David Norbrook. Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. xiv+510pp. ISBN 0 521 63275 7 Cloth.
Scott Nixon
The Queen's College, Oxford

Nixon, Scott. "Review of Writing the English Republic." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 7.1-6 URL:

  1. It is ironic that David Norbrook constantly emphasises the antipathy of the republican imagination to the monumental, since that epithet could justly be applied to his own monograph. A vast range of primary evidence is harnessed in this impressive study to elaborate its central theme: that the literary expression of republicanism flourished for some twenty years on either side of the short-lived Commonwealth of 1649-53. Norbrook commences by observing that the post-Restoration Act of Indemnity and Oblivion seems to have been effective in concealing the republican imagination of seventeenth-century England from later scholars. His aim is to recover those traces that do remain, and to reconstruct that which has been lost. One of Norbrook's main achievements is to revive writers such as May, Wither, Marten and Harrington, who were of great contemporary significance, and to place them in relation to each other and the events to which they responded. Given the wealth of material, the sophistication of the argument, and the complexity of analysis, this text is also remarkable for the eloquence and clarity of its prose. Norbrook eschews jargon and convoluted syntax, demonstrating that difficult ideas need not be expressed in difficult language.

  2. The polished style is matched by a simple structure. Norbrook covers the period from the expedition to the Ile de Rhé in 1627 through to the Restoration in chronological order. This approach does lead to some repetition, as the same writers are covered in different chapters, but has the compensating virtue of placing individual texts in the context of political change. No doubt the decision to commence the study in the early years of Charles's reign, when hardly anyone at all advocated, or at least would admit to advocating, the formation of a republic, could provoke criticism. But this is a deliberate part of Norbrook's design. He does not claim that there was a republican movement in 1627, but rather that we must go back to that period in order to understand the forms in which republican thought was expressed in later decades. To emphasise this point, Norbrook frames his study with the place of Lucan in the republican imagination. He opens with a discussion of Thomas May's translation of Pharsalia, whose first instalment appeared in 1627, and concludes with a persuasive analysis of the importance of that epic for understanding the politics of Paradise Lost. Norbrook points out that Patrick Hume, whose commentary on Milton's poem appeared in 1695, offers more references to Pharsalia than any subsequent critic. Three hundred years later, Norbrook recovers this context for the modern reader.

  3. The foundation for Norbrook's argument lies in detailed archival research. He draws not only on hundreds of printed books and pamphlets, but on manuscript texts as well, and uses bibliographical information to great effect. The quality of the literary criticism is enhanced rather than impeded by the wealth of textual evidence. Indeed, the extent of the material to which he refers is an important part of his argument: the aim is to establish the range of literature generated by the republican imagination, the guises in which it appeared, and points of similarity and difference between individual texts. It emerges that republican thought, rather than a minority reaction to unexpected events in a short space of time, was a prominent strand in literature throughout the middle decades of the seventeenth century.

  4. The main characteristic that Norbrook identifies as integral to republican literature is its preoccupation with the sublime. This is said to distinguish it from the "easy, specious harmony" of royalist verse (137). Norbrook seems to be recalling Pope's description of royalist poets as the "mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease" ("The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace," l. 108). Two elements of this remark should be noted. First, by lumping royalist writers together as a mob, Pope diminishes their individual talents; and secondly, by placing the emphasis upon ease, he suggests flippancy and amateurism. Norbrook is quite right to stress the importance of recovering a valuable part of our literary heritage. However, it can at times seem that he is seeking to elevate republican literature by denigrating royalist literature in the same terms as Pope. It would be unfortunate if Norbrook's work led to a diminution of interest in Caroline writers. Despite their royalist connections, poets such as Corbett, Strode and King, who were widely read throughout the period surveyed by Norbrook, have perhaps suffered the same fate as writers such as May and Wither. This is not the result of a literary cover-up, but rather is due to excessive concentration on those poets whom we today regard as canonical, with less regard for those writers whose work was most popular and influential at the time. Norbrook has shown that archival research can recover the work of once-prominent republican writers who have fallen out of favour. His work should provoke, rather than deter, similar work on royalist writers of the period.

  5. Indeed, the choice of the 'sublime' as a means of dividing republicans and royalists may itself be queried. The definition that Norbrook offers is that of Longinus (via John Hall's translation): "the sublime is indeed harmonious and unified, but only just -- 'things ... widely different are here by a strange artifice brought together'" (138). Norbrook regularly uses Lucan's phrase, "concordia discors," as a shorthand for this quality. Surprisingly, he does not avert to the famous passage in which Samuel Johnson employs almost identical terms to describe the characteristic wit of the royalist poet Abraham Cowley and other 'metaphysical' writers: "Wit ... may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, [the metaphysical poets] have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." [1] Indeed, in the terms set out above, Carew's famous elegy on Donne could be read as a celebration of the sublime over the simply harmonious:
              to the awe of thy imperious wit
    Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
    With her tough-thick-rib'd hoopes to gird about
    Thy Giant phansie, which had prov'd too stout
    For their soft melting Phrases. [2]

    Note the term "imperious." There is no sense here that the 'sublime' is antithetical to the royalist imagination. Indeed, Carew, himself a courtier to King Charles, describes Donne as ruling the "universal Monarchy of wit" (l. 96). So, the royalist-harmony / republican-sublime dichotomy appears difficult to maintain. In the 1630s, literary and political divisions were not so clear-cut.

  6. Norbrook's study will undoubtedly become a standard text for all courses devoted to seventeenth-century literature. It offers new insights into the work of Milton and Marvell, placing their achievement in the context of writers who deserve wider recognition. It would, however, be a pity if this thorough and thought-provoking account of the republican imagination led to an undervaluing of royalist literature. After all, the underlying theme of Norbrook's work is that the academy should strive to recover, rather than conspire to obscure, the literary achievement of those writers whose politics have fallen out of favour.


1. Johnson, 'Cowley', in Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1905), I. 20.

2. The Poems of Thomas Carew, ed. R. Dunlap (Oxford, 1949), pp. 71-4, ll. 49-53.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).