John Rogers. The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. xvi+257pp. ISBN 0 8014 3238 3 Cloth.
Andrew McRae
University of Sydney

McRae, Andrew. "Review of The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 4.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_mcr1.html>.

  1. A document in the Public Record Office, dated March 5, 1651, links John Milton to the publication of two very different texts. The note directed to the Council of State firstly recommends the reprint of Milton's Defence of the English People; and secondly records his complaint about the unauthorized publication of a treatise on rickets. This curious conjunction of Milton's political activism and scientific interest has never attracted more than passing reference from biographers. For John Rogers, however, it is one of many signposts to "the cultural intersections between those two events of seventeenth-century history known to us as the English and the Scientific Revolutions" (ix).

  2. Rogers focuses on the philosophy of vitalism, which "holds in its tamest manifestation the inseparability of body and soul and, in its boldest, the infusion of all material substance with the power of reason and self-motion" (1). Although vitalism seems always to have carried an air of anachronism, it influenced a range of intellectual activity at the height of the Revolution, and informed the work of several major writers into the Restoration. Crucially, Rogers argues, vitalism drew together political and scientific speculation, each of which was concerned with understanding agents of change. The age's "analogical imperative" (9) authorized the search for correspondences between the human body, the natural world, and the nation.

  3. The Matter of Revolution is principally a text-based study, but moves with magisterial ease through discourses of science, religion and politics. It is an example of historicism at its very best: widely informed and immensely informative. At the heart of the book stands William Harvey, best known for his work on the circulation of blood, and fascinating in his uncertainty about the force propelling that motion. Early in his career, the body was a kingdom and the heart was its king; by 1649, however, blood itself was represented as the motivating agent. In the year of Charles I's execution, Harvey thus subjected "the government of the circulatory system" to its own "revolution" (20). For Rogers, this shift was neither an act of political opportunism, nor a sign of Harvey's own politics. It was, however, a central contribution to the "dangerously antiauthoritarian logic of the Vitalist Moment" (27).

  4. Other chapters of the book focus on better-known authors. A chapter on Gerrard Winstanley and Andrew Marvell identifies a discourse of political agency characterized by a paradoxical passivism and a perception of nature as a revolutionary force. This argument is particularly effective in accounting for the blend of activity and passivity in Marvell's pastoral poetry. Rogers develops the line of analysis further in a chapter exploring the significance Marvell attaches to sexual abstinence. Virginity, especially in "Upon Appleton House," represents a certain religious and biological ideal, which forms the basis for a revolutionary conception of the individual and political organization. Sexual politics are raised again later in an analysis of Margaret Cavendish, who is seen to exploit the latent antipatriarchal logic of vitalism. Though Rogers perhaps seeks greater coherence in Cavendish's scientific tracts than they allow, he ably demonstrates their liberalism and opposition to gender-based oppression.

  5. The impressive central chapters concentrate on Milton, deftly sliding from his political works to an analysis of Paradise Lost. Rogers' account of Milton's science of creation and chaos is particularly impressive, throwing new light on the poem by going where many previous critics have feared to tread. His subsequent discussion of the expulsion pursues a central tension in the text, between an authoritarian conception of the universe and a revolutionary discourse of agency. Hence, while Michael is sent by God to drive Adam and Eve out of Paradise, it is also possible to identify a perception of the perfect natural world purging itself of impurities, leaving the first couple alone at the close under the law of nature.

  6. Rogers concedes that vitalism's long-term impact was not great. Although it proffered a powerful form of liberalism, this vision was subsumed in the latter seventeenth century by Cartesian mechanism and Hobbesian authoritarianism. The liberalism of the eighteenth century was based therefore on a rejection of vitalism: "the new member of the liberal polity would be the negotiating citizen rather than the divinized saint" (226). But Rogers' study demonstrates the influence and the potential of a particular conception of nature and the nation, in all its "logical outlandishness" (ix) and imaginative appeal. His book is an achievement of stunning intellectual force and marvelously subtle interpretation. It demands the attention of anyone interested in the major writers and political movements of the seventeenth century.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(JD, PB, LH, RGS, 11 September 1997)