In Andrew Marvell’s poetry and prose, we meet with a surprising variety of birds, and those birds often well observed. These are living encounters: a glimpse in the hazel of ‘The hatching Thrastle’s shining Eye’; the woodpecker walking ‘still upright from the Root,/Meas’ring the Timber with his Foot’; how unnatural it might be ‘for a Lark to dare the Hobby’.1 Even those birds with a fuller literary pedigree, chiefly Ovidian, seem taken also from life: ‘A num’rous fleet of Corm’rants black’, for example, or the intense blue of the ‘modest Halcyon’, which kingfisher’s ‘Azure dy’ seems to infuse the ‘viscous Air’ and ‘jellying Stream’ alike.2 There are more exotic birds still in his poetic aviary: notably ‘an old bustard, maimed, yet loath to yield’ that ‘Duels the fowler in Newmarket field’—affording a simile for the courage of the wounded Monck undaunted in the Four Days’ Battle (1666), and drawn perhaps from Marvell’s Cambridge days, when Newmarket Heath was within his reach, or his visit to his ancestral Meldreth (southeast of Cambridge) in 1647.3 These and other instances suggest Marvell’s fascination and even sympathy with the birds he watched. But the strangest bird in his poetry is surely the cassowary, which enters his description of the ‘Excise’ (tax) in ‘The Last Instructions to a Painter’: ‘on all Trade like Casawar she feeds’ (l. 136). That all-devouring tax has many attributes (it is also shark- and bat-like), but this ‘Monster’ compares most memorably to the voracious ‘Casawar’.
How did Marvell know of this denizen of the East Indies? (Its presence in Australia was discerned by Europeans only much later.) We look to Marvell’s editors in vain. Grosart offers only ‘=Casuarius Cassowary, the Asiatic ostrich’ with subsequent editors since Margoliouth observing of ‘the omnivorous cassowary’ that its appetite invites this present application, which in Smith expands to ‘a long-legged running bird related to the ostrich and the emu, and noted for devouring whatever it was offered’.4 There may be something more in another critic’s observation that the cassowary ‘has as a distinguishing feature a “crown upon its head” (as Chambers’s Cyclopaedia puts it)’.5 But as yet Marvell’s cassowary remains a creature more of story than of life, if that story pleasingly applicable to the dark portrayal of an ever-hungry Excise.
There was a cassowary nearer to home, however, indeed as near as Westminster in the early 1660s. (And a bustard too….) That ‘Cassawarwa’ was among the sights at St James’s Park, now being much improved through royal ambitions for those gardens, with their menagerie and aviary also much enlarged. There ‘At a place Neare St Jameses house’, in 1662, the inveterate traveller Peter Mundy reported he saw this ‘strange fowle somwhat lesser then an Estredge the bodie about 4: foote high very big the head & like a Turky black shining feathers on spriggs narrow and long which upon him appear like soe many long haires sleeke and smooth.’6 The East India Company seems long to have kept the ‘Poultry-house’ there supplied with ‘exotic varieties’, with cassowaries reported for most of the seventeenth century.7 But this association of the Excise with the cassowary may also reflect some awareness of how expensive that fowl seems to have been to feed. The Treasury Books record payments for the keeping of many birds at that date, with a ‘Cossawarway’ much the most expensive at 2 shillings a day; the same price might suffice in toto ‘for certain tame pigeons, conies, monkeys, parrots and other birds’.8 Might such conspicuous consumption raise eyebrows? Marvell’s income as an MP from his knight’s pence was only three times this: 6s 8d a day. Whether it was their expense or their danger or that they continued to breed, an East India Company letter a decade later noted ‘His Majestie desires no more cassawarrens’.9
Birds in captivity must have captivated Marvell in turn. It is no surprise that the garden-, nature-, and bird-loving MP might in his stays in Westminster much avail himself of St James’s Park, and in particular Bird-Cage Walk. His recollection of a bustard confronting the Newmarket fowler likely followed from that species also being exhibited here, as Mundy observes (‘a shee Bustard of a fine grey collour as big as a turky hen I thinck they are of those wee call at Dantzigk Averbaens: the Cock blacke the hen grey as the hethcock & hen’).10 Years later, in another satire possibly from his hand, we learn more of the fowl in St James’s Park, where the royal ducks are imagined quacking loyally, in French for good measure, ‘Vive le roy’.11 But in the cassowary Marvell had met with a wonder that plainly caught his eye, leaving him with a lasting metaphor for courtly excess and for the all-devouring Excise to which that might lead.