History, Politics

One Man Wise Enough to Gouerne All Us

Demystification in Action

Demystification in Action

Recently on Newsnight Review, Ian Hislop and Michael Portillo clashed over the British tendency towards belittling politicians (alas the clip online ends before they get there): Americans, Portillo argued, were happier to see their representatives as at the very least human beings trying to do their best, whilst the Brits, conveniently personified by Hislop, were happier to rubbish the very idea that politicians might have anything but the most venal of motivations. Portillo, like many pols before him, opined that this sort of approach corrupted the political process – that such cynicism debased the very values that hold a democratic society together.

Demystification must surely be at the heart of the the political urge, though. In his Writing The English Republic, David Norbrook puts it at the centre of what he identifies as the English republican project of the seventeenth century: traditionally, “the state could be presented in mystical, sacramental language as a unified body which it would be sacrilege to tamper with. The mixed constitution paradigm both abandoned the church, traditonally viewed as a buttress of social order,  and brought the monarch down to the level of the other contenders in the political forum.” [pg. 96]

Norbrook’s is a work of literary history, but it is as important – and perceptive – as a work of political analysis. He reassesses many key texts – Milton, Marvell – as well as encouraging renewed interest in more minor writers, like May and Waller. (Interestingly, Waller’s conversion to praising Cromwell as a sort of pseudo-king led him to “become a by-word for shameful flattery” [pg. 326] : the idea of a King Olly was popular neither with republicans nor monarchists.) In so doing, he unearths a narrative counter to the de rigeur suggestion that republicanism developed merely as a response to the regicide.

On the subect of the regicide, Norbrook can’t help but see Eikon Basilike as a kind of victory for the remystifiers: though “the propaganda of the most high-flying royalists,” it “went through sixty editions in England and […] the King became, for admirers, and for many later literary critics, an emblem of a dying order.” [pg. 192]  Norbrook would no doubt agree with James Loxley that the success of the image of the figure of the Martyr King had “restorative effects on […] the poetics which helped craft him.” [The Drawn Sword, pg. 181] So, even as republican poetry strived to find the metre for the new project, royalist poetry regained an external justifier.

Norbrook is smart enough to include newsbooks and broadsides in his review of the literature, but I’ve mostly been thinking about ‘high’ literature’s battle with political mysticism. It’s a fight of a broadly historical interest, but to contend Michael Braddick’s position that the period of the civil wars lacks much in the way of contemporary relevancy, it’s hard not to see the echoes. Note to self: see In The Loop.


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