Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Dan Jaeckle


Marvell's “Mower against Gardens”

Reconsidering Bakhtinian Dialogism

One fault line in current seventeenth-century literary studies separates two kinds of ideological readings. The first type assumes that every work is politically committed and seeks to expose that commitment through analysis. The second type views literature more as a reflection or refraction of society than as a direct participant in its ideological struggles. It assesses the picture of society that the work presents by examining the style by means of which that picture is fashioned. The result of the recent focus on literature as overtly polemical has been healthy to the extent that the field has become more fully aware of the ways in which many works traditionally considered literary resemble other works previously classed as nonliterary. This refiguring of the ideas of canon and context has provided scholars with a more complete and coherent picture of seventeenth-century British society. 1. However, such readings come with a cost. Not all literary works seek primarily to participate in the ideological wars of their day. For those that attempt instead to reflect ideological contests by organizing them in and through their styles, strategies of reading that attend to the refractive angles of style are needed.

One helpful approach is that which Mikhail Bakhtin develops in his essay “Discourse in the Novel.” As is by now well known, for Bakhtin the key feature of what he calls dialogic literature is its ability to refract the complex interaction among ideologies within the society of the author. When the dialo-

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1.
Historical and political criticism of Marvell's work dominated the 1990s, inaugurated by Conal Condren and A. D. Cousins, eds., The Political Identity of Andrew Marvell (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1990); and concluded by Warren Chernaik and Martin Dzelzainis, eds., Marvell and Liberty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999). Both collections generously treat his Restoration prose and satiric poetry, although the essays vary widely in their approaches to historical contextualization, especially in the latter collection.

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