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Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric

Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric

by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski


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Barbara Lewalski argues that the Protestant emphasis on the Bible as requiring philological and literary analysis fostered a fully developed theory of biblical aesthetics defining both poetic art and spiritual truth.

Originally published in 1979.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691611921
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #735
Pages: 564
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric

By Barbara Kiefer Lewalski


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06395-9


"Is there in truth no beautie?": Protestant Poetics and the Protestant Paradigm of Salvation

Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets and theorists of poetry would have met Herbert's rhetorical question from "Jordan I" by affirming as positively as he could wish that truth is indeed the proper subject of poetry, that beauty and truth are finally one. But the key terms of that question may carry diverse meanings, reflecting quite different assumptions as to just how poetry conveys truth. One prominent strain of Renaissance theory and poetic practice, described in recent studies of Renaissance poetics by John M. Steadman, Michael Murrin, Don Cameron Allen, and S. K. Heninger, presents the poet as maker of fictions which allegorically conceal and reveal profoundest philosophic truths; or as the inspired shaper of myths and symbols which shadow forth cosmic truth and divine revelation; or, in Sidney's terms, as the creator of a golden world which embodies and mediates a truer vision of the real than can nature's brazen world. But it is just these notions of poetry as pointing by means of fictions to philosophical truth, or shadowy revelation, or the platonic ideas, that Herbert eschews in "Jordan I":

    Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
    Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
    Is all good structure in a winding stair?
    May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
    Not to a true, but painted chair?

    Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
    And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
    Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
    Must all be vail'd, while he that reades, divines,
    Catching the sense at two removes?

    Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
    Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
    I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
    Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
    Who plainly say, My God, My King.

The poetics implied in the final line of Herbert's poem proposes instead a direct recourse to the Bible as repository of truth: the speaker calls upon biblical models and biblical poetic resources (the quotation from Psalm 145: 1), and associates himself straightforwardly with the Psalmist in heartfelt and uncontrived (plain) utterance.

The biblical poetics which Herbert here partly articulates and which (I shall argue) several other notable Protestant poets of his period follow, is parallel to, but at the same time distinct from, another kind of "true" poetry, the biblical prophetic mode various critics (M. H. Abrams, Angus Fletcher, Joseph A. Wittreich, William Kerrigan, Northrop Frye, Murray Roston) have found relevant to the major poetry of Spenser, Milton, and a number of the Romantics. Prophecy, though often directed to the mind and heart, is a public mode, concerned to mediate through testimony, archetypal symbol, and story the prophet's inspired visions of transcendent reality or of apocalyptic transformations, present or future. The great biblical models are the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel), and especially the Book of Revelation, which is said to subsume them all. Religious lyric, though often didactic in intention or effect, is a private mode, concerned to discover and express the various and vacillating spiritual conditions and emotions the soul experiences in meditation, prayer, and praise. The great biblical model is the Psalmist with his anguished cries de profundis, and his soaring te deums of praise.

I do not intend to maintain, with Northrop Frye, that the Bible is in fact the comprehensive storehouse and source of western literary genres, archetypes, and forms, but will only observe that some such assumption seems to inform a good deal of the major poetry, epic and lyric, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I do assert that, despite the impact of biblical language upon the eighteenth-century sublime, and of the discovery of the true principles of Hebrew versification upon the Romantic poets' perception and use of the Bible as poetic model, the articulation and practice of a fully-developed theory of biblical aesthetics is not a pre-Romantic or Romantic but a Renaissance/ seventeenth-century phenomenon. Specifically, my concern here is with the biblical, Protestant poetics informing a. major strain of English seventeenth-century religious lyric: the chief characteristics of that poetics can, I suggest, be clearly discerned, and the history of its literary impact traced with some precision — from the quickening response of Donne to the developing theory, to the exhaustion of this particular tradition in the American colonial poet Edward Taylor.

This study, then, will argue two propositions. First, that an extensive and widely accessible body of literary theory, chiefly pertaining to the Bible and to fundamental Protestant assumptions about the spiritual life and about art, can be extrapolated from such sixteenth- and seventeenth-century materials as biblical commentaries, rhetorical handbooks, poetic paraphrases of scripture, emblem books, manuals on meditation and preaching. Second, that such theory, and the biblical models it identified, helped to shape contemporary attitudes about religious poetry, contributing directly to the remarkable flowering of the religious lyric in the seventeenth century, and especially to that major strain represented by Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne, and Taylor. The argument should begin with some justification for studying these particular materials and poets in terms of a biblical and Protestant aesthetics.

My contention that the poetics of much seventeenth-century religious lyric derives primarily from Protestant assumptions about the poetry of the Bible and the nature of the spiritual life calls for some adjustment of scholarly directions. Several basic studies have pressed claims for medieval and Counter Reformation influences upon these poets: Louis L. Martz has located the dominant influence in Ignatian and Augustinian meditative traditions; Patrick Grant has specified the Augustinianism of the medieval Franciscans (modified by certain countervailing Renaissance concepts) as the primary intellectual context. By contrast, Malcolm M. Ross finds this poetry to be Protestant and aesthetically the worse for it, in that Protestantism undermined incarnational eucharistic symbolism, fragmented the medieval analogical universe, and so brought about the attenuation of analogical poetic symbolism — flattening symbol into metaphor or simile. But this is surely a curiously blinkered approach to some of the finest religious lyric in the literature.

I suggest rather that the primary poetic influences upon the major devotional poets of the century — Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne, Taylor — are contemporary, English, and Protestant, and that the energy and power we respond to in much of this poetry has its basis in the resources of biblical genre, language, and symbolism, the analysis of spiritual states, and the tensions over the relation of art and truth which were brought into new prominence by the Reformation. Of course Roman Catholic theology, spirituality, and aesthetics were far from monolithic, even after Trent, and we can find precedents and analogues for some elements of Protestant biblicism, theology, spirituality, and aesthetics in the Augustinian tradition, the nominalists, Erasmus, the Devotio Moderna movement, the Jansenists, and even in the scholastic and Tridentine mainstream. Nevertheless, these common Christian elements took on distinctive form within the total frame of English Protestantism, and that contemporary milieu is the immediate source of a new Protestant poetics. The poets described here do not derive their principal strength from the tag-ends of medieval or Counter Reformation spirituality and symbolism which they sometimes exhibit, but rather from their active engagement with new modes of religious thought and their eager experimentation with new resources for religious poetry.

Some modification is in order also in regard to theories relating this poetry to an "Augustinian" poetics derived primarily from the De Doctrina Christiana. According to J. A. Mazzeo's illuminating essay, Augustinian poetics presupposes a symbolic universe in which the movement of thought is Platonic — "through the words to the realities themselves, from the temporal realities to the eternal realities, from talk to silence, and from discourse to vision." Though Mazzeo does not draw the inference, it seems clear that the Augustinian position must finally depress the significance of poetry along with all arts of human discourse, since, though words are important as signs, truth is conveyed not by words but by revelation and intuition. In describing Herbert's poetics, both Joseph H. Summers and Arnold S. Stein have appealed to Augustine's directive that the preacher seek wisdom and truth rather than eloquence, and Stanley E. Fish has pressed hard the implications of the Augustinian poetics in relation to Donne's sermons, Herbert's poetry, and various prose works of the seventeenth century. Fish argues that the seventeenth-century writers in the Augustinian tradition ultimately renounce human art, and enact this renunciation by undermining the expected logical and rhetorical development of their works — a strategy calculated to demonstrate the incapacity of human art to present divine truth, and to display the need for utter dependence upon God to gain an intuition of truth.

We should, however, approach Augustinian aesthetics not in medieval but in Reformation terms, taking account of the important new factor introduced by the Reformation — an overwhelming emphasis on the written word as the embodiment of divine truth. In this milieu the Christian poet is led to relate his work not to ineffable and intuited divine revelation, but rather to its written formulation in scripture. The Bible affords him a literary model which he can imitate in such literary matters as genre, language, and symbolism, confident that in this model at least the difficult problems of art and truth are perfectly resolved. My proposition is, then, that far from eschewing aesthetics for a rhetoric of silence or a deliberate anti-aesthetic strategy, these poets committed themselves to forging and employing a Protestant poetics, grounded upon scripture, for the making of Protestant devotional lyrics.

A. Biblical Poetics and the Emergence of a Protestant Aesthetics

Ernst Curtius has provided both the term "biblical poetics" and some consideration of the early history of the concept in the Patristic period and the Middle Ages. In essence the concept affirms the poetry of the Bible to be analogous to, and usually prior and superior to, pagan poetry. Over the centuries this concept was invoked, variously, to defend the literary quality of the Bible as against pagan literature, to defend the practice of poetry among Christians by appeal to biblical authority, and to propose the Bible as (in certain respects) a model for Christian poets. In this vein the patristic Christian poet Sedulius identified David the Psalmist as the true model for Christian poets, and the mid-seventeenth-century Protestant commentator Edward Leigh asserted that "The Book of the Psalms, Job, and the Songs of Moses, are the only patern of true Poesie." Early and late, the chief categories for describing the poetic nature of scripture were genre, figurative language, and symbolic mode (typology).

The loci classici for discussions of genre in the Bible are provided by Jerome and Isidore of Seville. Basing his comparisons chiefly upon the supposed metrical similarities of biblical and classical poetry, Jerome declared that the Book of Job was written in hexameter (epic) verse, and that the Psalms, in various lyric meters, invite comparison with the great classical lyrics. Isidore greatly expanded the list of literary and non-literary kinds to be found in the Bible, and indeed asserted their biblical origin: Moses first wrote hexameter verse in Deuteronomy 32, "long before Pherecydes and Homer"; hymns in praise of God were first composed by David; the first epithalamium was Solomon's; the inventor of threnody was Jeremiah and only later Simonides among the Greeks; Isaiah first wrote rhetorical prose; the first historian was Moses.

The poetic nature of the Bible, or at least of certain portions of it, was also urged on the basis of figurative language — the presence of the recognized rhetorical and poetic figures and tropes. Cassiodorus discovered over one hundred and twenty rhetorical figures in the Psalms alone, and both he and the Venerable Bede claimed the prior appearance in scripture of all the figures of language and thought. The claim that the Bible is "strewn with figures of speech" was reaffirmed by Charlemagne in outlining his program for the reform of studies, and much later by Petrarch in arguing the harmony of poetry and theology: "When Christ is called now a 'lion,' and now a 'lamb,' and now a 'worm' — what is that if not poetic?"

Perhaps the most important feature identifying the Bible as poetry was its presumed symbolic mode. The basic medieval formula, enunciated by Augustine and repeated constantly, recognized a literal or historical meaning of scripture residing in the signification of the words, and, in addition, a spiritual meaning whereby the things or events signified by the words point beyond themselves to other things or events. Aquinas' classic account of the so-called four-fold method of exegesis recognized in addition to the literal meaning three spiritual senses: allegorical or typological, tropological or moral, and anagogical. The method is illustrated by Dante's famous reading of Psalm 114, on the Exodus theme:

If we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory.

Dante's discussion of the Commedia in these terms provides the most notable medieval example of a poet taking the symbolic mode of scripture as a model for his own religious poetry.

My contention is that the new focus on scripture occasioned by the Protestant Reformation promoted in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England a specifically biblical poetics, which revived and further developed these ancient assumptions under the impetus of Protestant theology and the new literary and philological interests of the period. I suggest further that this biblical poetics is itself the most important component of an emerging Protestant aesthetics.

A pioneering study by Lily B. Campbell has pointed to the multiplication in sixteenth-century England of verse translations, metaphrases, and poetic versions of the so-called poetic parts of the Bible — Psalms, the Song of Songs, Isaiah, Lamentations, Proverbs, the Book of Job — and also the widespread use of the stories of Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, Judith, and Job as subject matter for narrative or "epic" poems and for religious drama. On the theoretical side, Protestant Englishmen of the period testified in some numbers to the need to create a biblically inspired substitute for the supposedly licentious or scandalous or worldly poetry of their contemporaries, rallying to the standard of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas' new muse for Christian poetry — the erstwhile muse of Astronomy, Urania. In a dream-vision poem, Du Bartas recounted Urania's visit to him, urging him to reclaim for God the noble gift of poetry which had originated in the Bible, but was then perverted to idolatrous and immoral uses. The poem was translated into English by King James I (1585) and Joshua Sylvester (1605); and Urania's arguments, or dream-visions modeled upon that of Du Bartas, are recounted in the prefaces to several contemporary religious poems. Urania's arguments for the writing of Christian poetry draw upon the ancient precepts of biblical poetics, and these precepts were marshalled for similar purposes by Sidney, Puttenham, Lodge, Quarles, Vaughan, Milton, and many others.


Excerpted from Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Table of Contents, pg. vii
  • Foreword, pg. ix
  • List of Abbreviations, pg. xiii
  • List of Emblems, pg. xiv
  • Chapter 1. “Is there in truth no beautie ?”: Protestant Poetics and the Protestant Paradigm of Salvation, pg. 1
  • Part I. Biblical Poetics, pg. 29
  • Chapter 2. Biblical Genre Theory: Precepts and Models for the Religious Lyric, pg. 31
  • Chapter 3. The Poetic Texture of Scripture: Tropes and Figures for the Religious Lyric, pg. 72
  • Chapter 4. The Biblical Symbolic Mode: Typology and the Religious Lyric, pg. 111
  • Chapter 5. Protestant Meditation: Kinds, Structures, and Strategies of Development for the Meditative Lyric, pg. 147
  • Chapter 6. Protestant Emblematics: Sacred Emblems and Religious Lyrics, pg. 179
  • Chapter 7. Art and the Sacred Subject: Sermon Theory, Biblical Personae, and Protestant Poetics, pg. 213
  • Chapter 8. John Donne: Writing after the Copy of a Metaphorical God, pg. 253
  • Chapter 9. George Herbert: Artful Psalms from the Temple in the Heart, pg. 283
  • Chapter 10. Henry Vaughan: Pleading in Groans of My Lord's Penning, pg. 317
  • Chapter 11. Thomas Traherne: Naked Truth, Transparent Words, and the Renunciation of Metaphor, pg. 352
  • Chapter 12. Edward Taylor: Lisps of Praise and Strategies for Self-Dispraise, pg. 388
  • Afterword, pg. 427
  • Notes, pg. 429
  • Index, pg. 507

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