The secret republic

Writing the English Republic

August 6, 1999

Only a generation ago, the English Republic was still one of the most neglected chapters in the history of this country. Written off merely as the "interregnum", it fell victim after the Restoration to a "process of erasure". Rounded-up regicides were executed. Thomas May, the dead poet and historian of the Long Parliament, was expelled from his tomb in Westminster Abbey. Those politicians and administrators from the 1650s who could - like Sir George Downing and Samuel Pepys - swiftly adjusted their loyalties after 1660. The immediate past was expediently despatched to oblivion. And there, in many respects, it stayed. In 1988 when our reigning monarch gave an address in Westminster Hall to celebrate the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution, the nearby commemorative plaque recording the execution of Charles I was purposefully covered. The bicentenary of the French Revolution the following year provoked much rejoicing in this country about England's peaceful evolution and a failure to grasp that England's mid-century upheavals helped inspire the French events of 1789 and after.

David Norbrook's book is by no means the first in the late 20th century to attempt to resurrect England's lost republican heritage. The significance of Norbrook's contribution to the study of the English Republic is accurately described in its title and subtitle. Here is a literary scholar joining forces with the historians and analysing 17th-century poetry in the highly charged atmosphere of its original context.

John Milton and Andrew Marvell, of course, are inescapably present in this volume, and, like Christopher Hill before him, Norbrook wrests these "canonical writers ... from their timeless pantheon". But they are carefully placed alongside other - lesser and long-eclipsed - writers such as Payne Fisher, John Hall, Henry Marten, Thomas May and George Wither. (Marten's draft poem on Cromwell is published here for the first time, nearly 350 years after it was penned). They are also placed within what is presented as a vigorous and deep-rooted continuity of republican ideas, the origins of which far predated the execution of King Charles I in January 1649. Norbrook is interested in the recovery and deployment of classical republicanism with its heavy moral emphasis on civic virtue and responsibility. His book offers detailed and sensitive textual analysis and makes clear the politics of literary form. The writers brought into focus here were not simply observers of events but active participants, partisans and moulders of public opinion. The power and frustrations of rhetoric are amply demonstrated in these pages.

Norbrook has a good eye for detail. George Thomason, we are told, the assiduous London collector of tracts, added 652 new items to his stock in 1659, the last frenzied year of the Republic (as opposed to 282 in the previous year). The Bodleian Library discreetly hid its copies of Milton's political works after 1660 and did not dishonour their author by burning them. Norbrook is also a master of invoking a telling phrase to encapsulate a complex point. How ironic that Thomas Hobbes's translation of Thucydides should have been placed at the service of revolutionaries and republicans. "To counteract the effects of the republican Trojan horse, Hobbes himself had found it necessary to climb inside." Milton's resounding Areopagitica "for all its openness to religious radicalism, retained an aristocratic caution". Wither, by contrast, "democratised the sublime".

The scholarly qualities of this book are plain to see. The publisher, however, goes over the top in its press releases to make strident claims for its contemporary political relevance. Charter 88, Tony Harrison and Tom Paulin (present-day republican poets) are enlisted to promote the book. Writing the English Republic ranks as one of those rare productions that will be taken seriously by both literary scholars and historians and makes a major contribution to the rehabilitation of the English Republic and its cultural identity and legacy.

R. C. Richardson is head of the Graduate Centre, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics 16-1660

Author - David Norbrook
ISBN - 0 521 635 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 508

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