Coy Mistress Uncovered

David Norbrook

  • Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution by Michael Wilding
    Oxford, 288 pp, £25.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 19 812881 9
  • Apocalyptic Marvell: The Second Coming in 17th-Century Poetry by Margarita Stocker
    Harvester, 381 pp, £32.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 7108 0934 4
  • The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defence of Old Holiday Pastimes by Leah Marcus
    Chicago, 319 pp, £23.25, March 1987, ISBN 0 226 50451 4
  • Milton: A Study in Ideology and Form by Christopher Kendrick
    Methuen, 240 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 416 01251 5

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.

‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’ may nonetheless seem to confirm the stock views of Marvell and Milton: Marvell stands apart from the sublime solemnity of his friend, ironically distancing himself from his achievements. According to T.S. Eliot, Milton’s Puritan republicanism destroyed his poetry and left it a monument to dead ideas, but Marvell, by being commendably ‘lukewarm’ in his politics, managed to retain his poetry’s links with ‘European, that is to say Latin, culture’. Even Marvell’s period as a servant of the Commonwealth has tended to be seen as a kind of lovable lapse, as if a gentleman cricketer had gone over to a weaker players’ side in a supremely sporting gesture. But Marvell’s temperamental differences from his friend do not necessarily indicate substantial ideological divergence. His poem to Milton acknowledges a common difficulty for all poets in attempting the sublime in the face of the Restoration ethos, and does not shrink from hinting at how close Milton comes in his epic to the ridiculous: but the element of risk only heightens his respect. Milton’s evident readiness to accept such teasing from his friend indicates that the distance between the Miltonic sublime and Marvellian wit was not as great as the textbooks used to suggest. Marvell, too, after all, wrote many significant political pamphlets in which he could draw on a long humanist and Protestant tradition of witty anti-ecclesiastical satire.

And indeed, wit seems to have been as much a part of the ethos of the short-lived republic as sublimity: Henry Marten could subvert protest at radical measures in the Commons by laughter, and friends like Thomas Chaloner and Thomas May shared his sceptical wit. To denounce them as libertines was to become a stock tactic for conservatives anxious to show where republicanism ended up; Aubrey himself disliked this tactic, and felt that the poem ‘Tom May’s Death’ came down too hard on its victim. This injustice may not disprove Marvell’s authorship of that controversial text, but subsequent critics have been too ready to take such glib dismissals of the republicans at face value. As can be seen in the relative fortunes of Swift’s and Marvell’s prose – down to the availability of editions – the Eliot tradition prefers wit when it is devoted to the repression, rather than the defence, of religious dissent. As Michael Wilding points out in Dragons Teeth, changes made by Sir Thomas Browne to Religio Medici in the political crisis of 1642-3 reveal the famously ambiguous wit of that text as defensively conservative.

The critical climate is now changing. The books under review show how Marvell and Milton, whatever their temperamental differences, were united in the resourcefulness with which they responded to these political changes; all four critics recognise that to understand the interactions between poetry and political change we need to analyse not just overt content but also formal questions, not just local topical allusions but the complex relations between genre and society.

For Margarita Stocker, Marvell’s support of the Puritan revolution was no passing phase but the inevitable consequence of a coherent world-view. The idea that there was some ideological coherence in Marvell’s career is starting to gain acceptance: John Wallace, Annabel Patterson and Warren Chernaik have all concentrated on secular political thought. Stocker is the first critic to bring to Marvell the new awareness in recent historical writing of the centrality of the book of Revelation for 17th-century Protestants. We are becoming familiar with the idea that Spenser and Milton are apocalyptic epic poets; Stocker’s argument is that Marvell is an apocalyptic lyric poet, and that once this central ideology has been understood, it will become possible to resolve ambiguities that have preoccupied generations of critics. To take a celebrated example, at the end of ‘Upon Appleton House’ the fishermen hoisting their boats onto their heads are compared to ‘Antipodes in shoes’: Stocker reminds us that however whimsical the image may seem today, it would have resounded for contemporary readers with Biblical references to the Apostles as mere fishermen who turned the world upside down. Stocker demonstrates the apocalyptic motifs underlying the recurrent figures of inversion in the poem: having given an ideological cast to the traditional social compliment by establishing the Fairfax family’s claims to a tradition of engagement in Protestant militancy, the poem comes to a climax with a vision of Maria Fairfax as herald of apocalyptic transformation. Marvell’s imagery here combines direct references to Revelation, such as the notion of vitrifying nature, with echoes of Milton’s apocalyptic visions in ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’.

Stocker finds similar forms of ‘generic revolution’ in a wide range of Marvell’s poems. She is formidably well-versed in 17th-century poetry and theology and in the full range of Marvell’s prose as well as verse, and her book is packed with information and with insights. The book’s synchronic structure – it ends with one of the earlier poems, ‘The Unfortunate Lover’ – takes a little getting used to, and perhaps gives a misleading impression of the uniformity of Marvell’s world-view throughout his career: but Stocker throws new light on neglected areas of the canon and on some very familiar poems. She shows how ‘Bermudas’ and the poem on Blake’s victories rework the Stuart panegyrical motifs of maritime triumph, and of England as the fortunate isles, to accommodate Puritan utopian and apocalyptic visions. As for the ambivalent lyrics, she argues that these, too, have strong political undertones, drawing on the traditions of the ‘revelatory eclogue’ established by predecessors like Spenser. In replacing the shepherd by the mower, Marvell not only revises the social hierarchies of aristocratic pastoral but introduces death to his Arcadia in a particularly menacing guise. But the imagery of apocalypse has a positive side in the recreation of nature in millennial perfection, just as the poet in ‘The Garden’ delights in creating new worlds. (Alas, it is presumably the printer, rather than Marvell the generic reviser, who has on page 223 imaginatively transformed Satan into Santa.)

Marvell criticism has itself tended so extremely towards the obfuscatory irresolution it claims to find in the poet that Stocker’s confidence and boldness of argument come as a refreshing change. And it is certainly hard to explain Marvell’s consistent political activism in his later career with reference merely to Wallace’s somewhat lukewarm concept of ‘loyalism’. At times Stocker’s expositions of some of the lighter lyrics become so heavily moralistic that it seems Marvell is being prised from Anglo-Catholic kidnap only to be delivered into the Born Again lobby. Her best readings, however, are sensitive to the degree of provisionality that was also permitted by an apocalyptic worldview: the fact that God had permitted such shakings of traditional hierarchies could encourage an openness to change rather than a rigidly closed world-view – an openness that was not just ‘lukewarm’ because its central imperative was resistance to civil and clerical authoritarianism. In its most radical forms, of course, apocalypticism could lead as far as Ranter antinomianism; and on Stocker’s remarkable reading of ‘To his Coy Mistress’, the speaker echoes millennial calls for the faithful to sacrifice the false cult of virginity of the Medieval Church.

The second coming as multiple orgasm: this new view of a familiar poem will doubtless meet resistance – though Stocker as ever provides a host of erudite theological parallels – but it can certainly be agreed that ‘To his Coy Mistress’ has a grim urgency unexpected in the conventional carpe diem lyric; the lovers hang desperately on to their individual identities in the face of mortality. As Leah Marcus argues in The Politics of Mirth, ‘cavalier’ poems like Herrick’s ‘Corinna’s going a maying’ urge the abandonment of a strong sense of identity, in the spirit of the older ritual forms of carnival. In the wake of Bakhtin’s enormously influential Rabelais and his World, ‘carnival’ has become a vogue word in Renaissance studies. What distinguishes Marcus’s book is the care with which she untangles the many different levels of mediation between social forms and literary texts, and her alertness to political nuances. Her theme is not so much the actual social history of carnival as the political propaganda wars that raged around the old festivals in the 17th century. Masques, plays and lyric poems repeatedly evoked the spirit of rural festivities, reflecting the protracted propaganda campaign on their behalf by James I and Charles I. Marcus is open to the attractiveness of the carnival sprit, which had its own radical generosity, setting aside traditional hierarchies and roles in the name of a less individualised sense of humanity. But by the 17th century, when her story begins, the traditional festivities were losing whatever spontaneity they had once enjoyed and becoming appropriated by both sides in the political conflicts. If the more radical Puritans wanted to stamp them out in the name of a godliness that might be seen as a mask for a narrow possessive individualism, the court defenders of the festivities were more concerned with consolidating royal power than with the wishes of the country people. By close contextual analysis of poems and masques, Marcus shows complexities in the simple polarisations of an older literary history. In her analysis of Ben Jonson’s later career she reveals how despite becoming one of King James’s most articulate propagandists, he nevertheless retained a margin of critical distance; and by the Caroline era, Jonson’s defence of his own, more populist conception of rural festivity was becoming virtually oppositional in the élitist cultural climate fostered by the new king. Robert Herrick’s poetry participated in Archbishop Laud’s campaign to re-sacramentalise traditional rituals, but pushed his libertine cult far beyond the churchmen’s moralism, celebrating the release from sexual constraints traditionally allowed during the May festivities.

Milton and Marvell had a comparably complicated relation to festive politics from the more radical side. In the latter part of her book Marcus argues that Milton’s Ludlow masque and Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ are radical revisions of traditional festive genres. I must acknowledge a personal debt to Marcus’s pioneering article on Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, which opened the way to new kinds of topical reading of court masques in general and of Comus in particular. By now, indeed, there has been a profusion of contextual readings of Milton’s masque. Michael Wilding’s chapter title ‘Comus, Camus, Commerce’ indicates his concern with allusions to academic drama and contemporary economic developments. Marcus draws attention to the battle of the sexes: Comus’s seduction speech to the lady could almost be a conscious reworking and critique of ‘Corinna’s going a maying’. Milton sees that the traditional phallicism of the rustic revels might not have been so agreeable to women concerned for their safety.

These political readings of Comus bring out affinities rather than similarities between the early Milton and the Marvell of ‘Upon Appleton House’. Fairfax in Marvell’s poem, like Bridgewater in Milton’s masque, is urged to continual Protestant vigilance rather than being complimented in purely social terms; and Maria Fairfax occupies a symbolic function very similar to Milton’s Lady. Marcus sees Royalists like Lovelace as defensively retreating into an imagined realm of traditional pastimes, whereas Marvell is open to the more socially radical implications of the inverted world of carnival, aspects which the courtly appropriations of carnival had contained.

But just how radical was Marvell’s response to the Revolution? Here there is still a wide area of disagreement. Stocker sees Marvell as supporting the Revolution for religious rather than republican reasons, and emphasises Marvell’s links with Royalist poets. She thus reads the ‘Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ as radically ambivalent, fuelled by apocalyptic excitement but undermining Cromwell by generic allusions to Royalist Horatianism. Wilding gives the ode a more firmly republican reading, but nonetheless sees Marvell as soft-pedalling on social and religious radicalism, trying to reconcile waverers to the new regime by maintaining a certain aristocratic ethos. Wilding’s preference is for the generous democratic spirit of the Levellers and those to their left, and he finds this spirit exemplified more in Milton than in Marvell’s obliquities. Though he vigorously attacks the Eliot tradition, this distinction between the two poets perhaps retains something of the old belief that Marvell was ‘lukewarm’: but subtlety and even a certain deviousness are not incompatible with commitment, and ‘Latin culture’ need not be monarchist. On the matter of generosity towards radicals, Wilding is far readier to give Milton than Marvell the benefit of the doubt. It is true that some Levellers had opposed the Irish campaign which Marvell’s ode glorifies – though there were tactical as well as moral issues at stake, and Wilding draws rather too sharp a contrast between benevolent Leveller pacifists and aggressive grandees. But it can hardly be argued that Milton’s view of the Irish was particularly liberal-minded. Conversely, one could ask whether the traditional aristocratic elements which both Stocker and Wilding identify in the ode are being affirmed – rather than subverted, in a more radical generic revision comparable to the Miltonic republican sublime.

How far Paradise Lost is a republican poem remains, of course, a controversial matter. It has often been argued that the epic reflects a withdrawal from the political arena into a realm of pure poetry and theology, or even that in the figure of Satan Milton satirises republicanism. But Wilding points out just how far Satan’s ‘Parliament of Hell’ is removed from Milton’s political ideals, and argues vigorously for the poem’s radicalism. His methodology here and throughout his book is consciously eclectic, aiming to galvanise readers who are still frozen in a dogmatic formalism; and as long as there are still such readers around, books like Dragons Teeth will be needed. But for those who accept that poetry is always inextricably bound up with social and political development, there remain a lot of methodological difficulties in, for instance, making the transition from such an apparently subtle and rarefied phenomenon as metrical inversion to deep-seated social and economic changes. Wilding’s main affiliation is with the humanist Marxism of Christopher Hill, and like Hill’s his approach to texts is often a very direct one, via extra-textual reality: it is characteristic of him to speculate that the mantling vines under which Comus claims to have found the brothers may be related to the plants that grew near Ludlow in 1634. Wilding is more attentive to genre than Hill, and he presents an interesting political parallel between Hudibras and Paradise Lost as antiepics. But he inclines to referential readings of a kind that have been vigorously challenged in a lot of recent critical theory.

Christopher Kendrick’s analysis consciously breaks with the older forms of Marxist exegesis through political content: ‘if we want to read the poem politically,’ he writes, ‘we must approach it through its form.’ The form of Paradise Lost is political down to its metre, which is given an ideological charge in Milton’s prefatory note. (Unfortunately Kendrick does not develop this last point.) Drawing on the anti-humanist theory of Lacan and Althusser, Kendrick proceeds through a series of very complex mediations from the analysis of economic changes through political ideology to poetic form. In Areopagitica Milton tries to resolve the ideological tensions between an emergent, and secularising, capitalism and Protestant moralism. Though Paradise Lost was written after the failure of his hopes, the poem retains a ‘surplus of specifically political energy’. Kendrick explores the way in which Paradise Lost’s dialectic of determinism and free will is worked through in different generic mediations, from Classical epic through Christian or ‘hexameral’ epic to tragedy, romance and ‘utopian pastoral’.

Kendrick’s book is methodologically ambitious, and the task he has set himself is in may ways more difficult than the historical recovery of an author’s political intentions. He would probably consider Wilding’s book to be vulgar Marxism: yet I must confess that by the end of Kendrick’s slow-moving and impeccably courteous study I was longing for some vulgarity. In Areopagitica, he tells us, the central contradiction institutes a struggle between the commodity and the Imaginary at the figurative level and determines an aporia at the heart of the soul-body relation which manifests itself as an antimony between quality and quantity and thus qualifies the tract’s ethics of purification. The argument has a rather ghostly quality as all the agents are ‘material structures beyond the reach of consciousness’; at each stage we have to take Kendrick’s frame of reference on trust. Thus where Marcus, Stocker and Wilding see their authors as using genres to effect political changes, and comment in detail on contemporary production and reception of generic signals, Kendrick deals primarily with ideal types of which authors may not have been fully conscious and refers only in passing to contemporary modes of reading. His analysis can be suggestive, but his search for deep structures has the effect of making Milton’s texts look relatively passive in their response to events.

There is a similar quest for structures below consciousness in Kendrick’s account of economic history. Here he is largely indebted to C.B. Macpherson’s structuralist analysis, locating homologies between nascent capitalism and liberal political ideology. The sublimity of the Puritan revolution points ineluctably towards the banality of Reaganomics. Here again, the implications are rather pessimistic: Kendrick candidly acknowledges that his turn to high theory and his lack of faith in personal agency reflect a sense of political impotence on the part of the Americal Left.

But is not that pessimism in part dictated by the terms of the analysis? The assumption is that the concern for political and religious liberty that was so urgently manifested in the 17th century can be largely explained away by structural analysis as a residue of petit-bourgeois ‘humanism’. But both ‘humanist’ and ‘anti-humanist’ varieties of Marxism show little awareness of a different kind of humanism: the civic humanism that was one influence on the political writings of Milton and Marvell. The definition of that tradition is problematic, but it could open up a conception of political activity and debate as intrinsic to a good society. By contrast, both the utopian anti-state current in Marxism and its Leninist inversion value political debate and rhetoric only insofar as they are a means to their own ultimate withering away. As for the notion that ‘bourgeois humanist’ politics is simply a disguise for laissez-faire capitalism, J.G.A. Pocock and other historians have been pointing to abundant evidence that the ethos of commercial consumption and the ethos of politically activist republican virtue have been in long-standing contention with each other over the centuries. In English cultural politics the fact that those republican values never achieved institutional triumph has had lasting effects: agrarian tranquillity, rather than urban debate, remains the quintessential image of ‘Englishness’. Eliot pronounced the questions raised by those 17th-century debates to be ‘dead’: current criticism suggests that they are not.