion as a preface to Lawrence Keymis’ Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana (1596) suggests that “Ralegh liked and accepted the poem as a contribution to the ongoing Guiana propaganda” (Nicholls 294). De Guiana was, in other words, the poetical companion piece or analogue to Raleigh’s tract: both had the clear, instrumental objective of revitalising interest in New World exploration in order to secure funds for the related voyages. 

  3. Accordingly, it is not surprising to find Chapman singing of the “Riches, and Conquest, and Renowme” (14) which imperial expansion into the Americas would bring to England. De Guiana is filled with tantalising hints of the riches to be found abroad: “mines of golde” (18), “Golde is our Fate” (146), “treasuries with golde” (167), “wealthie fieldes” (168). Nor is it peculiar for Chapman to avail himself of enticing metaphors likening the Americas to the female form:
    And now a wind as forward as their spirits,
    Sets their glad feet on smooth Guianas breast…           (163-64).
    After all, this was the very description offered by Columbus upon first sighting the marvellous lands to the west. Stephen Greenblatt relates that in Columbus’s reports,
    [t]he world is not perfectly round…but rather has the shape of a pear or of a ball on which is placed ‘something like a woman’s nipple’…  The nipple of the world is the newly discovered land and all signs point to the location at its center of the Earthly Paradise. (Greenblatt 78).
    But whereas when Columbus deployed the “breast” analogy it constituted part of an attempt to convey the beauty of the new found lands, Chapman’s epic song is clearly encouraging Elizabeth to let Raleigh broaden the English horizons: “let thy soveraigne Empire be encreast” (63). Chapman’s metaphor therefore conceivably forms an important part of the newly emerging discourse positing the New World as virgin territory, ripe for exploitation; a concept which ironically registers in the name ‘Virginia’, for which Raleigh himself was responsible after petitioning Elizabeth in 1594 (Gillies 1986: 677). ‘Virginia’ was a name which “conjured up visions of a land of pristine newness and incredible fertility,” thus making the lands to which it applied “a tabula rasa awaiting inscription,” according to John Gillies (1986: 677). The paysage moralisé in Chapman’s poem personifies the Americas as a subservient relative of England:
    Guiana, whose rich feet are mines of golde,
    Whose forehead knockes against the roofe of Starres,
    Stands on her tip-toes at faire England looking,
    Kissing her hand, bowing her mightie breast,
    And every signe of all submission making,
    To be her sister, and the daughter both
    Of our most sacred Maide…                            (18-24).
    This prominent image contributed to the increasingly common troping of the New World as a virgin land awaiting European control: in the seditious play, Eastward Ho! (1605), for example, Seagull declares that “Virginia longs till we share the rest of her maidenhead,” (III.iii.15-16).[4] Charles Nicholl argues that because in Chapman’s trope “Guiana and England are both feminine”, it is “an image of colonization as a kind of platonic embrace between cultures, rather than as an aggressive sexual penetration” (Nicholl 295). England might be feminine, but it is an aggressively masculine Raleigh who is leading the colonisation, and the suggestion of Guiana’s submissiveness is unequivocal. Chapman makes it clear that if Guiana (or the New World in general) was ready to be colonised, Raleigh, with his “Eliza-consecrated sworde” (9) was the man to do it.  Raleigh’s industriousness --- Chapman calls him “Th’industrious Knight” and “the soule of this exploit” (153) --- equip him with the requisite traits for implementing England’s colonial desires in the New World.

  4. But why does Chapman introduce classical allusions to his poem? What made the evocation of the classics seem a useful response to the crisis of representation which Europeans encountered when they tried to use their language to describe the Americas? For those Europeans who never actually voyaged to the New World to experience it first-hand, as none of the poets discussed in this article did, there were obviously severe limitations to their ability to accurately describe the exotic and foreign. In his discussion of the Europeans’ difficulty of describing the New World, J.H. Elliott observes that
    [i]f the unfamiliar were to be approached as anything other than the extraordinary and the monstrous, then the approach must be conducted by reference to the most firmly established elements in Europe’s cultural inheritance. Between them, therefore, the Christian and the classical traditions were likely to prove the obvious points of departure for any evaluation of the New World and its inhabitants.  
                                                                                               (Elliott 24).

    How, specifically, do Chapman’s classical allusions assist him in his description of the unfamiliar though? In addressing this question, it is useful to note that there are three general rubrics under which Chapman’s incorporation of classical material falls: the evocation of archetypes, the assumption of universal application, and the positing of the imminent return of the golden age (I will discuss each in turn). 

  5. In the first group of allusions, Raleigh’s men, his “Argolian Fleet” (159), are metaphorically likened to the legendary crew of the Argo, under the command of Jason (the first sailor). Jean-Pierre Sánchez accounts for the presence of Jason in European travel literature by noting that the European adventurers “found themselves in the same situation as Jason and his Argonauts: The quest for El Dorado presented undeniable features in common with the quest for the Golden Fleece, which, at the unconscious level, served as its model” (Sánchez 372). He further finds it “appropriate to consider El Dorado a particularly successful ‘American’ adaptation of one of the most seductive of Greek myths [i.e. the myth of Jason]” (Sánchez 373).[5] Sánchez’s analysis rings true in the case of Chapman, where the purpose of the classical reference is patently to glorify the mission and the men involved. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the poem, here, in the comparison between Raleigh and the archetypal sailor, the reader is acutely aware of Chapman’s propagandistic motivations. A similar sense of glorification is achieved by the suggestion that, judging by the awed pacification of New World natives upon their first encounter with Europeans (“Savadges fall tame before them”), it were “as if ech man were an Orpheus” (165-66). The attribution to Raleigh’s men of the Orphic ability to enchant and captivate is the type of hyperbole typical of propaganda. However, there is another aspect of these allusions worth pondering. This return to the archetypes (Jason, Orpheus) and, moreover, the positing of their existence in the present time, conceivably signifies a sense of the world starting anew, of the birth of a new age: an age of exploration, obviously, but also a new age in the sense that this period marked the nascence of an era whose ontology included the existence of the New World for the first time. As Europe stood on the cusp of a new era in which the history, present, and future of the world now included the Americas, the old ætiological myths of classical antiquity were appropriated in writings such as Chapman’s, in a vague gesture toward the creation of a new, alternative founding myth --- a product of the present which could lay the stones for the future, rather than an ætiology of the past to account for the present.

  6. In the second general category of classical allusions in Chapman’s poem which I identified above, the implied universality of the references suggests the beginnings of an acceptance of the New World’s affiliation with the Old World. Consider, for example, the implicit omnipresence of the east wind, Eurus (brother to Zephyrus):
    There your wise soules as swift as Eurus lead
    Your Bodies through, to profit and renowne                  (104-104).
    The admission that the same elements which govern the Old World (the east wind, Eurus) also governed the hostile and alien New World is indicative of a gradual acceptance of the Americas into the European worldview. The sense of the Americas’ alterity is largely dispensed with in favour of recognising the New as part of the Old.[6] A similar, though more complicated phenomenon can be observed in Chapman’s recognition of Neptune’s dominion over even the newly-discovered waters:
    So let thy soveraigne Empire be encreast,
    And with Iberian Neptune part the stake
    Whose Trident he the triple worlde would make.          (63-65).
    Again, the inclusion of the Americas under the governance of Neptune (god of water, who along with Jupiter and Pluto ruled the triple world of sea, earth, and underworld respectively) works to integrate the New World into the Old by extending the rule of Old World deities to the New World. The fact that Neptune is here described as “Iberian”, however, firmly grounds the ostensibly classical allusion in the power struggles of the European nations active in exploration and colonisation (ancient Iberia being Spain and Portugal, England’s chief adversaries in the imperial expansionist activities to the west). Hence there is also a play on words in the term, “triple worlde”, for although in the classical register this term connoted earth, sea and underworld, the triplex mundus also came to refer to the division of the known world into the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia (prior to the discovery of the Americas). Thus Chapman’s allusion functions progressively to inscribe classical myth with new meaning, both engaging the new and simultaneously appropriating the old. His plea for Elizabeth to support Raleigh, and thereby increase the empire in the same manner in which Spain was expanding its hold on new territories, also (inadvertently perhaps) diffuses the ineffable otherness of the New World by insisting on its place in the classically-governed (though revised) view of the world. Although language was in a state of crisis vis-à-vis its inability to explain the Americas, poetry could at least reach out to the other through allegory and the application of its familiar tropes (the omnipresence of Mediterranean deities and anthropomorphised winds) to the new phenomena.

  7. The third use of classical allusions which I discern in Chapman’s song is the incorporation of the golden age myth as a metaphor to describe life in the Americas. Chapman introduces the metaphor on at least two separate occasions. On the first occasion, the poet urges Elizabeth to lend her blessing and support to Raleigh’s venture so that all England might benefit from the riches abroad. He does so through a rhetoric which insists on the possibility of the Queen being capable of restoring the golden age in the present:
    Then most admired Soveraigne, let your breath
    Goe foorth upon the waters, and create
    A golden worlde in this our yron age,
    And be the prosperous forewind to a Fleet  
    The impending return of the golden age was a motif of frequent recourse for poets under Elizabeth’s rule. The stability of her reign coupled with the increasing success of imperial expansion and the discovery of an earthly paradise to the west all contributed to the sense that the Elizabethans were living in an age unusually rich with potential for utopian bliss. Hence, in John Davie’s first acrostic “Hymn to Aestraea” we find sentiments echoing Virgil’s messianic “Fourth Eclogue” (and remarkably similar to Chapman’s sentiments) about Elizabeth as “the Virgin of the golden age returned to Earth” (Yates 66):
    E arly before the day doth spring
    L et us awake my Muse, and sing;
    I t is no time to slumber,
    S o many ioyes this time doth bring,
    A s Time will faile to number.

    B ut whereto shall we bend our layes?
    E uen vp to Heauen, againe to raise
    T he Mayd, which thence descended;
    H ath brought againe the golden dayes,
    A nd all the world amended.

    R udenesse it selfe she doth refine,
    E uen like an Alychymist diuine;
    G rosse times of yron turning
    I nto the purest forme of gold;
    N ot to corrupt, till heauen waxe old,
    A nd be refined with burning.   
                             (Davies in Yates 66).
    In both Davies and Chapman we find not only a burning desire to restore the perfection of the past, but a genuine belief (beyond the cyclical nature of the ages which would eventually see the golden age reinstated) that such a restoration depended upon their monarch. For Chapman though, the return of idyllic conditions was inextricably bound up in the agency of the Queen: there is patently a need to bring about the golden age, whereas for Davies the mere existence of the Virginal Elizabeth was proof that Saturn’s reign had returned. 

  8. There is also, in Chapman’s text, an emphasis on the New World’s potential to fulfil these utopian desires (a potential which was of course contingent upon Elizabeth’s backing of the Raleigh venture). Here is the second occasion on which Chapman evokes the golden age in the New World:
    … there doth plentie crowne their wealthie fieldes,
    There Learning eates no more his thriftlesse books,
    Nor Valure Estridge-like his yron armes.
    There Beautie is no strumpet for her wantes,
    Nor Gallique humours putrifie her bloud:
    But all our Youth take Hymens lightes in hand,
    And fill each roofe with honor’d progenie. 
    Nicholl interprets this passage as a presentation of “Guiana as Arcadia”, as a “purified Britannia” (Nicholl 303). Whilst I tend to agree with his suggestion that it represents an ameliorated version of Britain, I would caution against conflating Arcadia with the Golden Age and ignoring their distinctions. Arcadia was irrecoverably of the past, and as a paradise that had already existed, its constituents of perfection could be delineated with relative ease; the distinguishing feature of the Golden Age is its cyclical nature and perennially ‘imminent’ return — it promises paradisal bliss, but in what form, precisely, it is impossible to know. Instead it must be described through opposition to the current hardships from which it will provide respite. With its use of negations to delineate perfections, and its criticism of Letters (“There Learning eates no more his thriftlesse books,” 169), there are, therefore, distinct echoes of the Ovidian golden age (not the Virgilian or Theocritean Arcadia) in Chapman. De Guiana might therefore be seen as the site of a rhetorical transition in New World propaganda, from the discourse of ‘gold’ to the discourse of ‘the golden age’, since it contains (to a remarkable extent) elements of both rhetorical strategies. 

  9. Charles Nicholl’s excellent survey of the El Dorado myth in his The Creature in the Map answers the question “Where was El Dorado?” with three possibilities: “It was nowhere; it was in people’s heads” and “it was in different places at different times” (Nicholl 11). Nicholl characterises the myth of El Dorado as “a story of people searching for something, and when they failed to find what they were looking for, they explained their failure by saying that it must be somewhere else, and so the location changes” (Nicholl 12). But as we have seen, Raleigh had encountered difficulties persuading his financial backers that their investments would be rewarded with the golden spoils of Guiana. The implication is that the gold myth, El Dorado, could no longer be sustained through the type of geographical emendations that Nicholl discusses; it had finally run its course (at least in the eyes of prospective supporters of Raleigh’s expeditions) and explorers searching for riches could no longer explain their failures to their financial backers by appealing to the shifting location of their elusive treasure. Nicholl is absolutely correct in observing that the “shifting location of El Dorado is also the shifting frontier of exploration of South America” and that consequently it was the prospect of El Dorado “lying just beyond the known frontier” that drew people onward to “forge the trails that will convey settlers and soldiers and traders” (Nicholl 15). Such trailblazing would continue irrespective of the veracity of the El Dorado myth, but by the same token, with El Dorado’s increasing implausibility, a new motivation for continued exploration became necessary. It is not surprising then that it was at this time, as we see in Chapman, that the myth of the golden man (or golden city) was replaced in the rhetoric by an alternative golden quality (the golden age) which could not be quantified, and could not therefore be dismissed when mission upon mission returned from the New World empty-handed. As Lisa Hopkins astutely notes (in her discussion of ideas of the golden man and the golden age in As You Like It) such slippages between the tangible and the ideal raise the question of “whether a golden world ought ideally to be so in the spiritual or the material sense. What does it mean to be golden, and how can society aspire to such a condition?” (Hopkins, 5). It seems doubtful that Chapman was intentionally exploring these questions in De Guiana, but his poem nevertheless makes a significant contribution to such issues. Although on the one hand, we might cynically suggest that the propaganda had been refined, more significant, to my mind, is the progression in epistemological terms: Chapman’s poem clearly illustrates a transition in English thinking, in which extant frames of reference were expanded, revised, and inscribed with new meaning as they were extended westward in an (ultimately futile) attempt to assimilate the radical alterity of the New World into traditional European discourses.

    II. Drayton

  10. Written in 1606, approximately a year before Jamestown was officially settled, Michael Drayton’s “To the Virginian Voyage” is unequivocally optimistic in its depiction of the New World.[7] The harsh realities of life in Virginia which were later to dominate the post-Jamestown pamphlets from the Americas had not yet emerged as an integral feature of Virginia’s discursive portrait. As is evident from his explicit reference to “the golden Age” (38), Drayton engages with the same tradition of which Chapman was a part, limning the American landscape in typically Ovidian terms, as derived from the depiction of Saturn’s idyllic reign contained in the Metamorphoses:
    Where Nature hath in store
    Fowle, Venison, and Fish
              And the fruitfull’st Soyle,
              Without your Toyle,
    Three Harvests more,
    All greater than your Wish. 
  11. Virginia, according to Drayton, remained in a prelapsarian state of perfection, in which the need for agriculture had not yet been introduced (“Without your Toyle”, 28) and a perpetual spring prevailed (“Winters age, / That long there doth not live,” 41-42), providing ideal conditions for growth and harvests “[a]ll greater than your Wish,” (30). The resonances with Ovid’s unfallen world are unmistakable:
    The fertile earth as yet was free, untoucht of spade or plough,
    And yet it yeelded of it selfe of every things inough.
    The Springtime lasted all the yeare, and Zephyr with his milde
    And gentle blast did cherish things that grew of owne accorde.
    The ground untilde, all kinde of fruits did plenteously avorde.
    (Ovid in Bate 255).
    As I have already suggested in relation to Chapman and Raleigh, for those who backed the Virginian voyages, there was a dire need to depict the New World in such pleasant terms. John Gillies has noted that Thomas Harriot’s “Virginian apologia [1590] is intended, at least in part, as a rebuttal of ‘slaunderous and shamefull speaches bruited abroad by many that returned from thence’,” in consequence of the fact that “[t]ales of hardship, mismanagement, hostile natives and a dawning awareness that Virginia was no El Dorado were so effective in dispelling the myth of Virginia as to deprive Raleigh of funds for a major venture in 1587” (Gillies 1986: 222). Gillies further notes that “[t]he same threat hung over the heads of the Jacobean patentees, the Virginia Company of London; and their propaganda (like Raleigh’s) was obliged to disable the counter-mythology” (Gillies 1986: 222). Whilst the New World voyagers could no longer avail themselves of the myth of El Dorado to raise funds for their expeditions, they could continue to promote the paradisal beauty of the Americas in order to solicit support for their colonising missions. Leo Marx offers a similar explanation for the popularity of “golden age” descriptions of America: “the device made for effective propaganda in support of colonization. Projects like those of Raleigh required political backing, capital, and colonists,” (Marx 38). It is reasonable to surmise, then, that to a certain extent Drayton may have been attempting to extol the beauties of the Virginian landscape in order to assist with promotional purposes and that his ode was most probably a “call to action” as Joan Rees contextualises it: “Both the elder and the younger Hakluyts had striven to stir their dilatory countrymen to take their share, before it was too late, of the opportunities and the riches which lay in wait in America, and Drayton follows their lead” (Rees 24-25).

  12. Whilst the celebratory title of the ode (“To the Virginian Voyage”) certainly suggests Drayton’s support of the New World ventures, it is elsewhere in the poem that we find the greatest hints of a propagandistic undercurrent and what Rees calls a “confidence unshaken by the failure of previous expeditions to found a successful settlement” (Rees 26). Most significantly, his explicit allusion to Richard Hakluyt, exploration writer and a great supporter of the New World voyages, seemingly implicates Drayton in this programme of promoting Virginia in a positive light to retain financial backing for the exploration journeys:
    Thy Voyages attend,
                Industrious Hackluit,
                             Whose reading shall inflame
                              Men to seeke Fame,
    And much commend
                To after-Times thy Wit.      
    Industriousness, as we saw with Chapman’s description of Raleigh as “Th’industrious Knight”, was a highly valued trait in colonisers from antiquity to Jacobean times: the prolific citing of Dido of Carthage in early-modern travel documents is primarily explicable in terms of her relevance as a model of industriousness (though also, later, of intemperance).[8] The commendation of Hakluyt’s industriousness is therefore notable for being more than merely favourable: it was also particularly apt for the Virginian context.  Likewise, the perception that Drayton is engaging in a promotional campaign to support New World ventures is reinforced by his praise of the “brave Heroique Minds / Worthy your Countries Name” (1-2) who are about to set sail for the New World (pointedly mentioned in contrast with the “loyt’ring Hinds” who “Lurke here at home, with shame,” 5-6). Such a reading of the instrumental purposes of the poem might garner further support by appeal to the appendage, “Virginia, / Earth’s onely Paradise” (23-24), in which the use of superlative presents Virginia in an almost excessively positive light.[9]

  13. I see nothing which necessarily contradicts such an interpretation of the poem’s instrumental objectives in assisting with propaganda, but nor do I find such a reading completely satisfactory. Michael West also takes issue with the attribution of purely propagandistic motivations to Drayton, claiming it would be a mistake to attribute the fecundity of his utopian descriptions to “a calculating desire to minimize the dangers of the voyage for advertising purposes,” but that author then proceeds to expound his alternative theory that Drayton was “[e]nthralled by the golden world of pastoral” and that his mind was “responding powerfully to the literary convention of an idyllic age,” (West 503). Drayton is interested in the golden age, but I am suggesting that something stronger than metaphor or literary convention is at play in Drayton’s evocation of Ovid: Drayton does not merely assert the similarities between Virginia and an irrecoverable golden age of the past, but suggests that America is actually still in its golden age: “[…]the golden Age / Still Natures law doth give,” (38-39).  If propaganda were the sole purpose of this piece, the need to assess the developmental stage of the American Indians would hardly be necessary: all the situation demands is a likening to paradise, a description of the “Lushious smell / Of that delicious Land” (43-44), not a judgement of where America might be situated (in evolutionary terms) on the scale of paradisal innocence to European civilisation. So too the expectation that the passage of sailing-ships through American waters would be governed by Eolus (“When Eolus scowles,” 16) suggests an acceptance of the New World as essentially an extension of the Old World: the same gods preside over the elements (just as Neptune, in Chapman’s poem, governed even the American seas, and the breath of Eurus reached the New World). These passages are more redolent of a genuine desire to grasp the unknown and understand the ‘other’ than of any promotional motives. Furthermore, unlike Chapman’s ode which (apart from the occasional rhyming sententia to conclude stanzas) is largely irregular, Drayton’s poem is rigidly structured around an abccab rhyming pattern, suggesting a greater preoccupation with poetry and expression than propaganda (or at the very least, a greater respect for the Horatian ideal: to delight as well as to teach). The deployment of a classical frame of reference to describe the Americas might therefore be better accounted for as an example of how language, in a state of crisis, accommodates the new within existing rubrics and frames of reference in an attempt to comprehend the novelty. What we see in Drayton’s poem (and to a lesser extent in Chapman, where the propagandistic influence largely stifles alternative discursive aspects) is an unusual coincidence of promotional strategy and epistemological revision. The solution to the funding difficulties for New World voyages was the same as the solution to the discursive crisis of representation for New World writers: the appropriation of classical frames of reference with positive, future-oriented potential.

    III. Marvell

  14. After the turbulent years following Jamestown’s initial settlement - a period in which the English colonisers faced the formidable obstacles of Indian invasions, disease, mutiny, and unfavourable physical conditions in general - we find, in 1681, Andrew Marvell once again writing of the fruitfulness of the New World in his beautiful “Bermudas”.[10] The body of Marvell’s lyric constitutes a song which is ostensibly sung by a crew navigating their way through the Bermudas; a song which displays a high degree of metrical regularity (their song “kept the time” in rowing, after all, 40). Curiously, the golden age discourse of the classics, with some notable differences resulting from the influence of Christianity, largely persists in depictions of the Americas even this late in the seventeenth-century. The tone of Marvell’s poem, like Chapman’s and Drayton’s, is celebratory and utopian. Marvell’s admiration of the Bermudas’ “eternal Spring” (13) is comparable to the sense of idyllic climate suggested by Drayton’s “Winters age, / That long there doth not live” (41-42). The sense of abundance and fruitfulness which Drayton expressed (“Nature hath in store / Fowle, Venison, and Fish,” 25-26) also permeates Marvell’s account of the New World:
    [He]sends the Fowls to us in care,
    On daily Visits through the Air.              (15-16);

    He makes the Figs our mouths to meet;
    And throws the Melons at our feet.                   (21-22).
    The regularity of the eight syllable lines, reinforced by rhyme, means the varying cadences of the lines are readily observable and thus effectively draw attention to the descriptions of exotic beauty in the isle:
    He hangs in shades the Orange bright,
    Like golden Lamps in a green Night.                 (17-18).
    So too, in this example, the caesura between “Lamps” and “in” gives pause to the reading and emphasises the sense of marvel at the strange, foreign fruit. 

  15. But there are also notable differences in the way Marvell treats the utopian theme, as compared with Chapman and Drayton. In Marvell we witness a conflation of the classical and the Christian traditions which was not present in the poem by Chapman, and only peripheral in that by Drayton (where the only Christian reference was, “In kenning of the Shore / (Thanks to God first given,)” 50-51). Despite the hints of classical motifs outlined above, the dominant framework in Marvell’s poem is overtly Christian. The Bermudas, although traditionally associated with the devil on account of their notoriety as a navigational hazard (Sylvester Jourdain’s appellation, “the Isle of the Devils”, was typical of seventeenth-century descriptions of the isles), are in Marvell described in terms which leave no doubt that it was the hand of Providence which guided the English sailors thence:[11] 
    What should we do but sing his Praise
    That led us through the watry Maze…   (5-6);

    He lands us on a grassy Stage;
    Safe from the Storms, and Prelat’s rage.    (11-12).
    The hostile New World has clearly been incorporated into the rest of God’s creations in Marvell’s account. It is God who “makes the hollow Seas, that roar, / Proclaime the Ambergris on shoar” (27-28), and the vegetation of the isles was “chosen by his hand,” (25). Even distinctly New World flora like the pineapple (“Apples plants of such a price, / No Tree could ever bear them twice,” 23-24) are accepted as part of God’s creation, despite their not previously being known to Europe: God is identifiably the sole provider of the islands’ plenty for Marvell. Furthermore, as Sukanta Chaudhuri notes, Bermuda “affords safety from the ‘Prelat’s Rage’: the Fall lamented is specifically doctrinal and ecclesiastical. The Bermudas become the seat of the Church Triumphant,” (Chaudhuri 444). As with the extension of Eurus’ influence and Neptune’s rule to cover American territory in Chapman’s De Guiana, the inclusion of the Bermudas in the set of God’s creations here integrates the New World into the Old, reconciling their supposed incompatibility.

  16. Marvell’s poem posits the New World as a distinctly recoverable paradise with a present/future-orientation and geographic dimension which makes it attainable, but unlike earlier utopian visions which similarly availed themselves of a spatial rather than temporal dimension (in particular Thomas More’s Utopia, located specifically in the Americas and saturated in riches) the emphasis in Marvell is not on gold, but on the golden age. The Bermudas are not a lost paradise of the past, but an extant haven which can be journeyed to by ship. Both the classical and Christian strands of Marvell’s text play important roles in terms of how this registers in the poem. From the classical perspective, it can be inferred that Marvell’s paradise is postlapsarian (and therefore available to a fallen world) by virtue of the fact that the Bermudas are “reached over the sea”: the inception of sailing as a new mode of transport coincided, in classical myth, with the decline to the silver age (“navigation was unknown in the original Golden Age,” Chaudhuri 444). The depiction of paradise, in other words, does not appear to be modelled on backward-looking conceptions of paradise, like that of the lost Arcadia, but is instead suggestive of the forward-looking utopian models (the return of the golden age, a function of cyclical time). From the Christian perspective, the matter is more ambiguous, but the outcome is essentially the same. Whereas Drayton’s utopian vision was clearly prelapsarian because, harking back to Ovid’s original golden age, agriculture was not yet necessary (the “fruitfull’st Soyle” yielded its produce “Without your Toyle,” 27-28, my emphasis), in Marvell’s poem the islands’ pre- or postlapsarian status is obfuscated by the fact that such is the boundless plenty provided by the Christian God, that the possibility of exhausting nature’s stores (and therefore creating a need for husbandry) is not even considered. The sheer superfluity of produce circumvents discussion of whether the necessity of agriculture has yet been introduced, hence whether or not the paradise is a Fallen one retains an element of uncertainty. Nevertheless, Marvell’s Bermudas are arguably postlapsarian in the sense that they are “the gift of redemption” from a Christian God (Chaudhuri 444), and therefore function as the heavenly ‘antitype’ to the Edenic ‘type’ which constituted their correlative precursor. 

  17. Further complicating the issue, however, is the fact that Marvell’s paradise “combines pristine abundance with the bounty of ultimate grace,” (Chaudhuri 444). The Bermudas might therefore represent both “an unspoilt Eden as well as the new Promised Land” (Chaudhuri 444). To this extent, Marvell’s depiction of paradise exceeds those of Chapman and Drayton in terms of desirability and perfection: it embodies both the virtues of the original paradise’s former glories and reserves the utopian potential of the paradise to come. In light of this, one of the most curious facets of the poem is the fact that the hardships endured by English colonisers in the New World for nearly a century preceding Marvell’s “Bermudas” simply do not register in the text. The obvious question, then, is why should Marvell, with no obvious propagandistic motivations, write about the New World in a manner which replicates (and even strengthens) the promotional rhetoric of the earlier poets examined in this paper? For although the overwhelming sense of God’s design and purpose is certainly present in the work of Marvell to a much greater degree than in that of Drayton or Chapman - and although the Christian tone of the poem displaces the prominence of the classical utopian discourse which governed those other poets’ accounts -Marvell’s poem nevertheless continues to posit (within the bounds of its own tradition) the New World as an identifiably generic type of paradise (heaven, or the promised land of milk and honey). And irrespective of whether Marvell’s conception of paradise is classical or Christian, forward-looking or backward-looking, spatial or temporal, by the time he composed his “Bermudas”, writers who took the Americas for their subject matter must surely have been obviated of the need to provide felicitous accounts purely for promotional purposes. The continued use of such strategies suggests that an alternative motivation was providing the impetus for their deployment. 

  18. That alternative or ulterior motive for persisting with utopian descriptions of the New World, I believe, is the continued crisis in representation which was exacerbated by the inherent difficulty of applying a limited framework to describe alien conditions. The New World was too fundamentally other: it is not that the Americas had to be described in utopian terms for instrumental purposes (related to expedition funding), but that utopianism was a useful poetic discourse through which such radically novel information could be conveyed to Europe, especially by poets who had never seen the lands they were describing. Hence it is no wonder that in Marvell’s poem, the “landscape veers between symbolic stylization and the true if unfamiliar features of an exotic land,” (Chaudhuri 444). West further notes that “the setting of ‘Bermudas’ and Marvell’s concept of the voyagers are colored less by Horace, Tasso, and Drayton than by his acknowledged source, Waller’s ‘The Battle of the Summer Islands’ (1645),” an observation which suggests that this practice of appealing to utopian discourse to describe the New World was firmly entrenched by Marvell’s time; so much so that he could inherit it from other poems dealing with the New World, rather than from the literary originators of pastoral modes (West 506). Describing difference through similitude was the intuitive means of approaching the new in early-modern England, however limited and ultimately ineffective it may eventually have proved.

  19. In the texts by Chapman, Drayton and Marvell, we see the development of certain trends in the way that the New World is described when poetry came to the assistance of language in a state of crisis. Most notably, there is a slide from utopianism as a constitutive facet of purely propagandistic writing, to utopianism utilised for its own sake as a means of comprehending and representing irreducible otherness. Contextual evidence illuminates the reasons governing the necessity of this transition. Although utopianism was used in the sense of negotiating problems of representation in Chapman’s epic song of 1596, the topical issue of the funding and successes of Virginian voyages for a time overshadowed that particular function of utopian discourse. This funding issue continued to be influential at least until the harsh realities of the Jamestown settlement nullified the theory that life would inevitably be paradisal in the New World. At that point, propagandists were forced to develop a counter-mythology with a moral dimension instead.[12] Concomitant with this transition from promotional strategies to rhetorical methods of describing the Americas was the gradual shift from emphasising the ubiquity of “gold” to accentuating the “golden age” qualities of life and natural conditions in the New World, for the obvious reason that the latter was less tangible and could not therefore be measured and found wanting (to the detriment of the apologists for New World exploration and colonisation). Finally, although in the poems discussed there is an identifiable progression from classical allegory to Christian myth in the frames of reference utilised by each author, there is also a more general trend (across these boundaries) in which the effect of deploying such allusions is the often strained attempt at assimilation and incorporation of the New World into the Old.

A shorter version of this paper was presented at Syracuse University in January 2007. I would like to extend my thanks to Dympna Callaghan and Crystal Bartolovich for their feedback on that occasion, and to Corinne Martin for organising the event with me. Marion Campbell at the University of Melbourne has been a source of constant support whilst I have been researching New World material. Thank you also to the EMLS readers who reviewed this article and provided helpful suggestions. Finally, I owe a significant debt of gratitude to my partner, Jess Wilkinson, who commented on drafts of this paper, and from whose insightful criticisms and love of poetry I have benefited immeasurably. This article is for Jess.

[1] For the discursive difficulties of representing the Americas, see (for example) Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), pp.11ff:  “The European observer in America […] was not equipped with an adequate descriptive vocabulary for his task and was beset by an uncertainty about how to use his conceptual tools in an unfamiliar terrain.”

[2] The title simply means “Epic song about Guiana”. All parenthetical references to Chapman’s poem in this paper refer to the edition of De Guiana found in Jonathan Hudston (ed.), George Chapman, Plays and Poems (London & NY: Penguin, 1998): 277-82.

[3] As is suggested, for example, in Lisa Hopkins’ description of it: “George Chapman's De Guiana Carmen Epicum … harnesses the full representational armoury of poetry, and by its Latin title and use of the epic form deliberately presents itself as hymning the English colonial enterprise in the Americas in much the same spirit as Virgil had chronicled Aeneas's forays into Africa and Italy.” (‘Orlando and the Golden World: The Old World and the New in As You Like It.’ Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 2.1-21 <URL:>.)

[4] George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston, Eastward Ho! (The Revels Plays edition), ed. R.W.Van Fossen (Manchester & NY: Manchester UP, 1999): III.iii.15-16.

[5] Sánchez argues thus: “The myth of El Dorado, so deeply anchored in American reality, had served as a motive force for European expansion. It was a myth for conquerors coming from far away and seeking to attain to the gold that bewitched them. This ambition was a strange echo of one of the great myths of Greek antiquity: the winning of the Golden Fleece, a bold enterprise carried to a successful conclusion by Jason and his Argonauts.” (Sánchez 360).

[6] There is an interesting cartographic analogue to this process. Rather than fitting the Americas into existing world maps, post-1492 maps frequently resembled a diptych of two spheres, in which the New World occupied one sphere whilst the Old World of Europe, Africa and Asia (retaining the ‘O-T’ convention) was preserved in the adjacent sphere.  The Americas, although acknowledged and incorporated into cartography, nonetheless occupied a distinct and separate position which reflected the uncertainty of just how they related to the Old World.  This discontinuity between the two ‘worlds’ suggests the degree to which they were initially perceived as ontologically irreconcilable.

An alternative cartographic strategy, aimed at promoting assimilation, consisted of the deliberate emphasising of America’s role in completing what Gillies calls the “fundamental ‘natural’ rubric” (Gillies 2000: 184).  Continents were frequently personified in maps which included the Americas, and a certain harmony is suggested by each of the four iconographic representations occupying the four corners of the map.  The otherness of America was “further blunted by the frequent inclusion of the four Elements and/or the four Seasons in the iconographic programme, the implication of which is that the four continents and two worlds are linked” by the aforementioned rubric (Gillies 2000: 183-4).  The four seasons, four elements, and four humours had found another harmonious analogue with the discovery of the fourth continent, and so “ontological otherness was refigured as ontological affiliation” (Gillies 2000: 193).  The world, at least as it was iconographically depicted in post-1492 maps, was complete and in perfect harmony. My argument is that a similar process occurs rhetorically in Chapman’s poem.

[7] Parenthetic references in this paper to Drayton’s poem refer to the edition of ‘To the Virginian Voyage’ found in John Leonard (ed.), Seven Centuries of Poetry in English (Revised Edition), (Melbourne, Oxford, Auckland & NY: OUP, 1991): 424-26.

[8] On the use of Dido in Renaissance discourse pertaining to the Americas, see David Scott Wilson-Okamura, ‘Virgilian Models of Colonization in Shakespeare’s Tempest’ ELH 70 (2003): 709-737.

[9] For an account of how Drayton’s enthusiasm about England’s New World ventures changes throughout his poetry, see Joan Rees, ‘Hogs, Gulls, and Englishmen: Drayton and the Virginian Voyages’, The Yearbook of English Studies, vol.13 (Colonial and Imperial Themes special number) (1983): 20-31.

[10] Parenthetical references in this paper to Marvell’s poem refer to the edition of ‘Bermudas’ found in Nigel Smith (ed.), The Poems of Andrew Marvell (Revised Edition) (Harlow, England: Pearson / Longman, 2007).

[11] See A Plaine Description of the Barmvdas, Now Called the Sommer Ilands, in Peter Force (ed). Tracts and Other Papers Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America, from the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, (4 vols). (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963) vol.III.  NB. Although Force does not acknowledge it, this is actually Sylvester Jourdain’s account of 1610, from A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of the Devils.  The text in Force’s edition is dated 1613, however the events occurred in 1609 and the account was written at least by 1610. But see also William Strachey's ‘True repertory of the wreck and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, July 15, 1610’, which tries to dispel the Bermuda’s diabolical reputation: “And hereby I hope to deliver the world from a foul and general error: it being counted of most, that they can be no habitation for men, but rather given over to devils and spirits; whereas indeed we find them now by experience, as habitable and commodious as most countries of the same climate and situations.” (Strachey in Bullough 280).

[12]On the introduction of the moral dimension, see Gillies 679: “What was needed was a rhetorical strategy that would confirm the original myth of Virginia while instilling a new and more realistic mood of forbearance in inevitable hardship along with a (less realistic) willingness to postpone profits indefinitely.  Temperance was one answer to this promotional problem - because (unlike fruitfulness) it could avail itself of a moral, as well as a geographical, dimension.”

Works Cited

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