Mingling Freely at the Mermaid

Blair Worden

  • The Crisis of 1614 and the Addled Parliament: Literary and Historical Perspectives edited by Stephen Clucas and Rosalind Davies
    Ashgate, 213 pp, £45.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7546 0681 3
  • The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair 1603-60 by Alastair Bellany
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £45.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 521 78289 9

The first of these books is the product of an interdisciplinary conference at which literary critics and historians exchanged perspectives on a year conspicuous both for political conflict and for politically charged literature. Alas, it would take more than conferences for the two disciplines to understand each other. A number of the literary critics dwelled on the fear of tyranny that was voiced in (and around) 1614 by poets and historians, an anxiety given focus by the breakdown of the short-lived Parliament that was called in the spring and by the imprisonment of the Crown’s principal critics within it. The lecture by Conrad Russell, the dominant historian of the politics of the period, found no place for such sentiments. To him the substance of early modern Parliamentary activity lies in the grind and details of the legislative process, not in the declamatory gestures of the disgruntled. He has spent most of his career challenging the Whiggish emphases, favoured by earlier generations, on constitutional conflict and the cause of liberty. Having seen off most of his fellow historians, he now met the literary critics. The poetry they quoted, though it was widely circulated among contemporaries, was evidently new to him. With engaging candour he wondered if he had spent his life looking in the wrong places. In the printed version of the lecture he has recovered his poise. Though gesturing courteously to the ideal of interdisciplinarity, he concludes that he was right all along.

The frontier between historical and literary studies is a modern invention. In the new universities and colleges of the 19th century, where literary criticism took wing as an academic subject, literature and history were commonly taught together. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley and the historian J.S. Brewer had chairs in literature and history. In the 1870s the subjects might have grown up as a single faculty at Oxford had not Bishop Stubbs, the Regius Professor of History, vetoed the proposal. When Oxford gave social respectability to Eng. Lit. by founding the English School in the 1890s, the syllabus required undergraduates to demonstrate a historical knowledge and to relate literature to it.

As the decades passed, and as Eng. Lit. gathered confidence, its historical component withered. At Cambridge the discipline defined itself, between the wars, in opposition to its historical inheritance. The faculty’s polemical heavyweights, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis, had both given up an undergraduate history degree and taken against the subject. Richards recalled that he ‘couldn’t bear history’ and ‘didn’t think history ought to have happened’. Around mid-century the New Criticism renounced historical and contextual interpretations of literature. Now they have returned, often in fruitful forms.[*] Yet the bureaucratic rigidities of universities, and the entrenched mentalities of peer groups, ensure that more still divides history from literature than unites them.

In the Renaissance they were barely separable. Writers – Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Ralegh, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, Thomas May, John Milton, Andrew Marvell and many more – moved between history and poetry or drama, finding in them complementary means of instilling virtue and wisdom and influencing events. History, which was seen as a branch not only of scholarship but of rhetoric and of eloquence, was often written in verse. Like playwrights, historians invented speeches for their characters. Historical parallels complemented literary and mythological allegories. In The Crisis of 1614, essays by Jonathan Gibson and Stephen Clucas show Ralegh’s cousin Sir Arthur Gorges adapting Lucan’s verse history of Rome’s civil wars, and Jonson’s friend Sir Robert Cotton rewriting the reign of Henry III, with an eye to Jacobean political anxieties. Cotton was among the most learned historians of his time. Yet his account of Henry’s reign abandons factual accuracy. Behind it there lies instead the old literary model of the sleeping prince who wakes just in time, which the fiction and verse of Sidney and Spenser had used to urge Queen Elizabeth to mend her ways.

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[*] The seminal book on that front, David Norbrook’s Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (1984), has been reissued in a revised version (Oxford, 348 pp., £45 and £14.99, September 2002, 0 19 924718 8).