‘Politics’ is a strange word, and the particular nature of its strangeness may explain why so many people feel confused by or alienated from political processes. It can refer high-mindedly to ‘the political ideas, beliefs or commitments of a particular individual’. But it can also be more or less value-neutral – or indeed suggest a complete lack of principle – when it is used to mean ‘activities or policies associated with government’. According to the OED, both these senses came to prominence in the mid-to-late 17th century. During this period ‘politics’ in the sense of ‘the theory or practice of government’ begins to fissure into a number of different strands. Some of these were concerned with the motives and principles that determine the behaviour of individuals (‘what are his politics?’), others concentrated on the mechanisms of government (politicking, in the low sense), while others still addressed the ideal principles behind the constitution of states through high political theory. This partial separation out of different senses of ‘politics’ is one of the most important facts about the 17th century. And the failure entirely to separate politics as principle from politics as chaotic process is one of the most substantial of our many debts to the period.
That confusion also tells us something about the age from which we inherit it. Anyone who lived through the first civil war, the capture of Charles I, the anxious days of the Long Parliament, the rise to power of the New Model Army, the establishment of the purged Rump Parliament, the execution of Charles I, the dissolution of the Rump by Oliver Cromwell, the formation and collapse of Barebone’s Parliament, the Instrument of Government which established Cromwell as lord protector, the Humble Petition and Advice which made him king in more or less everything but name, the death of Oliver, the succession of his son Richard, the collapse of the Protectorate, and the Restoration of Charles II, all in the space of twenty years, might be forgiven for being confused about politics. As the journalist Marchamont Nedham put it in one of his ‘Letters from Utopia’ in 1657,
There is no everlasting Principle in Government, as to any one particular Form. For, the Rules and Reasons of Government cannot be always the same, it depending upon future contingents; and therefore must be alterable according to the variety of emergent Circumstances and Accidents; so that no certain Form can be prescribed at all times, seeing that which may be most commendable at one time, may be most condemnable at another.
Throughout the period 1640-60 politics meant both high principle and low manoeuvrings, and increasingly the principles became subordinate to the complexities of events. At most points most people did not quite know what was happening, either at the minute level of who had won which parliamentary or military battle, or at the broader level of where the constitution of the nation (or nations) was heading. It was not so much that information or opinion was in short supply, as that it superabounded. Newsbooks sprang up to persuade, inform, misinform, and to fill in some of the uncertainty about both what was happening and what its larger consequences might be. These highly partisan weeklies spawned, raved and closed down with almost as much rapidity as small-press journals in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
If a single figure could sum up all the energy and confusion of the period it might be Marchamont Nedham, whose name obligingly rhymed with ‘freedom’. Nedham wrote news, for whoever would pay him more or less. He began by writing for the parliamentarian Mercurius Britanicus, then in 1647 switched to become editor of its royalist doppelgänger, Mercurius Pragmaticus. He was caught and imprisoned by Parliament in 1649, after which he turned his ductile pen back to the parliamentarian cause as editor of Mercurius Politicus. Nedham was a propaganda artist, who could bring high political theory from Machiavelli or Grotius to bear on the week’s events, and persuade his readers that there was principle behind what was often improvisation or chaos. He established the central function of political journalism as we know it: to represent the improvisations of his paymasters as actions that stemmed from principle, and to transform the principles of his enemies into displays of self-interest or desperation. In doing the latter he could turn out corrosive invective. One contemporary said: ‘As for his writings, there is as much difference between them and finer Invectives, as there is between a man cut with a Rasor, and spew’d upon. For as such a one cannot be said to be wounded, but bemired, so we cannot say, that this Fellow writes, but vomits.’
Traditionally the poets of the mid-17th century were believed to stand outside and above Nedham’s kind of politics. But by the summer of 1650 Andrew Marvell was writing works that showed equivocal enthusiasm for the Cromwellian regime, and by 1654 – not without some apparent wobbles back to the royalist cause – he was composing panegyrics to Cromwell’s government. Milton, meanwhile, having set aside his early fantasy of being a poet ‘soaring in the high region of his fancies, with his garland and singing robes about him’, was by 1649 employed by the Council of State as secretary for foreign tongues, writing long, considered Latin treatises (often misleadingly called ‘pamphlets’) which justified the execution of the king to a European audience. From 1651-52 Milton acted as licenser for Mercurius Politicus – this was the period in which he was finally losing his sight, though we can’t just blame Nedham’s copious quill for his blindness – and from 1650, Blair Worden argues, had been collaborating in one way or another with his apparently unprincipled friend.
Worden shows how Milton and Marvell, just as much as Nedham, had to trim and adapt themselves to political circumstances that changed with bewildering speed. Not only did all three men know each other, but they kept a careful eye on one another’s writing, from which each one might borrow. The trio shared an uncertain enthusiasm for Cromwell’s rise. Would he guarantee religious freedoms while sorting out the pesky Irish or the even peskier Presbyterians? Or would he turn out to be Britain’s Julius Caesar, the republican destroyer of the republic? Milton and Marvell also shared some of Nedham’s vocabulary, as Worden illustrates by citing dozens of parallels, ranging from the convincing, through the plausible, to some which look like the products of a hyperactive highlighter pen. When he asks, rhetorically, ‘Did Marvell, in [describing] Holland “As but th’off-scouring of the British sand”, recall Nedham’s description in 1650 of Scotland, a “country which sticks like a scab upon the fair body of this unfortunate island?”’, the only possible answer is ‘no’. But although one can get a bit weary of the repeated mantra ‘like Nedham’ or ‘like Milton’ (phrases that blur the vital distinction between a shared vocabulary and a shared mentality), Worden often recreates with real force the charge attached to particular words and phrases in the 1650s and after. Samson Agonistes is made to sound stronger and angrier by being seen as a response to the scorn and mockery poured on defenders of the Good Old Cause of the republic after the Restoration. Marvell’s uneasy praise of Cromwell’s ‘forcèd pow’r’ in the ‘Horatian Ode’, when embedded in the language of newsbooks, comes out as being deeply committed to contradictory causes: ‘It is a miracle of the ode to create, in a polarised world, a bipolar language, at once direct and deceptive.’
Worden’s poets are not simply political shape-shifters who follow the ‘shameful tergiversation’ of Marchamont Nedham and slurp up his words. They also have principles. The epicentre of Milton and Marvell’s admiration of Cromwell was 1651-54. In this period Marvell was excited by the idea that Cromwell might spread republican liberties beyond the British Isles – that, in the words of the ‘Horatian Ode’, he ‘to all states not free/Shall climacteric be’. As Cromwell battled with Presbyterian backsliders through those years it seemed to Marvell that a single leader was more likely than a parliament to preserve religious freedom. Milton’s brief period of enthusiasm for Cromwell sprang from similar causes. Milton was a republican when and only when it looked as though government without a king might secure freedom of worship, and would enable personal freedom from what he termed ‘slavery’. This could take various forms. The state might try to impose secular chains on freedom of worship; countries might subject themselves to the tyranny of custom; and individuals might fail to rid themselves of the vices and appetites that enslave reason. For the rest he didn’t much care. Elections he could not see the point of, unless they were constituted in such a way as to ensure the rule of the people who were most worthy to rule, which meant those who were motivated by virtue and who would promote religious liberty. The ‘most worthy’ could be one man, and in 1652 it might have been Cromwell, but it could equally be a council of the just, or a virtuous monarch like Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Milton praises in his Second Defence of the English People of 1654. Since government was good insofar as it enabled individual and religious liberty, the form taken by the means to that end did not really matter.
As a result Milton is to be distinguished from Nedham by his relatively consistent commitment to a set of ethical and religious ends, even if the means he saw to realise those ends varied year by year and month by month. Moreover, those ends are consistent with his attempts to persuade readers of Paradise Lost after the Restoration to seek a ‘paradise within thee, happier far’. That exhortation is not so much a retreat from politics (which is the way Worden himself presented it many years ago) as a statement of how best to achieve personal liberty when the readiest political means to that end had broken down. Liberty begins not with government but with the avoidance of personal unfreedom.
Worden steers an intricate and assured course through these complex areas, guided by his remarkable knowledge of ‘the ephemeral context of debate and publication’. And what emerges from the close analysis of Nedham’s, Milton’s and Marvell’s political manoeuvrings is something quite radical. Over the past twenty years the political has been regarded as the motivating force behind Milton, who has generally been regarded as Milton the republican, the poet-prophet of the public sphere whose energies were all and always anti-monarchical. In the 1980s and 1990s a generation of politicising critics set out to wrest the literature of the period from what they saw as the political conservatism of T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis. For them, the illocutionary force of talking about ‘literature and politics’ was to say ‘I am a young radical who wants to show the value to the left of writing from this period.’ David Norbrook’s Writing the English Republic is the summation of this movement. Norbrook wants there to be a republican cultural moment in the mid-17th century. For him the ‘Horatian Ode’ is not bipolar, as it is for Worden: it is a committed republican transformation of Horace. Norbrook’s Milton is a glittering-eyed devotee of the cause, who looked throughout his career for moments when kingship might be abolished, and who sought to establish a sublime republican poetics in his verse. Worden gives generous acknowledgment to Norbrook, as all students of 17th-century culture must; but he goes so far into the mechanisms of politics that the effect of this book is to dismantle the ‘republican tradition’ into a mixture of expediency and religious principle, with a dash of Cromwellian enthusiasm to fuel it in the early 1650s. There may be a disturbing version of Gresham’s law at work here, that low politics drives out high principled politics. That is, as people motivated by political principle subject literary works to more and more intensive contextualisation, so those works come to seem more and more like local manoeuvrings and less and less assimilable to a larger narrative of political radicalism.
And hereabouts one might begin to register some of the negative aspects of Worden’s approach. His Milton has to be topical – perhaps even as topical as a weekly newsbook might be. This assumption leads him to reconsider the dates of several of Milton’s works of controversial prose from the 1650s. He suggests that The Second Defence of the English People, which was printed in 1654 after Cromwell had become protector, was chiefly composed under the Rump Parliament, before its dissolution in April 1653. By 1654 Milton was already unsure how much religious and personal liberty the protector would actually protect. The Second Defence is Milton’s most powerful Latin prose work. It falls into what appear to be distinct sections, which could well have distinct origins. There are passages of invective against Alexander More, whom Milton believed to be the author of a work which attacked both him and the act of regicide, a lengthy and self-justificatory autobiographical digression which rewrites his haphazard earlier polemical career as a consistent defence of different forms of liberty. It concludes with a guarded panegyric of Cromwell, while its peroration appeals to the English people to preserve liberty at the level of individual conduct. The treatise is generally read as a response to the events immediately preceding its publication: the end of Barebone’s Parliament (the nominated assembly of the godly which replaced the Rump; the name was taken from one of its members, Praisegod Barbon) and the beginning of the Protectorate. Worden argues that ‘written as counsel, it appeared as a testament to the cause that Cromwell has betrayed.’ It reminds the English people that the real origins of liberty do not lie in constitutional arrangements, but in their ability to free themselves from slavery to their own passions within and customs without. Worden makes a strong case for the earlier date, but does not finally prove it. Milton uses the historic present to describe Cromwell’s heroic actions, deliberately blurring the chronology. He was also a master of the untimely meditation. In Paradise Lost he describes himself as ‘long choosing and beginning late’, while in The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth he argued for government by a perpetual council just as General Monk was preparing to bring back the restored Charles II. To praise Cromwell in 1654 for things he had done in the past but which he might well have betrayed in the present was just Milton’s kind of action. The Second Defence may be a more planned and resistant political work than Worden’s method allows it to be.
The larger question to put to Worden’s project of embedding literature in its circumambient culture is fuzzier but more serious. It is clear what is gained: a sense of the way texts manoeuvre against circumstance. What, though, is lost? One answer to this question leaps out at readers of this book straightaway. It is almost incredible that a book on literature and politics in Cromwellian England should devote only four pages to Paradise Lost. The yawp and splash of the biggest baby of them all being thrown out with the bathwater nearly drowns the whole argument of the book. We are told that ‘in the cosmic setting of Paradise Lost there is observable not only the fall of the Puritan revolution but the settling of scores,’ and are given a persuasive description of the way Milton’s fears about Cromwellian tyranny animate the character of Satan. And so what is without doubt the most innovative and conflicted English poem of the 17th century, and quite probably the greatest ever English non-dramatic poem, is transformed into little more than a superior belated newsbook. Worden is not scared of the poem, but is he worried that its manifest aspirations to transcendence (and I say ‘aspirations’ advisedly) will make ‘political’ analysis seem reductive or partial? Work on the politics of later 17th-century literature over the past twenty years and more has without doubt widened the canon. We now read Marchamont Nedham, and some people find him both intelligent and stylish, or at least find him sometimes stylish. But the apparent extension of the canon is a bit like what happens when you squeeze a half-inflated balloon: the volume remains the same, even if the shape changes. Books on 17th-century writing now routinely focus on Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’, ‘Tom May’s Death’, with perhaps some Waller, Lucy Hutchinson or Milton’s prose thrown in, and a dash of ‘The Character of Holland’. Out goes the Marvell of ‘The Garden’, or the ‘Acquisition of Love’, even the tenderly concealed political agonies of ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn’. Domestically affective writings like Milton’s sonnets on his wife’s death or on his blindness, and even Cowley’s strange but manifestly political experiments with epic and ode, barely warrant a mention. In march newsbooks, speeches, Instruments of Government, a whole brigade of New Model literature pounding on the doors of the old rump of poems which think they might be about emotions, retreats, imaginings, ethics, domesticity or what it is to be a poem.
What we are left with is the idea that poems are acts or events, or testaments to political self-positioning, which require highly specialised contextual labours to set within their expansive vocabularies. It’s not perhaps a problem that this can only lead to one kind of criticism: historical criticism that treats context as a matter of the events of a particular month or week. Nor is it perhaps a problem that this kind of criticism pursued to its extreme takes one towards the politics of accommodation rather than of principle. It’s more of a problem that while claiming to be an all-embracing, dehierarchised method that opens up whole new worlds of discourse to critical attention, this New Model criticism in fact radically closes down the possible range of works that could encourage critical attention. With works like Paradise Lost, which adopt as part of their rhetoric a gaze extending beyond the present moment, and imagine their readers abroad, in the future, in lands or times unknown, this kind of criticism can break down, or be reduced to seeking sedimentary layers of topicality in their composition, each of which must address and can only address its own time – which again should ideally mean a week or a month.
Worden will no doubt see this objection to his project as a sign that ‘the other-worldliness which the rise of academic criticism brought to literature still inhibits, albeit at a less conscious level, the re-creation of the relationship of writers to politics.’ It is not that. It is to ask why, if politics really matters as much and in the way that we are presently told it does to 17th-century poets, do historical critics have to pretend that so many poems simply do not exist? The Cromwellian era brought excitement. It also brought purges, exclusions and, ultimately, acts of oblivion. Worden has taken us so far into the politics of its literature that we seem to be emerging out the other side, as ethics and religious toleration become the primary concerns of writing in the period. This is not quite the effect he might wish his book to have, but it is nonetheless to be welcomed, if not as a restoration of our happiness, then as a sign that finally it might be time to move beyond politics.