Examine portrayals of religious experience by three authors whose work you have studied in this unit: what do you see as their main similarities?
The religious poetry of Renaissance England is at once both ferocious in its devotion and deeply conflicted. As a time of tremendous religious turmoil, the Renaissance period saw a great number of poets garner inspiration from spiritual and religious sources. The constant struggle between Anglican and Catholic faiths meant that faith was both a source of identity and conflict, making it a perfect subject for emotive poetry. In order to tie together common religious ideas in the poetry of this era this essay will examine the works of George Herbert as a potentially Protestant poet, John Donne as a formerly Catholic poet who became a Protestant convert, and Richard Crashaw who converted to Catholicism in adulthood. This diversity of religious perspectives, at least across the Catholic-Protestant spectrum, will both challenge and confirm religious motifs that cross dogmatic religious and political lines. In problematizing a Catholic-Protestant poetry dichotomy the aim is then to present a view of personal Christian devotional poetry in Renaissance England as represented by the works of the three select poets who, while writing nonsynchronous to each other, have both distinctive differences and similarities in the way they portray the religious experience.
The earliest of the three poets, and perhaps the most conflicted and vocal in his exploration of Christian faith is John Donne, whose mix of Catholic upbringing and Protestant conversion, in conjunction with his move from sensuous love poetry to holy sonnet, makes his poetry riddled with contradiction and filled with strikingly passionate exclamations. Donne’s style and experience as a poet prior to The Holy Sonnets (Donne, p.331-340) was lustful love poems that delved deep into the indulgence of sexual appetites or the desire for another. That lustful desire is transformed into devotional poetry, meaning that Donne’s poetry draws a parallel between human desire and religious devotion. The intensity of religious fervour is as powerful as the jealous love expressed in The Apparition (Donne, p.47-48). In Holy Sonnet 14 (Donne, p.328) Donne expresses his desire to be violently overwhelmed by the presence of God, in a manner that is almost sexual, beseeching his God to take him by force. He uses marriage as a motif to express his ties to evil; “But am betroth’d unto your enemie: Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,” (Donne, p.328, Holy Sonnet 14, line 10-11). The interchangeability of lust and devotion in Donne’s poetry makes the divine into the other in his Holy Sonnets but unlike in his love poetry the other in these sonnets is immovable and impervious, with the Donne narrator unable to exert control.
Donne also emphasizes the need for a manifestation of God to the devoted in Holy Sonnet 14 (Donne, p.328) with violent verbs such as “breake”, “blowe”, “force” and “burn” (Donne, p.328, Holy Sonnet 14, line 4) in his requests for divine intervention. Donne’s God is one who could deploy such violence with ease but may remain steadfast and illusive. This violence and passion of devotion is characteristic of all three poets examined in this essay. Despite his Catholic roots, post conversion Donne comes to perceive the Roman catholic church and its constructs as heretical and corrupt (Donne, p.442) as they deal in earthly concerns and the worship of the Virgin Mary (Marotti, p.359) Donne’s Protestant ideology is one of direct access to God, but only as god permits. There are no intermediaries, rather he is at the direct mercy of God in the struggle to achieve true devotion, a struggle which is ultimately in vain unless his God deems him worthy;
Oh I shall soone despaire, when I doe see
That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt’not chuse me,
And Satan hates mee, yet is loth to lose mee.
– Donne, p.322, Holy Sonnet 2, lines 12-14
In Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 he explores how the eternal life that continues after death is free of the woes of the mortal realm, so that death is at once rendered impotent and a gateway to salvation. He rejoices in the ineffectiveness of death in the face of everlasting life by addressing piteously the Anthropomorphic spectre of death “Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.” (Donne, p.326, Holy Sonnet 10, line 4)
George Herbert presents a more genial version of God. He is still creator and sits in judgement of man, but he is there to pick select a chosen few out from their humble beginnings, and through his divinity console and rescue humans from their own impious natures and the pain of everyday mortal existence. Herbert, following Donne’s lead, writes as a metaphysical poet about the abstract religious experience, whilst also anthropomorphising concepts such as Death and Love.
As a Protestant poet Herbert rejoices in the knowledge of the word of God and sees God as the only window to true beauty; without faith in God as a lens the world appears dark and joyless. The mortal realm hold very little but pain for Herbert with true hope lying in the idea of life everlasting. His preoccupation with life after death is similar to that of Donne with death presenting no threat after the poet discovers life after death through god. His fear of death has been so extinguished by faith that he proclaims “[Death] art grown fair and full of grace,” (Herbert, p.180, Death, line 15) as death now affords him passage into the afterlife. It is through his exultations and exclamations of the peace that comes through reframing the world in the context of his faith that he paints secularism as a poor imitation of the divine.
Herbert is diplomatic and vague in his deployment of identifiable ideological indicators is an example how religious ideologies in Renaissance England need to be understood along a spectrum. Herbert despite the puritan rejection of the excesses of the Catholic church shows his perceived need for sacrament even in protestant faith. Even the Eucharistic sacraments can be incorporated provided all perceived catholic superstition can be removed and those who receive the sacrament are not necessarily blessed by virtue of the sacrament (Whalen, p.1276).
Herbert also expresses the common Christian motif of mankind as inherently sinful and only redeemed through acceptance of God. Herbert sees people as corrupted and of an earth that is not divine but full of pain and suffering. He shows the struggle against human nature in order to embrace the love of God in this passage from Love III :
“Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.” (Herbert, p.183, Love III lines 1-2)
The “Love” of Herbert’s Love III is Anthropomorphic divine love that has a tangible presence and agency: “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply”(Herbert, p.183, Love III, line 11). This anthropomorphising of love suggests a being that is possible to interact with and engage with. This is in line with Herbert granting personhood to death (Herbert, p.180, Death) and suggests an attempt to translate the metaphysical into easily understood physical, human terms. Herbert’s depiction of sin and redemption as an inescapable cycle that can only end in death or ultimately the day of judgement is inline with Donne’s view of the fallibility of mankind and redemptive power of god. Herbert’s expression of the eventual endpoint of the cycle as the final relief and salvation of mankind is clear;
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
– Herbert, p.180, Death, lines 18-20
Following the lead of Herbert and Donne into metaphysical devotional poetry, Richard Crashaw deals primarily with the personal religious experience but unlike Herbert and Donne, he takes his imagery from Catholic source material, such as saints and angels. The saint is the intermediary between man and his creator, so as a means of access to God, Saint Teresa is both praised by Crashaw for her piety and purity but is also praised for her relationship with God. From the outset Saint Teresa is associated with the “seraphim” (Crashaw, p.152 The Flaming Heart, line 5), the Seraphim who have a direct line to god and further intermediaries between man and God.
Crashaw raises his objections to the soft femininity of the artists portrayal of the saint as she is strong and has a powerful agency as an intermediary of god. He objects to the inaccuracy of the portrait on the basis that words, not images can depict religious truth (Mebust, p.84) but that they often fall short and are just a poor imitation of the divine. His critique of symbology and icons is less in line with Catholicism than the protestant aversion to what they considered idolatry. This has lead to a critique of Crashaw’s work as conforming to Protestant ideologies and beliefs (Teller, p.239) but the poet clearly views Saint Teresa as not just an example of devotion but also as a potent intermediary with agency to be a conduit to God. He gives her divine flame and power that does not conform to the puritanism associated with Protestant beliefs and though he condemns and parodies the sensationalist imagery of the Catholic portrait he revels in his own revision of the image.
Virgin mother and the female saint as a key component of spirituality is not something which is as heavily explored within Anglican devotional poetry as it is in Catholic poetry. This can be attributed to the construction of the divine hierarchy in the respective religions, where Catholicism places special emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Crashaw’s preoccupation, with the feminine and maternal in the divine is evident in The Flaming Heart (Crashaw, p.152) in which he examines and praises a religious portrait of Saint Teresa in lyrical and passionate terms. She is depicted as virginal, and it is from this virginal purity and her association with the seraphim, as an order of angels closely allied with fire, that she draws her fiery power. Feminine divinity in the form of Saint Teresa is represented by both a furious and loving fire. She is described as bringing forth “happy fire-works” and “mistresse flame” (Crashaw, p .153, The Flaming Heart, lines 17-18) The purity of the burning love between man, the saint, Christ and God. The imagery of the holy wound and the burning flame adds an intensity to the devotion that the poet feels for the Catholic God.
Crashaw draws out the inventive and purifying energy of god leading to the refinement and purification of humanities creative endeavours when he beseeches that divine forces “Resume and rectify thy rude design” (Crashaw, p.153, The Flaming Heart, line 39). He shows that man is weak and strengthened through devotion to, and by, the grace of god. Crashaw’s humanity is born as “dark Sons of Dust and Sorrow” (Crashaw, p.39,The Name Above Every Name, The Name of Iesvs, line 96) and can only achieve true peace and salvation in life after death “Let this immortal life, where’er it comes,” (Crashaw, The Flaming Heart, p.153, lines 81)
Herbert, Crashaw and Donne agree in key Christian ideals such as man as inherently corrupt and whether by pre-determinism or redemptive action salvation can only be achieved through the judgement of God. Whilst the means to this salvation differ the role of God as the deciding factor is clear and absolute. There is also an agreement that it is through faith in God that a person can see and appreciate true beauty. The emphasis on the afterlife is also a common thread, with life after death being the focal point of all faithful and devotional actions. The striking use of violent language to convey the strength and potency of religious fervour is recurrent throughout many of the texts with Donne using impact verbs to describe his desire for spiritual awakening, Crashaw using fiery imagery to posit an alternate portrait of Saint Teresa and Herbert beckons “Doomsday” (p.180, line 9) when those not chosen will meet their reckoning.
The unworthiness of mankind is noted with Herbert (p.183, line 2) and Crashaw (p.39, line 96) both referring to humanity as made of dust and unworthy, and Herbert and Donne noting the base human impulse to turn away from God. The base and earthly state of humanity and the divine is problematic for these metaphysical poets as the try to grapple with the abstract and intangible, leading to the anthropomorphising of “Love” and “Death” as in Herbert and Donne’s works and the embodiment of certain aspirational qualities in a human form as with Crashaw’s Saint Teresa. This humanising of the abstract allows the poet to interact with the divine and to exert some level of agency over their own salvation.
All poets fluidly move between Catholic and Protestant ideologies and even Donne in his strong condemnation of aspects of the Catholic church and faith does incorporate Catholic ideology in his works and bemoans a lack of unity (Marotti, p.361). Herbert is ambiguous in ideological allusions in his poems, favouring more generic explorations of the Christian religious experience and Crashaw, whilst evoking Catholic imagery also dismisses their ability to capture the divine as effectively as the written word, a decidedly Protestant viewpoint. This movement between ideologies ties these poets together and breaks down any possible dichotomy that can be drawn between Catholic and Protestant devotional poetry of this era.
In understanding the fluidity of ideologies in these texts it is important to understand the difference between the impact of sanctioned faith as opposed personal opinion (Gates, p.1) which by its very nature may transgress factional lines of Christianity. The deeply personal, first hand accounts of the religious experience detailed in the poems are the very reason that their religious conformity can only be understood on a continuum. It is personal not factional devotion that is at the core of these poems, for each poet has a unique take on spirituality and their place within it that is informed by both Protestant and Catholic factions.
While the ideological labels of Protestant and Catholic are potent and useful to determine the reasoning and origins of the methods and imagery used to depict and understand the religious experience of these poets, it is not a final, hard, fast or all encompassing definition. Understanding Catholic and Protestant devotional poetry as a dichotomy is deeply problematic as all of the writers of the poetic texts examined transgress or conceal their professed faith in one manner or another. Not only to we find transgressions but common threads throughout the religious experiences they depict , creating a collective portrait of the religiously devoted poet as being enamoured, joyous and conflicted, struggling, from humble earthbound beginnings, to achieve true spiritual alignment with God.
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• Crashaw, Richard. The Complete Works of Richard Crashaw, Volume I (of 2). 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015. Www.projectgutenberg.org, Web. 18th Nov. 2016.
• Donne, John. The Poems Of John Donne [2 Vols.] Volume I & Volume II. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015. Www.projectgutenberg.org, Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
• Gates, Daniel. “Faith and Faction: Religious Heterodoxy in Renaissance England.” Religion &Amp; Literature, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 1–10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40059863.
• Herbert, George. The temple. Sacred poems, and private ejaculations. By Mr. George Herbert, Late Orator of the University of Cambridge. Together with his life. The twelfth edition corrected, with the addition of an alphabetical table. London, 1703. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Macquarie University Library. 18 Nov. 2016
• Marotti, Arthur F. “John Donne’s Conflicted Anti-Catholicism.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 101, no. 3, 2002, pp. 358–379. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27712244.
• Mebust, Erik. “Words and Icons in Crashaw’s” The Flaming Heart”.” The Proceedings of GREAT Day (2016).
• Teller, Joseph R. “Why Crashaw was Not Catholic: The Passion and Popular Protestant Devotion.”English Literary Renaissance 43.2 (2013): 239-267.
• Whalen, Robert. “George Herbert’s Sacramental Puritanism.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 4, 2001, pp. 1273–1307. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261973
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