Home > Christianity, History, Theology > The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England

The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England

Cambridge University Press | 2010 | ISBN 0521174422 | 253 pages

In early modern England, religious sorrow was seen as a form of spiritual dialogue between the soul and God, expressing how divine grace operates at the level of human emotion. Through close readings of both Protestant and Catholic poetry, Kuchar explains how the discourses of ‘devout melancholy’ helped generate some of the most engaging religious verse of the period. From Robert Southwell to John Milton, from Aemilia Lanyer to John Donne, the language of ‘holy mourning’ informed how poets represented the most intimate and enigmatic aspects of faith as lived experience. In turn, ‘holy mourning’ served as a way of registering some of the most pressing theological issues of the day. By tracing poetic representations of religious sorrow from Crashaw’s devotional verse to Shakespeare’s weeping kings, Kuchar expands our understanding of the interconnections between poetry, theology and emotion in post-Reformation England.

In early modern England, religious sorrow was seen as a form of spiritual dialogue between the soul and God, expressing how divine grace operates at the level of human emotion. Through close readings of both Protestant and Catholic poetry, Kuchar explains how the discourses of devout melancholy helped generate some of the most engaging religious verse of the period. From Robert Southwell to John Milton, from Aemilia Lanyer to John Donne, the language of a holy mourning of informed how poets represented the most intimate and enigmatic aspects of faith as lived experience. In turn, holmourning served as a way of registering some of the most pressing theological issues of the day. By tracing poetic representations of religious sorrow from Crashaw’s devotional verse to Shakespeare’s weeping kings, Kuchar expands our understanding of the interconnections between poetry, theology, and emotion in post-Reformation England.

Christianity is nothing if not a vast technology of mourning. From David’s psalms, to Jeremiah’s lamentations, to Jesus’ weeping, to Magdalene’s tears, Christian scripture draws much of its power of fascination as a religious and literary document from its representations of grief. The fascination elicited by these and other scriptural depictions of sacred sorrow is testified to by the many devotional and artistic traditions they helped engender. In such traditions, Christians are encouraged to generate, temper, interpret, and signify a bewildering array of different forms of mourning – many of which are thought to constitute the very medium by which God makes himself present to the soul. While traditions of religious sorrow are especially characteristic of the later middle-ages, post-Reformation culture did not exorcise itself of the medieval fascination with sacred grief so much as it complicated what was already a complex set of practices. The European Reformations introduced into devotional life a series of competing discourses about how one should make sense of the most intimate aspects of one’s religious experience as affective in nature. In early modern England, as in virtually all parts of medieval and Renaissance Europe, religious sorrow remained ubiquitous – be it the godly sorrow that works repentance, the sadness for Christ’s agony, called compassio, or the despair of perceived damnation. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of such forms of sorrow in early modern England, literary critics have remained primarily interested in more secular forms of melancholy, especially the kinds one finds on the public stage. While the recent turn to religion in literary studies has begun to correct this, we still do not understand the cultural work performed by discourses such as the “poetry of tears,” nor do we adequately comprehend the literary power wielded by such traditions.

The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England seeks to explain the cultural and literary significance of poetic depictions of Christian grief from Robert Southwell’s St Peters Complaint (1594) to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674). My primary goal is to demonstrate how poems which explore religious sorrow have a tendency to address the most pressing theological, metaphysical, and literary issues in the post-Reformation era. In other words, I seek to explain how in the process of expressing what repentance, compassio, or despair feel like as lived experiences, early modern English poets find themselves addressing the most vital doctrinal and philosophical issues of the post-Reformation period. As a result, poems which explore these issues reveal a great deal about the dynamic relations between theological commitment, poetic practice, and faith as felt experience in the period.

The theological complexity and poetic vitality that are characteristic of many Renaissance accounts of sacred grief are made possible by the way religious sorrow operates within Christian thought as a discourse rather than just as a theme. In early modern England, as in Christian culture more broadly, religious grief is not simply one or another affective state; it is a set of discursive resources which allow writers to express the implications that theological commitments have on the lived experience of faith. Thus, while it may not be shocking to discover that early modern poems on devout sorrow engage questions about salvation or soteriology, it is surprising to learn that such poems also address questions of identity and difference, time and finitude, Eucharistic presence, the gendering of devotion, the nature of testimony, and how one predicates God. Yet all of these determinative issues, and others, get addressed in early modern poetry through the lens of religious sorrow. Properly understood, devout sorrow is less an emotional state than it is a language – a grammar of tears, so to speak.

And like any language spoken for 1,600 years across many countries, the language of Christian sorrow developed various dialects – the differences among them becoming most significant within western Christianity in the post-Reformation period. The language of sacred sorrow becomes increasingly complicated in the wake of post-Reformation conflict, not only through Reformation debates over justification but also through the development of competing literary and artistic traditions. In the post-Reformation era, the art of interpreting one’s sorrow can be excruciatingly complex as competing doctrines and literary – exegetical traditions collide and intersect. Poems about Christian sorrow are often theologically contentious because poets seek to understand “holy mourning” within one rather than another theological or devotional code; or, more radically, poems can be contentious because they interrogate rather than passively versify traditions of religious sorrow, sometimes demystifying them, sometimes mourning their passing, sometimes expressing their enormous power. In other cases, poems can be creatively syncretic, drawing together doctrines and genres normally thought to be antithetical to one another. As a result of shifting religious contexts, and the contests of meaning taking place between them, one of the primary tasks of early modern religious poetry is to give expression to the complexity of devout grief as an experience while, in most cases, seeking to work towards a coherent interpretation of it. It is a key claim of this book that the poetry of religious sorrow derives much of its literary power from this complex and dynamic theological context. Given the doctrinally charged nature of religious sorrow, poems on the topic reveal a great deal about their authors’ theological preoccupations, their oftentimes agonistic relationship to previous poets or traditions, and about the lived experience of early modern faith.

The conceptual flexibility of devout sorrow as a discourse, rather than a set of static affects, rests on the way it is viewed as a particular form of communication – the way it is understood as a key component of what Augustine calls homo significant. The Latin emblematist Herman Hugo encapsulates this point in his 1624 work, Pia Desideria, when he declares: “My longing sighs a mystic Language prove.” According to this widely held view, religiously mediated sorrow is not one species of emotion among others, but rather it is the most elemental form in which a suppliant’s relationship to God is “set forth.” In other words, devout sorrow is understood in early modern English poetry, and religious culture more generally, primarily as a mode of divine communication and only secondarily as an autonomous psycho-physiological experience. That is to say, the emotional dimension of devout sorrow as a set of personal “feeling tones” is subordinated to the inter-subjective dimensions of sorrow as a sacred language. John Hayward articulates this view in his 1623 treatise, Davids Tears, when he asserts that “teares are the language of heaven; they speake strongly to God, hee heareth them well . . . Therefore . . . whensoever’s I sin, I will write my supplication for pardon with tears.” By depicting religious grief as a “language,” early modern culture insisted on the dialogical nature of the phenomenon. In a state of sacred grief, Hugo and Hayward imply, one is speaking and being spoken to, one is both calling and being called; and the conversation taking place is thought to be more important than any other conversation one will ever have, for it expresses nothing less than the status of one’s soul. Bearing such a linguistic view of religious grief in mind, the title of this book refers not only to poetic depictions of religious sorrow, but also to the way that devout grief is understood in the period as a kind of “divine poetry,” as a “grammar,” revealing – at the level of affect – what Luther calls “the Alien Word.”

The significance of devout sorrow as a discourse reflects its enormous conceptual and historical complexity. As a theological concept and a devotional theme, devout grief emerges out of a rich history of scriptural, literary, devotional, exegetical, iconographical, and doctrinal traditions. This complexity provided early modern poets with a sophisticated language for expressing the increasingly complicated experience of sorrow itself. As well, the discourse of holy mourning offered the necessary resources for reflecting on the most significant issues of the post-Reformation period, not only those issues directly affecting the ordu-salutis, but also basic theological questions about the relation between the human and the divine. In this way, post-Reformation controversies helped shape how poets predicate the relation between the orders of nature and grace – giving rise, in the process, to the kinds of intertextual relations with previous poets and traditions which occur in and between works such as George Herbert’s The Temple and Richard Crashaw’s Steps to the Temple.

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