Archipelagic English, by John Kerrigan

Tales of four nations
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The Independent Culture

In that unimaginable time before the tsunami of post-colonial studies came crashing over university campuses, many of us studied something called "English Literature", a discipline that ran from Beowulf to 1900 in the classic Oxford formula. A few honorary Irishmen and Poles got in there: three of the four modernists on my EngLit course at Liverpool University in the 1970s were Joyce, Yeats and Conrad.

In his new book about the anglophone literature of the 17th century, John Kerrigan attempts once and for all to bury that chauvinistic "island story" and replace it with another, more nuanced, about the literature written in English between 1603 and 1707 in this cluster of islands in the Atlantic archipelago. Its national, linguistic and cultural elements were diverse, interactive, quarrelsome, misunderstood, enriching, sometimes invisible, sometimes unignorable. Kerrigan calls this body of writing "Archipelagic English" as a way of sidestepping the intractable difficulties in terms like "English", "British" or "British and Irish". It's a term that might trip more lightly off the professorial tongue than that of the common reader, but it is a convincing attempt to capture the complexity of the issues involved.

Kerrigan is a scrupulous and careful scholar not given to sweeping statements, and one who declines the polemical brio of a Paulin, Steiner or Eagleton. He embraces an "anti-teleological ethos" and suggests his advocacy of this new way of analysing 17th-century texts "is going to be a piecemeal, collaborative project". We are not to expect fireworks. What we do get are subtle, informed explorations of key writers and texts. There is much preparing of the ground which results in an Introduction that extends to almost a quarter of the total.

An early example of Kerrigan's method is Macbeth, represented as "the archipelagic tragedy". This is a chance to exhibit his "master trope": interactivity. He sees that play as intensely topical and prophetic about the union of the English and Scottish crowns at the moment of its making; as a "dramatization of mediaeval material that is calculated to explore the heterogeneity of the archipelago" in 1605-6, "when James VI and I was trying to go beyond regal union and develop an integrated British state".

Kerrigan deftly shows how the Scottish play's obsession with titles and offices (all that "greeting, hailing, and welcoming") reflects "Anglo-Scottish dis/union" and concludes, interestingly, that "topicality is most formidable in drama not when it is immediate (as with the probable influence of the Gunpowder Plot on Macbeth) but when it is sufficiently invested in an analysis of its moment to have prophetic power".

Kerrigan applies similar insights to poets like Henry Vaughan – a glory of EngLit who was actually Welsh, although Welsh critics have had issues with him, as Scottish ones have had with William Drummond, another poet skilfully contextualised here. A poet like Andrew Marvell, often seen as an English patriot, turns out to have had intimate connections with the Dutch, religious issues subverting or displacing "national" allegiances. Kerrigan demonstrates that both Milton and Marvell were "archipelagic in outlook", and that many of their key texts belong to the site of three-kingdom interaction: "'Lycidas' has been returned to North Wales and the Irish sea", and Comus to "the Welsh Marches". But, he laments,"the devolution of analysis remains woefully incomplete".

The occasional allusion in Archipelagic English to present-day texts highlights another concern of this least tendentious of critics: the implications of his thesis for debates about devolution in Britain; sharpened, one might add, by current anxieties about defining – or imposing – "national identity". Kerrigan insists that his book "is not a manual for devolutionary politicians", yet he believes he will have failed if it does not give its readers "some of the background they need for understanding the current circumstances of Britain and Ireland, and what the options are for change". He argues that identities, while circumstantial, are also dynamic: "Invade Iraq and Muslims in Leeds change their relationship with Britishness."

He believes, in the end, that history has some lessons for us: "From both Catholic and Protestant pulpits, the people of Northern Ireland should be reminded on a regular basis that, in 1689, the Pope supported King Billy." Although this book will be too dense and learned, too qualified, for some general readers, it is an important one. Kerrigan has performed one of the most useful functions of a responsible critic: he has complicated matters.

Given the lamentable lack of sophistication from most metropolitan journalists when writing about, for example, Wales, this can only be a good thing. We still need to understand the complex ebb and flow of currents in and around the archipelago that we find so hard to name.

Nicholas Murray's books include 'Andrew Marvell: world enough and time' (Abacus)