Nigel Smith. Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994. xiv + 425 pp., 14 illustrations.
Review by,
Christopher Orchard
Lynchburg College, VA

Orchard, Christopher. "Review of Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.1 (1995): 8.1-6 <URL:

  1. Nigel Smith's book attempts to show that written and printed literature during the 1640s and 1650s was both a response to the Civil War and a central part of that conflict, acting to articulate the political and religious transformations of these decades and contributing to the divisiveness that was characteristic of civil war. Smith provides a much needed revisionist study: his intention is to restore the political balance distorted by recent critical studies of the period (Potter, Anselment) by recognizing that Parliamentarian and radical cultures as well as Royalists had their own literary forms, while generating discourse from shared generic models. This hypothesis is notably achieved through Smith's analysis of how political writers of different persuasions borrow from the same classical sources. He also examines genres such as satire, in which Royalist or Parliamentarian use of similar images to describe the "other" indicates how "generic interaction is the literary counterpart or surrogate of social and political difference" (5), supporting his point that in the mid-seventeenth century "the currency of images (was) common property" (14).

  2. The thesis that literature was actively involved in the fragmenting of religious and political authority is developed in three sections: the conditions and contexts of literary production; the uses of literature in religion and politics; and genre transformations. Central to Smith's thesis are the end of royal censorship and the explosion of information through print. The growth of printed material explains the Levellers (the media manipulators of the 1640s), the decline of oratory and persuasion, and the emergence of a new kind of political writing (Leviathan and Oceana) and the replacement of the theatre with the newsbook as the public ground for news.

  3. More interesting are Smith's accounts of changes in literary forms: the fragmentation of the love lyric (caused by Royalist defeat) and the decline of the religious lyric (accompanied by the replacement of metrical psalms with hymns, which originated in sectarian churches); the dilution, internalization and "transprosing" (the heroic actions of the reformatory spirit in Milton's prose pamphlets) of the epic; and the replacement of the failed Arcadian romance structure by the Royalist use of prose romance. Importantly, Smith offers an innovative interpretation of the development of the satire which he locates in the carnivalesque elements of Leveller prose.

  4. There are only a few reservations. By concentrating on the role played by the newsbook in changes in literary forms, Smith does detract from important developments in other literary areas. And by focusing on the discourse of theatre in newsbook accounts, Smith misses the importance of the preface of the printed play, where Royalists such as Leonard Willan were appealing to the Commonwealth government to accept their vision of a new kind of republican theatre in the 1650s (providing temporary relief for industrious citizens in a civic setting). Another reservation is the implication that fable, structurally unaffected by war, was not perceived as a useful form by Republican writers. Actually, the fact that reference was made to the same Aesopian narratives by Republicans such as Francis Osborne as well as Royalists to suit their own political ideologies supports Smith's Bakhtinian reading of this period in which oppositional discourse helped energize society and place literature in a position of transforming and representing change.

  5. While Smith is correct to suggest that the rise in the levels of publication produced more readers than listeners, he does not reveal how print enabled Royalists, through prefaces and dedicatory verses to pre-Civil War plays and poetry, to encourage its readership to support divisiveness by viewing Members of Parliament as cultural philistines.

  6. Nevertheless, the importance of this book far outweighs its minor oversights. Smith offers a critical adjustment to Royalist weighted studies (Potter, Anselment) by recovering the voices of parliamentary and republican texts to show that, through polyphonic dissent, literature helped to shape public opinion. This analysis of how discourse was transformed by an awareness of the "other" is greatly enhanced by the presentation of oppositional discourses where least expected: Walton's The Compleat Angler, for example, is set off against another piscatorial text, Richard Franck's Northern Memoirs. Smith possesses an impressive knowledge of a wide variety of political, religious and poetic texts and importantly, by discussing the literary and rhetorical aspects of texts other than literary genres, he supports his contention that it was not just in pure literature but in the whole world of words "where the impact of the crisis of the 1640s and 1650s was most strongly registered" (362).
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(RGS, 12 December 1997)