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in this scene:
millimant: Ah! I™ll never marry, unless I am first made Sure of my will and
pleasure.
mirabell: Wou™d you have ˜em both before Marriage? Or will you be
contented with the first now, and stay for the other till after
grace?
millimant: Ah don™t be Impertinent “ My dear Liberty, shall I leave thee?
My faithful Solitude, my darling Contemplation, must I bid you
then Adieu? . . . my morning thoughts, agreeable wakings, indolent
Slumbers, all ye doucers, ye Someils du Matin, adieu I can™t do™t,
˜tis more than Impossible “ positively Mirabell, I™ll lie a Bed in
a morning as long as I please. (4.1.1.80“91).

Millimant adds other conditions as well: a liberty to pay and receive
visits at will, to correspond without interrogation, to ˜wear what I please;
and choose Conversation with regard only to my own taste . . . Come to
dinner when I please . . . have my Closet Inviolate; [and] be sole Empress
of my Tea table™. As Congreve heightens the negotiation, the scene
progresses towards sexual union and reproduction, the centre of the civic
and sacred meanings of marriage. And here the debate makes a daring
inroad on the logic of patriarchy:
Item, I shut my doors against all Bauds with Baskets, and penny-
mirabell:
worths of Muslin, China, Fans, Atlases, &c. “ Item, when you shall
be Breeding “
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 163
millimant: Ah! Name it not.
mirabell: Which may be presum™d, with a blessing on our endeavours “
millimant: Odious endeavours! (4.1.252“59)

Perhaps sensing that he had moved to dangerous or subversive
territory, Congreve allows the scene to turn from the reproductive to
the less fraught matter of taste and the tea-table, but sexual autonomy,
indeed reproductive rights, however guarded or baffled by wit, by the
rhythm and rapidity of exchange, has been deposited at the centre of
the scene, and it cannot be wholly effaced by what follows. We ourselves
hardly need any tutoring on the political volatility of such a subject,
on the centrality of the reproductive to the civic and sacred meanings of
matrimony “ how much more central then were these issues to a society
in which the sanctity of lineal descent, of crowns as well as of lesser
properties, turned on purity of the bloodline, an inviolability secured by
marital union whose most sacred duty was the reproductive.
The resonance of this moment in the play was surely heightened
by that series of late seventeenth-century political crises which turned “
one after the other “ on the reproductive failures, scandals and sensations
of royal union. If the comedy defuses or diminishes the dangerous
subversion of that sanctity, it also holds out the possibility of refashioning
or hearing anew the whole vocabulary of patriarchal authority in all of
its idioms and arguments. While Congreve seems willing to go a certain
distance in that direction, such irony, such subversion, is also here
delimited by the structure of the comedy, indeed by the rhythm of this
very scene which Congreve carefully breaks just before the contract
is sealed. Millimant cries out “ with a bit of her tongue in her cheek “
˜O horrid provisos! Odious Men! I hate your Odious proviso™s™ and
Mirabell counters, understanding that perhaps Millimant doth protest
too much, ˜Then we™re agreed. Shall I kiss your hand upon the Contract?
And here comes one to be a witness to the Sealing of the Deed™.
The scene is broken at this point, the plot rejoined, and the comedy
of manners re-emerges, but not without Congreve™s having allowed
a daring glance “ and in the space of a mere hundred lines or so “ at
contract and consent and the matter of patriarchy. The languages of
provision and proviso and the sanctity of patriarchy have not just been
smiled on but ironized in a way that changes and challenges their
political valence.
We might expect the diminution of patriarchy from the Whiggish and
compliant William Congreve, but the Revolution settlement had hardly
164 steven n. zwicker
aimed at the debunking of patriarchal authority. Indeed, some might
have thought that Charles II had done a good enough job of that, and
the sharpest attacks on William III aimed not to raise constitutional
issues but to question in a quite vulgar manner the king™s generative
capacities and sexual tastes.19
Of course the fact that attacks on William III were couched in the
language of deviance and incapacity is its own testimony to the continued
importance of patriarchalism to political mythologies. But both Dryden
as Tory apologist and Congreve as celebrant of the new regime suggest
that patriarchalism “ and the system of analogies between the body and
the state “ might be seen in a subtly recalibrated light, seen that is in ways
that acknowledge both the continuing presence and the limitations of
patriarchalism as a system of politics. For Dryden and for Congreve irony
forms the principal instrument of recalibration, and we might think
of irony™s nuances, contradictions and alternatives as the principal
mechanism for complicating and refining, for more perfectly tuning, the
idioms, styles and languages of political argument.


˜what field of all the civil wars / where his were not
the deepest scars?™
It may seem odd to have written of politics and irony in the early-
modern period without mentioning what is surely irony™s political
masterpiece: Andrew Marvell™s Horatian Ode upon Cromwell™s Return
from Ireland (1650). The productivity of this poem™s ironic modes to our
understanding of mid seventeenth-century English politics is so well
appreciated that our reading of the poem hardly needs more help.
But I want to invoke this text in order to raise the subject of puns which
seem to function as a perfect “ if not very exalted “ miniature of
irony, an emblem of the ways in which irony and ambiguity work to
deepen the vertical or contrapuntal dimensions of language, allowing
contradictory or equivocal or imperfectly aligned meanings to surround,
in the case of puns, a single phoneme, or in the case of irony larger
narrative units. Puns replicate the structure of irony by making possi-
ble in one linguistic site the counterpoint of contrary meanings. What
happens in the brief, explosive simultaneity of puns or in the larger

19
See, for example, the satires on William III which depict him as catamite or gelding in Lord
et al. 1963“1975, vols. v, vi.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 165
narratives of irony is something like a flood of equivocation that touches
the life of all the terms and meanings in play. One meaning may
remain dominant, but no meanings are untouched by these transactions.
˜What field of all the Civil Wars, / Where his were not the deepest
Scars?™20 This example “ an interrogative in which the meanings of ˜his™
unfold to indicate the scars that Cromwell suffered as well as those
he inflicted “ may be imperfect since the phoneme does not double
in the classic homonymic manner of the pun, but it is a perfect example
of the ambiguities and equivocations that arise from puns and ironies
and that allow so many different understandings of the figure of
Cromwell to play across the surface and within the deep structure of this
poem. The pun is I believe a strong exemplification of irony, but I raise
this subject not to extend that exposition but to address a final
argumentative point, one that emerges from Quentin Skinner™s work
on the relevance of language philosophy and in particular the concept
of illocutionary force to the study of politics and political languages.21
At the centre of Skinner™s argument lies the notion that the perfor-
mative implications of language need not coincide with language™s more
overt meanings; to understand the political work that particular languages
perform we must not only grasp their denotative schemes but as well
their ˜take-up™ implications, their illocutionary force. Of course irony
may come to play a part in the illocutionary act, it may be one of the
agents of disjunction or distance between the denotative and performative
values of language, but the concept of illocutionary force “ which always
implies agency and intention “ does not exhaust irony™s range of work
which can of course include the intentional but does not rely on agency
and intention since irony can emerge from the equivocal nature of
language itself. Perhaps this comes clearest in the instance of the
pun which may be deployed, and quite self-consciously, on behalf of
argument, but whose nature does not depend on agency and intention,
as is surely the case above: whether or not Marvell intended ambiguity,
ambiguity is irreducibly located within syntax and semantics. With or
without Marvell™s intentions, the couplet™s disruption of meaning and
disturbance of certainty come into play. And now of course we have
come close to Derrida™s work on language.22 We need not embrace
deconstruction™s wholesale erasure of agency and intention in order

20 21
Marvell 1971, i, p. 92, ii. 45“46. Skinner 1969, pp. 3“53.
22
Derrida 1974, pp. 44“53; or, more explicitly, Derrida 1991, pp. 64“6.
166 steven n. zwicker
to acknowledge a linguistic essentialism that points to irony™s ˜timeless™
structure, not merely its dependence on agency or intention. This seems
particularly important to an appreciation of the ways in which irony
always operates along the vertical axis of language, disturbing certainties
and redistributing settled meanings, and this is as true of irony in
Horace or Martial as in irony™s masterful embodiments in the literature
of early-modernity and well beyond.

˜the historiography of the human heart™
I have stressed in these remarks the role of literature in exposing the
vertical dimension of language, but I do not want to deny literature™s
function as a marker of change over time. It is certainly possible to make
an argument that in Absalom and Achitophel, for example, Dryden
is observing and recording and with unusual perspicacity a particular
moment in the long history of patriarchalism, perhaps a turning point
in its evolution from the central language of masculine civic authority
to a mere idiom of domestic sentiment, and the poem™s ironies might
be seen as playing a role in that softening or subversion of meanings.
There are however other ways of doing such work, of archiving the
horizontal dimension of political languages, and John Pocock™s theorizing
of the archive and fashioning of a model of political history educate us
in how we might properly perform such work.23 But writing the history
of the horizontal dimension of political languages need not exclude the
vertical dimension of those languages, and most especially the dimension
of irony, though in the practice there seems to have been a disciplinary,
perhaps a temperamental, divide between those who have looked after
one dimension or the other. Pocock™s histories seem to fall to one side
of that divide; yet in his most recent work Pocock suggests a way of
binding together these different dimensions of language and history.
Urging the Tacitean inheritance of Gibbon™s Decline and Fall, Pocock
describes Tacitus™s rendering of Roman politics as a study of the
˜deviousness, perversity, brutality, and recurrently suicidal folly, which
have made [Tacitus] renowned in the historiography of the human
heart as we wish it were not but know that it is™.24 In that wonderful

23
The theoretical work is most easily consulted in Pocock 1971; both Pocock 1975b and the case
studies in Pocock 1985b provide extraordinary models for tracing the history of change in
political languages over time.
24
Pocock 1999-, ii, p. 20.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 167
phrase the intersection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions
of political language is perfectly caught. Here is a historiography consti-
tuted of different kinds of records, one set that chronicles events and
the languages in which they were performed, and a second that may
refer, incidentally, to events but whose primary business is with the affects
in their complexity and contradiction and in their simultaneity and
indeterminacy, a set of records that opens, through the offices of irony
and deceit and disguise, both the comedy of sudden juxtapositions
and the poignancy of contingency and simultaneity. Poems and plays,
romances and novels are not the primary archive for political history
as we know it, but if we would write ˜the historiography of the human
heart™ they are indispensable, and this is a historiography “ and a history
of politics “ that we should not willingly do without.
chapter 9

Poetry and Political Thought: Liberty and
Benevolence in the Case of the British Empire
c. 1680À1800
Karen O™Brien


If the history of political thought is, as John Pocock argues, a ˜history of
the terms of discourse in which debate about politics has been carried on™,
Restoration and eighteenth-century poetry has a very good claim to be
read as a part of that history.1 This is not simply to state the obvious point
that the poetry of this period was intensely engaged with politics, nor
even to settle for the claim that political ideas were given complex
imaginative embodiment in the medium of poetry. It is, rather, to assign a
role to poetry in the generation and elaboration of political concepts as
part of a sustained conversation with political thought conducted in other
forms of writing, such as treatises, dialogues, parliamentary speeches and
pamphlets. I would like to argue that this inter-generic conversation
constitutes the broader frame of discourse within which eighteenth-
century political thought developed, and that it becomes more fully
intelligible if one attends to the contribution of poetry. Historians of
political thought are fully accustomed to approaching Milton in this way,
but subsequent (and often earlier) poets are more usually analysed in
terms of political allusion À a second-order kind of political thought À
or of their instigation or unconscious reflection of dominant ideologies.
The argument here is that early-modern literature was one domain within
which political ideas À as they related to party politics, but still more to
abstract, overarching questions À were meaningfully contested and
transformed; and that poetry, in particular, provides something more
than an enlargement of the evidence for the historical ˜terms of the
discourse™ of political thought, and yet, also, something more decisive in
its impact than a dramatization of politics. This, as I hope to show, had
much to do with the vocabularies, positions of address and acute sense

1
Pocock 1985a, p. 284.

168
Benevolence in the Case of the British Empire 1680À1800 169
of ethical responsibility habitually assumed by those attempting to write
poetry. The case for this kind of approach could be made very generally,
but is particularly compelling in relation to the political thought of the
first and early second British Empires. Here, I will argue, poetry had
a significant bearing, in the metropolitan context, on the political theori-
zation of imperial trade and colonization. It not only provided a sort of
echo chamber in which the key concepts of empire could resonate and
settle upon the public ear, but also advanced new, humanitarian theories
of empire which would find favour in decades to come.
Some of what I have to say about late seventeenth- and eighteenth-
century poetry in relation to political thought does apply to early-modern
literature in general. Not until the nineteenth century did literature
conceive of itself as normatively belles-lettristic, essentially different
in kind and concern from other modes of public writing. Seventeenth-
and eighteenth-century poetry was part of an earlier, less specialized
and more inter-communicative republic of letters. It was nevertheless
distinctive in the kinds of public voice it adopted, and in the ways in
which it thematized its own search (within the constraints of patronage
or commercially sponsored publishing) for an independent position
of address from which to speak to the realm of politics. More than any
other species of literary writing, poetry promulgated itself as an agent,
not only of party politics, but of political ideas. Horace, Juvenal, Pindar
and Lucan were models, respectively, for stances of detached evaluation,
righteous anger and (in the last two cases) enthusiastic encouragement
towards a public culture of liberty. In a world of party politics, pamph-

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