Book Review

Marcus, Leah. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Reviewed by Bill Gahan | March 21, 2004

Leah Marcus’s book continues to be an important resource for the study of Stuart policy in relation to any of the writers listed in the title. Jonson is allotted nearly the first half of the book, and his “sons” and “stepsons” share the rest. Marcus argues that the Stuart kings encouraged the orderly celebration of traditional holiday festivities as a way of promoting their power over both church and state. She notes that James’s 1618 issuance of the Book of Sports “licensed traditional holiday pastimes to the extent that they could be made to buttress the liturgy of the Anglican Church” (106). This rule book celebrates James’s stipulation of the boundaries between legal and illegal forms of festival. Because puritans had condemned public festivals and all poetry and drama as essentially stemming from the same evils (paganism or Catholicism), artistic endeavors were now collectively defended against this condemnation. James I and Charles I encouraged artists who ostensibly upheld their policies in favor of appropriate “public mirth,” but according to Marcus, these artists still managed to subvert royal policies at the same time that they upheld them.

Marcus capably situates her investigation within a theoretical framework supple enough to allow for a considerable play of variables in what is necessarily a complex inquiry. Specifically, she acknowledges some difficulties with an “escape valve” theory of public festival, wherein the populace acts out its rebellion in a state-sanctioned form; she defends Bakhtin’s model of holiday “liberty” as separate from official interests only insofar as such a separation might momentarily be perceived by the revelers. The author views festival as a force that can both uphold and subvert, and she claims that her investigation of topical events is crucial to understanding any festival’s temporal and particularized “process of adjustment within a perpetuation of order” (7).

Chapter 2 analyzes Jonson’s defense of theatre in Love Restored and Bartholomew Fair as an “unmasking of hypocrites” that paints his puritan detractors as role-players. Marcus argues that the works were ultimately designed to uphold royal management of public festivities. In Chapter 3, Vision of Delight and Christmas, His Masque are resituated within a topicality which Marcus argues is not as obvious as that of other masques but is nevertheless mired in a strong advocacy for royal policies. One of those was the Stuart directive for the aristocracy to return to the country and maintain holiday festivals there. This was an activity envisioned as a sort of palliative for the social alienation encroaching upon an increasingly more commercialized court and countryside.

The discussion of Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue illustrates some of the ways in which the topical can help explain the literary: Marcus sees the “belly god” and his train as the Catholic revelers James had recently suppressed in Lancashire, and suggests that the masque’s Hercules supplies an example of acceptable merry-making within prescribed boundaries, a sort of media via like the one James promotes in Basilikon Doron. For Marcus, the pygmies represent the “proud, inhospitable spirit of Puritanism” James had encountered in Scotland (115). Although it is perhaps too much to propose, as Marcus does, that James was unfavorably reminded of his failures in Scotland at seeing the dance of liquor bottles and the angry pygmies, Leah Marcus does make a compelling argument for the masque as a reinforcement of Anglican liturgical ceremony: the main masquers, for example, were dressed like cardinals. This and other details surrounding the entertainment are convincingly placed in concert with James’s specific policies about proper merry-making within the guidelines of the Anglican Church.

The final three chapters are dedicated to the other authors. What Marcus sees as Herrick’s reticence away from open celebration of revelry in Hesperides is interpreted as occasioned by a shift in royal policy. Charles reissued the Book of Sports in 1633 and enforced it more stringently, making festivities in the realm less frequent. However, as with Jonson, Marcus argues that holiday is still “similarly performed and regularized under the direction of the poet priest” (141). The penultimate chapter tackles Milton’s more radical revision of festival in Comus. Marcus clearly and convincingly shows that the young poet aligns himself with Bridgewater and against Cardinal Laud in matters touching festive behavior in relation to the court. Finally, Lovelace and Marvell are read as offering two versions of what Marcus sees as the “submerged,” post-monarchical “politics of mirth.” For Marcus, Marvell imitated Lovelace, but reinterpreted him while regenerating the “energies” of the festival. These kinds of connections can be difficult to achieve successfully, but in most cases the author manages them with eloquence and clarity. The Politics of Mirth couples relevant historical research with deft literary analysis. Marcus says in her preface: “The interactions among literature, political ideology, and social and economic change are often far less straightforward…than we take them to be. If this book manages to demonstrate that, I will consider it a success”(ix). She has achieved this goal.

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