Great Cesar’s ghost

mary1One of the most uncomfortable periods in English history was surely the interval between the departure of James in December 1688 and the arrival in England of Mary a few weeks into the New Year – during which time, the convocation that had made use of William but didn’t really want him as their monarch and the bad-tempered, understandably resentful Dutchman were left to glare at one another across the negotiating table.

However, even when Mary did reach England, it wasn’t all beer and skittles. She certainly disappointed the faction who wanted her as sole monarch when she declined to be placed in authority over her husband – although this piece of wifely submission seems to have engendered in William a greater willingness to make concessions.

Mary’s relationship with her soon-to-be subjects likewise got off to a distinctly rocky start. Advised both by her husband and her future Parliament not to show any consciousness of her anomalous position or to display any guilt over her father’s removal, Mary succeeded so well in appearing indifferent that she was branded heartless in many quarters. She certainly convinced her father on that head, receiving from him a flood of angry letters in which she was accused of treachery and selfish disloyalty.

Nevertheless, on the whole Mary’s presence in England was an enormous relief. While there were of course those who held to a hard line with regard to James, the majority either welcomed his deposing or were pragmatic enough to make the best of it. In this respect, Mary was the best possible compromise candidate. She was a Stuart and a Protestant, and had been heir to the English throne for twenty-six years. She was also James’ daughter, so that the proper “line” was maintained, albeit not in the usual way. In short, a case could be made for her.

And a case was made for her. As we have seen, very little fiction was published in England during 1689, with heavily politicised writing full of justification and retconning dominating the marketplace. Enormous efforts went into “selling” and William and Mary to England, often by twisting the usual monarchist stance and positioning them as defenders of the true faith, with the removal of James being, consequently, God’s will.

Meanwhile, though the fiction writers were quiescent, the poets were not; and the political arguments were bolstered by laudatory works celebrating the new monarchy. It is noticeable, however, the William rarely appears in these poems as anything other than a symbol, or a generalised “power”; whereas a whole body of literature eventually built up around Mary.

An entirely representative effort is A Congratulatory Poem To Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival In England – by none other than Aphra Behn. To an extent, we find Aphra amongst the pragmatists—but only to an extent. While refusing utterly to so much as acknowledge William’s existence, Aphra shows herself prepared to welcome Mary—not in her own right, but as her father’s daughter.

Although we have seen how far over the top Aphra could go in her royalist poetry, her depression and disappointment over James’ fate makes this a much more muted piece of work, closer in tone to the wry resignation that marked A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse than to the over-insistence of A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales and similar efforts.

It is worth noting in this context that this poem was composed after Aphra rejected the monetary overtures made to her by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet on behalf of the William-ites, who wanted her to join the faction being paid to sell the new monarchy. Aphra’s “Muse”, which she somewhat mockingly accuses Dr Burnet of “enquiring after” in the earlier poem, plays an appropriately prominent role in this one.

Fittingly, the opening of the poem finds Aphra openly mourning the fate of James:

    While my sad Muse the darkest Covert Sought
    To give a loose to Melancholy Thought;
    Opprest, and sighing with the Heavy Weight
    Of an Unhappy dear lov’d Monarch’s Fate…

But even as Aphra (and her Muse) give way to despair, new cause for hope appears:

    While thus She lay resolv’d to tune no more
    Her fruitless Songs on Brittains Faithless Shore,
    All on a suddain thro’ the Woods there Rung,
    Loud Sounds of Joy that Jo Peans Sung.
    Maria! Blest Maria! was the Theam,
    Great Brittains happy Genius, and her Queen…

However, Aphra’s Muse is not to be won over so easily, and resists the lure of this newcomer, this replacement for James:

    The Muses all upon this Theam Divine,
    Tun’d their best Lays, the Muses all, but mine,
    Sullen with Stubborn Loyalty she lay…

But then, Mary is James’s daughter and therefore a “deity” like her father before her – to whom, before bowing down to Mary, the Muse pays homage:

    But Oh! What Human Fortitude can be
    Sufficient to Resist a Deity?
    Even our Allegiance here, too feebly pleads,
    The Change in so Divine a Form perswades;
    Maria with the Sun has equal Force…

    From every thought a New-born Reason came
    Which fortifyed by bright Maria’s Fame,
    Inspir’d My Genious with new Life and Flame,
    And thou, Great Lord, of all my Vows, permit
    My Muse who never fail’d Obedience yet,
    To pay her Tribute at Marias Feet,
    Maria so Divine a part of You,
    Let me be Just — but Just with Honour too…

That done, the floodgates open:

    Maria all Inchanting, Gay, and Young,
    All Hail Illustrious Daughter of a King,
    Shining without, and Glorious all within,
    Whose Eyes beyond your scantier Power give Laws,
    Command the Word, and justifie the Cause;
    Nor to secure your Empire needs more Arms
    Than your resistless, and all Conquering Charms…

    All Natures Charms are open’d in your Face,
    You Look, you Talk, with more than Human Grace;

    All that is Wit, all that is Eloquence.
    Easie and Natural from your Language break,

    And ’tis Eternal Musick when you speak;
    Thro’ all no formal Nicety is seen,
    But Free and Generous your Majestick Meen,
    In every Motion, every Part a Queen…

However, we are not left long without a stern reminder of where Mary derives all these wondrous gifts, nor of the events that have placed her on the throne:

    Yet if with Sighs we View that Lovely Face,
    And all the Lines of your great Father’s Trace,

    Your Vertues should forgive, while we adore
    That Face that Awes, and Charms our Hearts the more;
    But if the Monarch in your Looks we find,
    Behold him yet more glorious in your Mind;
    ‘Tis there His God-like Attributes we see.
    A Gratious Sweetness, Affability,
    A Tender Mercy and True Piety;
    And Vertues even sufficient to Attone
    For all the Ills the Ungrateful World has done…

And as the poem moves towards its climax, the biblical imagery that always marked Aphra’s royalist works comes roaring back:

    The Murmering World till now divided lay,
    Vainly debating whom they shou’d Obey,
    Till You Great Cesar’s Off-spring blest our Isle,
    The differing Multitudes to Reconcile;
    Thus Stiff-neckt Israel in defiance stood,
    Till they beheld the Prophet of their God;

    Who from the Mount with dazling brightness came,
    And Eyes all shining with Celestial Flame;
    Whose Awful Looks, dispel’d each Rebel Thought,
    And to a Just Compliance, the wilde Nations brought…

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2 Comments to “Great Cesar’s ghost”

  1. Well. At least she’s consistent in her loyalties (which is more than James managed; yes, I can’t resist a last dig at him).

  2. It breaks my heart that all that energy and talent and loyalty was given to such an unworthy cause.

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