- British Identities and English Renaissance Literature
In perhaps the most sucessful essay in this volume, “Orrery’s Ireland and the British Problem, 1641–1679’” John Kerrigan notes that Roger Boyle, Baron Broghill’s (as he was known before being raised to the earldom of Orrery in 1660), “acquaintance with poets was extensive and archipelagic.” But he also draws attention to the limits of that acquaintance. Boyle was unaware, it seems, that one of the tenants on the Boyle estates in Ireland (for his lands were archipelagic in scope as well). This was poet Piarais Feiritéir; or at least he knew of him as a rebel’ but not as a poet, because even though Feiritéir composed “some of the finest verse of the age” (200), he wrote in Irish. Boyle’s ignorance of, and indifference towards, gaelic tradition, together with Kerrigan’s use of the term “archipelagic,” bring us to the roots of the problem with the “British problem,” and with this book.
It is by now almost trite to observe that the problem begins with the lack of an acceptable, neutral, nomenclature to describe Great Britain and Ireland. Much of Ireland for much of the time during the early modern period lay under effective British jurisdiction, but that blindingly obvious and overridingly important historical fact is not sufficient to persuade any Irish nationalist or some Irish historians that Ireland should therefore be designated British. It was with predictable Irish objections in mind that John Pocock, often credited with being the “onlie begetter” of the “New British History,” coined the term “Atlantic Archipelago.” But while this coinage enjoys the advantage of been value free and thus inoffensive, it has the disadvantage of being anachronistic. Neither Orrery nor any of his contemporaries thought of themselves as inhabiting an archipelago. Other historians have tried “The Isles” and “these islands.” Others, still, persist in conflating “Britain” with “England.” And then there used to be the “Celtic Fringe,” otherwise known as Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Remarkably, in a book inspired by the “New British History,” one of whose editors is himself a Fringe-dweller, terminological question-marks arise as early as the title, in which identities are British and literature is English. Yet the title is accurate insofar as the essayists, like Orrery before them, are not concerned with non-English literature in these islands.
Pocock, as we have seen, is well aware of the difficulties; indeed he characterizes the New British History as the history of a problematic. Moreover, a British perspective on early modern literature raises particular problems of its own. In a perceptive preamble to his discussion of Shakespeare’s I Henry IV, Matthew Greenfield notes that while a British approach taps “some of the prestige and intellectual energy of post-colonial cultural criticism [it] has also narrowed as well as opened the canon.” Thus The Tempest lends itself to colonial discourse, and Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland has a British context, but, Greenfield suggests, until the new approach extends to, say, Twelfth Night, then “the problem of British identity [will remain] a thematic question rather than a structural feature of literary institutions, like the professional theatres and the pamphlet market” (71–2). Andrew Murphy, in a piece which directly addresses the impact—usually delayed—of historiography on literary scholarship, cautions against any wholesale adoption of the New British model by reminding us of the continuing purchase of the “Atlanticist” paradigm. According to that view Ireland is best understood as England’s first colony, en route to America. However, instead of choosing between these positions, Murphy sensibly argues that the Kingdom of Ireland, a constituent of the British composite monarchy, should be integrated conceptually with Ireland the mid-Atlantic colony.
A willingness to “complicate productively” (33), as Murphy puts it, animates several of the contributions to this book—without, it is a relief to report, willful obfuscation. There are many ways to read, and write about, literature, including the obfuscationary, and this book scarcely represents the first encounter between literary criticism and historiography. Still, in their introduction...