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Conquering Laurels and Creeping Ivy: The Tangled Politics of Herbert's Reditum Caroli by Jeffrey Powers-Beck On Wednesday afternoon, October 8, 1623, George Herbert, as Public Orator of the University of Cambridge, facedperhaps his most difficult rhetorical performance. He was welcoming Prince Charles home from unsuccessful marriagenegotiations in Spain, amidpatriotic celebrations, calls for both war and peace, and general uncertainty about England's foreign policy. And fittingly, in an oration that was itself a tangle of flattery and brave assertion, Herbert spoke in the tropes of entanglement. He spoke of the counsels of great leaders, whose ends are "multíplices" and "polymiti," winding and poly-textured.1 He described the thread of the generations, cut from the spindle of fate and tied together in a "nodosa aeternitas," a knotty eternity. Prince Charles he compared to Hercules, "encircled by pleasures like swaddling bands"; and he promised that the Prince would "never extricate himself" again from the embrace of the English. Finally, in an allusion to Virgil's Eighth Eclogue, he concluded with an image of trembling submission and artful entanglement: "Let us implore him only to allow this our 'Ivy to creep itself between his conquering laurels' " (p. 455). All these metaphors may have been florid happenstance, but the uneasy tone of the Reditum Caroli and the speech's controversial denunciation of war (even as Charles deliberated upon it) suggest the orator's own self-conscious entanglement in state affairs.2 In recent years, New Historicist critics have elaborated greatly on Herbert's complaint in "Affliction" (I): "I was entangled in a world of strife, / Before I had the power to change my life." In Prayer and Power, Michael Schoenfeldt argues that "religious and political discourse" in Herbert's poetry are "intertwined like the aristocratic 'silk thread' let down from heaven ... in 'The Pearl.' "3 Similarly, Sidney Gottlieb sees Herbert's Temple as "a cunning and curious as well as a faithful examination of the inextricably linked realms of politics and prayer" (my emphasis).4 In the dangerous arena of state affairs, Herbert's Reditum Caroli offers a signal example of the young orator's entanglement in "a world of strife": his principled denunciation of war amid a muddled political situation. Indeed, this 2 Jeffrey Powers-Beck article will show that the political context of the oration was far more uncertain than previous critics have realized. The significance of the Cambridge oration as a possible crisis point in Herbert's career has not eluded biographers and critics, although they have characterized the predicament in somewhat different terms. S.R. Gardiner has been the most influential commentator on the oration, as his account has largely fixed the critical viewpoint of twentieth-century readers on the speech. He describes a young Herbert vacillating between careers, between courtly and priestly realms, "distracted between two different aims, which yet appeared to him to be but one."5 Then, in the midst of this vacillation, came Prince Charles's return from the marriage negotiations in Madrid and the prospect of English war with Spain. This event, according to Gardiner, provoked Herbert's daring appeal for peace and demonstrated that "he was too honest to sink to the lower arts of a courtier's life": The oration with which he welcomed Charles on his return from Spain was an evidence of the sincerity with which he could not help accompanying flatteries .... It was no secret that the Prince had come back bent upon war. Herbert disliked war, and he could not refrain from the maladroit compliment of commending Charles for going to Madrid in search of peace. All that he could bring himself to say was that, as war was sometimes necessary, he would be content to believe any war to be necessary to whichJames should give his consent. If Herbert bowed down it was not to the Prince whom it was his interest to captivate, but to the peaceful King who had maintained the ceremonies of the Church against their assailants.6 It was this passage from Gardiner that prompted Joseph Summers to write that "George Herbert's 'Court Hopes' may have died on October 8, 1623," and that led Amy Charles to extol the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 1-23
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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