- Secular Chains: Poetry and the Politics of Religion from Milton to Pope by Philip Connell
Secular Chains is an exceptional scholarly study, impeccably researched, expertly structured, persuasively argued, and engagingly written. Connell’s twofold objective is to supply a “unifying narrative account of the relationship between poetry and religion in the age of Milton and Pope” and to “rethink the dynamics of cultural change between the puritan revolution and the early Enlightenment” (4). This is a tall order for a 240-page study, but Connell has done better than others in a project that few critics have been emboldened to attempt. Drawing on a truly impressive range of source material—from well-known poems, works of discursive prose, and periodical literature to archival material and manuscripts in British and American collections that only the most devoted scholar could unearth and synthesize (the book’s bibliography alone exceeds forty pages)—Connell supplies us with a study intended to complicate several critical assumptions regarding the interplay of literature, politics, and confessional identity in the period spanning 1650–1743.
The book is a significant contribution to the ongoing reassessment of the literary culture of nonconformity and whiggism spearheaded by David Womersley, Abigail Williams, Sharon Achinstein, and others. Milton opens and closes the study and is cast as its preeminent figure, while the development of whig poetics (from its seeds in the Commonwealth to the impact of free-thought and experiments in physico-theological verse) receives the largest allotment of the author’s attention. But Connell’s aims are also broader. At the heart of the book is the claim that rather than constituting a discursive sphere progressively distanced from religious and political antagonisms, the poetry of this period remained deeply informed by tensions between and within the Church of England, nonconformity, and tory and whig argument, particularly those tensions centered on the sources and limits of religious authority. Connell discusses multiple divisions within Anglicanism itself—for instance, the controversy surrounding the reincorporation of nonconformists in the 1670s and the Church’s contested stances on popular Newtonianism and on the episcopate’s engagements with the Walpolean ministry in the 1730s and ’40s—and he explores the manner in which poets with loyalist, anticlerical, free-thinking, and politically partisan leanings worked to negotiate them. The study is organized chronologically, with chapters grouped in three sections: Commonwealth, Restoration, and Enlightenment. Milton forms the core of the first section and shares the second with Dryden. Half of the book is allotted to the third section, which covers the first four decades of the eighteenth century and a correspondingly wider range of writers, including Thomson, Pope, Dennis, Toland, Shaftesbury, and Warburton.
Connell’s title refers to a line from Milton’s 1652 sonnet to Cromwell, in which the poet, wary of potential corruption within the revolutionary regime, warns godly co-defenders of the Commonwealth of the perils of reducing the Church to an instrument of mere civic power. In the Protectoral and Commonwealth periods, Connell reminds us, the question of church settlement revealed divisions within republican argument regarding the relationship between secular and ecclesiastical power, and these divisions are reflected in the poetry of the time, most vividly in Milton’s work. Readings from Paradise Lost and Regain’d, Samson Agonistes, and some of the lyrics—as they appear to react to texts such as Harrington’s conciliatory [End Page 457] Oceana and Vane’s separatist Zeal Examined—are brought in to reveal the poet’s diagnosis of the divisions afflicting English republicanism and nonconformist culture, and to underscore Milton’s enduring hostility to the exercise of civil authority in ecclesiastical matters.
Dryden’s complex and shifting confessional identities are the focus of the book’s Restoration section, which follows the poet as he navigates the internal divisions over ecclesiastical authority within the courts of Charles II and James II. Dryden publicly conformed to the Church of England and was attracted to both the latitudinarian tendency within the Church and the heterodox thinking of Hobbes before eventually converting to Catholicism...