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History Turned Upside Down

Criticism and Compliment: The politics of literature in the England of Charles I

by Kevin Sharpe
Cambridge University Press, 309 pp., $49.50

Feminist Milton

by Joseph Wittreich
Cornell University Press, 173 pp., $29.95

Puritan Legacies: Paradise Lost and the New England Tradition, 1630–1890

by Keith W.F. Stavely
Cornell University Press, 294 pp., $29.95

The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740

by Michael McKeon
Johns Hopkins University Press, 529 pp., $29.95

The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution

by Margaret C. Jacob
Knopf, 274 pp., $8.00 (paper)

Here are five books about seventeenth-century England that cut across several disciplines, linking history with literature, literature with economic and social history and with feminist studies, the novel and science with social and cultural history. Things are looking up.

Kevin Sharpe had bad luck with Criticism and Compliment. In 1984 Martin Butler published Theatre and Crisis, 1632–1642, which established brilliantly that the drama of the 1630s, even the plays put on at the court of Charles I, have wrongly been neglected as being decadent and sycophantic. The court was not monolithic: all great aristocrats had a right and a duty to be there, just as gentlemen had a duty to take on the office of justice of the peace. The court was the principal source of the patronage that was essential if one was to succeed as a poet; we can hardly blame those who sought it. The once fashionable dichotomy of “court” and “country” began to look rather different after Butler’s work. Butler worked out in detail the way in which nuances of opinion at court were discreetly aired in plays, in particular criticisms of Charles I’s pro-Spanish foreign policy originating from a group around Queen Henrietta Maria.

Butler’s book, instantly recognized as authoritative, succeeded in changing attitudes toward the drama of the 1630s. Kevin Sharpe tells us that he was working along similar lines when Butler’s book appeared. So what was there left for him to do? He has studied in detail court masques, about which Butler had little to say, and has concentrated on three poets—Sir William Davenant, Thomas Carew, and Aurelian Townshend. “Historians,” Sharpe complains, “have scorned the masque as a distraction from the reality of governing. To Charles I it was rather a duty, a ritual no less than his participation in the services of the Anglican church.” “In 1637 he practised for Britannia Triumphans daily.” We need not impugn the king’s sincerity by querying his scale of preferences, of values.

Kevin Sharpe confirms Martin Butler’s analysis. Some masques convey veiled political criticisms and suggestions of different policies: the divergent political outlooks of the king and his queen made this possible. Yet Sharpe’s thesis contains contradictions. He dismisses “the old familiar charge” that the masque fostered the illusion that because “disagreements, doubts and disorder could be transcended by the king on the stage, they could be as easily dispelled from the commonweal.” He wants us to take seriously the dramatists’ argument that “through the poetry of love, nature and innocence, men, society and government might…regain the immortality of their first perfection.” “Charles…hoped through his personal example to lead the realm back to order and virtue.”

Yet Sharpe also wants to show that the poets were not sycophantic, that they retained their critical independence. He quotes passages from their work that undermine the ideology that he attributes to them. “The court has corrupted love,” Townshend declared. He was the least successful of Sharpe’s three writers, who all suggest in their work a “disenchantment with masque,” and “criticism of the values and culture of the court.” Townshend suspected that, so far from his counsel being taken, he would lose “the king’s ear and the patronage he sought.” He did. Carew wrote only one masque, Coelum Britannicum. Sharpe thinks this may be explained by the “ambivalence and irony” it revealed. Even the more successful Davenant devoted a whole play to Henrietta Maria’s favorite subject of Platonic love, in which he did not believe, thus exhibiting “a concern far greater than that merited by a fashionable cult soon to expire.” Precisely. “It is less to the particular than to the larger, universal debates that our authors addressed, and were able to address, themselves” (“and were able” conceals the fact that it was not safe to be specific). All three of his poets, Sharpe admits, were driven sooner or later to question the whole ethos that their expensive spectacles represented. Two of the three who, he argues, preached the sanctity of chaste married love were notoriously victims of syphilis; Aurelian Townshend was described as “pocky.” Theory and practice seem to have got separated.

A definition of decadent literature might be one totally abstracted from political and social reality. We do not need the hindsight that the royal government is going to collapse in 1640 to tell us that contemporaries were aware of powerful social tensions; in the elections of the 1620s the word “courtier” was already a term of abuse. Kevin Sharpe has convinced me that the label “court masque” should not predetermine our expectations. Perhaps some of his apparent contradictions can be dialectically resolved. He is not generous in his references to Martin Butler. He is positively offensive to Margot Heinemann, whose pioneering work, Puritanism and Theatre, initiated and inspired the recent spate of serious works on the literary history of the early seventeenth century.

Kevin Sharpe has difficulty in fitting Milton into his schema. Comus shows what a really independent artist could do with the masque. Comus too was written for a court, that of the Lord President of the Marches of Wales. But some thought that the Earl of Bridgewater had been sent down there to expiate his Puritan leanings. Keith Stavely and Joseph Wittreich both stress Milton’s radicalism. Wittreich has undertaken what might seem the daunting task of refuting the charge of misogyny traditionally leveled against Milton. He shows that representative women in the eighteenth century, from Mary Astell to Mary Wollstonecraft, from Lady Chudleigh to Hannah More, were avid readers of Milton and regarded him as a spokesman for their sex. Wittreich attributes to the eighteenth-century male literary establishment the “critical objective of neutralizing or, more exactly, emptying Milton’s politics from his poetry.” They denied his political radicalism and religious heresies, represented him as a conventional patriarchal Puritan.

Wittreich makes his point with a plethora of quotations, and also by careful argument. Milton, lucky to escape execution in 1660 as a defender of regicide and passionate opponent of the restoration of Charles II, could not freely express his subversive views, even in his poems. It had to be done by indirection—by describing Nimrod instead of attacking monarchy, praising the egalitarian democracy of the ant instead of proclaiming republicanism, emphasizing the human nature and achievements of Christ rather than the vicarious sacrifice of an incarnate deity. “I sing…unchanged,” Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, to alert his readers to the fact that he was still a political and religious radical, still a believer in marriage for love. Twenty-odd years earlier he had outraged respectable opinion by arguing for divorce where there was no love, or where temperaments proved incompatible.

Joseph Wittreich has to dig through layers of conventional male criticism to recover Milton’s Eve—a full equal to Adam before the Fall, who shares his intellectual interests and discusses with him on terms of equality. What Wittreich calls “the illusion of inequality between the sexes” in Paradise Lost is, he argues, based on Satan’s comments and Adam’s prelapsarian prejudices, for which he is checked both by God and by the archangel Raphael. Misogyny entered the world with the Fall “as primary evidence of its deformation.” After the Fall it is Eve who ultimately effects the reconciliation between herself and Adam. “It is Eve who gives life to Adam, who redeems him and history and restores Paradise to both.” She is given the last speech in the epic—normally reserved for a god or the hero—and this speech is a prophecy of future salvation, concluding, “By me the Promised Seed shall all restore.” Adam—unusually—listens in silent approbation. Wittreich reminds us that preaching and prophesying by women had been a feature of the revolutionary decades that had particularly outraged conservatives: Eve follows Mary Cary and Martha Simmonds.

In Paradise Regained it is again Satan who is misogynist. Mary is an unexpectedly prominent figure in the poem, and it ends with the Son of God, having overcome Satan in the temptation of the temple, coming down from the pinnacle and returning to his mother’s house to resume his job of preaching. In his discussion of Samson Agonistes Wittreich comes to the rescue of Dalila, who is traditionally taken as an expression of Milton’s misogyny. The misogyny is expressed by the Chorus, and by Samson in his unregenerate state. Dalila is not the heroine of Samson Agonistes, but she is depicted as a real human character who gives as good as she gets in the fierce quarrel with Samson. She claims, rightly, to be patriotic in the ways that the great heroines of the Old Testament were—Jael, for example. Samson’s quarrels with her and with Harapha, in each of which he is shown as no better than the Philistines, form part of his reeducation from his initial despair; Dalila helps to bring about the internal transformation that prepares Samson to accept his call to the temple of Dagon, where he destroys the Philistine aristocracy and priests. Dalila does not have the last word in Samson Agonistes; but Manoa’s description of how Samson will be remembered by his people as a hero deliberately recalls Dalila’s vision of what her posthumous reputation would be.

Wittreich’s case throughout is well argued, and much of it strikes me as convincing. It is a pity that he does not face Milton’s blatant sexism in the divorce pamphlets, where male superiority is assumed. The real strength of the book comes from its demonstration of the existence of a popular interest in Milton in the eighteenth century quite distinct from that of the elite; and from the impressive array of quotations from women readers claiming Milton as an ally. And not only women: one of the emendations that the great Richard Bentley proposed for Paradise Lost was to change Milton’s notorious line “He for God only, she for God in him” to “He for God only, she for God and him.” The original, Bentley thought, must be “a shameful error,” contradicting what Milton wrote elsewhere in the poem. The words—utterly conventional in the seventeenth century—were in fact Satan’s. The survival of Milton’s traditional patriarchal reputation, Wittreich argues, comes from literary critics reading other literary critics with more care than they exercise when they read Milton. His well-documented onslaught will, one hopes, educate literary critics and give us all much to think about.

Keith Stavely has no doubts about Milton’s radicalism. He “should be seen as standing ultimately with [the Ranter] Coppe and [the Quaker] Nayler, rather than with those whose values these radicals so effectively satirized.” Milton dissented as sharply as Coppe and Nayler from “the emergent alliance of Protestantism and capitalism.” Milton is as severe as Bunyan against the hypocritical godly—their “close ambition varnished o’er with zeal,” as Milton put it. Stavely sees Satan as “a heroic exemplar of the Protestant ethic.”

As against the view that Milton degrades the heroic Satan of the first two books of Paradise Lost into the crawling serpent of Book X, Stavely argues that

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