Prophets of a lost paradise

350 years ago today, the English beheaded their anointed king. Tom Paulin uncovers and celebrates the forgotten Republicans; Writing the English republic: poetry, rhetoric and politics 1627-1660 by David Norbrook Cambridge University Press, pounds 40, 523pp

Today's date is given in the Oxford University Diary as the feast of "Charles I, King and Martyr". Until last month, the distinguished scholar and critic David Norbrook was an English tutor at the university but, perhaps exasperated by all those smug dinners with toasts to the Queen, he resigned and emigrated to the republic of the United States. His marvellously original, densely researched study of the English republican imagination (and intellect, one should stress) is an attempt to retrieve forgotten figures like the regicide Henry Marten, as well as to extend our understanding of the work of Milton and Marvell.

As Britain moves towards either a republic or a reduced monarchy, Writing the English Republic should help us to understand both the tragedy and the glory of this partly-buried period of English literary history. What Milton called "the ostentatious parade of royalty" may even become a thing of the past. No longer a literary theme park, Britain will be a vigorous new republic which no longer needs (Milton again) "that flatulent cry of the royal blood". But in order to do this a long period of historical amnesia will need to be addressed, and the shades of many ancestors brought back towards what Milton terms the "great palace now of light".

This burying of the past was in its time a civilised process which aimed to heal the wounds left by the two civil wars the English fought in the 1640s. However, as Norbrook points out, Charles's minions - like the previously loyal Cromwellian Sir George Downing, for whom the street is named - hunted down several regicides who were brutally executed. They were half-hanged, their genitals cut off and their intestines burnt in front of them.

Beyond this barbarity, the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion banned "any name or names, or other words of reproach tending to revive the memory of the late differences". Norbrook's study attempts to counter the effects of this erasure. Suppressing the republican element in English culture means that most British citizens have an impoverished idea of their national past.

To begin the process of educating us as citizens, scholars like Norbrook need to spend years in libraries like the Bodleian (that library bravely hid Milton's books after the Restoration, rather than obey an order to burn them). One of his major discoveries concerns the Roman poet Lucan, whose epic poem Pharsalia, about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, is central to the English republican imagination.

Virgil and Horace remain strong presences in English poetry, but Lucan's austere republicanism has been lost. Christopher Marlowe's resonant translation of the first book of the Pharsalia was published after his murder, and my hunch is that Milton remembered part of it ("rings of fire/ Fly in the air, and dreadful bearded stars,/ And comets that presage the fall of kingdoms") when he dictated these lines about Satan's obscured glory:

as when the sun new risen

Looks through the horizontal misty air

Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon

In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds

On half the nations, and with fear of change

Perplexes monarchs

Charles II's Licenser of the Press regarded these lines as politically subversive. If he had spotted the parallels between Milton's Satan and Lucan's Caesar, he might also have seen that Paradise Lost celebrates the English republic right from the opening address to the Holy Spirit. Among Norbrook's discoveries is a pamphlet in which a republican theorist echoes the opening of Genesis ("the earth was without form and void") to describe the historical situation out of which the English commonwealth was created. God's creation of the universe is analogous both to the emergence of republican England, and the divine inspiration which builds Paradise.

Norbrook is particularly interesting on the way in which political theory derived from Lucan and Machiavelli informs writing during this period. He shows how discord and turbulence were seen as central to the health of a state. Where Virgil and Horace liked to sing of concord, Lucan describes both the Roman state and the cosmos as an unstable, discordant mechanism. Where royalists believed in beauty, concord, unity, puritan republicans believed in sublimity, free speech and a turbulent iconoclasm.

This battle, both political and aesthetic, informs a sermon by William Laud which is another of Norbrook's compelling discoveries. Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and died on the scaffold like his master Charles I, was at this time Bishop of London. On 17 March 1628, he gave a sermon at the opening of parliament which alludes to Caesar's overthrow of Pompey and the Emperor Frederick's triumph over Saladin. By analogy, Caesar and the last important medieval Holy Roman Emperor are Charles I, while Pompey and Saladin are those puritan members of parliament who 17 years later would convict Laud of treason and cut off his head. As Norbrook states, Laud's sermon "publicly and provocatively aligned the Anglican church with the goal of crushing republican liberty."

One of the triumphs of Norbrook's historical method of reading literary texts is the close attention he pays to particular words and lines of verse. Thus Marvell, at the start of the "Horatian Ode on Cromwell's Return from Ireland", uses the word "now" three times:

The forward youth that would appear

Must now forsake the muses dear

And now the Irish are ashamed

The Pict no shelter now shall find

As Norbrook shows, this use of "now" is linked to Sir Peter Lely's portrait of Henry Marten, that forgotten regicide, which has the word NOW inscribed on it.

The word is a Machiavellian injunction to decisive action, "to seize the occasion, perhaps linked with regicide". Although Marvell compares Charles I to Caesar in the "Horatian Ode", he famously ends the poem by warning that the same - i.e. military - arts that "did gain/ A power, must it maintain". Cromwell, he implies, may yet become Caesar himself.

Milton, it may be, shared a similar reservation. He both eulogises Cromwell in his hugely eloquent and heroic pamphlet "Second Defence of the People of England", and warns him not to "invade that liberty which you have defended". Arguing that Cromwell ought not to assume the title of king, Milton - in a passage Norbrook quotes - activates the style of anti- courtly sublime: "You deservedly reject that pomp of title which attracts the gaze and admiration of the multitude. For what is a title but a certain definite mode of dignity; but actions such as yours surpass, not only the bounds of our admiration, but our titles; and, like the points of pyramids, which are lost in the clouds, they soar above the possibilities of titular commendation."

In my view, this is a passage which also allows us to see deep into Milton's political subconscious by tracing that curious, almost Magritte-like comparison of Cromwell's epic actions to pyramids. Compare this passage with some lines from Book Five of Paradise Lost:

and Satan to his royal seat

High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount

Raised on a mount, with pyramids and towers

From diamond quarries hewn, and rocks of Gold

We can recognise that pyramids, like Egypt itself, have Satanic connotations for Milton. He coded his detestation of Charles I and Charles II under the symbolic figure of the blind Pharaoh, the slayer of the Israelites' first-born sons.

In another prose work, "The Reason of Church Government", Milton compares the rule of bishops to a "pyramid" that aspires and sharpens to ambition: "the most dividing, and schismatical form that geometricians know of". Like William Blake, Milton disliked triangles, and by identifying them with Cromwell, he was bringing his anxieties about the direction of Cromwell's rule to the surface.

What emerges from Norbrook's plenary work is the need for a new edition of Paradise Lost which explains the many historical and literary allusions which are missing from modern versions. To read that supreme epic of English republican liberty is to be struck again and again by the fact that it is a patchwork of quotations from other texts, as well as a shimmer of glancing allusions to contemporary events.

Satan, for example, is compared to mist because the Royalists broke a treaty with Parliament during the Civil War and ambushed a parliamentary army under cover of fog near Brentwood in Essex. Meanwhile, these anti- royalist lines:

More solemn than the tedious pomp that

waits

On princes, when their rich retinue long

Of horses led, and grooms besmeared with gold

pick up statements by Lady Macbeth after King Duncan's murder. Milton is associating royal pomp and ceremony with a murderous would-be king, though I wonder if at a deeper subconscious level there may be some knot of regicide guilt here.

If a non-specialist can pick up such allusions, how many more can a Milton scholar find? Now that he has hatched Writing the English Republic out of the abyss of royalist Oxford, I suggest that an ambitious publisher invite Norbrook to do a new edition of Paradise Lost. One thing, sadly, is certain. That publisher will not be Oxford University Press, for that disastrously managed and discredited outfit - a department of the university - has axed its poetry list. Did the academics who are styled "delegates to the press" resign? No: like Satan's minions, they clung to the cliff ledge of their bountiful free books. As we wait for that shining new edition of Paradise Lost, let us give thanks for those long years this exemplary Scottish scholar spent in the Bodleian Library, researching the deep structures of English liberty.

Tom Paulin is a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford

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