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Lines of Authority: Politics and English Literary Culture, 1649-1689.

Steven Zwicker's new work is an exciting reassessment of English politics and literature in the later seventeenth century. Zwicker reveals how political debates and the forms they took influenced the shape of the era's literary works, and how those works in turn shaped the debates of political events. Zwicker contends that literary style and politics became inseparable after the middle of the seventeenth century and argues his thesis through provocative local analyses of canonical works of Restoration literature and political theory. Even the most "high literary" genres became implicated in the virulent political and religious polemical battles that raged on all levels of intellectual discourse in the later Stuart era. Each chapter juxtaposes two or three texts - often works not usually considered in relation to one another - in order to display how they acted in response to the pressures of the periods of their production.

Lines of Authority begins with that most seemingly apolitical of genres, aesthetic theory, and reveals the political motivations behind the split between the royalist ideal of moderation and "wit" and the Puritan celebration of inspiration. It then shows how the two theories clash in the debate over the Eikon Basilike, the eminently refined piece of royal propaganda whose pathetic, calculated aestheticism was its greatest political weapon.

The book is at its best when revealing how stylistically disparate works derive their forms from debates over the same set of events. Dryden's Annus Mirabilis and Marvell's Last Instructions to a Painter are both in part responses to the "politics of pleasure" and sexuality that surrounded the Restoration court. For Dryden, sexual energy is figured as virility, that which gives the country its vigor; for Marvell, that "virility" is erotic license which saps Britain's strength in an orgy of dissipation. Most powerful is the chapter on Dryden's Absalom and A chitophel and Locke's Two Treatises. Both works are read against expectations: Absalom and Achitophel as a royalist theoretical attack on natural right and resistance theory, and the Two Treatises as a contingent product of the Exclusion Crisis. Dryden's work champions loyalty, gratitude, and law as the basis for a happy commonwealth. To disobey the rightful king is to lose these qualities, the only ones that keep the world from a Hobbesian state of "mere nature." Locke's treatise style - deliberative, reasonable, abstract - is examined as a product of the volatile times: an attempt to co-opt the valuable polemical rhetoric of "reason" and to speak of specific government affairs without inviting charges of treason.

Not all of the arguments are absolutely convincing. Zwicker's reading of The Compleat Angler as "a polemical text that counters militant puritanism at every point" (84) is unsure about its grounds for a political reading: is the work indeed a conscious polemical act on Walton's part, or is it that by this time, no matter what the author's intent, "there is no neutral space for a work of amity and innocence like The Compleat Angler to occupy" (65)? Also, when comparing the events of Dryden's Don Sebastian with the exile of James II, Zwicker must argue too much for piety as the motive of Sebastian's final, self-imposed exile in order to make all of his parallels work. However, even when not fully persuasive, Zwicker's investigations are challenging and suggestive.

Lines of Authority is an important contribution to the study of seventeenth-century English literature and politics and provides an extremely fruitful model for further studies of Restoration texts. It returns important works to the conditions of their production and reveals much about both the literature and the times. Students of literature, history and political theory alike will find the work useful and compelling.

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Author:Lucas, Scott Campbell
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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