Blair Worden

  • Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance by David Norbrook
    Routledge, 345 pp, £15.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9778 6
  • Restoration Theatre Production by Jocelyn Powell
    Routledge, 226 pp, £19.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9321 7
  • Theatre and Crisis: 1632-1642 by Martin Butler
    Cambridge, 340 pp, £25.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 521 24632 6
  • The Court Masque edited by David Lindley
    Manchester, 196 pp, £22.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 7190 0961 8
  • Ben Jonson, Dramatist by Anne Barton
    Cambridge, 370 pp, £30.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 521 25883 9

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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