Landscaping the Field of Discourse: Political Slant and Poetic Slope in Sir John Denham's "Cooper's Hill."

Article excerpt

If Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson, both admirers of "Cooper's Hill," had traveled back in time to the scene of the poem's composition, they would have noticed a strong contrast between the pacific topography of the poem itself and the bellicose mental landscape of the poem's original audience. They would have noticed an apparent discontinuity between the poem's fluid, balanced style (the chief object of their admiration) and the raging acrimony of much political discourse among the poet's contemporaries.

In August of 1642, when Sir John Denham first published "Cooper's Hill," England was in a state of crisis. Twenty-eight months earlier King Charles had threatened and bullied the English "Short Parliament" in a vain attempt to get funding to impose on Scotland, by force of arms, the episcopal and sacramentalist Anglicanism he had already instituted in England. When English representatives reassembled six months later, the "Long Parliament," which would eventually execute Charles 1, was no more cooperative. Over the next several months Parliament responded by refusing funding to subjugate the Scottish Kirk, by impeaching and executing the king's ministers, by disbanding the armed forces at the king's command, and by decapitating Caroline Anglicanism within England itself. In January of 1642 Charles separated himself from Parliament and fled Whitehall. Shortly thereafter he installed himself in York and attempted to have the courts of justice removed from London as well. In effect, the king who had prorogued Parliament four times in his short reign, once for a stretch of eleven years, was now attempting to disenfranchise Parliament, to move the seat of government out of London, and to claim, contrary to Magna Charta, that English sovereignty resided not in the "king-in-parliament" but, if necessary, in a king without or at war with Parliament. When Parliament responded with its own ultimatum in june of 1642, Charles "raised his standard at Nottingham," and the shooting war began in late August of 1642, just days after the publication of "Cooper's Hill."

This sketch of events leading to the outbreak of war, once accepted among historians as fundamentally accurate, would now provoke serious objections-not because the events listed are muddled or unimportant but because the sketch creates a false impression in its ommissions and because it tends to project back onto the 1630s and 1640s the dynamics of a constitutional conflict that first came to clarity much later, in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and in the consolidation of Parliament's governing functions vis-a-vis the Hanoverian kings. No longer viewing the early Stuart period primarily as a chapter in the long-term ascent of British parliamentary governance, many historians now aim to recover a Geertzian "thick description" of the Stuart age in its own terms;(1) they pay more attention to middle-term and short-term dynamics of conflict, including the increasingly partisan resonances of legal, religious, and literary discourses in the months preceding armed hostilities. The concerns of today's historians and of literary scholars thus often merge into a common framework for understanding the English Civil War in its cultural contours.(2)

Within this new framework, "Cooper's Hill" becomes an important and interesting document, for it represents both a mid-seventeenth-century vision of the social landscape and a particularly rich discursive stimulus to the impending crisis. Whereas historians once regarded the polemical literature of the period merely as the froth of deeper turmoil, scholars now typically regard texts like "Cooper's Hill" as part of a discursive escalation that transformed social tension into a violent eruption.

My reading of "Cooper's Hill" aims for this kind of reconstruction of the semiotic field or "field of discourse" in which Denham's poem is a highly partisan act. In order to reveal the partisan nature of that act, I describe the coded terms, loci, and events against which Denham's readers, especially those readers hostile to his religious and political claims, would understand his poem. …