Glorious John

(Scene from the 1970 film “Cromwell”).

On the 13th April, 1668 the newly restored Monarch King Charles II appointed John Dryden as the first official Poet Laureate. His appointment heralded a glorious age of art and culture after the barren years of the Interregnum. The new King reconciled the nation with a proclamation entitled “The Declaration of Breda” which was an official pardon for the crimes enacted against the Crown during the Civil War.

This was a sign that he was willing to forgive his subjects and this was reflected in his choice of Laureate. Dryden was just one of Cromwell’s official court poets and he was commissioned to compose the eulogy for his funeral. Dryden’s “Heroic Stanzas” was an effusive tribute to Cromwell’s “Commonwealth”.

The reality was stark, the Commonwealth was an idealistic fantasy that had simply foundered. Cromwell and his acolytes shared a bombastic vision of an English Utopia. They believed that the Crown had no right to land or property as that belonged to the people. They even made the bold claim that the soil was sacred and the Crown had appropriated the land that was promised to them by God.

It is no coincidence that this clear allusion to Zionism was imagined by Cromwell and his supporters, as religious piety was integral to their purpose. The most fervent allies to the Commonwealth cause were the “Diggers”. The Diggers had an impressive and extraordinary zeal.

(Commemorative stone created in 1999 to mark the 350th anniversary of the Diggers campaign).

The Diggers appropriated Crown land through physical force. They arrived with spades to plant the crops that they believed would sustain them. The ringleader Gerrard Winstanley famously declared,

“For in this work of restoration, there will be no beggar in Israel”.

However their ideals fell on stony ground. Cromwell merely became another despot who continued to tyrannise the common people. It is a curse inherent to all political systems that was even prophesied in ancient times. Israel was a theocracy where the power was invested in prophets who claimed to speak for God. The Jews grew restless with this arrangement and pleaded with the prophet Samuel to allow them to appoint their own King.

God granted their wish, but with a timely caveat,

“Your King will take your sons, daughters, a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and a tenth of your flocks..and you will become his slaves”.

This warning is familiar. It is something that is patently true in history, as we observe that it is a pattern of behaviour for all mighty and puritanical figures of authority.

However it is also part of human nature to coalesce into an identifiable tribe and to seek a strong moral leader. The Stuart reign came to an end after the striking Protestant ascendancy termed the “Glorious Revolution”. Dryden, a quietly observant Roman Catholic was summarily sacked from his post by KIng William III.

Dryden’s successor, Thomas Shadwell, reflected the new sensibilities expertly. Our Poet Laureates should be admired for their valuable expertise.

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