Loose canon

Literature and Revolution in England 1640-1660
June 23, 1995

While Babel and feud still seem the order of the day in much academic criticism, it is fitting that the last decade or so should have witnessed an expansion of interest and research in the literature of the English Civil War and Interregnum. Then, the difference was that many of those struggling for publication, income and political inclusion were also engaged in shooting and hacking one another's heads off.

Nigel Smith, whose previous book on sectarian literature occupied a relatively prescribed though still roomy corner of the cultural battlefield, has now written a survey of much vaster scope. In ten chapters, he cuts a labyrinthine path from the conditions of the mid-17th century press through the invention of the political pamphlet, the "transprosing" of dramatic composition from stage to page (after the closing of the theatres), the tropes of constitutional controversy and speculation, the throes of epic poetry and Arcadian prose fiction, the peregrinations of religious lyric, and the evolution of panegyric and satire. Historiography follows as an imperfectly integrated afterthought.

Smith's enterprise is incessantly recursive, exploring these literary genres while insisting that the period was preeminently one of generic miscegenation. It implicitly answers the question of the day, "What is literature?" with a pragmatic notion embracing any language whose modus operandi is to allude, to invoke, to arouse, and whose effect is to exploit or express fears and desires. The sermon is almost the only form neglected, apart from theology and abstract philosophy.

With subjects so various, Smith is exuberant, experimental and occasionally frenetic as he points out the migration of rhetorical strategies between groups, or seizes on instances of classical and contemporary allusion. Most such illustrations are well-documented, and those which are not are carefully qualified. Smith rapaciously draws on and acknowledges the work of scholars in his field. But the heart of the book is in its sympathy with the chaotic mid-century itself, with its shocked vision of atomisation as a social and cosmological principle. All is enlivened by the strategy of "putting neglected material back together with its more famous relatives".

In fact, in a study of such breadth and ambition, the juxtaposition of authors once marginal to English literary consciousness, such as the Leveller Richard Overton, or the Welsh Independent Morgan Llwyd, with figures of greater modern fame like John Cleveland and Henry Vaughan, "begins to look like" - to use a typical phrase of Smith's - an attempt at definitive canonisation. Yet paradoxically, while the preface affirms an aspiration to attract "the general reader", it demurely clothes the project in a mist of provisionality, forecasting an imminent "revolution in our understanding of the Interregnum" and setting the work deliberately in this "moment of revision".

Actually, Smith has produced a readable and inspiring review of current historicist criticism, in an area for which the now-trendy identification of literary with political discourse is singularly unobjectionable. Otherwise the book eschews fashions; though Smith assumes the major status of female authors such as Margaret Cavendish, he minimises the role of gender in his discussions of linguistic identity - formation or "selving". However, the alternative models he presents are not always persuasive, and Smith's account of a new epic "interiority" seems slightly founded. The frequency of typographical errors and the desultory indexing detract from a book which, without being monumental, is rich with discoveries.

Nicholas Moschovakis is a visiting scholar, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Literature and Revolution in England 1640-1660

Author - Nigel Smith
ISBN - 0 300 05974 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 425

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