Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance 
by David Norbrook.
Routledge, 345 pp., £15.95, October 1984, 0 7100 9778 6
Show More
Restoration Theatre Production 
by Jocelyn Powell.
Routledge, 226 pp., £19.95, November 1984, 0 7100 9321 7
Show More
Theatre and Crisis: 1632-1642 
by Martin Butler.
Cambridge, 340 pp., £25, August 1984, 0 521 24632 6
Show More
The Court Masque 
edited by David Lindley.
Manchester, 196 pp., £22.50, August 1984, 0 7190 0961 8
Show More
Ben Jonson, Dramatist 
by Anne Barton.
Cambridge, 370 pp., £30, July 1984, 0 521 25883 9
Show More
Show More

In 1892 A.C. Benson published an essay which introduced the modern appreciation of Andrew Marvell. For more than two hundred years Marvell’s verse had shared with Metaphysical poetry a lowness of esteem which now seems puzzling. As the Cyclopaedia of English Literature explained in 1844, Marvel ‘is better known as a prose writer than a poet, and is still more celebrated as a patriotic member of parliament’. Benson rejected those priorities. He saw Marvell’s political involvement as a cause not for pride but for shame. ‘Few poets,’ he warned, ‘are of sufficiently rough and impenetrable fibre as to be able with impunity to mix with public affairs,’ for the ‘stream’ of ‘their inspiration’ is ‘apt to become sullied at the very source by the envious contact of the world’. To Marvell’s career as a Cromwellian civil servant and Whig pamphleteer ‘we owe the loss of a great English poet’. A reading of Marvell’s ‘peculiarly distasteful’ tract The Rehearsal Transpros’d brought home a grim lesson: ‘the singer of an April mood, who might have bloomed year after year in young and ardent hearts, is buried in the dust of politics, in the valley of dead bones.’

The personal and aesthetic values of Benson – or of Bloomsbury – are no longer sacred. Even so, there persists a fissure between art and politics which makes us uneasy when modern poets declare political allegiances. Since 1945, it is true, the study of political history has broken down some literary defences. Marvell’s political poems no longer seem an aberration from his lyric pursuits. Yet we still want a vocabulary with which to capture the central and urgent importance which politics held not only for Marvell but for a host of Renaissance and 17th-century writers. More, Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Raleigh, Greville, Milton: all those men wrote about public events; some of them wrote to influence their course; and none of them would have understood the modern relocation of politics below imagination.

David Norbrook’s Poetry and Politics in Renaissance England is a protest against the devaluation of political verse, and especially of radical political verse. Where Dr Johnson could deplore Milton’s radicalism yet admire his poetry, Eliot and Leavis expelled the republican poet from the canon. They invoked traditional or ‘organic’ values which were supposed to ‘transcend’ politics, but which rested on political premises. Norbrook, anticipating the ‘accusation of reductionism’, has his counter-attack prepared: ‘The Issue is not so much why one should politicise poetry as why critics have for so long been trying to depoliticise it. The quest for a transcendence of politics ends up by reducing poetry itself.’

Norbrook’s study, a bravely and generously wide survey which takes us from More to the early Milton but which has most to say about the late 16th and early 17th centuries, is much the most sophisticated and stimulating account of its subject that we have. Contriving to be at once a historian and a literary critic, he has avoided the simplifications and misunderstandings which impair much writing of literary history, and has skirted the traps which can lure historians into defining the political content of a poem without regard to its form. Alas, he has been disgracefully let down by his publisher. The margins of the text are not justified, and the book appears to have been printed on a machine unequal to the most elementary compositorial distinctions, so that the notes are a shambles. The wantonness of that maltreatment is shown by the almost simultaneous production by the same publisher of a handsomely printed and lavishly illustrated work by Jocelyn Powell, Restoration Theatre Production, which explores the influence of the technical challenges of stage production on the development of later 17th-century drama. Powell’s is a most informative book, essential for any scholar or director at work on a Restoration play, but it scarcely has the stature of Norbrook’s study.

Norbrook identifies a radical political tradition running through Renaissance literature, from More’s Utopia, through the ‘gospelling’ poets of the Edwardian Reformation, then to Sidney and Spenser, and then to Greville and to the ‘Spenserians’ of early Stuart England: Drayton, Daniel, the Fletchers, Browne and Wither. Against that tradition Ben Jonson is seen as leading a conservative reaction, to which in turn the young Milton responded by reasserting Spenserian values. The word ‘tradition’ is carefully used, for Norbrook knows that men who place themselves within a political heritage usually misrepresent their forbears: the Spenserians of James I’s reign, and Milton after them, re-cast Spenser in their own image.

The process Norbrook describes, of adaptation within continuity, runs parallel to, and seems largely to have been created by, the tradition which has been located by Simon Adams in the field of foreign policy. There the radicals, under the successive leadership of Leicester, of Essex, of Prince Henry and of the third Earl of Pembroke, urged England towards aggressive support for international Protestantism. To note that the divisions among poets reflected divisions among Privy Councillors is to wonder how far writers followed their patrons, a subject on which Norbrook offers little help. Still, patronage could explain only so much. To the writers of the Leicester circle in the crisis of 1579-81, or to the literary critics of government policy in and after 16l4 (a subject which produces some of Norbrook’s most interesting discoveries), it was civilisation that seemed at stake, not the mere distribution of favour. By the 1620s, in any case, a Spenserian like Wither was appealing beyond patrons to the wider political audience which the newsbooks were reaching – a point also explored by Sara Pearl in one of the many excellent essays brought together by David Lindley as The Court Masque.

Of course, while particular issues or episodes might split politicians down the middle, there was no two-party system in Early Modern England. The friendship between Jonson and the heirs of Sidney’s radicalism at Penshurst sufficiently illustrates the point. Norbrook’s distinctions between conservative and radical are of most value, not as dividing lines, but as aids to the location of a poet’s sympathies. Thus Norbrook supplies a useful means of distinguishing among the early 17th-century verse which celebrated rural simplicity. The liking of Browne and Drayton for the countryside ‘as a place where martial virtue can be exercised, far from the luxury of courts’, is contrasted with the emphases of Jonson’s The Forest, where the country is praised ‘as an image of the King’s peace’. When set beside ‘anti-courtly’ Spenserian verse, ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ ‘give the sense of a nation which, whatever its faults, is essentially harmonious and well-ordered and reflects credit on its governors’.

Even so, there are dangers in calling Jonson a ‘court poet’ and a ‘conservative’: more of them even than Norbrook’s consistently intelligent qualifications allow. Norbrook thinks that while the Spenserians urged the nobility to resume martial and frugal habits, Jonson ‘insisted that the nobility must abandon their traditional concern with glory and pursue the arts of peace.’ That hardly seems the message of ‘A Speech according to Horace’ (The Underwood, no 44), where Jonson’s ‘main target’, the Oxford editor observes, is ‘the growing indifference of the nobility to military service’. Norbrook has problems, too, with Jonson’s play Sejanus. It is true that the simple plea for republican values by the play’s more sympathetic characters is subverted by Jonson’s ‘sardonic relish’ in portraying the Machiavellian cunning of Sejanus and Tiberius – the Mosca and Volpone of Imperial Rome. And a ‘conservative’ play about Sejanus could certainly have been written in the early 17th century, when Tacitus, Jonson’s principal source, had an ardent following among the friends as well as the enemies of absolutism. But who was it, after all, that charged Jonson with treason in Sejanus? None other than the Earl of Northampton, a devotee both of Tacitus and of absolute monarchy. Even if we suppose that Northampton mistook Jonson’s purposes, there is surely a more radical force than Norbrook allows in the play’s allusions to the ‘old liberty’ and ‘old virtue’ which had been extinguished under the Roman Empire, and which now seemed the prospective victims of Renaissance kingship.

The reader who asks whether Norbrook has located Jonson’s correct position in the political spectrum is led to the more fundamental question whether Jonson can be politically placed at all. Are not the ambivalences achieved in The Forest and in Sejanus more profound and more personally felt than anything he wrote to please the Court, and are they not essential to his independence of voice? With Norbrook’s radicals there are difficulties of a different kind. What exactly were they for, and what were they against? Sometimes he calls them ‘innovative’, or advocates of ‘political experimentation’, but the phrases ring anachronistically when applied to a period when proponents of change congratulated themselves on looking backward. Norbrook himself shows that his radical tradition, at least after the mid-16th century, was not dedicated to social amelioration or mobility. He does discern a continuous thread of apocalyptic poetry, and finds in it a clue to the early politics of Milton, but even here his illuminating suggestions must be weighed against the distinguished essay by John Creaser in the Lindley volume which points, heretically and convincingly, to the ‘royalism’ of Comus, or at least of the occasion for which it was written. The radicals were apparently against ‘authoritarianism’ – but who was more authoritarian than More (even in Utopia) or the later Greville? Norbrook’s historical sensitivity slips when he recalls that in the 1930s ‘fascist leaders and ideologies tried to anaesthetise politics, to turn the state into a work of art in order to legitimise their power’ – and adds that this ‘process’ was ‘already in evidence’ in the Court masques of the Renaissance. The masque-loving king of Sidney’s Arcadia is thought guilty by Norbrook of ‘irresponsible absolutism’, but it is absenteeism, not absolutism, that makes Basilius irresponsible.

Sometimes Norbrooke’s valuable insistence on political content may be taken too far. In the ‘Jocabethan’ admiration for the republican constitution of Venice he finds another key to the conservatism of Jonson, who ‘pointedly set Volpone in the mercantile republic of Venice, and showed that its vaunted claims for superior justice were spurious.’ ‘Pointedly’? Then why, despite the trouble Jonson characteristically took to get the Venetian constitutional details right, is the ‘point’ so little developed in the play, and why was it (apparently) so little noticed by contemporaries? We would hesitate to detect a similar clue to Shakespeare’s intentions in the setting of Othello and The Merchant.

What is it to write a play or a poem? A good writer discovers as he writes – and surprises himself as he does so. Norbrook is far too subtle a critic to imagine that his writers used art merely as a vehicle for political opinions. Yet it is instructive, and to a historian disconcerting, to turn to such a book as Harold Mason’s Humanism and Poetry in the Early Tudor Period (1959). Mason was equipped with Leavisite premises that Norbrook would presumably reject, and with a background knowledge that historians might politely call incomplete. Yet he succeeded, by entering into the process of his poets’ creation, in conveying with extraordinary power their sense of their relationship to their times. In the same way, the most perceptive studies of Marvell’s response to the Puritan Revolution have come from critics – Barbara Everett, Susan Shrapnel, Empson – who owed more to a literary ear than to research.

The problems of identifying political meanings in literature are raised again by Martin Butler’s Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642, an exciting (if unhappily titled) first book in which a bold argument is advanced with clarity and verve, only to be half-spoiled by overstatement. Butler aims to rescue the drama of the decade before the Civil War: a drama which, while admittedly lacking that ‘undergrowth of engaging minor talent’ which buttressed the theatre of earlier generations, produced in Brome, Shirley and Massinger three dramatists whom he regards as major and perplexingly neglected. Butler is as alert as Norbrook to the recent historiography of the earlier 17th century. Both authors have absorbed the revisionist writings which play down the constitutional arguments of the period, but both properly insist, too, on the liveliness of political conflicts which they find echoed in literature. In Butler’s eyes, ‘the drama of the 1630s, perhaps more than any earlier drama, did persistently engage in debating the political issues of the day, and repeatedly articulated attitudes which can only be labelled “opposition” or “Puritan”.’ The stature of his dramatists evidently derives from their success in confronting the truth, and in capturing the complexity, of the political and social experiences of their generation.

Butler’s thesis is a radical departure from the customary view, which aligns Cavalier drama with the introverted Caroline Court and convicts it of frivolity and escapism. The centre of theatrical life was not the Court – although even there, some plays appear to have voiced sentiments which can scarcely have pleased Charles I – but the ‘town’. Butler devotes some space to popular and apprentice drama, where an Elizabethan tradition of irreverence lived on, but more to the ‘élite’ theatres which answered to the gentrification of London and which provided models of manners and morality for gentle and civic audiences. Playgoing featured strongly in the social round of the gentlemen who came regularly to town and congregated in the fashionable suburbs. From the diaries and correspondence of the period Butler succeeds in animating the social life of the pre-war capital, and shows that many leading politicians of 1640-2 had learned to harmonise their commitment to rural values with a delight in the pleasures afforded by London’s growing leisure industry. There are lessons here for the historian not only of the drama but of the origins of the Civil War. The moral strength of the drama is seen as the reflection of a healthy stage in town-country relations, mid-way between the ethically teas salubrious periods of Jacobean city comedy, where rural wealth is ‘a prey for the rapacity of the city’, and Restoration comedy, where town gaiety is favourably compared with country dullness.

Readers willing to follow Butler that far may baulk nonetheless at his claim that ‘in play after play in the decade, politics is not just an occasional or ephemeral issue but is the basic, fundamental concern and the principal determinant of dramatic form.’ The argument rests heavily on the detection of political references in the plays. Here there are obvious methodological problems which Butler never acknowledges. Many of the plays of the 1630s are set in foreign lands, and many of them are about kings and tyrants. Are we entitled, and if so at what level, to interpret the conduct of fairy-tale rulers as a commentary on the Stuart Court? Certainly England’s rulers had long been alert to the possibility of veiled political allusion on the stage. Under Elizabeth, a principal target of suspicion had been the English history play. Why did that genre decline after her death, in a period when public interest in history was increasing? Had history become too sensitive an area for the drama? Were playwrights who wanted freedom to explore the new political realism of the age obliged to find settings more remote than the Medieval reigns which figured so prominently in current political argument? Anne Barton suggests in Ben Jonson, Dramatist that political questions were ‘forced ... to go underground, issuing in Roman dress, in the disguise of a remote, semi-mythical Britain, or as a slice of history purporting to record the distresses of some conveniently far-flung land’. Charles I banned a scene from one such play because of its transparent allusion to his political difficulties of 1638. Yet it is also remarkable how rarely that assiduous reader of plays interfered in a drama which to Butler seems so politically charged. The King may occasionally have suppressed a passage which he took to be insolent, but he does not seem to have objected in principle to the exploration of political ideas on stage.

If such problems seem knotty, it is largely because the detection of political allusions in 17th-century literature has become as undisciplined as it is widespread. There seems little hope of establishing the political purpose of a dramatist’s lines unless we can gauge their artistic purpose. Again the question asserts itself: what is it to write a play? Does an allusion to unparliamentary taxation under a Sicilian tyrant demonstrate a writer’s central concern with the failings of Charles I’s personal rule? Is it alternatively intended to give a sense of immediacy to a make-believe world? Or is it merely supplied to inject a titillating element of risk and daring into the entertainment? Those questions are not permitted to inhibit Butler’s judgments, which become especially confident in his readings of the plays of Richard Brome. To a casual reader Brome’s comedies mostly seem about as pertinent to contemporary politics as is, say, the account of Orsino’s Court in Twelfth Night. But Butler finds in one of Brome’s plays ‘a full-blooded and unsparing demonstration of the bankruptcy of the personal rule and an attack on all that the Court, by 1640, had come to represent’, and concludes that in two others ‘the main point at issue’ is ‘how far the monarch is free to act unrestrained, and the subject justified in resisting’.

By the time he reaches Brome’s A Jovial Crew – ‘one of the best and most attractive achievements of the decade ... an extraordinary achievement’ – critical judgment has given away to billboard enthusiasm. On the surface, the play is an innocent romp in which two gentle daughters and their admirers temporarily exchange their comfortable lot for a beggar’s life. Customarily seen as an escapist fantasy, the play is interpreted by Butler as ‘a sharp rebuke to the Court for its economic and political incompetence’, ‘pregnant with political significance’. The play suggests, ‘extraordinarily precisely, what it is to be without political rights’, and ‘seems to be moving towards a significantly modern ethic of political obligation’. Those claims are impossible to swallow. It is simply not true that Brome’s prologue ‘specifically demanded’ that ‘the audience should relate the play’s action to the political uncertainties through which they were living’, or that the play’s lovers, whose antics are supposed by Butler to allude to those of the Court, are said by Brome ‘to be making a royal summer progress’: the play refers merely to their ‘progress’, not to royalty. But by this stage Butler is in full flood. The ‘pressure’ of Brome’s ‘contentious realism’ is ‘to assert’ a solution to the crisis of 1640; A Jovial Crew is ‘a truly national play ... a brilliant and astonishing anticipation of the provincialism of the mid and late-1640s ... a profoundly historical play, giving vigorous expression to the most central preoccupations of the moment at which it was being performed’.

It would be a shame if the firm substance of Butler’s book were to be buried beneath his extravagances. One of his most powerful arguments presses home the case, made in Margot Heinemann’s Puritanism and Theatre (1980), that drama and Puritanism did not need to be enemies. Puritan sermons approvingly quoted Webster. Many Puritan politicians patronised playwrights, went regularly to the theatre, and distanced themselves from Prynne’s attack on stage plays. When Puritans attacked actors, it was usually not for performing plays but for performing them on the sabbath. The suppression of the theatres by the Long Parliament in 1642, and again in 1646-7, was merely a continuation of the Crown’s policy of closing the playhouses in times of public distress or disorder.

Yet I think that Butler oversimplifies. He suggests that the parliamentary ordinance of 1642 was intended to please, not the Puritans, but rather that ‘solid middle ground of opinion’ whose support Parliament was anxious to retain. The middle ground, he believes, would have been alienated from the drama by the political radicalism which he has located in it. Yet it was probably MPs from the ‘middle ground’ who offended their Puritan colleagues by attending plays during parliamentary sittings devoted to the advancement of godly reformation. And it was the Lords, the more moderate and less Puritan of the two Houses, who look pity on unemployed actors in the 1640s. There is a Puritan element in the wording of the 1642 ordinance which cannot be wished away. Admittedly, that wording is, as S.R. Gardiner observed, more restrained than Prynne would have liked: but it is the gentleness of the ordinance, not its passage, that Parliament’s anxiety to please the middle ground seems likely to explain. The parliamentary announcement of 1648 that plays were ‘condemned by ancient heathens’ and ‘much less to be tolerated amongst professors of the Christian religion’ did not spring from nowhere.

Anne Barton’s Ben Jonson, Dramatist seems on first acquaintance a less adventurous work than those by Norbrook and Butler – her chronological treatment of plays reads initially like a series of essays, or of extended equivalents to her programme notes for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Only gradually does the scale of her ambition and of her achievement emerge. Here at least is the comprehensive reassessment for which her subject has long pleaded.

Jonson has come to be thought of as a cerebral writer, a don’s playwright, better at communicating ideas than feeling, unequal to tragedy, his range restricted by his commitment to Classical models and to artistic order. His study-bound priorities seem evident in his decision to call his plays Works and to print them with marginal stuffings, and in his higher regard for his bloodlessly intellectual Roman dramas than for the great comedies in which he brought whole cities to life. Barton rejects that image of the playwright. Protesting against ‘a critical tradition which has persistently limited and simplified Jonson’, she argues that his art ‘was always both more untidy and larger than he knew’. Time and again she raises unsuspected emotion and uncertainty from the depths of his plays. Repeatedly her mind moves from the printed page to the possibilities of performance. That, she believes, is what Jonson wanted, and that was his point in many of those marginal notes which look to an untrained eye like a war waged by pedantry upon art. In the notes to the 1631 edition, compiled when Jonson was ill and immobilised, she sees ‘the dramatist vividly imagining the stage actions of his plays from his sickbed’.

There are many other ways in which Barton’s scholarly pursuit of seemingly donnish problems produces hearteningly un-donnish results. Take the two remarkable chapters which break free of the book’s chronological arrangement. The first explores Jonson’s allocation of names and charactonyms in his plays, and his use of them to create expectations in his audience and then to subvert them. It is one of the devices with which he challenges our moral certainties and summons a sense of life’s complexities. The second shows the extent to which the mature Jonson, befriended by King James but cold-shouldered by King Charles, shared the prevalent nostalgia for the reign of Elizabeth. The invention of that golden age helped make the troubled present more bearable. It also offered a subtle means of criticising Stuart failings, and Barton tentatively associates Jonson with that political tactic. But her principal point is an artistic one. Jonson, who had outwardly renounced the Elizabethan roots of his work, in later life found himself increasingly drawn back to them. He ‘was always deeply involved, emotionally as well as professionally, with that irregular, untidy, frequently grotesque Elizabethan theatre which, in both its courtly and popular forms, he felt impelled to reject’. Barton’s opening chapters speculate about the missing early plays which Jonson omitted from his Works in 1616. Her closing ones present his last plays as a glorious rediscovery of the possibilities of Elizabethan and Shakespearean comedy. It is in her account of the late Jonson that her claims become revolutionary.

The current orthodoxy maintains that Jonson’s career as a major dramatist was over by 1616. Thereafter he produced nothing for ten years, and his Caroline plays merely demonstrate his ‘failing power’. The parts of them which reach his earlier standard had been substantially written in his youth, and were now merely taken from the drawer to be touched up – or touched down. Barton insists that the late plays are genuinely late, credits them with internal coherence and consistency, and shows Jonson in his last years moving into territory close to that explored by the Shakespeare of the late romances. I cannot judge her arguments about dating, but her wonderfully fresh and vivid readings of The New Inn (especially its last act), of A Tale of a Tub and of The Sad Shepherd make one long to see her readings put to the test of theatrical performance. Barton’s and Butter’s books have this in common, that they fundamentally challenge our picture of Charles I’s reign as a theatrical backwater. Barton’s arguments – like Butler’s – can be expected to encounter some obdurate resistance. But after her book I doubt if Jonson will seem the same again.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 7 No. 6 · 4 April 1985

SIR: From up here it seems that writers in the London Review of Books believe some remarkable things. Peter Todd Mitchell thinks that ‘working-class homes’ are ‘bulging with sausages and fat’ (but maybe they are in Spain). Blair Worden seems to think that Jonson ‘has come to be thought of as a cerebral writer’ and that Anne Barton’s Ben Jonson Dramatist is a trail-blazing book (we wonder what he has been reading). Peter Pulzer thinks that university teaching is a ‘hobby’ (which it may be at Oxford, but certainly isn’t at Nottingham).

George Parfitt, Maureen Bell
Department of English Studies, University of Nottingham

George Parfitt and Maureen Bell are guilty of placism. North v. South. Peter Todd Mitchell, who could well be an American, was writing from Spain, not as a contributor to the London Review, but as a reader offended by something written in the paper – by Angela Carter, who lives at present in America.

Editor, ‘London Review’

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences