David Norbrook

David Norbrook a fellow and tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford, is the author of Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, reviewed by Blair Worden (LRB, 7 March).

Coy Mistress Uncovered

David Norbrook, 19 May 1988

When John Aubrey discovered that Milton had written some panegyrics of Cromwell and Fairfax, he eagerly sought them out for their ‘sublime’ quality: ‘were they made in commendation of the Devil, ’twere all one to me: ’tis the hypsos that I look after.’ Aubrey’s brief lives of the leaders of the Puritan revolution retain something of his youthful excitement at the sublimity, the magnanimity in defence of liberty, aspired to by the Devil’s party. What was at stake was a cultural revolution which seemed to a few enthusiasts to open up immense possibilities. Marvell’s prefatory poem to Paradise Lost registers the sense of some of his generation that there had been losses in the move from that sublimity to a Restoration ethos of polite consumerism, an age whose dominant trope is anti-climax.

Shaggy Fellows

David Norbrook, 9 July 1987

‘In the gloom, gold gathers the light against it.’ In choosing this line from Pound’s 11th Canto as one of the epigraphs to his Collected Poems, Geoffrey Hill concentrates our attention on one of the central problems posed by Pound’s poetry and explored by his own. Beauty is no absolute guarantee of truth or morality; art may illuminate or corrupt. As David Perkins points out in Modernism and After, Pound is incomparable amongst modern poets for the rhythmic subtlety of his evocation of sensuous beauty, of the play of light and shade. For Perkins, this lyricism is the redeeming feature of his poetry. He deplores Pound’s fascistic and anti-semitic politics, but he feels able to abstract the beauty from the politics. ‘Evaluation,’ he says, ‘is always personal’; he enjoys the lyrical passages, and for him these outweigh the political unpleasantness.

What happened to MacDiarmid

David Norbrook, 23 October 1986

In Exiles and Emigrés (1970) Terry Eagleton argued that modern British culture had proved incapable of producing a major writer who could analyse society as a whole. It had collapsed into a ‘withered empiricism’. And English poetry in this century has seemed to many to confirm this analysis, the dominant voice being one of cautious ‘common sense’ tinged with a wistful conservatism: an immense load Of self-neutralising moral and social qualities, Above all, Circumspection.

Public Works

David Norbrook, 5 June 1986

‘Arnold and Eliot ensured that the magic of monarchy and superstition permeated English literary criticism and education like a syrupy drug … ’ Yes, this is Tom Paulin speaking. Readers of the London Review will remember the review of a collection of essays on Geoffrey Hill in which he bitterly attacked the conservatism of English poetry and criticism. Indignant correspondents retorted that Paulin’s literary judgment had been contaminated by political bias and that in any case he lacked any ear for the rhythms of English poetry. The War of Paulin’s Ear shows no signs of dying down. He is locked in public combat with Craig Raine, who commissioned this anthology of political verse.

Shakespeares

David Norbrook, 18 July 1985

‘Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.’ Henry Crawford’s comment in Mansfield Park is a reminder that ‘Shakespeare’ is more than an individual writer: ‘it’ is an institution, a body of texts whose study, from O-level to the highest reaches of academia, is a means of legitimating social advancement and whose production on the stage and on television makes a powerful contribution to Britain’s invisible exports. This ‘Shakespeare’ has the characteristics Roland Barthes ascribes to myth: it turns history into nature, and thus impedes critical political analysis. Not only the Englishman’s constitution but also the English constitution are traditionally felt to be particularly ‘natural’: Shakespeare’s plays are seen as embodying a characteristically English balance of opposites, neither too radical nor too conservative, neither too popular nor too élitist. Shakespeare, like the Queen, is held to be above politics; his regal status has been confirmed by the formation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – a title of which it has been said that ‘it’s got everything in it except God.’ And indeed the many resemblances between Shakespeare and God have become commonplaces since the Romantic era. In practice, of course, the idea of his transcendence tends to reinforce conservative political positions. If we are to believe Mr Nigel Lawson, Ulysses’ speech on Degree in Troilus and Cressida exercises a powerful influence on Conservative economic policy. One of the most influential of modern Shakespeare critics, G. Wilson Knight, gave his blessing to Britain’s campaign against Argentina on the grounds that it embodied the essential spirit of Shakespeare’s plays. The myth of Shakespeare is also a powerful force for intellectual conservatism: its notion of essential Englishness implies a distaste for abstract thought, for explicit political debate, for anything that savours of foreign, Jacobin rationalism. Criticism of Shakespeare has been slow to take account of recent developments in literary theory. Markers of A-level and university scripts can testify that the influence of E.M.W. Tillyard is still pronounced, with candidates clearly being brought to believe that having an original thought about Shakespeare would amount to presumptuous rebellion against the Great Chain of Being.’

Letter
SIR: It is difficult to address the specific points raised by Craig Raine’s letter (Letters, 3 July) without engaging with his theoretical assumptions. He assumes that the aesthetic, the political and the theological are completely distinct and ought to be kept in separate compartments by literary critics. I can sympathise up to a point with the impulse behind his position. The category of ‘the...

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