- Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics 1627-60 by David Norbrook
Cambridge, 509 pp, £40.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 521 63275 7
The appearance of this book on 30 January, the 350th anniversary of the cold morning when the axe fell on Charles Stuart’s neck, was no mere romantic gesture. Rather, it declared David Norbrook’s belief that to vindicate the cultural vitality and integrity of English republicanism at its moment of flowering – a moment of high energy not only in politics but also in political thought, journalism and in literature, too – is to make a contribution to present politics as well as present understanding. When the book’s publicity material invites us to compare the Levellers’ demands of the 1640s with Charter 88 we might suspect the hand of Norbrook himself. The title he has chosen is strategic in its imprecision. With its unclear use of the word ‘writing’, he enlists himself, and the present-day republican poets and artists who appear intermittently, alongside Milton in a common enterprise.
Vol. 21 No. 18 · 16 September 1999
Derek Hirst, in his review of my Writing the English Republic (LRB, 19 August), finds that the book falls short when it comes to Andrew Marvell. Since I’ve profited greatly by his own historical readings of Marvell, I’m a little disappointed that he falls back on received and by now not very helpful literary-critical terms. Historians in the past have sometimes worked by tearing a few phrases out of their contexts, and Hirst’s desire to proceed in a more complex way can be applauded. But the chivalrous desire to protect poetry from an encroaching philistinism can end up by leaving it stranded on a pedestal. Marvell has often been seen as a figure of Olympian transcendence, retreating behind ironies so profound that all but the most exquisitely refined readers will stand condemned for their insensitivity to his ambiguities.
As Hirst presents my argument, my own blunder is to misrepresent him as a republican with a single, simple ‘ideological motivation’. But I am concerned, not with the man behind the poems, about whom I hesitate to pronounce, but with the poems as they attempted to engage with successive, shifting contexts. Far from portraying him as an unwavering republican, I’ve tried to show just how contradictory his poetic utterances could be, highlighting, for example, the remarkable disparity between the celebrated, royalist ‘Tom May’s Death’ and the neglected, roughly contemporaneous poem to Oliver St John. Though Hirst implies that my political bias sweeps aside contemporary evidence, he doesn’t acknowledge the basis of many of the claims he contests in a new exploration of the poetry’s neo-Latin context – not the most trendily topical of subjects. My readings move Marvell closer to trimmers like Marchamont Nedham, who has never been seen as an Olympian figure; but I don’t think they make him any less brilliant – or indeed ironic – a writer, though they do leave more raw edges in his work than Hirst seems to like.
Hirst insists that we must read Marvell as a “secretive poet of interior fantasies’: the implication is that the most profound reading will go behind the texts to find some private, inscrutable core of mystery. He may indeed have been secretive, and Paul Hammond’s recent essay on Marvell’s sexuality suggests the reason at which Hirst is apparently hinting. But that reading only strengthens my belief that Marvell’s poetry gains its force not from serene transcendence but from the exceptional challenges posed by the period’s extreme volatility. In all kinds of ways, the boundaries of the public and the private were unusually unstable at this period. I make it clear enough in the book that Early Modern republicans weren’t modern democrats, that something less than a fully-fledged public sphere existed. But I would stand by the claim that in a period when horizons were unexpectedly open, a truly historical reading doesn’t have to work by narrowing them down. To that extent, I do find a kind of transcendence – or sublimity – in Marvell; but one that works through an intense engagement with the times.
University of Maryland