Playgoing

Donald Davie

  • The English Bible and the 17th-Century Revolution by Christopher Hill
    Allen Lane, 466 pp, £25.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 7139 9078 3

The Seventh Psalm is required in the Book of Common Prayer to be sung or said, in Miles Coverdale’s version, on the evening of Day One of the Church’s calendar:

God is a righteous Judge, strong and patient:
            and God is provoked every day.

If a man will not turn, he will whet his sword:
      he hath bent his bow, and made it ready.

He hath prepared for him the instruments of
  death: he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors.

Fifty years ago W.O.E. Oesterley, Hebraist and doctor of divinity, called this psalm ‘one of the less inspiring in the Psalter’, because (he said) ‘it gives a vivid picture of the hatred engendered by religious strife, a hatred which is mutual’. Those parish priests who agree with him will presumably choose one of the alternatives that the Prayer Book permits them. But of course the Seventh isn’t the only psalm of this unforgiving kind. Moreover, ‘inspiring’ begs an obvious question; if implacable vengefulness is what we want to inspire, this psalm is very inspiring indeed. Milton for one obviously read these verses with relish when, on 14 August 1653, he put them into metre:

God is a just god and severe,
And God is every day offended;
If the unjust will not forbear,
His sword he whets, his bow hath bended
Already, and for him intended
The tools of death that waits him near.

The swing around the line-ending on to ‘Already’ conveys the relish unmistakably; and though it’s what gives the stanza its poetic energy, we may surely find it sinister. For we know from elsewhere that ‘hatred engendered by religious strife’ was by no means foreign to Milton’s temperament.

Is it foreign to Christopher Hill’s? I’d say it is, for his tone in this collection of essays is, for instance as regards other scholars, courteous and kindly. And yet of the 17th-century texts that he puts before us with obvious relish (a relish he supposedly wants us to share), a great number are implacable and vengeful, particularly when he has decoded them from seemingly religious into political. This is hard to understand, and yet it’s a common phenomenon; for as long as I can remember, I’ve had people whom I know to be kind and generous requiring that I attend to 17th-century texts (Milton’s among them) that are more often than not unkind and ungenerous; that I attend to these respectfully, sympathise with and indeed admire their authors. How can this be?

The answer, of course, or one answer, is in the second half of Hill’s title: ‘the 17th-Century Revolution’. ‘The English Revolution’ as a name for what happened politically in England between 1620 and 1660 has been promoted so insistently by Professor Hill through a lifetime of writing that it may be considered his patent. It carries with it always the implication that revolution is a Good Thing, and that we should be proud of our ancestors for having inaugurated it. For Hill is quite certain that they did, invoking ‘the English Revolution, the first great European Revolution’, and finding, on sometimes tenuous grounds, that the American, the French and the Russian Revolutions only re-played the drama first enacted in England in the 17th century. Scores or hundreds of historians and also of political activists have built their careers on this supposition. And yet a supposition is all it is: that’s to say, a hypothesis neither provable nor deniable, being in fact only a rhetorical come-on. Some of us who are neither historians nor political scientists have by chance become aware, as was John Adams at the time, that what happened in the US between 1776 and 1783 was so demonstrably different from what happened in France ten or twelve years later, that to call them both ‘revolutions’ is merely obfuscating. Professor Hill, every inch a 17th-century specialist, doesn’t deign to examine these 18th-century events with any of the attention that might dislodge his a priori convictions. The drama is what he looks for; and it’s only on these confessedly theatrical grounds that the American alleged ‘revolution’ can be thought a re-play of the English Civil War, or a sneak preview of the fall of the Bastille. But then, history as theatre is what Christopher Hill and his disciples seem to be committed to.

Hill acknowledges that his concept of ‘the English Revolution’ has been blown upon, or at least challenged. Some years ago, he concedes, ‘a number of historians reacted against what they believed to be Whig legends of a two-party struggle carried on in Parliament between government and opposition. This, they rightly suggested, is anachronistic.’ But alas, some of them flew to extremes, ‘stressing above all consensus, basic agreement among members of the political nation on major constitutional and religious issues’:

There were squabbles, ‘revisionist’ historians suggested, but they were not about constitutional or religious matters of principle; rather they were between court factions motivated by self-interest and careerism. It was a belated application of the Namier method, which produced useful results in interpreting mid-18th century politics, and demolished the Whig interpretation. But the applicability of the Namier method to the early 17th century has never been convincingly established. There is a circular ring of assumptions. First you assume that there are no quarrels of principle in the period; then you Namierise politics and politicians; then you claim that this shows there were no issues of principle. QED.

An outsider cannot help but see a difficulty: if the Namierite logic is indeed circular, then how can that circularity not disqualify Namier’s account of the politics of 1760 as surely as it does Namierite accounts of the politics of 1640? One let-out, which I suspect Hill might favour, is to suppose that in 1760 there were indeed in political life no persons of principle, whereas in 1640 there were many. But this is surely implausible. That there were no persons of principle in the politics of 1760 is inherently improbable. (There was, for instance, Catharine Macaulay, whom Hill elsewhere cites with veneration.)

But this goes along with his treatment of the 18th century generally. Since the 17th-century Revolution ought to have succeeded but mysteriously didn’t, there remains for subsequent generations nothing but picking among the ruins, or else accommodation with the ruling power. Thus, when he turns to the chapter on ‘The Bible and English Literature’, he notes that John Norris of Bemerton paraphrased psalms (just inside the 17th century), but omits to mention that such paraphrases by Isaac Watts and Christopher Smart in the next century not only measure up to the best that Elizabethan translators could manage but also, in Watts’s case at least, penetrated to levels of ‘the ordinary people’ such as theorists of the Left, including the present leaders of the Labour Party, prefer to ignore. The common people of England survived their Revolution (which wasn’t recognised as theirs, unless pastors or rabble-rousers told them so) by fastening on to texts more comforting and more conciliatory than those the sectaries had pressed upon them. Were they wrong or abject in doing this? It will be thought that they were only by those who conceive of history as theatrical spectacle.

Years ago Hill, characterising the culture of Christian Nonconformists in the early 18th century, remarked contemptuously: ‘The cosmic battles which Milton and Bunyan depicted were succeeded by sterile controversies over deism and unitarianism.’ There unmistakably we encounter the historian as playgoer, indeed as aesthete; what this historian responds to in the historical record are depictions of ‘cosmic battles’, or the raw material for such depictions. This he can find in the 17th century but not in the 18th, or not until he gets to William Blake, who appropriately therefore is drawn upon for his dust-jacket. This jump from Milton to Blake, executed by many others, has less to do with Liberty (the usual pretext) than with an aesthetic preference for the sublime. Revolutions are sublime spectacles, and the hatreds which they engender and feed upon are an inseparable component of that sublimity. However, those who look for the sublime in history need to hark back to some of Hill’s more sweeping books; here he is turning out drawers, riffling through old notes on 17th-century pamphlets, sermons and commentaries, of which he surely knows more than any other man alive. An omnivorously thorough scholar at the end of his life has the right to such a book; but a spectacle it is not.