Mingling Freely at the Mermaid

Blair Worden

  • The Crisis of 1614 and the Addled Parliament: Literary and Historical Perspectives edited by Stephen Clucas and Rosalind Davies
    Ashgate, 213 pp, £45.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7546 0681 3
  • The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair 1603-60 by Alastair Bellany
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £45.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 521 78289 9

The first of these books is the product of an interdisciplinary conference at which literary critics and historians exchanged perspectives on a year conspicuous both for political conflict and for politically charged literature. Alas, it would take more than conferences for the two disciplines to understand each other. A number of the literary critics dwelled on the fear of tyranny that was voiced in (and around) 1614 by poets and historians, an anxiety given focus by the breakdown of the short-lived Parliament that was called in the spring and by the imprisonment of the Crown’s principal critics within it. The lecture by Conrad Russell, the dominant historian of the politics of the period, found no place for such sentiments. To him the substance of early modern Parliamentary activity lies in the grind and details of the legislative process, not in the declamatory gestures of the disgruntled. He has spent most of his career challenging the Whiggish emphases, favoured by earlier generations, on constitutional conflict and the cause of liberty. Having seen off most of his fellow historians, he now met the literary critics. The poetry they quoted, though it was widely circulated among contemporaries, was evidently new to him. With engaging candour he wondered if he had spent his life looking in the wrong places. In the printed version of the lecture he has recovered his poise. Though gesturing courteously to the ideal of interdisciplinarity, he concludes that he was right all along.

The frontier between historical and literary studies is a modern invention. In the new universities and colleges of the 19th century, where literary criticism took wing as an academic subject, literature and history were commonly taught together. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley and the historian J.S. Brewer had chairs in literature and history. In the 1870s the subjects might have grown up as a single faculty at Oxford had not Bishop Stubbs, the Regius Professor of History, vetoed the proposal. When Oxford gave social respectability to Eng. Lit. by founding the English School in the 1890s, the syllabus required undergraduates to demonstrate a historical knowledge and to relate literature to it.

As the decades passed, and as Eng. Lit. gathered confidence, its historical component withered. At Cambridge the discipline defined itself, between the wars, in opposition to its historical inheritance. The faculty’s polemical heavyweights, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis, had both given up an undergraduate history degree and taken against the subject. Richards recalled that he ‘couldn’t bear history’ and ‘didn’t think history ought to have happened’. Around mid-century the New Criticism renounced historical and contextual interpretations of literature. Now they have returned, often in fruitful forms.[*] Yet the bureaucratic rigidities of universities, and the entrenched mentalities of peer groups, ensure that more still divides history from literature than unites them.

In the Renaissance they were barely separable. Writers – Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Ralegh, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, Thomas May, John Milton, Andrew Marvell and many more – moved between history and poetry or drama, finding in them complementary means of instilling virtue and wisdom and influencing events. History, which was seen as a branch not only of scholarship but of rhetoric and of eloquence, was often written in verse. Like playwrights, historians invented speeches for their characters. Historical parallels complemented literary and mythological allegories. In The Crisis of 1614, essays by Jonathan Gibson and Stephen Clucas show Ralegh’s cousin Sir Arthur Gorges adapting Lucan’s verse history of Rome’s civil wars, and Jonson’s friend Sir Robert Cotton rewriting the reign of Henry III, with an eye to Jacobean political anxieties. Cotton was among the most learned historians of his time. Yet his account of Henry’s reign abandons factual accuracy. Behind it there lies instead the old literary model of the sleeping prince who wakes just in time, which the fiction and verse of Sidney and Spenser had used to urge Queen Elizabeth to mend her ways.

What the editors of The Crisis of 1614 have enterprisingly done for that year could have been attempted for a number of other occasions in early modern English history. Whether or not we call them ‘crises’, moments of heightened fear or hope invariably found poets in the front line of political agitation. In 1562-63, and again in 1579-81, there were the uncertainties over the succession and over Queen Elizabeth’s readiness, in addressing them, to put the nation’s interests before her own. In the first episode the pioneering tragedy Gorboduc belonged to a political campaign that included the presentation of a Parliamentary petition to Elizabeth which repeated the language of the play and which one of its authors, the MP Thomas Norton, was delegated to read to her. The second episode produced the meditations on tyranny and misgovernment in Sidney’s Arcadia and Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and Mother Hubberds Tale. Michelle O’Callaghan’s essay in The Crisis of 1614 complements her book The ‘Shepheards Nation’, in which she shows Spenser’s literary heirs George Wither, William Browne and the MP Christopher Brooke co-ordinating political with poetic pressure on the Crown at moments of political turmoil in the 1620s. Or there is 1667, when Marvell’s Last Instructions to a Painter, and plays by Sir Robert Howard and the Earl of Orrery, seized on the hope of political renewal that followed the fall of Clarendon.

If poets and historians were often the same people, so were poets and politicians. Five Tudor politicians of stature – More, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Ralegh – wrote enduring literature. In our time MPs and former Cabinet ministers sometimes try their hand at popular fiction, but somehow the results are not quite the same. Alongside the major literary names there were numerous minor ones, Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer Thomas Sackville (Norton’s fellow author of Gorboduc and a contributor to The Mirror for Magistrates) at their head. Countless Elizabethan and 17th-century MPs wrote poems or plays, John Lyly and Marvell among them. Literature was a binding force in politics and society. Poets and politicians mingled freely at the Mitre and Mermaid clubs and at the taverns associated with them. Martin Butler has demonstrated the prominence of playgoing in the shaping and sustaining of the political outlook of the Caroline gentry. Beneath that social level, as one would never guess from the standard social histories of the period, huge audiences watched history plays which fostered patriotic sentiment, or nourished fantasies of social climbing, or incited hostility to effeminate or oppressive landlords. In the Civil Wars, as a number of recent literary studies have explained, poems and playtexts gave a preservative identity to defeated royalism.

Russell’s essay notices that writers were bolder in their criticisms of the regime than MPs. He suggests two explanations. First, poets and intellectuals do not live in the real world. In response to O’Callaghan’s essay he remarks that the poet-historian Christopher Brooke showed no understanding of the practical and financial constraints under which the Government operated and to which more sensible observers were sympathetic. It is indeed no use looking to the imaginative literature of any age for the kinds of procedural calculation that interest Russell. Renaissance poets were concerned with the ethical foundations of politics, not with the nitty-gritty of legislation. Secondly, he thinks that MPs feared to be impolite to colleagues whom, across the benches, they had to look in the face, whereas writers operated at a safe distance from their targets. That suggestion may reflect Russell’s own experience in the polite House of Lords. Impolite things were said in the early Stuart Commons, while poets who practised politics met the objects of their criticism too often for comfort.

Whatever we make of his explanations, Russell’s observation is right. Renaissance literature supplied more searching political criticism than we find in any other genre, except, from time to time, in sermons. If poets wished to make their political mark, then, like preachers, they often needed to make their points obliquely and beneath a courteous and deferential surface. Even if they took that precaution they were occasionally vulnerable to sudden and arbitrary clampdowns. Yet, as Marie Axton has shown, writers of Elizabethan plays and entertainments that were performed at the Inns of Court or the Queen’s Court explored the issue of the unresolved succession with a freedom that contrasts markedly with the royal displeasure visited on MPs, and even privy councillors, who ventured the same points within everyday political consultation. Writers of Court plays and masques had what workaday politicians craved: access. We may imagine the envy that attended the author of the political play The Spanish Gipsy that was performed at Whitehall after Prince Charles’s return from Madrid in 1623, ‘the prince only being there’.

Not all political literature was aimed at the Court or at the nobility that encircled it, as Alastair Bellany’s The Politics of Court Scandal, which examines the spread and impact of popular poetry, ably demonstrates. Even so, in normal circumstances it was only through kings and nobles that the reforms for which poets pleaded, and the patronage they sought, could be achieved. Monarchs, and the advisers around them, were the audience they primarily targeted. ‘Tragedy,’ Sidney explained, ‘maketh kings fear to be tyrants,’ a capacity seized on by Hamlet in staging the play that catches the conscience of King Claudius. George Buchanan, James I’s tutor, saw the depiction of tyranny in his own tragedies as an instrument of James’s education. The blunt couplets of The Mirror for Magistrates supplied vivid warnings of the destruction that awaits kings and subjects alike when rulers sway by will and passion.

Some literary critics are less interested in discovering what Renaissance politics were like – so time-taking and labour-consuming an activity – than in projecting modern preoccupations about class or race or gender onto a society with very different concerns. Renaissance writers had worries enough of their own time: the erosion of medieval and martial concepts of honour; the acquisition of power by upstart favourites and sycophants at the expense of the old nobility; the artificiality and servility of Court life; the impotence of manly eloquence before the cynical manipulation of power; interference with that freedom of speech through which alone monarchs were likely to hear unwelcome truths; the abuse of the forms of law to secure convictions of treason against men of independent outlook.

If literature and politics were so closely related, how have they come to be separated? The change long preceded modern academic specialisation. The scientific and intellectual revolutions of the 17th century sent thought and fancy on divergent paths. Soon fancy, having done things which, as Sir Philip Sidney explained, no other genre could achieve, had little to say about politics that could not be said at least as well in other forms. The philosophical insights of Bacon and Hobbes, of Descartes and Spinoza, and the assertion of empirical observation in the study of man and nature and the universe, broke up the cosmology of the Renaissance, which had drawn art and ideas together. To Sidney and his followers it was the supreme gift of the poet to ‘feign’. Gradually ‘feigning’ became the poet’s limitation. If the 16th century is the great age of poet-statesmen, the 17th produced statesmen who wrote great prose: Bacon, Clarendon, Halifax. Verse and fiction gradually – only gradually – retreated from the political centre, for though there remained (and still is) political poetry, there were ever fewer poets in politics.

By the 18th century, literary playfulness and inventiveness had lost their didactic authority. Sidney’s Arcadia was now judged frivolous, and its political content was lost to view. Dr Johnson, on reading Lycidas, was shocked to find ‘trifling fictions mingled with the most sacred and awful truths.’ The word ‘truth’ was in any case changing in usage. Renaissance poets had promised ‘truth’, but now it was widely understood to be the preserve of physics and other sciences, while poetry and eloquence and the arts belonged to a different realm of beauty or taste or opinion. ‘Imagination’, which at least until Bacon had been regarded as a component of judgment, was divided from it.

In England, the intellectual revolution was sharpened by the divisive and destructive consequences of the Civil Wars, which shattered the unifying assumptions both of the political and of the intellectual world. The wars removed the mysteries of politics. G.K. Hunter has remarked on the contrast between The Faerie Queene and Dryden’s allegory of the exclusion crisis a century later, Absalom and Achitophel. Spenser linked politics to mythology, cosmology, universal ideas. Dryden reduced politics to intrigue and presented politicians as they are, not as they might be. The divine right of kings remained an argument but not an imaginative spur. When, under Charles II, Dryden tried to repeat the prewar practice of idealising the monarch through masques, the attempt fell flat, as Paul Hammond has explained.

Dryden shared the unease that Hobbes and Sir William Davenant had expressed after the execution of Charles I about the destructive potential of ‘inspiration’, a quality that was now fatally associated with the ‘fanaticism’ of the Puritan cause. That anxiety would run through English literature from the Civil Wars to the rise of Romanticism. Within conventionally respected poetry the fancy was kept within bounds. Literary ambiguity and complexity, which before the wars had been so effective an instrument of oblique political criticism, but which during them had become associated with the murkiness of Puritan political language, were frowned on after the Restoration, while the studied uncertainties and multiple layers of metaphysical poetry yielded to the ordered lucidities of plain prose and the heroic couplet.

From the Civil Wars, too, there can be traced the emergence, though it took time, of the full-time Parliamentary politician, beholden to a party rather than to a court. The practice of alternation between poetry and politics rarely survived the specialisation of political labour. Eighteenth-century country-party or ‘patriot’ writers, it is true, mingled with frustrated politicians of the same persuasion and proclaimed an ancient creed of political virtue. Yet here, too, there had been change. Before the Civil Wars, the manuals or memoranda of political advice that were directed at noblemen and gentlemen and their children, though they often presented the political world as a dark arena, tended to assume that virtue found its fullest expression within it. As Paul Langford has noticed, conduct-books compiled for the 18th-century elite say next to nothing about preparation for politics. Politics had become synonymous with corruption. Virtue, and with it literature, were expected to rise above them. Since that time, most poetry with public concerns has taken for granted the decadence, or at least the diminutive capacities, of practising politicians. Modern literary criticism has inherited that condescension. Practical politics were disdained in the first two-thirds of the 20th century primarily by critics from the Right, in the last third from the Left.

Another transformation can be traced to the Civil Wars. They created the mass literary market that would swell in the decades and centuries ahead. Tudor poet-statesmen had written for readers who, like them, could expect to participate, at least at some level, in the exercise of political power. By the 18th century, literature, especially the novel, commanded a wide readership with no such prospect. In consequence political literature yielded in volume and impact to the literature of private sentiment and emotion. Here, too, the 17th-century intellectual revolution played its part. It carried away the Aristotelian system of ideas, which had set reason against passion both in the public and in the private world, and which had thus enabled writers to address, within a single framework of explanation and judgment, the themes of politics and love. Now the two were prised apart.

The editors of The Crisis of 1614 allude to their interdisciplinary aspirations but do not define them. They have little room to do so in a volume whose publisher (producing the book several months late) wants £45 for a thin text. As a rule, something goes wrong with academic articles in the humanities when they are much longer or shorter than eight thousand words. The essays here are between around four thousand and around seven thousand words. Uniformly useful as they are, their vision is narrowed by compression and by the consequent need to assume extensive prior knowledge. The book makes few of those interpretative leaps that the challenge of explaining specialised findings to the uninitiated can induce.

Alastair Bellany’s book is concerned with the same ‘crisis’. He, too, brings politics and literature together. His focus is the greatest scandal in English political history, which began with the death by poison of the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. Suspicion fell on James’s beloved favourite the Earl of Somerset, who was tried and convicted in 1615-16 but eventually pardoned by the King. The scandal broke in the aftermath of two deaths that had transformed the political landscape, those of James’s heir, Prince Henry, and Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who had been the King’s principal minister since the start of the reign. The direction of foreign and domestic policy, and the power of rival factions, were in the balance.

Bellany’s interest is less in the high politics of the affair than in perceptions of it among the wider public. Bellany is one of those who has taught us to recognise the breadth of informed political consciousness in early Stuart England, where ballads, verses and libels found a ready audience. In common with essays by David Colclough and others in The Crisis of 1614, his sensitive and scholarly account reminds us that if a single preoccupation dominated the political thinking of the English Renaissance, it was the provision of good counsel to kings. Only through the purge of courtly corruption and the permission of frank speech could that goal be attained. Bellany brings out the tension in Jacobean minds between reverence for the ideal of monarchy and dismay at the practice. Some critics locate ‘republicanism’, or an eagerness to ‘subvert’ authority, in early Stuart literature, but the instincts of most writers were loyal to the principle of kingship. Their dilemma parallels that of the modern world when it asserts the ideal of democracy while bemoaning its practical consequences.

Bellany begins with the opening of the most famous literary production of 1614, The Duchess of Malfi, where Antonio sets the corruption and evil counsel of the Court around him beside a foreign one whose king has reformed his entourage and thus renewed his realm. Where Webster’s art pointed, life soon followed. The fall of Somerset in 1615, when James seemed for a time to have abandoned his favourite in the cause of impartial justice, prompted similar visions of monarchical renewal, as had the death of Elizabeth and as would the fall of Clarendon. Repeatedly, Bellany shows James’s subjects interpreting his conduct in the terms of the literary types and tropes that were familiar to them. They saw the Overbury affair as ‘a highly moralised drama of justice . . . performed by a small cast of actors’. It seemed to them like ‘a classic Jonsonian court entertainment: an anti-masque of sin and chaos, enacted by the roguish elements of the Court, but disciplined and reduced to harmonic moral order by the numinous intervention of the King’. The legislative process beloved by Conrad Russell is one of the aspects of Renaissance politics about which the imaginative literature of the period will never tell us. Behind the legislators, however, there stood what John Morrill identified nearly thirty years ago as the early Stuart ‘silent majority’ whom they had ultimately to satisfy, and for whom constitutional issues mattered less than the ethical preoccupations that were literature’s theme. If we want to recover the values and ideals by which, in their public lives, men of the English Renaissance lived, there is no surer or richer a source than its imaginative writing.

[*] The seminal book on that front, David Norbrook’s Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (1984), has been reissued in a revised version (Oxford, 348 pp., £45 and £14.99, September 2002, 0 19 924718 8).