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efficacy.
The closest that the poem comes to the unembarrassed spectacle
of fatherhood as sustaining political and cultural institution is the
elegy for Ossory that Dryden folds into the portrait of the Duke of
156 steven n. zwicker
Ormond: ˜Barzillai crown™d with Honour and with Years™.11 So begins the
argument of fatherhood, properly constituted, and the word ˜honour™
recurs as a leitmotiv in the elegy for the son. The assertion of honour and
reputation was of course one of the central concerns of early-modern
aristocracy, hence Dryden™s emphasis on Ossory™s achievements and
fame as warrior “ Ossory™s contribution to the aristocratic ethos of his
class and to the reputation of his family. And these terms are doubled
when Dryden crowns Ossory™s achievements as the very embodiment
of civic duty and domestic affection and affiliation: ˜All parts fulfill™d
of Subject and of Son™ (i. 836). In a poem which designs Exclusion as
a primal assault on patriarchy and portrays Absalom™s ambitions for
the crown as filial ingratitude, Dryden™s braiding together of these roles
is strongly purposive and resonant.
And yet something of irony™s contradictory logic is to be found even
in this deeply un-ironic scene, for the argument of binding political
loyalty and filial affection is endangered or rendered vulnerable by this
scene, and not only by its recording of the death of Ormond™s son,
but by its complex web of associations and alignments that link Ossory
with the heroic dignity and civic promise but as well with the early death
of Marcellus, and the Duke of Ormond with Augustus and with
Charles II. The problem of succession and the fragility of the male line tie
the Duke of Ormond to both ˜Caesars™, hence to the crisis of succession
then unfolding in the Exclusion controversy, and to the political culture
put at risk by the betrayal of the natural ties of paternal affiliation and
affection. Of course it is also true that Dryden uses this scene to associate
himself with Virgil who had read Aeneid VI to Augustus and Livia
after the death of Marcellus and to link the affective power of his poem
with Virgil™s elegiac verse. He would use exactly this beautiful Virgilian
moment in the elegy for John Oldham “ ˜Once more, hail and farewel;
farewel, thou young / But ah too short, Marcellus of our Tongue™.12 And
all of these arguments and associations work together, culminating as
an acknowledgement of the uncertain prospect of succession through
the male line “ exactly the shadow that falls across Virgil™s evocation of
Marcellus™s death, the fate of the Ormond line, the question of literary
lineage, and, of course, the not altogether certain prospects of Stuart
succession. Hovering over the elegy is a powerful affectivity linking civics
and domesticity, but the whole is shadowed by vulnerability and loss.
11
On Dryden™s relations with the Ormonds, see Ohlmeyer and Zwicker 2006.
12
Dryden 1958, i, p. 389, ii. 22“23.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 157
Ossory™s death was the culmination of a series of losses; the Duke of
Ormond had fathered eight male children; in 1681 only one son
remained, and the poignancy of fatherhood is beautifully caught by
Dryden™s lament, ˜His bed could once a fruitful issue boast: / Now more
than half a father™s name is lost™ (ll. 829“30). The passage on Ormond and
Ossory balances lineage against loss and vulnerability.
This set of motifs informs the argument of patriarchy throughout the
poem and works not as a simple piece of Tory triumphalism but as
the subtle assembling of a case for patriarchalism that conjoins natural
and civic affections, domestic affinity and political loyalty, and the cul-
tural properties of Latin poetry and modern epic and elegy. The case
is counter-pointed against the corruption of patriarchy put on display at
various points in the poem and vividly so in Dryden™s brief slur on
the generative and political capacities of the Earl of Shaftesbury:
Else, why should he, with Wealth and Honour blest,
Refuse his Age the needful hours of Rest?
Punish a Body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of Life, yet Prodigal of Ease?
And all to leave, what with his toyl he won,
To that unfeather™d, two leg™d thing, a Son:
Got, while his Soul did hudled Notions try;
And born a shapeless Lump, like Anarchy. (ll. 165“72)
The slur folds physical deformity into political rebellion, intellectual
aridity and sexual incapacity, but oddly slur and sentiment depend on one
another. The poem layers together wit, scepticism and satire, and as sharp
a capacity for cartoon and cleverness as Dryden was ever to display. But
these instruments of attack depend on the poem™s unguarded moments of
sentiment and celebration. In fact one element cannot properly work
without the other, they exist simultaneously, and they are surprisingly
interdependent. It is of course the very model of irony that I hope has
been emerging in these remarks, a model whose argument is always
simultaneity, association and similarity but as well paradox, difference
and distance. Irony allows a diverse and paradoxical or contradictory
aggregation of feelings to haunt arguments and ideals. Its effect is not
wholly to discredit those arguments and ideals but to render them less
hegemonic. The application of irony™s skeptical intelligence to narratives
and arguments allows parallel though divergent stories to emerge from a
single narrative or argumentative point. Irony changes their tone and
tenor; it makes them less certain, less self-satisfied, more negotiable in the
marketplace of stories and explanations, of arguments, ideas and ideals.
158 steven n. zwicker
˜make your returne home gracious™
Indeed the texts of systematic political philosophy “ Hobbes™s Leviathan
or Locke™s Two Treatises of Government, for example “ seem at a dis-
advantage for the display of such acts and arts of linguistic play,
for the spinning of an abstract system of argument into a mobile
and refined instrument of meditation and persuasion. This is in part
because compromise and negotiation are at odds with systematic dis-
course, but it is also true because suggestion, innuendo and irony are not
the familiar tools of discursive and philosophical prose, though Hobbes
certainly understood the uses of derision and even Locke can indulge
occasional mockery at Filmer™s expense. But in early modernity irony
and innuendo are more regularly the domain of those genres that we
identify as literature. To paraphrase Sir Philip Sidney, because literature
is limited neither by the narrowness of historical events nor by the
barren abstractions of philosophy it can afford different kinds of truths “
the inimitable truths of irony that tell us the yes and no of things,
that report on the status of ideas in all the uncertainty and flux of the
moment, of ideals in tainted and prejudiced circumstances, of the
always only partial truths that emerge from particular needs and urgencies
and desires. Listen for a moment to the exploration and exploitation
of a theological truth in the midst and on behalf of what we might
think of as a fairly crass act of clientage. Here John Donne is fishing
for the favour of that quite glamorous, elevated and busy aristocrat and
courtier, Lucy, Countess of Bedford:13
Reason is our Soules left hand, Faith her right,
By these wee reach divinity, that™s you.14
The woman whom Donne later in this poem calls ˜The first good
Angel, since the world™s frame stood™ is the object of such relentless and
embarrassing exaggeration that it scarcely occurs to us that clientage
and patronage could be conducted within this linguistic system. What
Donne™s verse epistle to the Countess of Bedford also explores with a kind
of overbearing, almost intolerable wit is the altogether serious proposi-
tion that the human form bears the stamp of the divine, that love and
desire, need and admiration, generosity and condescension are

13
On the relationship between Donne and Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, see Donne
1967, p. 253.
14
Donne 1967, p. 90, ii. 1“2.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 159
instruments with which we can approximate knowledge of God™s
goodness and grace, and indeed in this fallen world are the best, perhaps
our only, hope for experience of the divine.15
These serious propositions are gathered into the embrace of the
most familiar, indeed trite, kind of courtly compliment in order to
refashion and to force a serious consideration both of fundamental
theological truths and of all too human needs for privilege and favour.
Not that the Countess of Bedford, for all her wealth and authority,
her position and favour among the ˜elect™, is herself the divinity (though
Donne seems to come dangerously close to that blasphemous proposi-
tion), but rather that what we can know of the divine with our fallen
capacities of apprehension and understanding can only be through
the limited instruments of reason and faith, that the ˜human™ for all its
imperfections “ and God recognized this through his descent into the
metaphor of flesh “ is the only condition for our knowledge of the divine.
So all the brilliant strategies of this poem “ its wit and fantastic
exaggerations, its brash kidnapping of the language of divinity on behalf
of interest and need “ that is, the text™s bold literariness “ act as a form
of negotiation between the language and ideals of a system of thought
and momentary historical needs and circumstances. It is not the case
that need and circumstance and the compromises that they force must
cut against theological ideals or reduce or deform their truths. But there
is a transaction between need or desire and idealization that we can hear
in the subtle and bold inflections of Donne™s appeal that bears a family
resemblance to the exchange that irony proffers between realities and
ideals, and that family resemblance colours the exchange and reduces
the embarrassments of need in a manner that has a formal, though not
a tonal, kinship to irony:
Make your returne home gracious; and bestow
This life on that; so make one life of two.
For so God helpe mee, I would not misse you there
For all the good which you can do me here. (ii. 35“38)
For all the pressure that Donne puts on last things and eternal truths,
on sin and grace and salvation, the poem ends not in heaven but in
the present tense, not in the contemplation of eternities but with that
lovely remembrance and reminder of ˜. . . all the good which you can

15
On Donne™s exploration and exploitation of theological symbolism in the verse letters see
Lewalski 1973.
160 steven n. zwicker
do me here™. And ˜here™ is the last word of this poem. Like the pun on
˜gracious™, the last line opens simultaneously onto material and spiritual
beneficence, and our knowledge of the poet™s physical, and domestic,
and economic circumstances c. 1608 makes ˜all the good which you can
do me here™ ring with some poignancy.16
In the freedom of its favoured devices, its figures and metaphors,
its partialities, its acts of concealment, compromise and disguise “ and
with all of its ironies “ literature proffers a report on the condition of
systems of thought “ politics, civics, the nature of rule of course, but
as well theology, morals, ethics, the law “ as they are experienced in the
particularity and sensuality and partiality of the here and now, of, let™s
say, 17 September 14 ce in the instance of Tacitus™s report on Tiberius™s
accession, or December of 1608 in the case of Donne™s appeal to the
countess of Bedford, or the early days of November 1681 for Dryden™s
Exclusion Crisis masterpiece. We cannot of course live in the past, but
literature enables us to listen to its varied inflections and uncertainties,
its boldest affirmations as well as its most nuanced compromises.
The immensely learned and comprehensive system of study that has
constituted John Pocock™s work makes clear that we can learn a good deal
about the civic languages which people spoke in the past, their singularity
and forcefulness as well as their complexity, their hybridity, the ways
in which they might be purposefully layered over and joined to one
another. No less important, the study of political languages as argu-
mentative paradigms allows us to grasp their horizontal dimension, their
evolution over time, their genealogies, their inheritances and legacies,
the ways, for example, in which civic humanism is embedded in the rich
linguistic resources of the Florentine republic and then transformed by
its migrations between and among peoples, places and times.17 For this
work, the kind of text that we have so far examined may seem if not
inconsequential then certainly of a secondary order of interest, indeed,
perhaps even contra-indicated because of the ambiguous or contradictory,
even indecipherable, qualities that render literature a suitable archive for
a different order of knowledge.
And if we would ask after that different order of knowledge, if we
would ask what these languages sounded like when they were being
handled not in the form of systematic or philosophical exposition, not
in transit between Medician Florence and Jeffersonian America, but on

16
On the dating of this poem see Donne 1967, p. 253; also Bald 1970, pp. 172“5.
17
Pocock 1975b.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 161
behalf of business “ and in human affairs that business is often the
grasping acquisition and violent redistribution of goods and authority “
in answer to that question, the texts of systematic or philosophical
discourse may not be our best guide. We cannot want the knowledge
that discursive exposition supplies, but just as surely that knowledge,
for all of its order and authority, is partial, abstract, removed from the
sordid particularities of need and desire in the midst of which domestic
and civic negotiation so often take place. Literature might then be
considered as a report on a different but no less fundamental kind of
knowledge, on what I have earlier suggested as the vertical rather than
horizontal dimension of language, its complex behaviour at particular
moments rather than its articulation across time, a report on the capacity
of words to occupy puzzling or paradoxical or contradictory positions
within the same linguistic space and on the capacity of language simul-
taneously to embrace and deny the logic of particular systems of thought,
to say both yes and no, and to imagine the stasis achieved by compromise
and complicity.


˜o horrid provisos™
Compromise and complicity lie at the heart of William Congreve™s The
Way of the World, and more especially of the wonderful little treatise
on provisos that forms the centre of the play™s fourth act. We can read
the scene as a report on changing social and gender relations, on the
rewriting, towards the end of the seventeenth century, of female authority
and autonomy, including the autonomy of female pleasure. There is of
course a history of such scenes and so we ought not to overstate the
boldness or originality of Congreve™s orchestration of this dance of
prenuptial arrangements, though it can hardly be bettered for wit. But
what we might notice is that Congreve re-imagines domestic negotiation
in the shadows of a quite powerful challenge to the status of covenants
and contracts, of oaths and obedience, and of patriarchal authority. The
year of the first performance and of the publication of Congreve™s play
is 1700 and so the proviso scene was first acted out not in the deepest
shadows cast by the debates over those arrangements known as
the Glorious Revolution, but more on their margins.18 Yet the scene is
resonant with the implications of those debates. While it is clear that

18
See Congreve 1967, p. 387.
162 steven n. zwicker
Act 4 of The Way of the World is not political allegory, the scene does
gather force from its proximity to ideas propounded and interrogated
by sermons and broadsides, and by tracts and treatises that addressed
the nature of covenant and contract in the wake of the Revolution. But
the traffic moves in more than one direction. If the events of 1688“1689
and the debates and philosophical writings that reflected on and inter-
preted these events add a kind of ballast to Congreve™s scene, just as surely
the scene itself acts as commentary on the languages of the Revolution.
We might think of this commentary not as ridicule, not as a send-up
of the idioms of the Glorious Revolution, but as a witty and ironic
examination and application of some of its central terms, a display of
what ˜liberty™ and ˜property™, ˜contract™ and ˜covenant™ sound like when
they are shorn of some of their ponderous weight and when the site of
their application has shifted from the public sphere to the private
domain, from affairs of state to those of the heart, though we understand
at once that the private and the public cannot be wholly disentangled

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