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


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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions