Volume > Issue > It's Time to Apologize to Catholics

It’s Time to Apologize to Catholics

Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan

By Robert V. Young

Publisher: D.S. Brewer (England)

Pages: 241

Price: $75

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

Literary critics once acknowledged that the great religious poetry of England had Catholic overtones. But no more. Now they examine this poetry, as Robert V. Young demonstrates, in a strictly Rome-free vacuum. To create this vacuum they have to embrace — without inspection — the early-Protestant image of Catholicism. For example, grace now becomes a strictly Protestant term, and what Catholics wrote about it in the three centuries from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1641) is beneath notice. Young cites one critic impugning the Catholic idea of grace in Aquinas for its materiality. Typically, this critic read Luther on grace, not St. Thomas, and therefore totally misunderstood Aquinas’s use of the philosophical term substance as referring to matter. It’s odd that while Catholics are obliged to lay aside the defensive arguments of the Counter-Reformation, the allegations of idolatry hurled by the first Protestants against the Church are still promulgated and embraced, though they are now often left unanswered.

In his brilliant Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, Young wins a signal victory over the entire critical school of “Protestant Poetics.” For what Barbara Lewalski calls the “indigenous Protestant tradition” in English religious poetry turns out to be, on closer inspection, age-old Catholicism. Dragooned into the so-called Protestant tradition of poetics are these sons of the Catholic Church: Origen, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, Thomas à Kempis, and Jean Gerson. Modern critics expend great effort merely to avoid admitting the obvious — that the religious poetry of England was very heavily indebted to Catholicism, not only ancient and medieval, but also then-contemporary Catholicism. Young also shows that the use of the Psalms to shape a collection of devotional poems, far from being the hallmark of a new “Protestant poetics,” was associated with contemporary Catholic poets like Robert Southwell (1561-95), Jean de la Ceppède (1550-1622), and Pedro Espinosa (1578-1650).

As editor of The John Donne Journal and author of many scholarly essays on this poet, Young is well equipped to stand in the breach against those trying to reduce John Donne (1572-1631) to a mouthpiece of Calvinism. He shows that Donne, as an Anglican, not only found inspiration in his Jesuit upbringing, especially in the practice of Ignatian meditation, but also wrote plainly at times from his earlier Catholic belief — as when he honored Mary, asserted (against Calvin) that grace is resistible, defended kneeling for Communion as worship, called Christ the form and substance of a Sacrament which is also a Sacrifice, and attacked private interpretation of the Bible as failing to integrate individuals into the historic community of believers.

Besides all this, Young demonstrates that Donne’s Holy Sonnets (devotional poems circulated among friends) contain astonishing parallels to continental poems of the same era composed by such Catholics as Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85), Lope de Vega (1562-1635), and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). These Catholics use virtually the same images and motifs as Donne when writing penitential lyrics about man’s sinfulness and dependence on grace — as when Lope de Vega and Quevedo, in their meditations on the Crucifixion, like Donne, are unable to gaze on the suffering Christ because they feel disabled by their former profane passions.

Along with Catholic doctrine and imagery, Donne’s poetry is imbued with a profound misery of soul. Young sees the poet’s torment as caused by his abandonment of his inherited Catholic faith in a time of persecution. Donne’s apostasy leaves him with a tortured conscience and a profound sense of God’s absence. Indeed, Young shows the loss of the divine presence as “the source of the poignancy in Donne’s devotional poems,” as in the “Hymne to God my God,” where the poet pleads to feel the divine presence again. Unwilling to suffer for his faith, Donne simultaneously yearns for God and is tormented by “doubts of his own sincerity and hence by doubts of the validity of his sense of grace.”

The Anglican poet George Herbert (1593-1633) was free of Donne’s tortured conscience, but not free of a Catholic heritage. How could he be, since the English Reformation was a mere two generations old at his birth? Young remarks that critics seriously misread Herbert nowadays by making him the follower of the most extreme Reformation tenets. They typically overlook his devotion to Mary and the sacramental view of reality that pervades his sacred poetry in The Temple. Constantly affirming creation’s ability to reveal its Creator, Herbert is brimful of analogies that reveal the degrees of likeness built into the structure of reality — windows opening onto the serried layers of being. For instance, the poet’s little “Anagram” of MARY and ARMY is not mere wordplay:

How well her name

an Army doth present,

In whom the Lord of Hosts

did pitch his tent!

This sameness of letters is a window opening onto God’s witty ordering of creation.

Sensitive to the secularization of his age, Herbert dedicated himself to the recovery of the sacred, grounding himself on a piety inherited from old Catholic times. His poem “The Sacrifice,” the very title of which is Catholic, is based on the “Reproaches” of the Good Friday liturgy and invites participation in the agony of Christ. Here is a Christ very different from that of Luther or Calvin, Young explains, a Christ before whom Herbert stands in an awestruck humility familiar to readers of Lope de Vega. Equally Catholic in inspiration is Herbert’s view of grace as coming through the body into the soul at the moment of Communion. Thus he declares: “Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes” can open “the souls most subtile rooms.” That grace enters with the elements at Communion is a view opposed to Calvinism. Herbert sees the sacrament as the conduit of grace, not as an outward sign detached from the interior event. Young challenges those who think that Herbert had a Calvinist idea of the Eucharist to explain why, in a time of violent religious controversy on this issue, the poet would use the Catholic word blood:

Love is that liquor

sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as

bloud; but I, as wine.

Contrary to Calvin’s denial of free will, too, Herbert echoes St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) in speaking of the soul as both gardener (with free wilbpand garden (cultivated by divine grace). The poet’s biblical poetics is likewise consistent with his view of the Eucharist and of grace, for Herbert calls the Bible “the voice of Christ speaking through His Bride, the Church, and sounding in the hearts and minds of the faithful.”

The modern school of “Protestant poetics” has transmogrified not only Donne and Herbert, but also the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan (1622-95) into a militantly Calvinist poet. But in fact, Vaughan deplored the “inner light” of Calvin, along with its certitude of salvation based on irresistible grace and predestination. He drew a sharp contrast between a saint like Mary Magdalen and the Puritans “who Saint themselves.” Like Donne and Herbert, Vaughan had a devotion to the Virgin Mary and addressed her as “Bright Queen of Heaven! God’s Virgin Spouse!” and “true Loves-knot” between God and man, hinting at her role as Mediatrix. Young notes that such glorious names for Our Lady would have filled Calvin with rage. Whereas Vaughan’s “The Night” is now interpreted as typically Protestant, Young shows that it closely resembles the mystical poetry of Spain, particularly of St. John of the Cross (1542-91) and Lope de Vega, who also encounter Christ as really present in the dark night of the soul.

Besides this, Vaughan’s activities as a translator show him as steeped in Catholic thought. He translated works by such staunch Catholics as St. Anselm (1033-1109), Bishop Antonio de Guevara (1480-1545), and Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595-1658). Indeed, the very title and emblem of Vaughan’s poetry, Silex Scintillans, or sparks from a heart-shaped flint, is found in the Jesuit Nieremberg, who wrote, “Certain divine rays break out of the soul in adversity, like sparks of fire out of the afflicted flint.” Vaughan wrote his poetry in part to sustain his fellow Anglicans when the Puritans suppressed their liturgy, thus his works are often a “cryptic expression of the spirit of the vanished Church of England liturgy.” The old worship, so close to Catholicism, was remembered in a poem like “Christ’s Nativity,” where Vaughan denounces the suppression of Christmas celebrations in 1644 and implies that Puritans do not grasp the meaning of the Incarnation. He reproaches those who, out of fear of an imaginary Catholic idolatry, receive the Eucharist sitting down and states that he is willing to adore the Real Presence at reception both inwardly and outwardly:

Some sit to thee, and eat

Thy body as their Common meat,

O let me not do so!

Poor dust should ly still low,

Then kneel my soul, and body; kneel, and bow;

If Saints, and Angels fall down, much more thou.

In “The Feast,” too, he echoes Aquinas’s hymn Adoro Te by asserting plainly that Christ is “Under veyls here…Present and sure without my seeing.” For him, as for Herbert and Crashaw, the Eucharist is not an outward sign detached from the interior event, as Calvin taught, but rather a conduit: “grace, and blessings came with thee so rife.”

The fourth religious poet Young discusses is Richard Crashaw (1613-49), about whom he has already written a seminal book, Richard Crashaw and the Spanish Golden Age (Yale, 1982). Since Crashaw was on the road to Catholicism when he wrote most of his poems, modern critics of the “Protestant Poetics” school cannot very well call him a Calvinist. Instead they marginalize him and ordinarily credit him with no “great force of character or of intellect,” attributing his conversion to mere sentiment and historical circumstance. They routinely view his poems as “sensuous” and lacking in seriousness. On the contrary, Young shows, Crashaw’s poems are of great depth and subtlety. The crowning achievement of his mature hymns is the “convergence of intimate, even mystical experience with the traditions of public worship.” While Vaughan’s references to St. Thomas’s songs for Corpus Christi are just under the surface, Crashaw provides “effusive and elaborate translations” of those very songs, as in “The Hymn of St. Thomas in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.”

At a time when ruling Puritans bowed only in the name of Jesus and called it downright idolatry to bow to that name, Crashaw writes a fervent hymn “To the Name of Jesus,” in which the name Jesus does not merely represent, but is the divine presence itself. The Name is that Word, or Logos, that lies behind all created things and is the same as the ineffable and unutterable Tetragrammaton of the Torah. Young traces Crashaw’s theology of the Name to the Spanish friar Luis de Leon, author of On the Names of Christ (1583). In Crashaw’s rousing poem, the Name of Jesus attains climactic presence and power when it is finally pronounced by the wounds of martyrs. For the martyrs are literally “witnesses” to the Name — bearing it on “their Bold Brests,” wearing it in the “Center of their inmost Soules,” and teaching it in the “teeth of Hell.”

Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw, the great religious poets of English literature, wrote at the threshold of modernity. Young finds that all four provide us with a welcome respite from secularization, showing a preference for the religious over the political and the eternal over the temporal. This preference is, for all four, grounded in a Catholic tradition. The strangest aspect of the attempt to make our Catholic heritage invisible is that modern and postmodern academics — who are usually agnostics or atheists — are willing to sit at the feet of the early Protestants to learn how to despise, marginalize, and distort Catholic beliefs and history. The Catholic Church nevertheless keeps her arms open in forgiveness and welcome. Would that someone might repent and apologize for all these slanders against the Catholic Church, especially the charge of idolatry, propagated since the 1520s. It’s high time for someone, not just the Catholic, to beat his breast and repent of past misdeeds.

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