Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse, 1625-1660

By Peter Davidson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

1: PROBLEMS AND DEFINITIONS

The Cavaleers are foes, stand uppe now, stand uppe now
The Cavaleers are foes stand uppe now
The Cavaleers are foes, themselves they do disclose,
by verses not in prose, To please the singing boyes
Stand uppe now diggers all.

These lines from no. 262 identify verse exclusively with the royalist side of the conflicts of the mid-century and honest prose with the parliament and the radicals. Thus, on the face of it, they ratify and support the old route-map of conventional literary studies where a few 'Cavalier' poets fill the gap in English verse between 'The Metaphysicals' and 'The Augustans'. Yet the very existence of the lines quoted above questions and subverts the simplistic statement which they make. The making of verse is criticized through the medium of forceful and disturbing verse: verse is speaking from the most radical end of the parliamentarian spectrum (or beyond it). This verse constitutes a direct challenge to the old order represented by the institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, and Church hierarchy. And yet it includes the use of verse as one of the charges drawn up against an enemy, whose poets are the 'Cavalier poets' identified by the conventional literary histories.

This is a fair example of the contradictions which the verse writing of the mid- century offers to the reader. These problems have inevitably worked their way into the very shape of this anthology: there is necessarily a kind of split intrinsic to any collection which tries to give a broad representation of the writing of this complex period. In the conditions of the years of war and revolution, when new voices from the most divergent religious and political backgrounds became audible alongside the canonical (though newly outlawed) lamentations of the royalists, the position is very different. In the 1620s and 1630s it is indeed generally true to say that verse is the more visible literary form of the traditional élite, prose the more visible literary form of those beginning, ever more urgently, to question that élite's policies and assumptions. Thus, it is appropriate that much of the material in Parts I, II, and IV of this anthology are drawn from the published or scribally circulated works of already-canonical writers, from the stock of writing generally labelled as 'Cavalier'. But there is also much other material and there are numerous exceptions to this grand simplification. Much women's writing of this period maintains the persisting modes of sixteenth-century popular verse and thus appears stylistically distinct. A flourishing tradition of English and Scots-language ballad-making persisted, and is represented here. The parallel traditions of Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Welsh poetry are dependent on a different educational tradition, and on a thousand-year-old formal poetic with its own metres and allusions which

-xlvi-

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