New Model Criticism

Colin Burrow

  • Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchamont Nedham by Blair Worden
    Oxford, 458 pp, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 923081 5

‘Politics’ is a strange word, and the particular nature of its strangeness may explain why so many people feel confused by or alienated from political processes. It can refer high-mindedly to ‘the political ideas, beliefs or commitments of a particular individual’. But it can also be more or less value-neutral – or indeed suggest a complete lack of principle – when it is used to mean ‘activities or policies associated with government’. According to the OED, both these senses came to prominence in the mid-to-late 17th century. During this period ‘politics’ in the sense of ‘the theory or practice of government’ begins to fissure into a number of different strands. Some of these were concerned with the motives and principles that determine the behaviour of individuals (‘what are his politics?’), others concentrated on the mechanisms of government (politicking, in the low sense), while others still addressed the ideal principles behind the constitution of states through high political theory. This partial separation out of different senses of ‘politics’ is one of the most important facts about the 17th century. And the failure entirely to separate politics as principle from politics as chaotic process is one of the most substantial of our many debts to the period.

That confusion also tells us something about the age from which we inherit it. Anyone who lived through the first civil war, the capture of Charles I, the anxious days of the Long Parliament, the rise to power of the New Model Army, the establishment of the purged Rump Parliament, the execution of Charles I, the dissolution of the Rump by Oliver Cromwell, the formation and collapse of Barebone’s Parliament, the Instrument of Government which established Cromwell as lord protector, the Humble Petition and Advice which made him king in more or less everything but name, the death of Oliver, the succession of his son Richard, the collapse of the Protectorate, and the Restoration of Charles II, all in the space of twenty years, might be forgiven for being confused about politics. As the journalist Marchamont Nedham put it in one of his ‘Letters from Utopia’ in 1657,

There is no everlasting Principle in Government, as to any one particular Form. For, the Rules and Reasons of Government cannot be always the same, it depending upon future contingents; and therefore must be alterable according to the variety of emergent Circumstances and Accidents; so that no certain Form can be prescribed at all times, seeing that which may be most commendable at one time, may be most condemnable at another.

Throughout the period 1640-60 politics meant both high principle and low manoeuvrings, and increasingly the principles became subordinate to the complexities of events. At most points most people did not quite know what was happening, either at the minute level of who had won which parliamentary or military battle, or at the broader level of where the constitution of the nation (or nations) was heading. It was not so much that information or opinion was in short supply, as that it superabounded. Newsbooks sprang up to persuade, inform, misinform, and to fill in some of the uncertainty about both what was happening and what its larger consequences might be. These highly partisan weeklies spawned, raved and closed down with almost as much rapidity as small-press journals in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

If a single figure could sum up all the energy and confusion of the period it might be Marchamont Nedham, whose name obligingly rhymed with ‘freedom’. Nedham wrote news, for whoever would pay him more or less. He began by writing for the parliamentarian Mercurius Britanicus, then in 1647 switched to become editor of its royalist doppelgänger, Mercurius Pragmaticus. He was caught and imprisoned by Parliament in 1649, after which he turned his ductile pen back to the parliamentarian cause as editor of Mercurius Politicus. Nedham was a propaganda artist, who could bring high political theory from Machiavelli or Grotius to bear on the week’s events, and persuade his readers that there was principle behind what was often improvisation or chaos. He established the central function of political journalism as we know it: to represent the improvisations of his paymasters as actions that stemmed from principle, and to transform the principles of his enemies into displays of self-interest or desperation. In doing the latter he could turn out corrosive invective. One contemporary said: ‘As for his writings, there is as much difference between them and finer Invectives, as there is between a man cut with a Rasor, and spew’d upon. For as such a one cannot be said to be wounded, but bemired, so we cannot say, that this Fellow writes, but vomits.’

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