Now I’d abhor the suggestion of any party political bias here at Sweettenorbull, so with the last four posts having come from the Cavalier camp, it’s about time a Parliamentarian poet got a look in.
The party political angle, by the way, isn’t as much of a joke as it sounds. The senior party in Britain’s current coalition government is the Conservative party, more commonly known as the Tories. The word Tory comes from the Gaelic ‘toraidhe’ – raiders, a name given to dispossessed Irish Catholics, nominally Royalists, who would harass Parliamentarian forces and protestant settlers (or ‘planters’) in Ireland. The junior party, the Liberal Democrats, can trace their origins back to the Liberals, who for most of their existence were known as the Whigs. The word ‘Whig’, from a Scots word meaning to spur on a horse, first took on a political meaning after the ‘Whiggamore raids’, revolts in Southern Scotland against Scottish Covenanters’ support for Charles I in the second English Civil War. Britain’s other major political party, Labour, was founded in the 20th Century, although – at a stretch – one could trace the first stirrings of organized left-wing politics to the Civil war too, though I can’t see ‘the Levellers’ taking off as a nickname for the Labour Party, not least because of lingering memories of the 90s indie band of the same name.
But I digress. This post’s poem is a sonnet by one of the greatest names of the English literary canon to one of the commanding figures of British history.
To the Lord General Cromwell
The poem, written in 1952 at the dawn of the Protectorate, starts by listing some of Cromwell’s achievements so far, not least his defeat of the Scots – rather his defeats of the Scots. The Scottish covenanters fought in the first English civil war on the side of parliament, but changed sides later on when it became clear that the Presbyterian faction in the Roundheads were losing out to the more radical independents – who had little sympathy with the covenanter’s aim of establishing Presbyterian church government across Britain. Milton’s poem ‘On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament’ is of this anti-Presbyterian tendency, mocking the idea of replacing one system of tyrannical (from Milton’s point of view) church government with another, and cocking a snook at ‘Scotch what-d’ye call’s into the bargain. After switching sides, the Scots never won a battle against Cromwell’s new model army, losing decisively at Preston (‘Darwen stream’), Dunbar and Worcester. Milton, who makes a kind of holy warrior of Cromwell, sees this as God’s work being done. Cromwell thought much the same thing himself, though he was fairly conciliatory with the Scottish once he had subdued them, not meting out the kind of dreadful punishment the Catholic Irish were subject to.
Milton’s main concern is religious freedom, which he sees is under threat from many new foes. He ends the poem with a plea to Cromwell to keep up the battle for religious freedom. The ‘hireling wolves’ he refers to could be the foreign troops that Charles II hoped could help him retake his throne, such as the German and Danish mercenaries that Montrose took into the North of Scotland (see last post), or the paid clergy of the Anglican establishment. Unfortunately for Milton, Cromwell didn’t live long enough to do all the godly work he could have, and Charles II came back with a vengeance – though Milton, at fellow poet Andrew Marvell’s intercession, was spared his share of the bloodletting.