Horror like Thunder

Germaine Greer

In 1679 a small book with the resonant title Order and Disorder; or, the world made and undone was published in London. The title was intended to touch a nerve. The Restoration crisis had never gone away; memories of the disorder of the Civil War and Interregnum were still green. Peers and Commons were united in their struggle to exclude a Catholic heir to the throne, while the travelling roadshow organised by Shaftesbury and Buckingham around the King’s bastard son, James, Duke of Monmouth, was playing to rapturous crowds. Activists among the country gentry, incensed by the long prorogation of Parliament in 1675, and by then convinced that Charles II would never accept Parliament as a partner in government, had for some years busied themselves with restating and updating the Old Cause, most daringly in the anonymous pamphlet entitled The Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (1677), which was the last work of Andrew Marvell. Other republican writers were being dusted off and refurbished, to be published more or less surreptitiously. Paradise Lost, published without acclaim in 1667, was reprinted in 1674, and again in 1678. According to Dr Johnson, ‘It forced its way without assistance; its admirers did not dare to publish their opinion … till the Revolution [of 1688] put an end to the secresy of love, and Paradise Lost broke into open view.’

Order and Disorder is no overt political tract for, as its second subtitle explains, it consists of Meditations on the Creation and the Fall As it is recorded in the beginning of Genesis in five cantos of rhyming couplets, retelling the story of Chapters 1 to 3 of Genesis, ending as Paradise Lost does with the expulsion of our First Parents from the Garden of Eden. Where Milton is declamatory, Order and Disorder is expository, setting out a high Calvinist interpretation of the Biblical narrative, and wrapping it in a tissue of references to other parts of the Bible, all identified in marginal notes. Occasionally, the narrator inveighs in round terms:

Scorn, princes, your embroidered canopies
And painted roofs. The poor whom you despise
With far more ravishing delight are fed
While various clouds sail o’er the unhoused head,
And their heaved eyes with nobler scenes present
Than your poetic courtiers can invent.

‘Painted courts’ incur a good deal of disparagement; the very flowers of paradise

Both high and low their gaudy colours vied,
As courtiers do in their contentious pride,
Striving which of them should yield most
And stand the finest in their sovereign’s sight.

Despotism lurks in even the most idyllic descriptions. The ocean reminds the poet that

every greater fish devours the less
As mighty lords poor commoners oppress.

In the middle of a description of the four rivers of Paradise, we are reminded that the second river surrounds the land of Nimrod, the hunter,

Where tyranny first raised up her proud head,
And led her bloodhounds all along the shore
Polluting the pure stream with crimson gore.

The narrator seems haunted by the threat of civil war: the fallen angels are united by their hatred of God ‘Lest civil wars should make their empire fall’, while Adam and Eve, having defied God, are immediately plunged into universal conflict.

to our parents then, sad was the change
Which them from peace and safety did
Brought universal woe and discord in,
The never-failing consequents of sin;
Not only made all things without them jar
But in their breasts raised up a civil war.

According to Anthony à Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses, and Sidney Lee who follows Wood in the DNB, Order and Disorder is the work of Sir Allen Apsley (1616-83). The poem described by Lee as ‘rarely accessible’, now easily accessible in David Norbrook’s modern spelling edition, offers according to Norbrook ‘a particularly strong corrective to the conventional view that literature after 1660 became firmly Royalist’, for it is entirely informed by the religious and political ideals of Puritan republicanism. Though Apsley used his Puritan connections to secure a favourable settlement from the Commissioners for Compounding, he later gave valuable service to the Stuarts in exile and was rewarded at the Restoration with the lucrative post of Treasurer to the household of the Duke of York. At one stage he was actively involved in the suppression of conventicles. Though it is not impossible that Apsley, according to Marvell ‘leader of the drinking crew in the commons’, might have nurtured the convictions of the writer of Order and Disorder while amassing a huge fortune as a royal servant, it is certainly unlikely.

Apsley’s mother was a St John, from an elder branch of the same family as Cromwell’s Chief Justice, Oliver St John, whose daughter married Apsley’s cousin Sir Walter St John, denounced by his Royalist opponents as ‘rogue, anabaptist and a quaker’. In becoming a royal servant Apsley followed his father’s calling; his sister Lucy clung fast to the Parliamentarian loyalties of the St Johns. Her husband, John Hutchinson, was one of the signatories of the death warrant of Charles I. Apsley was no poet; his sister, who is best known for her memoir of her husband, an important source for historians of the Civil War period, began writing poetry in her teens. Norbrook grasps the nettle and prints Order and Disorder as securely hers, on internal and external evidence.

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[*] Oxford, 600 pp., £65 and £25, March, 0 19 818426 3.