Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden

Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden

Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden

Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden

Synopsis

This is a major study of the relation between poetry and politics in sixteenth and seventeenth-century English literature, focusing in particular on the works of Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, and Dryden. Taking issue with the traditional concept of the political poem and with recent New Historicist criticism, Erskine-Hill argues that the major tradition of political allusion is not, as has often been argued, that of the political allegory of Dryden's Absolom and Architophel and other overtly political poems, but rather a more shifting and less systematic practice, often involving equivocal or multiple reference.

Excerpt

The chief contention of this book is that there is a political component, often involving contemporary political ideas and historical circumstance, in some of the most powerful poetic works of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature, works which have in the past been usually read for their aesthetic achievement and generalized wisdom. I argue that this political component is an eventual part of their aesthetic life, and that that, in its turn, is part of that wider historical culture which it is the vocation of scholarship to explore with as much imagination and disinterestedness as it can.

Poetry is the first term in my title, and my first purpose here is to say what kind of poetry I intend to discuss, and why I begin and end where I do.

It seemed clear to me that the book had to open with the mid- Renaissance, in the period of Spenser and Shakespeare. To have gone back beyond the establishment of a print culture to the great medieval poets would have been to confront different problems of communication and reception. While in the earlier sixteenth century Skelton and Wyatt are distinguished forerunners of Spenser and Jonson respectively in the composition of a poetry conscious of issues in affairs of state, they are hardly comparable with Spenser and Shakespeare in the sheer scope of their public and historical awareness. the book, then, had to begin with either Shakespeare or Spenser. To some extent, as I hope to show, it opens with both. But, further, it was a priority that the 'Poetry' of my title should encompass a significant body of dramatic poetry. If we seek to trace the part of political awareness within the poetic presentation of human experience we are bound to pay special attention to literary forms which accommodate opposing or diverse forces and choices, for example King Richard and King Henry within the text of Shake- speare's Richard ii. One of the greatest short political poems of the seventeenth century,Andrew Marvell 'Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland', does expressly that, and it is significant how poignantly this text recalls the dramatic presentation of an earlier age. Shakespeare's Histories, in their close yet paradoxical relation with the public issues of the 1590s, offered (it seemed to me) . . .

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