Christine Gerrard

Party politics and dynastic uncertainty shaped the lives of writers born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Wars. For poets such as Alexander Pope, Anne Finch, Jonathan Swift, and Matthew Prior, a sense of the political was thus deeply ingrained. Swift, born in 1667 and dying in 1745, lived through the reigns of no fewer than six English monarchs — Charles II, James II, William III, Queen Anne, George I, and George II. On at least two occasions he had a price on his head for his interventions in English and Irish politics. Alexander Pope, born in 1688, the year in which the Dutch Protestant William of Orange's bloodless coup ousted the Catholic James II from the English throne, suffered the direct consequences of that so-called "Glorious Revolution" — the punitive Williamite legislation against Catholics affecting rights of residence, worship, and university education. So did Anne Finch, Countess of Win-chilsea (1661—1720), who lost her Court post serving James's wife Mary of Modena: as non-jurors (those who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new regime), she and her husband went on the run, and her husband was arrested for Jacobitism. Matthew Prior (1664—1721), the most important English poet in the decade following Dryden's death in 1700, enjoyed a distinguished diplomatic career under William and his successor Queen Anne. Yet at George I's accession in 1714, Prior, like many of his Tory friends, faced a vendetta from the new Whig administration: refusing to implicate his friends in allegations of support for the Stuart dynasty, he was impeached and spent two years in close custody.

Yet if political events changed the lives of the poets, poets saw themselves as agents of political change. Poetry of all kinds — highbrow and lowbrow, satires, odes, panegyrics, ballads — proliferated during the restored monarchy of Charles II, especially after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1679. The growing prominence of the poet as political commentator, satirist, propagandist, and panegyrist was both a cause and a consequence of the inexorable rise of party politics during Charles's reign. During the 1670s a two-party political system developed from the clashes between Charles and his political supporters on the one hand and, on the other, the parliamentary pressure group led by the first Earl of Shaftesbury, driven by opposition to the succession of Charles's Catholic brother James. During the "Exclusion Crisis" this pressure group — soon to be known as the Whigs — pushed for legislation to exclude James from the throne. Loyal supporters of the King's cause earned themselves the name of Tories. Both Whig and Tory were originally terms of abuse derived from the Celtic fringe. Like many of the other political terms prevalent in this period — Court, Country, Patriot — they were subject to constant scrutiny, debate, and redefinition. The intensity of political engagement that characterizes poetry of the period 1660—1750 testifies to the growing confidence felt by male and female poets alike in their right to voice political opinions and their ability to change the course of history: a sense of empowerment which was itself a product of the loosening of social hierarchies in the decades after the Civil Wars. Poets between Dryden in the 1660s and Pope in the 1730s — and even as late as Charles Churchill in the 1760s — helped alter the direction of politics, whether it meant (as in Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel of 1681) discrediting the nascent Whig party and affirming Stuart legitimacy, popularizing the new Hanoverian dynasty at German George I's accession in 1714, or compelling the first minister Robert Walpole to declare war against Spain in 1739. To poets of this period, the modern separation of the political and the aesthetic realms would have seemed entirely alien.

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