Joseph M. Levine. Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 279 pp. + xiv. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-07914-2.
Reviewed by Jonathan Scott (Downing College, Cambridge )
Published on H-Albion (September, 2000)
At first glance this book appears to offer less than its title promises. What sounds like a general analysis comprises in fact case studies of four Restoration individuals: the diarist and virtuoso John Evelyn, the poet Dryden, the French exile Saint-Evremond, and the architect Christopher Wren. In practice, however, this methodology is more than vindicated by the result, which is finely controlled, intelligently wide-ranging, and systematically successful in getting beneath the skin of a culture sometimes miscast as neurotically superficial.
Levine's focus is upon that mode of historical self-consciousness by which this "baroque age" situated itself between ancient and modern. This was a culture defined by its "obsession" with a question (the authority of classical antiquity) rather than by any particular answer to it. The same battle raged within each of these individuals, who all conceded primacy to the ancients in arts and humanities, and to the present age in natural philosophy and science. This is a study, then, of the intensity, ubiquity, and continued development of a defining debate as the claims of antiquity and modernity were simultaneously reinforced. Although all of these studies permit a rich exploration of these themes, the core study is of Dryden, and Chapter Four (Dryden and the Ancients) is particularly powerful. One finding is that it would be a great mistake to imagine this debate gradually resolving itself in favour of modernity. On the contrary, in all of these case studies, the extent of deference to, and absorption by, the cultural achievement of antiquity (above all Greek antiquity) deepened rather than diminished over time.
Underpinning this study of the self-location of a culture in time is a second theme of its location in space. This is first signaled by Evelyn's return from the renaissance splendour of Rome and Paris to find himself depressed and embarrassed by the "Gothic" architectural barbarity of London. His conclusion, in the aftermath of England's political troubles, that "it is from the assymetry of our Buildings, [and] want of decorum and Proportions in our Houses, that the irregularity of our humors and affections may be shrewdly discerned" (p. 15), has its counterpoint in the final study of Wren when the Great Fire of 1666 presents another believer in the political importance of public architecture with an opportunity (largely frustrated) to address this problem on a major scale. The core European cultural context studied here is France, where the competing claims of ancient and modern were debated with equal intensity. Thus the extent of Dryden's engagement with French literary and critical culture is no less striking than Saint-Evremond's achievement as an "exile and stranger" in London for over thirty years in finding a local audience avidly interested in French culture and drama while never apparently feeling the need to learn English.
One useful effect of this engagement with French preoccupation with the same issues is to warn us against an otherwise understandable temptation to attribute it to its local political circumstances. Nevertheless there is no doubt that in many respects the intensity of the restoration English debate reflected the background of the troubles. This was not simply because, as Levine suggests, reacting against shocking interregnum innovation Restoration culture threw itself gratefully back upon the classics. To whom had the English republican newspaper Mercurius Politicus turned, after all, for justification of the new regime, but those very Greek and Roman authorities who feature so largely here? Like everything else in this culture the classics were politically contested. Indeed this study could usefully have engaged with the literature on classical republicanism between Zera Fink's The Classical Republicans (1945) and David Norbrook's Writing the English Republic (1999) which has researched the case for Hobbes's view that the culture of Greek and Roman antiquity was inherently republican, and as such subversive of loyalty to monarchy. In general, however, this is the study of a cluster of concerns which connect with, but also transcend, particular political issues and allegiances.
This is because, in its local manifestation, this debate reflected two broader features of the English situation. One was, in an age publicly committed to historical reconstruction, the near universality of concern with the status of historical prescription. If the post 1660 political landscape remained contested, and if the authority of antiquity or modernity could be invoked on all sides, the question of the relationship between such authorities themselves could hardly be avoided. Of the resulting tensions an entirely characteristic product was Algernon Sidney's Discourses (written 1683, pub. 1698), which stridently defended both exemplary antiquity and innovation. At stake in this process, and underlined by competing invocations to public memory and oblivion, were the moorings of this strife-torn society in time. This study underlines the peculiar resulting quality and intensity of Restoration historical thought, of which many more examples could be given. To say that this is a culture uniquely preoccupied by the relationship between ancient and modern; between prescription, imitation and innovation, is to say that it is uniquely (and argumentatively) historically minded.
The other general context, also an effect of the recurring troubles, was a temporary loss of self-confidence. This not only helps to explain aspects of the relationship of English to French culture, but also certain conclusions at particular times. Thus however miraculous restoration of monarchy had once seemed, any political historian of the period will understand that disillusionment with the present which gripped Dryden from 1678 and led him to conclude by 1683: "It appears plainly, that not only the Bodies but the Souls of Men, have decreas'd from the vigour of the first Ages^ÅHow much better Plato, Aristotle, and the rest of the Philosophers understood nature; Thucydides and Herodotus adorn'd History; [and] Sophocles, Euripides and Menander advanc'd Poetry, than those Dwarfs of Wit and Learning who succeeded them in after times" (p. 75).
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