Democratic Sublime

Derek Hirst

  • Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics 1627-60 by David Norbrook
    Cambridge, 509 pp, £40.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 521 63275 7

The appearance of this book on 30 January, the 350th anniversary of the cold morning when the axe fell on Charles Stuart’s neck, was no mere romantic gesture. Rather, it declared David Norbrook’s belief that to vindicate the cultural vitality and integrity of English republicanism at its moment of flowering – a moment of high energy not only in politics but also in political thought, journalism and in literature, too – is to make a contribution to present politics as well as present understanding. When the book’s publicity material invites us to compare the Levellers’ demands of the 1640s with Charter 88 we might suspect the hand of Norbrook himself. The title he has chosen is strategic in its imprecision. With its unclear use of the word ‘writing’, he enlists himself, and the present-day republican poets and artists who appear intermittently, alongside Milton in a common enterprise.

Norbrook’s central premise is that what we call ‘literature’ cannot be segregated from the political contexts in which it is embedded and with which it is always in some way engaged. His claim is that Virgil and his descendants, poets who served the needs of empire while perpetuating an aesthetic of ease and surface elegance, cannot be allowed to dictate the story of the entwining of culture and the constitution. Their dominance has, he contends, been consistently exaggerated by literary scholars whose own political conservatism led them to ignore or belittle commitments that were not in some fashion courtly, and to regard as elevated and apolitical those that were. There may be those who will tax Norbrook himself with conservatism for his unapologetic preoccupation with the traditionally masculine concerns of national politics. They will await the more eagerly his forthcoming study of Lucy Hutchinson, who, not content with protecting her regicide husband from the scaffold, wrote her own Creation epic.

The case for the republican conscience resounds most eloquently in the impressive coda to this book, in which Norbrook vindicates the political radicalism of Paradise Lost. Although T.S. Eliot and many others have presented the epic poet as in flight from politics to timeless truths, Norbrook insists that he remained the champion of the republic. Through careful study of allusion, verse structure and the interplay of Satanic and angelic speeches, he demonstrates the firmness of Milton’s critique of monarchy, as swingeing in defeat and personal danger as it had been in the prose polemics of the 1640s. In fact, Milton provides the final warrant for Norbrook’s story. As an emblem of the depth and consistency of the 17th-century opposition to monarchy, the ‘blind guide’ confounds all those who, blind to the politics of the right implicit in their own position, have urged the separation of culture and politics.

Norbrook’s purpose is in fact far broader: to rescue Milton not only from a spurious timelessness but also from ideological isolation. In a sustained reading of a remarkable range of material, both printed and manuscript, he gives precision and a new focus to Christopher Hill’s rebuttal of Milton’s self-representation as a lonely prophet. Although courtly ideology and patronage dominated cultural production over much of the 17th century, they proved unable, Norbrook shows, to deflect or contain the enemies of kings. Rome had had other poets besides Virgil: above all Lucan, who narrated the late republic’s ‘wars more than civil’ with a republican heart on his sleeve. Though he was painfully aware of Pompey’s flaws, he saw yet more clearly Caesar’s ambition, corruption and tyranny. Fully aware of the tragedy of human aspirations but determined to vindicate them, Lucan, embattled and doomed, provided a powerful model for later humanist-trained writers. His epic of the wars, Pharsalia (the translation by Thomas May, published in 1627, opens Norbrook’s story), proved both an inspiration and a source for those who questioned or challenged monarchical power. While his significance has been noted by earlier scholars, nobody has explored so fully the extent of Lucan’s hold on mid-17th-century imaginations, nor his challenge to the Augustanism Virgil had celebrated.

Lucan’s great cultural contribution may have been the tragic vision of history Norbrook finds characteristically republican. His ideological significance lay in celebrating a commitment to freedom and dignity, defined in struggle. That posture was far from the classical republican model of Livy (mediated by Machiavelli), with his institutional focus, that has recently become familiar – far, too, from the vogue for Tacitus, with his gloomy acknowledgment of power and corruption. Recognition of Lucan’s stance allows Norbrook to reinforce those who have worked to restore Milton and Marvell to their proper place in the history of republicanism, and to move beyond them by vindicating in addition Thomas May, the flamboyant Henry Marten, the remorseless George Wither and the versatile journalist Marchamont Nedham. All of these have been eclipsed in the recent preoccupation with James Harrington, the author of Oceana (1656), and his followers.

The republicanism that emerges from Norbrook’s investigations is thus not confined to the militant saints and to those preoccupied with securing a Harringtonian ‘balance’ through institutional forms. It has a strong ethical core, and perhaps most important, it is rescued from mere contingency. Scholars have usually portrayed the English republic as the hapless discovery of those who had to live with the consequences of 1649. By paying proper attention to poets and historians, Norbrook is able to show that republicanism’s roots went deep into the political culture of the 1640s, and even earlier.

An affection for Lucan and a commitment to freedom and human dignity (neither of which, it should be noted, were limited to those who cheered at the King’s execution), do not amount to much of a republican cause. Norbrook is too good a scholar not to note the fuzziness of the republicanism he detects, as well as the paucity of committed adherents. But the controversy his hero, Milton, had with Harrington the system-builder, as well as the sterility and fractiousness of the debates in the later 1650s on the meaning of ‘the good old cause’, may have convinced him that virtue and goodwill were more important than programmes and partisans.

One of the many rewarding passages in this book is Norbrook’s dissection of the motto on the seal Henry Marten designed for the new English Commonwealth in 1649, ‘The first year of freedom by God’s blessing restored’. What was invoked here was a dream, not a platform. The language of restoration was redolent of a return to beginnings, a first innocence, a golden age that was civic as well as moral: the irony of the triumphant royalists’ co-opting of the term in 1660 is apparent. More revealing was the seal’s association of freedom with what the royalist John Evelyn, surveying the measures of early 1649, scathingly termed ‘unkingship’. Corruption, even tyranny, are the inexorable accompaniments of monarchy because of the fawning and flattery kings always engender in others. Monarchy is dangerous since all human beings, and not just kings, are fallible. Simply to abolish it while taking few other reforming steps was therefore a major achievement: not only did it constitute a grand gesture – no small consideration to Lucan’s followers, as the vauntings of Milton were to show – but, however obvious the asymmetries between the English Commonwealth and Athens or republican Rome, ‘unkingship’ established powerful conditions for freedom.

One element of Norbrook’s case comes from a quite different source. He has read Habermas as closely as Lucan, and gestures repeatedly towards an emerging ‘public sphere’ in the burgeoning press and petitioning movements of the 1640s, and the coffee-houses of the 1650s. There are impressive pay-offs, as he detects challenges to Virgilian courtliness in the work of that doyen of an endangered establishment, Edmund Waller, and still more as he analyses address and argument in Milton’s Areopagitica.

But there are problems too, not least in the manifestly undemocratic, even anti-democratic, character of the republic that emerged in 1649. Although Norbrook goes so far as to celebrate ‘the democratic sublime’ in the rather leaden verse of Wither, he concedes that this putative poet of the people had to struggle to hold at bay a ‘public opinion’ that remained distressingly royalist. Conversely, England’s real democrats, the Levellers (who play little part in Norbrook’s story) only intermittently embraced republicanism. By the time he moves on to the confused decade of the 1650s, Norbrook’s categories become more skewed. He can be found referring to the ‘notionally democratic’ constitution of the Cromwellian Instrument of Government that imposed strict limits on the electorate and, still more remarkably, to the ‘public sphere’ of a House of Commons from which the public were barred and whose debates were privileged.

Casting a scholarly argument about the past in a way that will serve partisan purposes in the present causes Norbrook difficulties. Modern republicans must, one presumes, be democrats (though the heritage industry, and the yearning for pomp and circumstance, give them pause), and Norbrook may feel under some pressure to present his subjects accordingly. But, as the Levellers on the one hand and the post-Areopagitica Milton on the other remind us, the connection between republicanism and democracy was neither necessary nor direct. Too many of Norbrook’s cast of characters (Marvell, May and Milton at the least) inclined towards some form of an élite for his celebration of the expanded public sphere to ring quite true. And he is too ready to enlist aristocratic constitutionalists in his drama when it suits him: eagerness to clip the wings of kings did not make nobles into republicans.

The ideological model that structures Norbrook’s argument emerges not just in the omission and admission of bit-players, but also in his judgments on the central characters. There is a moment when, on facing pages in his discussion of Paradise Lost, Norbrook congratulates Milton, the uneasy republican patriarch, for his ‘elevation of a familial narrative to the dignity of more conventionally public affairs’, only to observe as an explanation for the domestic ‘tyranny’ the poet permitted that ‘in this prelapsarian world we find a characteristically republican delineation between the public sphere and the household.’ But for all the special pleading, it is clear that there was a republican Milton, whom Norbrook unfolds with exceptional learning and acuity. When he turns to Milton’s friend Marvell, however, advocacy sometimes outruns the evidence.

That Marvell wrote in, for and about the English republic is apparent. That he (at times) articulated republican sentiments is also apparent. But to paint his republican portrait requires more subtlety than Norbrook allows: the ideological motivation he ascribes simply does not fit this secretive poet of interior fantasies. If Marvell the ideologist was, in ‘An Horatian Ode’, so fond of ‘stating the republic’s case with a provocatively extreme edge’, we might wonder why he chose not to publish the poem. It almost certainly circulated in manuscript, but that fact undercuts Norbrook’s claims for the ‘public sphere’. He attributes the erect sword of the poem’s close to a confident republican militancy, yet the spirits Cromwell’s sword holds at bay surely belong to those he has killed. The famous ironies and paradoxes of the poem are not dispelled by Norbrook’s analysis. Irony clouds another Marvell poem he claims as republican triumphalism, ‘Character of Holland’, whose closing vision, with the heads of the Commonwealth’s three admirals as the prongs of Neptune’s trident, invites one to think of impalement.

Norbrook makes the remarkable assertion that Marvell was ready to lay down his life for the republican cause. His evidence lies in the job-reference Milton wrote for his junior, which claimed that Marvell was ready to serve the republic as Anthony Ascham had done. Ascham had been assassinated on a diplomatic mission, but he had also been an influential apologist of the republic. Norbrook’s gloss on Milton’s testimonial seems more than a little partial. It also conflicts starkly with Marvell’s lasting enthusiasm, particularly in his final Cromwell poem, ‘A Poem upon the Death of O.C.’, for the hero and patriarch who had also been the hammer of the English republic and had sent (in Marvell’s own phrase) its ‘tedious statesmen’ packing.

The programmatic nature of Norbrook’s approach at this point is suggested by his view that in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ – preoccupied as this poem is with seizing the moment – Marvell is ‘transferring a recognisable political discourse to the erotic sphere’. Many in the 17th century used the language of affections and the body for political purposes, but to reverse the traffic might occasion an awkward courtship.

Norbrook is at his most innovative in redeeming George Wither. In the later stages of his career, Wither found it difficult to get some of his poems printed, but he had a big following in the 1640s (a fact that adds an unexpected dimension to the popular radicalism on which the Levellers drew). In Wither, Norbrook has a real and indefatigable republican, yet a republican poet whose poetry seems not of a sufficiently lapidary quality to stem the Virgilian tide. Norbrook is nonetheless able to assign him an honourable place in the culture wars by shifting the focus away from conventional values of literary merit (politically contaminated as he anyway holds these to be) to rhetorical structure and effect.

The rhetoric Norbrook signals in his subtitle is not a general category, for he has no intention of analysing Leveller or Fifth-Monarchy tirades. Rather, he looks to Longinus, whose On the Sublime was published in translation by the republican John Hall of Durham in 1652. Longinus had associated political freedom and good poetry, political and poetical transcendence. A revolution, by breaking the bounds, had strong claims on the transcendent, and poetry vented on its behalf might fairly challenge the Longinian sublime. It is on such grounds that Wither is admitted to the feast. Indeed, the entries for 29 of his works in Norbrook’s index suggest how much thinner the feast might have been without him.

Whatever the provocativeness of his analysis of Wither, most readers will find his reassessment of Milton more rewarding. When he refers to the ‘vertiginous experience of reading Milton’s great speeches’ in Paradise Lost, we recognise what is gained from the decision to put Longinus at the centre, and what Longinus can reveal of the intersection of the political and the literary in republican writing. We are also better able to recognise the political as well as the rhetorical continuities with all those acts of transcendence in Areopagitica. Historians sceptical of the value of rhetorical analysis to their trade would do well to read these passages.

But the pay-off for historians stems above all from Norbrook’s decision to produce a theme-driven argument instead of a general survey. This has led him to dig deep into the textual remains of the Revolution, rather than content himself with the familiar surface structures. Even if the republic established in 1649 was the product of circumstances, and was – in Norbrook’s apt phrase – ‘a republic reluctant to speak its name’, many of those who worked and wrote for it had felt the intellectual appeal of Lucan. The taste for vertiginousness they learned from him may well have made it easier for them to step into the dark. There is no question that the militant saints in the New Model Army whom Norbrook passes by played a greater part than Marten, May and Milton in bringing Charles I to his death. Norbrook has therefore by no means told the whole story of the writing of the English republic. But there is equally no question that Lucan made it easier for many of its protagonists to imagine what it meant to be a republican, and therefore to enact a republic.