Friday, February 19, 2010

P. G. Stanwood, Critical Directions in the Study of Early Modern Sermons

P. G. Stanwood, Critical Directions in the Study of Early Modern Sermons, in Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature, Eds. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2002.

…sermons… affected almost everyone, providing religious inspiration, theological analysis, political commentary, and—certainly not least—a great measure of entertainment. (140)

The excitement of hearing a good sermon had special force in James’s reign, for that theologically minded king would not miss the chance to hear one of his favorite preachers. He commonly took his preachers hunting with hum, and would hear a sermon at eight in the morning, before eating and then seting off on the hunt. (140)

Sermons were popular among all classes of people, not merely those at court, and the sermon was the preeminent literary genre in earlier seventeenth-century England—certainly not the drama, and surely not poetry, whether lyric or epic. Preachers might be heard anywhere in the country, without charge or inconvenience, though the best or most ambitious of them hoped for an audience in London, and a few preachers, who were thought interesting or challenging enough, were chosen to preach at court or else at such popular and prestigious locations as St. Paul’s, or outside the cathedral, at Paul’s Cross. (140)

Mitchell, who published his English Pulpit Oratory… Not surprisingly, the increased interest in Donne’s work, marked by Herbert J. C. Grierson’s edition of the poetry in 1912 and his anthology of the “metaphysical poets” ten years later, which elicited T. S. Eliot’s famous review (and his promotion of those poets who wrote before “a dissociation of sensibility set in”), inspired Mitchell to study the sermons not only of Donne but also of his age. His book is a model of its kind: a thoughtful historical study based upon the enormous task of reading many hundreds of sermons produced by numerous preachers… (141)

According to Mitchell, theological attitudes became steadily less rigid across the decades, and with the merging or softening of views came an important change from the witty style of Andrewes to the pain style of the late Restoration, from complexity of exposition and variety of theological beliefs in the early years of the century toward “Propriety, Perspicuity, Elegance, and Cadence” by its end [Mitchell, English Pulpit Oratory, 395] … Nevertheless, religious and political views were not necessarily less complex in this changed world, nor may “style” have been so simply defined across a spectrum leading from “witty” to “plain.” (142)

…Thomas Sprat in his account of the Royal Society—whose members had adopted “a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can.” (142)

Irene Simon notes of South’s determination to clarify pulpit oratory that “fustian bombast, high-flown metaphors, scraps of Greek and Latin, and such ‘insignificant trifles’ are to be banished from pulpit oratory, as are indeed all ‘affected schemes or airy fancies,’ tropes and fine conceits, ‘numerous and well-turned periods,’ jests and witticisms, language borrowed from plays and romances, or starched similitudes.” Yet, South often proceeded to write in the fashion he condemned. Simon, the most recent and best critic of South and his contemporaries Isaac Barrow and John Tillotson, provides an extended commentary and careful edition of them in her Three Restoration Divines, a substantial though insufficiently known contribution to the study of sermon literature. However, like Mitchell, she is particularly concerned to demonstrate through homiletic literature the development of “the plain style,” although these preachers possessed a kind of rhetorical richness that had much in common with their predecessors of previous generation. (143)

Early homiletic studies, while useful in calling attention to the range and variety of sermons, and the rather obvious fact that they respond to and illustrate changing, or at least different, prose styles, are too restrictive, for they tend toward anthologizing… (143)

Sprat, History of the Royal Society, ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones (1667; St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1958), 113

South, “The Scribe Instructed,” in Three Restoration Divines: Barrow, South, Tillotson, Selected Sermons, ed. Irene Simon, Bibliotheque de la Faculte de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Universitie de Liege, fasc. 213 (Paris: Societe d’Editions “Les Belles Lettres,” 1976), 2.1.246 (vol. 1, from which I also quote, appeared in 1967 as fasc. 181); Simon Three Restoration Divines, 1:153.

The traditional view of the developed of the sermon style is stated in Richard Foster Jones, “The Attack on Pulpit Eloquence in the Restoration: An Episode in the Development of the Neo-Classical Standard for Prose,” in The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope (Stanford: Stanford Univ Press, 1951), 111-142, which originally appeared in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 31 (1932); and in Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (Princeton Univ Press, 1956) esp. 110-115.

…the tendentious Like Angels form a Cloud: The English Metaphysical Preachers, 1588-1645, a long and rambling book by Horton Davies that attempts to describe a supposed literary movement, but the label is inappropriate, and the sermon illustrations too brief and unsatisfactorily connected. Perhaps Miller MacLure’s Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1534-1642 was most successful in setting the course that has preoccupied many recent scholars of the early modern sermon, for he focused on the political and social issues that this important group of sermons revealed about their times. / Current criticism of sermon literature is especially concerned with the relationship of the preacher to his audience or to his patron. Debora Shuger applies a kind of new historicism to the career of Hooker, Andrewes, and Donne. On Donne, for example, she discusses his “politicization of the divine image [that] leads to a spirituality based on awe and subjection… The sermons insist on the analogy between God and king and furthermore locate the point of contact in power.” [Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ of Cal Press, 1990), 168-169. Shuger’s chap. 5, “Absolutist Theology,” on Donne’s sermons, is reprinted in Ferrell and McCullough, English Sermon Revised, 115-36.] There is much in her sensitive study that encourages us to inquire more deeply into the culture from which these sermons emerge, and which they may have wished to address, but her formulations are emerge, and which they may have wished to address, but her formulations are often too confining. (144)

In a similar though much larger way, P. J. Klemp reports in an important article his careful study of a scribal copy of Lancelot Andrewes’s Easter Sermon of 1620, in Trinity College, Cambridge (MS B. 14. 22) [See Klemp, “ ‘Betwixt the Hammer and the Anvill’ : Lancelot Andrewes’s Revision Techniques in the Manuscript of His 1620 Easter Sermon,” Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America 89:2 (1995): 149-82.] … At last, then, with such discoveries and studies as these, we are beginning to learn much more about the practical details of sermon composition and revision, and its relationship to the spoken as well as to the printed text. (145)

However, the most searching study of sermons of the period from the standpoint of audience and context is Peter McCullough’s Sermons at Court. He has patiently read or examined more than a thousand sermons (1,257 are conveniently summarized and calendared on a computer disk that accompanies his book), and he has been able to show how two monarchs—Elizabeth and James I—respond to certain preachers, and has even described the physical and architectural circumstances in which they listened to them. McCullough demonstrates that the attendance of the monarch at sermons offered an opportunity for royal display, Elizabeth particularly delighting in the opportunity for an opulent procession. … The royal gallery was thus high above the facing sets of stalls below, where the household officers and courtiers sat. the preacher spoke from a pulpit, probably movable and also at a height from which he could speak directly to the monarch—the monarch on occasion addressing the preacher with praise or disapproval. This arrangement of royal closet over the chapel was thus a declaration of hierarchy, … (145-146)

An expansion of McCullough’s interest might appropriately include more consideration of rhetorical motives or “strategies,” more about how various theological concerns were addressed, and more concern for the aesthetic value of many of these sermons, which were certainly meant to impress and sway their audiences through all available oratorical means. Indeed, the sermon must be more fully understood for the kind of discourse to which it originally belonged, for sermons were meant first to be heard, then published and read. Many sermons were great performances; they provided a kind of theatre, and Andrewes and Donne—by no means to ignore them—to study with at least the same care such remarkable figures as Richard Hooker, Henry King, William Laud, John Cosin, Henry Hammond, Jeremy Taylor, Mark Frank, Robert Frank, and Isaac Barrow. Let us include even John Tillotson in this company, for he believed that he was following and improving on his predecessors. (146)

The study of rhetorical tradition needs to be further explored, particularly in the “witty” sermons of the earlier part of the century, which affected the next generations, some of whose names appear in the roll just called. I have elsewhere discussed Donne’s borrowings from patristic sources, especially Tertullian, whereas others have demonstrated his deep indebtedness to Augustine, and Janel Mueller has given detailed commentary on his five Prebend Sermons—Potter and Simpson having provided almost no annotation in their complete, supposedly chronological edition of the sermons. [See my “Donne’s Art of Preaching and the Reconstruction of Tertullina,” John Donne Journal 15 (1996): 153-69. An especially useful discussion of Donne’s general response to Augustine is Mark Vessey, “John Donne (1572-1631) in the Company of Augustine: Patristic Culture and Literary Profession in the English Renaissance,” Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes 39(1993): 173-201; and Vessey, “Consulting the Fathers: Investion and Mediation in Donne’s Sermon on Psalm 51:7 (‘Purge Me with Hyssope’),” John Donne Journal 11 (1992): 99-110.] Nonetheless, having identified Donne’s influences and indebtedness, have we learned enough about the construction and method of his sermons? How did his sermons become, at their best, coherent entities? Here is a new challenge for rhetorical analysis analysis, posed by Carol V. Kaske, who employs a hermeneutic approach to The Faerie Queene, a method which may be profitably applied, she suggests, to the study of early modern sermons. [ See Kaske, Spenser and Biblical Poetics (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999 (especially 27, 54-56). (147)

Kaske holds that Spenser’s inconsistencies and contradictions were deliberate, carefully planned, properly adapted, and determined through his own reading of certain medieval and Renaissance rhetorical manuals available to him. … Not only did Spenser make use of the Bible as portrayed by these distinctions, but he also wrote with a concordance of his own poem in mind and expected readers to compile one, too. The marks of distinctions are threefold: concordantial composition, variation of images, and analysis of a natural object. These terms, which help to describe the structure and fundamental coherence of The Faerie Queene, are equally useful in realizing the method of many sermon writers of the same period—and of years to come. (147)

Andrewes ranges over many biblical instances of stones, buildings, angels, and heads. … This passage seems to reflect the use of a concordance, or of a mind that could organize like one. The image of “stone” is also notably varied; it does not stay still. And Andrewes sees the fundamental stoniness of stone by analyzing its natural constitution even while he recognizes its metaphorical meaning. Stone retains its essential value so that it may portray the Resurrection: concordantially, variously, analytically. (148)

This is no mere tugging at a metaphor of simply playing with words. Like Spenser, his fellow contemporary at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Andrewes learned to have an eye for the rhetorical parts of a much greater whole, and Donne, as we shall learn, continued the same tradition. We may, indeed, be close to recognizing the means whereby such a writer as Richard Hooker might develop so complex yet so unified a work as the Ecclesiastical Polity, a prospective study that I should wish to defer for another time. (149)

With difficulty can one do little more than suggest through such examples the rhetorical integrity of this whole sermon, and its management of distinctions. Andrewes’s sermons have unfortunately been known for too long principally from the excerpts, which have occasioned sometimes particular and detailed analysis. Instead, the sermons need to be celebrated more for the ingenuity and generosity of their entire structure. / Donne’s sermons seem in general more direct, less elusive, easier to describe, and simpler to analyze. Nevertheless, most of his best effects, like Andrewes’s, require not only our careful attention to the details of language but also our capacity for perceiving the management of the entire text. (150)

Herein lies one direction that further study of these early modern sermons should try to pursue, a study that most obviously might be applied to the densely conceived work of Andrewes and to his copiously witty successors. (152)

For the more familiar sermons of Andrewes and Donne we do possess a number of studies that seek to locate their thoughts, but few seriously contemplate the great riches of their rhetorical strength and density. Jeffrey Johnson’s Theology of John Donne clarifies Donne’s underlying Trinitarianism and sacramentalism, but makes no broader claim. The best of recent work on the sermons of Andrewes is the eloquent and sympathetic study by Nicholas Lossky, who wishes to separate out the great theological concerns of Andrewes’s preaching and to show how they were ordered and developed. However, his work, like Johnson’s, treats not so much of rhetorical and homiletic issues as of theological themes. Even though Lossky claims to be writing only about the theology of Andrewes situated within the broad historical setting of his church, he does, nevertheless, tell us much about the structure and rhetorical invention of the sermons. His is a study that brings together the worlds, often divided and distinguished, of theology, rhetoric, history, and politics—an admirable method that deserves emulation and enlargement. [See Mitchell, English Pulpit Oratory, 91-92, and esp. “Preaching as a Branch of Rhetoric,” 93-130; Johnson, Theology of John Donne, Studies in Renaissance Literature 1 (Woodbridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1999); and Lossky, Lancelot Andrewes: The Preacher (1555-1626), trans. Andrew Louth (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1991), originally published as Lancelot Andrewes le predicatuer (1555-1626) aux sources de la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Angeleterre (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1986). An important thematic study of Donne’s sermons, which emphasizes his imagery of light, is Maria Salenius, The Dean and His God: John Donne’s Concept of the Divine (Helsinki: Societe Neophilologique, 1998). (154)


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