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George Southcombe (ed.), English Nonconformist Poetry, 1660-1700 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012). ISBN: 9781851969654, 3 Vols, 1168pp., £275.00.

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben


[1] This handsome set of three volumes is the most significant of the recent contributions to the study of English literary culture in the later seventeenth century. English Nonconformist Poetry, 1660-1700, which was prepared by George Southcombe during his British Academy postdoctoral fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford, offers a sensitive and nuanced introduction to an often neglected series of texts, discursive contexts and cultures. The poetry included in this edition demonstrates the vitality and flexibility of nonconformist writers across the period, even as it bears witness to the changing circumstances of the Restoration, its aftermath, and the Revolution which appeared to many contemporaries to complete the political and social transformation of England which had begun with the civil wars almost fifty years before.

[2] Recent work on seventeenth-century radical writing has tended to focus its attention on the 1640s and 1650s. The contributions which have been made by Naomi Baker, Ariel Hessayon, Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith, among others, have been institutionalised in such volumes as The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution (2001) and The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution (2012). Comparatively little attention has been paid to the legacies of this print culture in the aftermath of the Restoration, by contrast, when the political and religious radicalism of earlier writers evolved into the distinctive preoccupations of dissent. A number of the most important of those writers who became known as ‘nonconformists’ did begin their literary, political or ecclesiastical careers during the revolution – including John Milton, Andrew Marvell and John Bunyan. But new voices also emerged in the new environments of Restoration England. The sometimes visionary and often iconoclastic commitments of the earlier radical tradition were repurposed in the changing social and political contexts of the revived Stuart regime, as has been illustrated in studies ranging from Neil Keeble’s ground-breaking account of The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England (1987) to Nigel Smith’s biography, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (2010). But, even as this scholarly discussion has continued, we have lacked a judicious anthology of the most important texts emerging from the dissenting community in the period after the Restoration. This is what makes the publication of English Nonconformist Poetry, 1660-1700 so significant.

[3] George Southcombe has provided a judicious and nuanced selection of poetic texts from this period. The poetry included in the three volumes of this edition is arranged chronologically: volume one includes material from 1660 to 1672, volume two from 1673 to 1682, and volume three from 1689 to 1702. Southcombe’s selection includes a generous representation of a number of writers: Robert Wild is the author of ten of the nineteen items in volume one, for example, and four of the eight items in volume two. Nevertheless, the selected writers do represent a number of different denominational backgrounds: Robert Wild was a Presbyterian of royalist inclination, Benjamin Keach was a Baptist with occasional links to anti-Stuart agitators, and Vavasor Powell was an erstwhile Fifth Monarchist who spent most of the 1660s in prison, for example. Perhaps surprisingly, the edition does not include material by well-known writers, including Milton, Marvell or Bunyan, though these writers and others like them are already well served by critical editions. Perhaps more surprisingly, the edition includes only two women. Katherine Sutton is represented by A Christian Woman’s Experiences of the Glorious Working of Gods Free Grace (1663), which appears in volume one, and Mary Mollineux is represented by Fruits of Retirement: or, Miscellanous Poems, Moral and Divine (1702), which collection is included in its entirety in volume three in a text edited by Catherine Wright (pp. 187-296). As this extensive page range suggests, the edition cheerfully flees the temptation to excerpt from longer material, and includes substantial single items, including Benjamin Keach’s Distressed Sion Relieved (1689), as well as substantial collections, including Mollineux’s Fruits of Retirement, in their entirety. No two editors would offer the same account of this period, of course, and no amount of second-guessing could challenge this edition’s commitment to offering as fully a comprehensive account of poetic work in this period.

[4] English Nonconformist Poetry, 1660-1700 is presented as a very handsome series of three volumes, the appearance of which is typical of the high-quality production we have come to expect of Pickering & Chatto. The brown boards are complemented by an attractive buckram label for the title on the spine. Unfortunately, the attractiveness of the edition, and utility of the text, is hampered by the rather small font size which is used for the poetry – it cannot be any more than 8 point. But there is no doubt that this edition represents a contribution to the study of later seventeenth-century literary culture with potentially paradigm-shifting significance.

Queen’s University Belfast, April 2014