This Newsletter was published on Thursday 30 July 2009

Review of Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England

Blair Worden’s Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchament Nedham. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

If we can learn anything from Blair Worden’s Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England, it is that Andrew Marvell was terribly conflicted over the loss of the English monarchy and the rise of republicanism. The poet genuinely mourned the evaporation of orderly, albeit adversarial, rule of king and parliament, replaced by the dubious autocracy of the Rump government. As Marvell left lyric for panegyric and parliamentary service, his poetry began to reflect his political convictions, and it takes a critic like Worden, who knows his English Renaissance Restoration history, to make solid sense of the later Marvell poetry for ordinary readers lost in a welter of names, events, and shadowy references in. Thus Worden is able to nuance, for example, subtle details in “The First Anniversary,” a poem that had to tread lightly on the disenchantment of much of Commons with Cromwell. To read the poem without Worden’s background information, one might think Cromwell was a triumph to all (142), except, of course, the Irish. Similarly Worden lets us know that Marvell, outside of the years 1650-1, was no fan of republican government. In fact, in his poetry he may have exalted Cromwell simply because rule by one man was preferable to the republican experiment in Parliament, at least in the poet’s mind (149).

The last half of Worden’s book focuses on Milton so Marvellians will want to read it as it will enhance their understanding of the great poet and prosateur, but they will be most interested in the first half of the book where the focus is on Marvell and that curious fencesitter Marchament Nedham. Indeed, for Marvellians to whom Nedham has been but a name or a shadow, Worden’s book will be very illuminating. Worden is careful to note those times when Nedham abets Marvell and those times then Nedham opposes him. Nedham is a fascinating character who jumps from position to position as the political weather vane shifts during the Commonwealth. That he escaped more drastic censure than he received is a wonder. He must have been a most wonderful chameleon. Clownlike or not, he comes alive in Worden’s book.

Literature and Politcs in Cromwellian England is a must read for Marvellians who hope to make sense of Marvell’s politics.

George Klawitter (St. Edward’s University)