Reviewed by J. Mark Heumann
Some years ago, I took a summer fellowship at the Clark Library, UCLA, to study “English Poetry, 1646-1655″—in other words, the Stanley circle. From there I was led into years of tracing associations and collecting primary documents. A road trip through England took me through Sheffield (the Hartlib Papers project was in full force, and the scholars turned me away), to Marston Moor, through York, to Durham, where the librarian received me with kindness and admitted me to the chapter library where John Hall had studied mathematics with Jonas Moore. My final stop was Cumberlow Green, Hertfordshire, seat of Thomas Stanley. Nothing was there except yet another working farm. I never did anything with the wealth of materials I had collected. I don’t think I could see the forest for the trees. Thus, I am thankful to Nicholas McDowell for giving meaningful shape to it all.
McDowell’s book focuses on the period from the end of the first Civil War in 1646 to the period of doubt and recollection that followed the King’s execution in 1649. This was the period when Thomas Stanley was in residence in London, at the Middle Temple, and collected about him a circle of major and mostly minor literary lights–to wit, Edward Sherburne, William Hammond, and William Fairfax (all in residence there), John Hall (at Gray’s Inn), James Shirley, Richard Lovelace, Robert Herrick, Alexander Brome, Richard Brome, and . . . Andrew Marvell, whose association with the Stanley circle rests most materially on three poems: the elegy for Francis Villiers, the commendatory poem to Lovelace’s Lucasta, and the Hastings elegy published in Lachrymae Musarum. McDowell calls his task “the imaginative reconstruction of the social context in which Marvell wrote many of the lyrics,” one which “can also open up new perspectives on the early public poetry and the early political identity” (2).
At the center of the Stanley circle, McDowell shows us, was an absence, a profound sense of loss of the cultural center and locus of artistic patronage that was the Caroline court. Herrick, Sherburne, Shirley, and Richard Brome had been cast out of their positions or deprived of livelihood with the closing of the theatres. The younger poets, Hall and Marvell, wondered where patronage was to be found. Stanley, independently wealthy and a scholar, provided both money and sustaining fellowship: “The assistance Marvell received from Stanley and his circle may not have been material so much as social and literary—Marvell’s involvement with the group allowed him to meet and read the work of other poets, some established and some, like himself, at the beginning of their careers” (5).
Stanley himself was a committed royalist, and most of his associates took the same stance, at least during this period. But, as McDowell shows, political allegiance and political identities were fluid and evolving in this historical moment. The King had been defeated, and then he was defeated again in 1648. Government was in the hands of Parliament—but a Parliament dominated by the Presbyterians? Or by the Army? While the outcome and the source of stability were in doubt, where could anyone place his trust and his hopes? If anything shaped the political thinking of this group of intellectuals, it was the threat of political and religious domination by the Presbyterians—”the new forcers of conscience,” as Milton called them.
At the artistic center of the Stanley circle, McDowell finds the concern with wit,
a key cultural value that Lovelace, Hall, Marvell, Stanley, and Milton all sought to advance, although they may have disagreed about some of the forms in which it was properly manifest and about the political and social circumstances which would best further it… “Wit” became politicized during the civil wars as royalists sought to claim a monopoly of literary and linguistic talent over a Parliamentary opposition and government that they represented as stereotypically Puritan and thus grim, philistine, and deeply hostile to the arts. (8)
The theme of royalist cultural superiority and Puritan philistinism is found throughout the commendatory poems that accompany Humphrey Moseley’s publications of poetry and drama in the 1640s and 1650s. “Royalist writers used such commendatory poems to create a sense of solidarity and to preserve the cultural values that they regarded as endangered with the dissolution of the court” (84-85). These publications included the works of deceased “role models”—Beaumont and Fletcher, Carew, Suckling, Cartwright–and modern writers: Milton, Stanley, Shirley, Herrick, Lovelace, Richard Brome, and many others. These commendatory poems, along with poems in collections, are the starting point for reconstructing the Stanley circle and the more tenuous associations with literati such as Denham and Berkenhead.
As McDowell reconstructs it, the Stanley circle was a “scribal community” along the lines described by Harold Love (Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England [Oxford UP, 1993]), involving reading aloud, explication, discussion, even poetic competitions (cf. Stella P. Revard, “Thomas Stanley and ‘A Register of Friends,'” in Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds., Literary Circles and Cultural Communities in Renaissance England [U Missouri P, 2000], 148-172). Stanley and his friends were particularly interested in modern Continental poetry—St. Amant, Théophile de Viau, Góngora, Marino, Preti—and Greek and Latin poetry, both ancient and modern. Among the latter was Anacreon, and a good bit of drinking probably accompanied reading various anacreontics (135, 163).
Getting down to cases, McDowell addresses works by Milton, Hall, Lovelace, and Marvell that appear in the period and reflect its political issues and literary life. McDowell sees Milton’s publication of his Poems (1645) as indicating his “desire to reconnect with the cultivated circles in which he had moved before the outbreak of the war and his reluctant (or so he assures us) assumption of the role of prose polemicist” (74). “To my friend Mr Hen. Lawes” is Milton’s attempt “to seek a rapprochement with a royalism on the verge of defeat” (9). In this poem Milton “seeks to persuade Lawes and his royalist friends that Jonsonian values and the Jonsonian ideal of a literary community . . . can be revived in the aftermath of a Parliamentarian victory” (80). McDowell suggests that Milton’s revision of the poem may reflect his desire to accommodate royalist sentiments and stylistic preferences (86).
McDowell’s treatment of Hall is, to me, the most interesting part of the book, because Hall’s wide range of interests, associations, and publications present a real challenge to any would-be biographer. (As yet, there is no Hall biography except for John B. Shaw’s 1952 dissertation.) For those who are unfamiliar with John Hall, I will add a few biographical notes to clarify the career that McDowell traces for him. Hall was the only son and heir of Michael Hall of the Halls of Consett and Birtley. Like so many provincial gentry, the family was land-rich, but cash-poor. John was sent to St. John’s College, Cambridge—the usual college for Durham gentry–as pensioner, and it was expected that he would follow the usual pattern: a year at university, a year in the Inns of Court, and then home, to marry within his class. But John had a great need to distinguish himself intellectually and socially, and he found it chafing that rich men’s sons took their meals with the Fellows of the college, while he himself was locked out of association with his intellectual peers. He turned to a friend–doubtless, Thomas Stanley—for financial aid, and soon he was raised to the status of fellow-commoner, with a sizar, a former Durham School classmate, to serve his needs. He stayed at St. John’s for eighteen months, perhaps hoping against hope that he would be offered a fellowship, then entered Gray’s Inn.
During his time in college, Hall was maintaining a correspondence with Stanley and his friends in London–a correspondence which included exchanging commendatory verses—and he was developing contacts with established and future scholars and intellectual leaders: the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, Samuel Hartlib and his circle, and the young Robert Boyle. Through Hartlib Hall tried unsuccessfully to establish a correspondence with Milton, but he read Of Education and Areopagitica avidly. McDowell calls him “perhaps the most attentive reader of [Milton’s] prose in the whole period” (9).
The connections with Hartlib were the most telling, providing Hall with a philosophical center that included “the free communication of ideas” (63). “The threat of authoritarian rule under the Presbyterians in the late summer of 1647” occasioned his commitment to “the public world of controversial prose” (112). Hall’s first essay in polemic was A true account and character of the times, which McDowell reads as his attempt to convince Stanley and friends “that they shared a common cultural cause with figures such as Hartlib, [Sir Cheney] Culpeper, and Milton against the threat of Presbyterian repression” (69).
McDowell’s account of Hall’s relationship with Marchamont Nedham (155-64) and Samuel Sheppard’s personal attack on Hall in Mercurius Elencticusin May 1648 (179-80) need not concern us here, except for the suggestion that Marvell may have taken the attack as a warning of what might lie ahead for him if he associated himself too closely with the new regime (191, 200). Other developments of scholarly interest include (1) tentative identification of Hall’s “Satyre against Presbytery” with The Presbyterians Litany (98-99); (2) an account of Hall’s relationship with Thomas Urquhart, which extended beyond Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais (242-44); and (3) speculation that in 1653 Hall was involved in promoting the performance of Shirley’s Cupid and Death for the Portuguese Ambassador and furthering Davenant’s proposal to the Council of State for “a reformed theater established on Hobbesian principles of education” (240).
For Hall, political identity was a matter of choosing where to dedicate his intellect and energies. For Richard Lovelace, it was a matter of maintaining loyalty in the face of personal defeat. Lovelace did not fight for the King after his release from prison in 1642. McDowell suggests that he may well have been constrained by an engagement not to bear arms, and he agrees with Robert Wilcher (Writings of Royalism 1628-1660 [Cambridge UP, 2001], 124) that the poems in Lucasta may reveal “fundamental doubts about the viability of the royalist cause” (117-118). Set against his loss of faith in the king is his greater concern for “the survival of literary and artistic culture in a post-courtly world” (118). McDowell questions the usual 1642 dating of “To Lucasta. From Prison. An Epode,” preferring late 1646 to early 1648, and he suggests that during that time Lovelace was reading Hall’s True account (146-150). Having bankrupted himself providing for the king’s cavalry, in his last days Lovelace was reduced to little more than a small stipend from the younger Charles Cotton. Yet, as indicated in the poem on Sannazaro, he could feel bitterness toward those who, like Waller, profited under the new regime (268).
In addressing Marvell’s poetry, McDowell adopts the following strategy: (1) demonstrate the impact of the Stanley circle on the lyrics, (2) provide readings of the three key poems in their historical context, and (3) consider the most problematic poems—”The Unfortunate Lover,” “An Horatian Ode,” and “Tom May’s Death”–as they would have been read by the Stanley circle poets.
For the first point of argument, McDowell takes “To His Coy Mistress” as his test case. He places it in the context of the Stanley circle’s anacreontics and translations of Continental poetry, Latin and vernacular; and he addresses the hue/glew/glue/glow textual conundrum in the context of Hall’s “Anteros” (42-43). Comparisons lead him to conclude that “almost every line of the ‘echoing song’ of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ reverberates with poems produced by members of the Stanley circle between 1646 and 1651” (37): “‘To His Coy Mistress’ is . . . a poem about poetry to the extent that it is a (dazzling) collage of the best bits of other people’s poems; this is one reason why readers have been unsettled by the impersonal nature of the mistress” (39). McDowell goes on to suggest that other Marvell lyrics have links to the Stanley circle, including “The Definition of Love,” “A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda,” “The Coronet,” and “On a Drop of Dew” (44-49).
The Villiers elegy is seen first in light of Marvell’s association with George and Francis Villiers at the English College in Rome, the locus for Francis Villiers’ fencing match mentioned in the poem (25-27, 166-69). In the circumstances of 1648, the poem seems less an “unequivocal royalist utterance” (Margoliouth) than “a meditation on the destruction of a noble Caroline court culture” (10). McDowell finds in this and the commendatory poem to Lucasta “discordant elements of satire on the anachronistic persona of the Cavalier,” elements “which are illuminated by linking them with John Hall’s political writings of 1648” (10, 166). “In Marvell’s poem to Lovelace, with its echoes of both royalist and Parliamentarian anti-Presbyterian rhetoric, the ’cause’ is the cause of wit against Presbyterian censorship and moralism; but the conviction that literary culture is dependent upon Stuart rule, which had become ingrained in royalist mythology, is absent” (201).
The situation with the Hastings elegy is similar. “In compiling the thirty-five elegies in Lachrymae Musarum, [Richard] Brome apparently sought to make a poetic statement of royalist solidarity and civility in the aftermath of the regicide . . . with the senseless early death of Hastings becoming an analogue for that of the king” (207). But the elegies by Hall, Nedham, and Marvell, included in the 1650 second edition, lack evident royalist allegiance. Hall’s verse epistle, to Hastings’ father, emphasizes the “‘indispensable’ laws of nature,” and Marvell’s elegy is more closely related to that than to any of the other poems (211-213).
Stanley and his closest friends had left London by the time Lachrymae Musarum was published; and soon thereafter, Hall was posted to Scotland as correspondent for Mercurius Politicus. With the Stanley circle effectively disbanded, Marvell may have felt pressed to find a position on his own. As McDowell puts it, “The option of retirement to the country, in the manner of Stanley and Mildmay Fane, was only available to Marvell if he entered service,” as he did with Thomas Fairfax. The alternative was to stay in London like Herrick (with a stipend from Fane), Lovelace, or Shirley, who was teaching Latin and, like Lovelace, living in poverty (223).
This, in McDowell’s view, is the context of “The Unfortunate Lover.” Marvell was assisting Milton with Eikonoklastes, which contains allusion to Psalterium Carolinum, Stanley’s poetical rendering of Eikon Basilike (217). McDowell sees similarities in language between Psalterium and “The Unfortunate Lover,” and he suggests that Marvell’s poem may have been composed
for a literary audience including Stanley and Lovelace, who would recognize the allusions both to Lovelace’s lyrics of frustrated and injured love and to the paradoxical iconography of regicidal lament in which Stanley was immersed in late 1649. It was perhaps written during a visit to Cumberlow and in an effort to retain a patronage link with Stanley now that he had left London. (220)
In terms of political allegiance, “if the lyric conveys Marvell’s fascination with the regicide and with representations of the dead king, it hardly confirms his allegiance to the Stuart cause.” In terms of poetry, “‘The Unfortunate Lover’ exhibits Marvell’s interest in the tropes of royalist lament, but the tropes are incorporated into what is ostensibly an amatory lyric rather than an elegy” (221).
In terms of the key issues that McDowell has defined for the Stanley circle and the historical moment, “An Horatian Ode” is tensely balanced:
The opening four lines of the “Ode” oppose letters and arms, courtly poetics and public service, but they do so from both a royalist and an anti-royalist perspective, held in a tension that is reflected formally here, and throughout the poem, in the “interplay of tight quatrain and constantly resumptive syntax.” (226, quoting John Creaser, “Prosody and Liberty in Milton and Marvell,” in Graham Parry and Joad Raymond, eds., Milton and the Terms of Liberty (Cambridge UP, 2002)
“There is no reason to assume,” McDowell says, “that figures such as Stanley, Lovelace, and Alexander Brome would have ostracized Marvell on seeing the ‘Ode'” (254).
As for “Tom May’s Death,” which has generally defied analysis in terms of Marvell’s political allegiance, it is a poem “written for the entertainment of ‘frolick men’, one of whom may have been Hall; for other members of the now fragmented Stanley circle, Lovelace and Alexander Brome, certainly knew ‘Tom May’s Death'” (259). There are echoes of “An Horatian Ode” in “Tom May’s Death,” and Cowley and Dryden knew one or both (263, 204). “The ultimate allegiance of ‘Tom May’s Death’ is to the cause of wit; but the occasion of the poem may have been as much Marvell’s desire to maintain his relationships with what remained of the Stanley circle as to mark the death of a court poet turned Parliamentarian propagandist” (263).
McDowell does call his project an “imaginative reconstruction,” but it is a convincing one, extraordinary in its research, uncovering many new connections and opening many avenues for further research. The book has the usual scattering of errors–inconsistencies in short forms of reference are the most obstructive–but the real challenge is to validate specific claims of borrowing, influence, and meaning. For example, McDowell relates Upon Appleton House, st. 47 (“Where Men like Grashoppers appear…”), to the Stanley circle’s anacreontics and in particular to Lovelace’s “To Lucasta. From Prison. An Epode” (226). Then he poses the rhetorical question: “Could this be a reference to the distaste of Marvell’s Cavalier friends, and specifically Lovelace, for Marvell’s efforts to solicit Commonwealth patronage through verse?” (227). We have no evidence that any in the Stanley circle knew of In Legationem Oliveri St. John, a “straightforward bid for preferment” (227) dating from late 1650 or early 1651, about the time of Marvell’s engagement with Fairfax. That aside, McDowell might have made a plausible case for the meadows scene enacting the loss of Caroline court culture (cf. his treatment of Lovelace and Peter Lely ). Instead, his speculation about this particular stanza elsewhere becomes established fact (195, 259).
In sum, McDowell poses scholars many worthy tasks that can be informed by his detailed historical and political research:
- Integrating current criticism with his claims and observations regarding specific poems
- Developing an up-to-date account of Platonism in the period, perhaps along the lines of Reid Barbour’s English Epicures and Stoics
- Producing period accounts of poetry and music and of poetry and painting
- Writing a history of John Hall’s career as polemicist, testing McDowell’s claims of his influence, ultimately to be integrated into a biography that would encompass his poetry and prose, his non-political associations (e.g. with Boyle, Edward Benlowes, and John Davies of Kidwelly), and intellectual interests (e.g. Milton, Hobbes, Thomas White, and Nicholas Gibbon)
- Relating the issues of political allegiance, censorship, and wit to arguments by Annabel Patterson (Censorship and Interpretation) and Elizabeth Skerpan (The Rhetoric of Politics in the English Revolution 1642-1660)
J. Mark Heumann