Book Talk S05E03 transcript: The Poet takes sides — The English Revolution and the French Revolution |
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Book Talk transcript : S05E03 — The poet takes sides: revolutions English and French

Jill Kitson: Hello and welcome to Book Talk. This week: The poet takes sides ... from the English Revolution to the French Revolution ... Clive James and Peter Porter in the third of six programs on the artist and politics, from Plato to the present.

The Australian poets Clive James and Peter Porter are long-time Londoners who share an equally long friendship. When they talked about the relationship between poets and rulers during the 17th and 18th centuries, Clive picked up their conversation from the previous week:

Clive James: Peter, I think we ended last week with you saying something scurrilous about Milton; we'll get to that in a minute. I just wanted to make the point that in the Elizabethan age, the artist was reasonably safe unless he was a Catholic, and then the 17th century came and suddenly life seemed to be dangerous for everybody. I think it's reflected quite sharply in the poetry of Fulke Greville, which I know you love. What's that beautiful poem that starts...

Peter Porter: It starts, 'Oh wearisome condition of humanity; born to one law, to another bound.'

Clive James: And then there's a lovely couplet later on that goes, 'If nature did not take delight in blood, she would have made more easy ways to good.' For me that sets the tone of a really troubled time — England's only true revolutionary period. In all of literary history since Chaucer, in artistic history, Britain really only has one revolutionary period and this is it. They're now entering into it, and how the artist relates to politics becomes extremely important, and we see it particularly, of course, in the case of Milton whom you vilified in the last program.

Peter Porter: Well, it's the only century in which you could say that Britain (because Scotland was involved as well) was involved in what I would call the politics of religion. People were always killing kings but they weren't always trying them. To have tried Charles the First was an extraordinary political act, not just to have killed him. But the reason why the puritans and the Presbyterians and the various parliamentarians could do this was because they were possessed of a new object, a new mind-set you might say, and that was religion. The Germans had killed themselves, and the reformation throughout the whole of Europe had been a terrible experience, millions dead in the Thirty Years War in Germany, but that hadn't really touched Britain until suddenly we get this whole century of enthusiasm which is really British politics ... becomes for the first time a religious politics.

Clive James: But it wasn't just religion, was it? There was a parliamentarian school of thought; the idea that you could do without a king. Until then kings had killed each other all right but that's because they wanted to be king. Now there was a real school of thought to say that there was another way to rule the country, and Cromwell personified it. And how the poets related to Cromwell became extremely important. For example, Milton did, didn't he? Milton was a...

Peter Porter: He was Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth, yes.

Clive James: But his liberal credentials weren't really all that bad. He wrote the great pamphlet against censorship, 'Aeropagitica'. It stands up today as a cry against licensing and censorship. And as Secretary of Foreign Languages under Cromwell, he served the protectorate of the Commonwealth well, but what was really fascinating about Milton is that his great period as a poet didn't really begin until near the end of the Commonwealth, until after he went blind, actually. As the end of Cromwell's time came, and the Stewarts were about to return, Milton didn't back down. He launched these terrifying polemics against the Stewarts, he was very lucky to get away with it. It's a great question, how he survived.

Peter Porter: Well, it's interesting that not all the, what you would call, the cavalier-type poets, and certainly not all the pastoral poets, not all the more relaxed poets, were on the king's side. A very good example was Andrew Marvell, of course. Andrew Marvell is almost as perfect a poet as George Herbert but he, of course, has a touch which is not really a religious touch. It's a touch of the common humanity of ... a poem like 'Upon Appleton House'; is an extraordinary example of imagination applied to ... almost the first great English gardening saga, 'Appleton House'; and yet when the time came he stayed loyal to the Commonwealth, he supported Fairfax, he supported Cromwell, he wrote the famous 'Horatian Ode' upon Cromwell's return from having butchered the Irish. Despite all that he stayed in parliament and he was able, as member for Kingston upon Hull, to protect Milton from the various kinds of regicides who were being dug up, if they were already dead, or executed if they were alive.

jc: His track record was impeccable there, and we shouldn't forget that towards the end of Cromwell's time, and Cromwell was coming back from Ireland, I think in order to repress the Scots ... I think he finished repressing the Irish and was moving on to repress the Scots. And Marvell welcomed him home, but in the 'Horatian Ode' he was very careful to include a mention of Charles the First that's actually quite favourable. He talks about Charles's death — 'That thence the royal actor [that's Charles] born, a tragic scaffold might adorn, while round the armoured bands did clap their bloody hands, he nothing common did or mean, upon that memorable scene. But with his keen eye the axes edge did try...' It's complimentary, and perhaps somehow this appealed to Cromwell too. Cromwell wasn't beyond the reach of a humane argument. Cleveland was the popular poet of the mid century ...

Peter Porter: He was a man who described the Scots as being 'the haemorrhoids on England's posterior'. So that wit travels through all that century, and the funny thing is that you get a combination of wit and extreme enthusiasm, even the puritans could be funny. Why I think that 'Paradise Lost' is the peculiar poem it is, is that it's a poem written in incredible defeat ...

Clive James: No laughs.

Peter Porter: No laughs, but also no sense that there's going to be any real paradise, any real fair society here on Earth. So we're back now in the first disobedience, we're back now in the Garden of Eden, we're back now in that great Jewish myth about how we all fell, and somehow Milton seems to think that maybe out of that, by going back and revisiting the first big defeat, he'll be able to explain away and give us some hope from the second defeat which he was worried about, which was Cromwell's defeat, the defeat of the Commonwealth.

Clive James: Yes, I think we have to get deeper into Milton, but my point about Cleveland is that he was popular because he was a royalist, and the royalist cause was defeated and I think he went to jail, anyway he was locked up. But he could appeal to Cromwell and he did, and successfully, and he was released. And when you look into the biographies, not all that many people died for their loyalties. It was either because Cromwell was forgiving or Charles the Second was or they both were. It was dangerous enough to have these opinions but somehow there's a reason why the writers got off, and I've got a feeling it's because there was a growing awareness that literature itself was valuable. Milton, I think, was probably regarded as valuable. I think what Marvel probably said in order to get Milton off the hook was something like, 'Look, he's as blind as a bat and he happens to be working on what could be the greatest poem of our time, and if you knock him off it's going to look bad.' But that brings us to just how good 'Paradise Lost' is, and here I get into trouble, I don't know if you do.

Peter Porter: Well, it's a peculiar poem isn't it? I once went through a strange experience — I was at the University of Edinburgh and they had a function there; one day of the year at the beginning of term, various persons would be assigned to reading it from the beginning of the morning until the evening. I happened to get some of the duller passages from Book Nine. The effect you got, listening to this, was rather like a long, long visit to church, but with a particularly playful and yet at the same time severe pastor making a sermon. I think sermons, you see, are enormously important. English literature is full of sermons, and of course the 17th century was the great period of sermons — people used to publish them, people used to read them, rather as nowadays they read newspapers. It is so curious in English literature, which is not a literature of religious feeling I think, that the 17th century is so deeply religious, but it's paradigmatic; it's the religion of a hope, and that religion of hope always ends up in a religion of despair.

jc: There's a connection between the sermon and the pamphlet isn't there? The pamphlet is a sermon for circulation, and of course Milton was very good at it. It's been said that if Milton had died at the end of his first poetic period, roughly when the Cromwellian period started, he'd be remembered for his early poems as one of the great Spenserians after Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest. And if he'd died after he'd written the pamphlets, he'd be remembered as the great prose writer and Spenserian poet, but then we have this bonus, this edition, which is 'Paradise Lost', 'Paradise Regained' and the third one, which is 'Samson Agonisties', which is thought of as one of the great achievements of English literature. It became actually a critical, crucial point in later centuries whether this was actually so. Eliot doubted it and then got into terrible trouble by retracting his doubts.

Peter Porter: It's amazing how often Milton is referred to later. Wordsworth has a solid beginning, 'Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour'. Byron quotes him continuously, 'Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope, thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey' et cetera. I mean, Milton is continuously being harked back to as a sort of talisman of truthfulness, courage and hope. Whereas in fact it seems to me that in many ways he was really like an Old Testament prophet — more happy when calling for the despair of humanity.

Clive James: Just how quotable is he? There are lines like, 'Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves' that ring in your head. I think that's from 'Samson Agonistes' ...

Peter Porter: It is, yes.

Clive James: But I don't find ... mostly because I'm simply not diligent enough, I never found my head teeming with quotable lines of Milton the way I do with Shakespeare. I don't think there's a line of Shakespeare I can't recognise at least or even place, but I never felt that way about Milton even when I was steeped in him.

Peter Porter: Well, Milton's quotable lines are not so much quotable in the sense of being memorable of their expression but for starting some new idea. For instance, after Satan has been overthrown and he's assembling all the mob in pandemonium to try and strike back against God, he's essentially reasonable, he's not actually very rhetorical. He says, 'What though the field be lost, all is not lost.'

Clive James: 'The unconquerable will, and study revenge and immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield, and what is else not to be overcome' — it's a general speech to the troops.

Peter Porter: Very much so. It's even, in fact, a speech in parliament, in a sense, isn't it? It's got that quality.

Clive James: But it goes off from there, in my view, that passage.

Peter Porter: Milton was a lawyer really, I think. He's a reasonable man, in many respects, despite his wild enthusiasms. But I think we should go back to the point you made earlier — the credit to be given to Cromwell. Now, there can never have been a more reasonable dictator than Oliver Cromwell, and this can be proven by looking at what is one of the strange pieces of literature of that period of the interregnum, of the time of the Commonwealth, when you get the letters exchanged between Dorothy Osborne and William Temple, and Osborne was a royalist and Temple was sort of a puritan. And yet all of this reflects what country life was doing in England at that time. It was remarkable how little Cromwell interfered with the people who owned the land, the rights to the land, the tithes, the principles, even the church was not much interfered with.

Clive James: Well I don't think any Irishman would agree with us but it is true that Cromwell left British society a lot more alone than he might have done. But my question here is, what happened afterwards when Britain actually ran out of patience with the Commonwealth and the Stewarts came back, and the remarkable thing is what didn't happen. There wasn't a row of writers' heads on Tower Bridge, and on the whole there was a transition, and Marvell of course is the archetypal case. Probably Marvell had great charm. Simply, he either pleased everybody or he convinced everybody that he was a reasonable man, but he made the transition fine.

Peter Porter: He paid a price for it, though, because while he was still, as it were, on the side of the ... well, it wasn't the Commonwealth but before the Commonwealth, when he was a puritan poet, he was secretary to Fairfax who was one of the parliamentary generals ... he wrote those marvellous poems like 'Upon Appleton House', which I think is such a wonderful poem, and all those gentle poems of the distillation of human feeling. But once the Restoration had got under way, he kept his seat in parliament, and he did vote continuously against the policies of the king, but he wrote no more of that wonderful poetry. He confined himself to satires in couplets, which have been collected in a famous book called Poems on the Affairs of State, and he wrote, of course, lines against the Dutch during the war. But, in a sense, he was a figure finished by the Restoration, and there we come on to what really ... what I think is the Restoration's great achievement, which is that once society was restored, so cynicism could be restored, and in that cynicism came one of the great expressions of English literature, that is to say, the restoration dramatists. I don't think there's a more perfect play in the English language than Etheridge's Man of Mode — and then later on you get the total extravagance, almost a sort of Firbanksian extravaganza — but this, although written in prose, is some of the most perfect kind of filigree writing that the English language has produced.

Clive James: I think we should pay tribute to the people who stuck to their principles and were forgiven for it. I suppose Milton and Marvell would be both high among those, but also a figure emerges who I think is much more typical from that day to this of the artist in behaving adroitly in a political crisis, in other words the high stepper, the man who knows how to dodge trouble — and that's Dryden, and you have to think very hard about what Dryden's principles were. In 1659 he wrote heroic stanzas for Cromwell's memory, and then, in 1660 with Charles II on his way back (or maybe he'd already come back), 'Astrea Redux', which is really howling his approval for the return of Charles. To do Dryden credit, he wasn't just trimming his sails to the wind because in 1688 of the glorious revolution, which is really the end of the Stewarts and the arrival of William of Orange, Dryden, who had become a Catholic in order to flourish, did not renounce his Catholicism. So he had principles, but the idea that the artist would adapt himself to political reality, that's something really ... well, it's not new in the world; Donne did probably, Donne hid his Catholicism. But from Dryden onwards, it becomes a feature. The artist continues to function no matter what the political landscape.

Peter Porter: At one time the artist was a chap that sat either, in the early days, round the campfire while the big chief did things or, subsequently, he became part of the jesters of the court. But by the time you get into these days of professional writers, the artist does become something of a hired pen, and I think that this is definitely what happened at the beginning, once you got into the 18th century, when you get polemic as part and parcel of the artist's job. Pope and Swift are impossible to imagine except in having a bias, having a side, being on a party's side, and of course being (within that side) often scrupulous, but nevertheless being definitely party men.

Clive James: Well you can't really imagine Swift without politics, can you? There are two kinds of politics, I think, in Swift. There's his relation to the British upper-class and how England shall be ruled, and then there's the continuing question, the question that had been there before, which Cromwell exacerbated, which continues to our day, which is the question of Ireland. Now, Swift ... was Swift Irish? He was, wasn't he?

Peter Porter: He was part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, yes.

Clive James: Well then, what was he doing in England?

Peter Porter: Well, it was the custom of all of them to do that. It was the custom of the people who were probably descended from the settlers and who were Protestants, to often come for their careers back in England, but some of them remained loyal to the country that they were brought up in. Congreve was an Irishman, for instance, but he behaved much more happily in the English scene.

Clive James: That's true right up until Shaw and then Yeats in the 20th century, isn't it, that the Irish established their base across the water?

Peter Porter: And sometimes they were the most liberal of men but reactionary in politics. A good example would be Edmund Burke, that's much later on of course, but here is a man who's trained to support the establishment Ireland, and then watching the French Revolution, feeling that a terrible danger was facing the whole of the country...

Clive James: Well, we've got the French Revolution coming up because, if the 17th century was a period of instability in Britain, it was a period of stability in the 18th century. I think it's one of the things that you admire about Pope, is the way that he's taking on the social structure and criticising it but he's not really asking for modification is he? He's enjoying it. 'The Rape of the Lock', which is a young man's poem, is a poem of supreme enjoyment. It's often enough pointed out how much fun Pope could have.

Peter Porter: I think it was Orton who said about 'The Rape of the Lock' that it was in fact a work of epic proportions because he was defending reason, sense and humour against all of its threats. And while it seems to be, on the face of it, a rather frivolous poem, in using the elaborate Homeric machinery which Pope so loved in Homer and turning it to the frivolous matter of a girl's lock of hair being cut off improperly, yet he makes that lock of hair as being raped, as it were ... he makes that into as big a deal as the abduction which caused the Trojan war, and does so exactly in a set of circumstances which everybody reading could understand. It can, of course, be attacked by rather extreme puritan people as being representative of a frivolous age, but I don't think it was frivolous.

Clive James: And he's not saying that. He's not a social revolutionary poet, and most of the writers that we admire in the 18th century are not ...

Peter Porter: But he was very good at spite. A work like 'The Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot' is a marvellous example of a personal spite brought against people, at the time he's commending his friends like Gay and Swift. But there was something he did fear; he did fear anarchy, and the last two lines of 'The Dunciad' are the most perfect demonstration of that, you know, 'Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall, and universal darkness buries all.' And this was something Pope seriously feared.

Clive James: Well, anarchy was on the way, the great Anarch was going to be let loose by the French Revolution, and there were even writers who welcomed the prospect. You might think of Blake but I was going to mention Dr Johnson, who's my idea, still, of the conservative thinker whose mind is so sharp that he encompasses rebellious opinions. But Johnson saw a long way ahead and saw the danger in the urge to better mankind. He questioned the motives of those who wanted to do so, and there's a wonderful exchange between him and Boswell, I've got it here, I want to read it. When he says 'sensibly' he means 'sensitively' of course, that was the usage at the time.

[reads] Boswell: 'I have often blamed myself sir, for not feeling for others as sensible as many say they do.' And Johnson replies, 'Sir, don't be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling.'

Now this is a very penetrating comment. Johnson is really saying, 'Beware of this urge for universal charity and the betterment of mankind. Charity not only begins at home but home is all you know, and the social order you've got is the one that you must cling to and perfect.' This is a statement that rings right through English literature from then on, even in the 19th century, long after the revolution. Dickens is really saying the same thing in Bleak House with Mrs Jellaby's concern for ...

Peter Porter: Borrio-boola-Gha ...

Clive James: Borrio-boola-Gha, and the transfer of the native population from the left bank of the Niger to the right bank or whatever it was. We'll get to that later on when we get to Dickens, but this statement is only possible from a writer who is more or less content with the social order and thinks it is the right one. But Britain or England or Britain under the union, as you might call it, is enjoying a luxury which does not really obtain in continental Europe, and after the French Revolution, certainly won't obtain. Britain has political stability and, of course, France hadn't, and that's where the revolution was going to brew.

Peter Porter: I think I ought to enter a caveat here, though, that the one thing about Johnson and all of his team was that they were great realists — and realism also, looking at the actual condition of the people in England (particularly in England) were somewhat dismayed by it in many respects, because from Goldsmith on to Crabbe and even perhaps parts of Blake you find the other side of the coin. Now, Goldsmith was of course a friend and colleague of Johnson's, but in 'The Deserted Village' Goldsmith laments the condition of the countryside, laments what he considers to be the bad management of the very class of persons whom Johnson defends. The very famous lines which are often used in modern British parliaments, and no doubt even in Australian parliaments, that Goldsmith adds to 'The Deserted Village', 'Ill fares the land to hastening ills are prey where wealth accumulates and men decay.' Now, this is commonly thought of as the beginning of the industrial revolution; it's nothing to do with the industrial revolution, though it has to do with the enclosures. People looking at that kind of England that Johnson and Pope were so much celebrants of, also saw seething discontents of various kinds. Now, whether those serious discontents were made possibly vital in politics, I'm not certain, but they certainly were not made particularly vital in literature, because even a novelist like Smollett and Fielding, they would deal with them, but they would deal with them without particularly deploring them. And I think we have to admit the calm, the English calm of the 18th century was also based upon an expansionist policy overseas as well.

Clive James: And not very many of the artists suggested cutting off the king's head, whereas in France things got to the point where they did, which really brings us to another question because Blake, for example, probably condoned the idea of social revolution. But after the French Revolution, there were second thoughts in Britain. Those who would favour the idea of violent social change either gradually or precipitously retreated from it, and I think that probably takes us to our next subject, of what happens to the young poets after a dream fades.

Jill Kitson: Clive James, ending that discussion with Peter Porter: the third of six programs on art and politics, from Plato to the present. Program four will be broadcast next week.

The title of Peter Porter's new collection of poems is Afterburner. Clive's latest is The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958–2003. Picador publishes them both. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk.

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