Monday, February 15, 2010

Anne Davidson Ferry, Religious Prose of 17th Century England

Anne Davidson Ferry, Ed., Religious Prose of 17th Century England, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1967.

Religion was interesting to everyone in England in the seventeenth century; the writer who concerned himself with theological doctrine or forms of devotion or ecclesiastical organization could be sure of engaging the attention of a vast and varied audience. (Introduction, 4)

This energetic interest in religious doctrine, religious institutions, or religious experience is expressed in every work included in this volume. It is reflected, for example, in assumptions about the reader which, to secular modern minds, are sometimes disconcerting. The audiences for these works were assumed to be thoroughly familiar with Scripture, to have a solid knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine, to be capable of following a theological argument, and to be faithful believers (whatever their behavior might be). These assumptions were made about them, not as learned specialists or a pious elite, but as ordinary men, Protestants, Englishmen, members of a Christian society. These assumptions were shared by all the writers represented in this volume (except Augustine Barker to whom only Roman Catholics were true believers), a few of whom assumed additional, more special kinds of knowledge. Donne, for example, preaching before the lawyers of Lincoln’s Inn with whom he had once studied or Lancelot Andrewes, preaching to the King at Whitehall, played upon a knowledge of Latin and logic which only special congregations could be expected to appreciate; not George Herbert’s parishioners at Bemerton or Bunyan’s at Bedford. Taylor, in the selection printed here, used only one Greek word but made numerous allusions to ancient literature and history. Browne seemed to assume in his readers (and surely he intended his work to be read, despite conventional protests against publicity in its preface) some familiarity with all sorts of esoteric learning. (4-5)

To write this in this 1630’s was to take sides in a bitter argument over religious toleration, an issue which actively entered the lives of most seventeenth-century English (virtually all the writers in this volume were imprisoned, ejected from their livings, or persecuted in some way by their religious opponents). / Seventeenth-century writers expressed passionate conviction, and in a variety of tones of voice—not always solemn but often scornful, sarcastic, furious, playful, ironic, sophisticated, sweet—sometimes in accents which to the modern reader less secure in his attitude towards religion seem indecorous, even irreverent. In controversy or in preaching or in prayer they were remarkably free to speak in the accents of individual human beings who themselves felt the pressure of what they wrote. Within a single paragraph, then, we often hear tones of exalted reverence mingling with the expression of what Milton in Animadversions called “those two most rationall faculties of humane intellect anger and laughter.” (5-6)

The interest rates to be charged by money-lenders was a religious question; the tenure of kinds and magistrates was argued on theological grounds; the theatres of London were the subject of pious attack; the defeat of the Armada was attributed (by Browne among others) to direct heavenly intervention, and the imprisonment of George Fox was thought to have infected his enemies with the plague. The areas of experience which we distinguish as “secular” were interpreted in religious terms, and conversely, religious concerns penetrated, became, finance, politics, philosophy, science. The existence of bishops involved economic interest (as the Presbyterians liked to point out); willingness to take the Holy Communion according to the rites of the Anglican Church was for a time the test for eligibility to hold public office; the existence of God was a premise of all systems of knowledge (perhaps excepting the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, which was therefore almost universally abhorred and attacked); Genesis was a chief source of geological fact. (6)

Browne’s experimental knowledge of anatomy did not challenge the axioms of his religion, but by a piece of faulty logic was made to support them. The existence of the soul was unquestioned truth; the absence of any experimental evidence for its existence simply proved its immateriality. (7-8)

Or, to take another illustration, Thomas Traherne, in the following passage from paragraph 8 of “The Third Century” of his Meditations, was attempting to define the nature of man in the light of his own experience, but his own experience was characteristically interpreted in Biblical images… For Traherne was here fighting against the traditional interpretation of man’s nature, set forth in this volume most elaborately in Donne’s Second Sermon on Psal. 38.4. Traherne was attempting to refute the orthodox view that “Adams punishment is pardoned in no man, in this world” because we are all born into this world “under the weight of Originall sinne.” By arguing that his own recollections of childhood contradicted this view of human nature, he seems in a sense to have rejected religious assumptions which did not survive the test of experience, and therefore to make experience itself the highest authority for truth. Yet even that immediate experience itself was seen in Biblical images… (8)

Browne’s whimsy sounds quite different from Donne’s wit, Taylor’s melancholy from the meditative sweetness of Traherne, the earnestness of Baxter from the urgency of Bunyan, George Herbert’s gravity from Whichote’s. (9)

Although none of these writers was yet living in 1533-4, when Henry VIII made the Church of England finally independent of the Pope, Lancelot Andrewes was born during the return to the Roman Church under Mary Tudor (1553-1558) while many others, themselves born during the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), must have had a mixed religious training something of the kind described by Augustine Baker, the only one of these writers to remain in the Roman Catholic Church of his forbears. In Baker’s memory, twelve years or so after the succession of Elizabeth, his parents, / …with thousands of others that likewise in their younger years had bin professor of the Catholick religion (besides those that proved enemies thereto, as being Protestants) in tract of time and sensim, and indeed as it were unawares to themselves, became neutrals in religion, viz. neither indeed true Catholicks, for perfect knowledg, belief, and practice, nor yet meer Protestants or otherwise hereticks in their belief, though schismaticall, by their external accommodation of themselves to the schismaticall service of the English Church. (page 234) / Therefore although among these writers Baker and Donne (before his conversion) were themselves Roman Catholics, most of them were the children or grandchildren of Christians who had worshipped in what to their descendants was the church of the enemy. (10)

When Donne in Meditation 17, … The Church is Catholicke, universall, so are all her Actions; All that she does, beong to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns mee; for that child is therefore connected to that head which is my Head, too, and engraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. … No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine… (pages 52-53) (11)

This consciousness of identification with an inclusive order—natural, social, political, as well as spiritual—is (to generalize rashly) a disgusting mark of seventeenth-century Anglican writers, inherited from their predecessor, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), the first great spokesman for the established Church. In Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he celebrated the larger order of which benevolently included the whole of creation within its law. Book I concludes with what is almost a hymn to universal harmony: … Despite the assurance of Hooker’s style, however, even in the 1590’s this order seemed to promise no easy security. Even the Church’s first spokesman felt its foundations shaken by the impulse to reformation that soon exploded in England. The opening sentence to the Preface of Hooker’s work was a foreboding preface to the seventeenth century: (11-12)

Already in 1593 Hooker spoke of the Anglican Establishment as an order belonging to the past, which its supporters “would have upheld’ had they been able to withstand the forces of reform. Hooker’s foreboding was truly prophetic. The impulse that (to generalize even more rashly) distinguished Milton, Baxter, Bunyan, Fox, and in some sense Benjamin Whichcote as dissenters from the Anglican Church was not to be resisted. No order however inclusive could withstand their insistence on the inwardness of religion, the sanctity of the private conscience, the authority of the inner light. / This was irresistible; the direction in which it moved men can be illustrated by the religious history of John Milton. Born in 1608, Milton was baptized (like all Englishmen then except the children of a few stubborn Catholic families such as Donne’s) a member of the Church of England, … (12)

This was the farthest extreme to which the reforming impulse could drive men’s consciences. It was the extreme which Hooker foresaw and feared, and his prevision came true. Once the appeal to inward conviction was allowed, or in the hostile words of Hooker, “when the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they fancy,” there were no foreseeable limits to religious individualism. Milton could declare himself a Church, Bunyan could declare himself a Preacher. Moreover Bunyan, even after he became a preacher, could continue to identify himself as a representative of a humble, semi-literate rural class who in the early seventeenth century might have had preachers like George Herbert (Rector of Bemerton) to direct their spiritual lives, but who had to survive the revolution of the mid-seventeenth century to find spokesman (such as Bunyan and Fox) to express their own attitudes in their own language. (13)

…many of the differences we find among their words, which cannot simply be explained by differences in spiritual temperament or variations of literary genre. Such differences in their works distinguish these writers as belonging to different traditions of religious language and attitude which separated and hardened into enemy factions… (13)

There are, however, certain other differences among the works included in this volume which can be explained neither by the writer’s disposition nor choice of genre, nor by his allegiance to one of the factions dividing English believers of the seventeenth century. These are recognizable differences between early seventeenth-century prose style and the language of writers after the Restoration, and they are large differences. Donne, Andrewes, and Herbert, for example, wrote a language quite unlike our own, while Barrow, Sprat, and Tillotson sound far less a century had passed between them and the earlier writers. (14)

The implication is that whatever religious assumptions these writers may have shared as seventeenth-century Englishmen, as Protestants, as priests of the Anglican Church, they must have differed in other of their presuppositions. (14)

…set Meditation 10 of Donne’s Devotions (page 49) beside a quotation from Barrow sermon “Of the Goodness of God” (page 244). / Donne’s tenth Meditation begins with a generalization about the order of the universe, and proceeds through a series of assertions about the nature of that order. Yet the language in which these generalized assertions are made dos not have the qualities we have come to expect of philosophical (or theological) discourse. The Meditation begins abruptly, like many of Donne’s poems, as if in the middle of things. And at once we are surrounded by metaphor: / This is Natures nest of Boxes; The Heavens containe the Earthe, the Earth, Cities, Cities, Men. And all these are Concentrique; the common center to them all, is decay, ruine; only that is Eccentrique, which was never madel only that place, or garment rather, which we can imagine, but not demonstate… / Metaphor is not used here to illustrate some abstract proposition, as it would be, for example, if the sentence read: “Nature is a nest of boxes because the heavens contain the earth, the earth contains cities, cities contain men.” In such a sentence, the statement “Nature is a nest of boxes” actually means to us, “Nature may be spoken of as a nest of boxes.” … he used metaphor because he conceived the physical order he was describing to be naturally charged with moral or theological meaning. All tings in creation are in fact concentric; that fact is not neutral, not in itself empty of meanings other than physical, and therefore cannot be talked about in neutral terms. When he lamented that the center of this circular universe is “ruine,” his metaphor coincided with the fact of universal decay, for the earth is its center—the earth which was ruined by Adam’s fall and which will be annihilated with all things earthly at the end of time. / The implications of this style may seem obscure, because modern prose does not use words this way, but in a later passage of the Devotions Donne gave a kind of explanation of his own figurative style which reveals its foundation. In the nineteenth Expostulation he exclaimed / My God, my God, Thou art a direct God, may I not say a literall God, a God that wouldst bee understood literally, and according to the plain sense of all thou saist? But thou art also (Lord I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution) thou art a figurative, a metaphoricall God too: a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors… as all profane Authors, seemed the seed of the Serpent that creepes, thou art the Dove, that flies… Neither art thou thus a figurative, a metaphoricall God in thy word only, but in thy works too. The stile of thy works, the phrase of thine actions, is metaphorical. … Donne’s metaphors are therefore not illustrations but assertions, definitions. In fact, the entire passage is metaphorical; even the connections between one stage of the argument and another depend less upon logic than upon repetitions and variations of metaphor. For example, the first section of the Meditation expands the metaphor of a universe of concentric circles whose center is ruin. The second opens with another general statement about the nature of this universe: / In all these (the frame of the heavens, the States upon earth, and Men in them, comprehend all) Those are the greatest mischifs, which are least discerned: the most insensible in their wayes come to bee the most sensible in their ends. / The reference of the phrase “all these” is the only explicit connection between this general proposition and the opening metaphor, and it is a grammatical connection that only appears to be a logical connection. For there is no necessary logical connection between the fact that all tings by nature sink to annihilation and the notion that hidden dangers are worse than recognized threats. As the second proposition is developed, however, certain other kinds of connections with the opening metaphor are expanded. … That is to say, the mind of man who is inside “Natures nest of boxes” itself works metaphorically. Because he is not “Eccentrique” to the world of created things, man can think only in its terms and its terms are metaphorical. Even when he attempts to define what is outside the “Concentrique” circles of created things, he can do so only in metaphorical language. In Donne’s words: / …only that is Eccentrique, which was never made; only that place, or garment rather, which we can imagine, but not demonstrate, That light, which is the very emanation of the light of God, in which the Saints shall dwell, with which the Saints shall be appareld, only that bends not to this Center, to Ruine; that which was not made of Nothing, is not threatned with this annihilation. / Because man thinks metaphorically, he thinks feelingly. He apprehends the meanings inherent in the universe not by his powers of abstract reasoning but by what he can “imagine,” his feelings, his response to sights and sounds. Donne’s argument moves then by patterns of imagery supported by sound effects (“the fire, the fever, shall burne the furnace itselfe”) designed to express the changing feelings of the speaker and to evoke answering changes of feeling in the reader. To apprehend meanings in God’s creation one must not be dispassionate, for the creation itself is charged with moral or theological significance, and therefore also with feelings. (14-17)
…Donne and Barrow are remarkably unlike, and in ways that cannot be explained by differences in temperament, choice of genre, or religious affiliation. The significant contrasts between Donne’s language and Barrow’s could be made in almost the same terms between a great many early and late seventeenth-century texts (for example, in this volume, between the style of Herbert or Andrewes and that of Sprat or Tillotson). (17-18)

Most obviously this language is not essentially figurative. The diction is for the most part abstract—“natural effects” have replaced “Natures nest of boxes.” In the entire passage from Barrow’s sermon printed on pages 244-245, there are in fact only four expressions, unconnected with one another which could be called metaphorical: (18)

This avoidance of evocative suggestions in Barrow’s language can perhaps most easily be seen if we compare his metaphor with its ancestor in Bacon’s “The Plan of the Work” attached to The Great Instauration: / For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may he graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures. / Bacon’s “footsteps” convey an impression of vastness and power because the suggest some gigantic figure striding across, then leaving, a world of his own making. But Barrow avoided all such suggestions by attaching “footsteps” to “admirable wisdom, skill, and design” which have no suggestions of shape or motion, evoke no impressions dependent upon their physical nature. (19)

Barrow’s assertions about the order of the universe are not dependent on metaphor, like Donne’s. Characteristically they are abstract statements, and they are correspondingly less charged with feelings. The speaker seems almost to present himself as a dispassionate observer, as if impassioned conviction and personal commitment were no longer felt to be guarantees of, but rather obstacles to, the service of truth. His statements are measured, never extravagant, continually qualified: “unwilling that any considerable harm, any extreme pain,” “Most of them,” “some beneficial tendency.” He modifies and explains his statements in a number of parentheses, and repeatedly claims support for his assertions from trained observation or logical induction: “discernible,” “well studied,” “all things being duly state and computed,” “no less convincing than obvious,” “it is hardly possible that,” “no less evident,” “be reasonably presumed,” “as upon consideration.” (19)

Barrow’s language is not essentially figurative because the order which he was attempting to define was not conceived to be a book written by God in a metaphorical “style.” It was conceived as a vast arrangement of “natural effects” of causes which may not be easily “discernible,” but which may be “reasonably presumed” to work according to regular laws. (20)

The large contrasts between Donne’s language and Barrow’s represent the large differences between early and late seventeenth-century prose. Any generalization of course immediately suggests exception, and we may think at once of two religious writers—Thomas Traherne and John Bunyan—whose characteristic uses of language seem to challenge this generalization. For the Centuries of Meditations and Pilgrim’s Progress by their richly figurative prose suggest affinities with Donne’s style rather than Barrow’s. Yet attention to the precise nature of Traherne’s images, of Bunyan’s allegory, reveals that these writers shared habits of language and therefore assumption more closely resembling those of Barrow, their contemporary, than of Donne and the earlier religious writers. Traherne and Bunyan are perhaps the most surprising, but therefore perhaps also the most convincing illustrations of the pervasive influence of new preconceptions on the language of later seventeenth-century writers. (21)

Traherne, perhaps because he wrote devotional lyric poetry as well as prose, has usually been studied in relation to his predecessors—Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan—rather than to his later seventeenth-century contemporaries. Even his prose style, especially in those paragraphs most often reprinted, seems at first to contradict our description of later seventeenth-century language, not only by its rapturous tone, but its profuse imager. … Our attention is thus called to the metaphor as a “way of talking,” a point of view, not a definition of the actual nature of created things in this Book of God’s Works. … It works, however, almost as Barrow’s “footsteps” works, to illustrate rather than to define, (21-22)

For neither Barrow nor Traherne conceived of the creation as a Book written in metaphors; therefore metaphors could no longer define its nature. Instead they were used to illustrate the nature of an order which man apprehends by induction and computation, (22)

Despite the compelling power of certain forms of expression traditional to his religious views, Bunyan’s writing also shows the influence of characteristic later seventeenth-century attitudes, even though the two influences could coexist only in conflict. (23)

Bunyan’s allegorical style in Pilgrim’s Progress is not a survival of earlier metaphorical vision. On the contrary, his uses of language suggest affinities with Barrow’s ways of thinking rather than Donne’s, and identify him in his own way as a representative later seventeenth-century writer. / Bunyan’s allegory tells a story about particular men, specific actions, locations, objects, which in a sense provide the concrete terms for a series of metaphors, but these concrete terms are not charged with inherent meaning as in Donne’s metaphors. The story and the moral or theological meanings which it was invented to represent are distinctly separate, so that they cannot be apprehended simultaneously, as the terms in Donne’s metaphors must be apprehended. For Donne, physical experiences naturally and inevitably implied moral or theological meanings. Sickness was sin, sin was sickness, so that the story of his sickness and recovery was at the same time the story of his fall and redemption: the same language must be used for both. In contrast, the allegorical style of Pilgrim’s Progress does not encourage us to see physical experiences as inevitably, by their nature, expressing inherent moral or theological meanings. On the contrary, we are made to see the events of the story as signs pointing to meanings outside themselves, or as pictures, emblems, representing something other than themselves. (24)

…moral or theological meanings are apparently unknown to the characters who fall in the mire. The incident is treated by them and initially by the narrator as if it were a morally meaningless though disturbing accident. (24)

The episode and the explanation of it are given in different kinds of language and the distinction between them is absolute. (24)

Between the episode and its meaning the connection can only exist in the mind of the author, who first invented the “similitude,” and then in the mind of the reader who, by retranslating, discovers its meaning. No necessary connection with the moral or theological meaning exists in the literal events of the story itself (we are not intended to think that Christian falls into the mud as a result of feeling sinful nor that because he falls into the mud he feels sinful in consequence) ... (25)

Donne’s Devotions .. The physical fact of illness is naturally charged with moral or theological meaning precisely because the illness was not a literary invention of the author, but of God, a metaphor in the Book of His Works. (25)

…Bunyan’s allegory is an illustration of prior meaning, existing outside itself, not a necessary definition of meanings inherent in the metaphorical order of creation. (25)

Christian… as a “similitude” himself, he cannot properly known the moral or theological meanings which he and his experiences were invented to represented, without ceasing to be a figure in an allegory. …responses to the physical world of the narrative, but not to the moral or theological meanings for which that world is a “similitude.” … There is no dramatic connection possible in this allegorical language between immediate experience and such moral or theological qualities or conditions as “Dispond.” As a result, Bunyan found it necessary as the narrative advanced to violate more and more often the formal demands of his allegory. Increasingly often, Christian is allowed to listen to moral or theological interpretations of his physical experiences; (27)

Scripture was a model of style for Bunyan because of the meanings to which its figures pointed, not because its metaphors were in themselves a necessary definition of those meanings. By implication, then, for Bunyan there was a certain arbitrariness in the metaphors even of the Bible itself, as there was in the figurative inventions of human writers: /
I find that holy Writ in many places,
Hath semblance with this method, where the cases
Doth call for one thing to set forth another…
Metaphors to Bunyan were “feigned” words which could be arbitrarily selected to point to something else, which could be altered, therefore, or even omitted without damage to the definition of moral or theological meanings. (28)


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