Anne R. Sweeney. Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia: redrawing the English lyric landscape, 1586-95. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2006. 316pp. ISBN 0 7190 7418 5.

Chris Butler
Sheffield Hallam University

Chris Butler. "Review of Anne R. Sweeney. Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia: redrawing the English lyric landscape, 1586-95.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (January, 2009) 11.1-4 <URL:>.

  1. In The Poetry of Meditation (1954), Louis L. Martz argued that the great outpouring of English religious poetry of the early seventeenth century owed much to the influence of earlier meditational literature and practices. In Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia, Anne R. Sweeney builds on Martz’s work, emphasising the role of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. Southwell, she argues, introduced vital new ingredients to English poetry, applying perceptual and psychological faculties acquired by undergoing meditational processes prescribed by Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Moreover, the spiritual and aesthetic power of Southwell’s poetic innovations (inspired by his Jesuit education and exposure to early Baroque art in Rome), Sweeney maintains, offers important clues as to why English poets and dramatists in the late sixteenth century were suddenly able to create literary characters with convincing interior selves.

  2. The third son of Norfolk Catholic gentry, Southwell (1561/2-95) studied at Cardinal Allen’s Catholic school in Douai before deciding to join the Society of Jesus, at Rome. There, Southwell underwent Loyola’s programme of meditational self-analysis and self-reformation. In addition, the young novice would have been profoundly affected by early Baroque painting. These two factors, Sweeney argues, enabled Southwell later to fulfill a vocation as Catholic English poet. Loyola prescribed the vivid imagining of realistic natural environments as settings for the exploration of one’s inner self in meditation. Living illegally in England, from 1586 to 1595, Southwell applied Loyola’s methods to the writing of lyrical poems and dramatic monologues uttered by fictional characters. Thus, Southwell was able to explore an emotionally affecting and psychologically convincing inner space in literary form. Following Southwell’s example, argues Sweeney, later English authors such as Shakespeare, Donne and Herbert were able to write poetry and drama with greater psychological probity and impact than had been achieved by earlier poets such as Sidney, who tended to imitate and refine rhetorical models. The neglect of Southwell’s contribution, Sweeney notes, has led influential modern scholars (she cites Frank Kermode [81]) to regard developments such as Shakespeare’s invention of characters as psychologically complex as Hamlet and Lear as primarily the product of individual genius. In dispensing with the arbitrary appeal to genius, Sweeney provides a plausible historical context for the “invention of the human”.

  3. Each of Sweeney’s seven chapters has a thematic focus, supported by close readings of Southwell’s prose and poetry. Chapter 4, for example, examines the way in which Calvinism was working to dam sources of divine aid previously endorsed by Catholicism such as angelic manifestations. Sweeney demonstrates that Southwell’s poem “Joseph’s Amazement” was calculated to remind the reader that, in an angel-empty Calvinist world, Joseph—relying on his reason and his senses alone, and putting law before his emotions—would have to hand the pregnant Mary over to be stoned. Other chapters discuss the role played in Southwell’s personal development by Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, the influence of early Baroque art in Rome, the innovative realism of Southwell’s lyric poetry, the need for virtual forms of Catholic worship in late-Elizabethan England, Southwell’s relationship with the Elizabethan regime, and Southwell’s concept of the “performing word” (informed by the writings of theologians such as Francisco Suárez and Robert Bellarmine) as an antidote to the fatalistic impasse brought about by Calvinist theology, which, Sweeney argues, contributed to the spiritual failure of major English Protestant poetic projects such as those of Sidney and Spenser.

  4. In short, Sweeney provides a valuable reassessment of the way in which English literature came to “invent” the inner self in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. In one area, though, Sweeney adopts an overly schematic approach that works to re-obscure terrain even as she clears it. Observing the privileging of emotion over reason in Southwell’s poetry, Sweeney repeatedly opposes the Jesuit poet’s work to Spenserian allegory. Accordingly, throughout the book, the term “allegory” becomes a by-word for the spiritually enervated. Yet Sweeney herself shows that Southwell wrote powerful allegorical poems using Biblical characters such as Magdalene and St. Peter. As Sweeney notes, Alison Shell has previously claimed that Southwell’s “audaciousness [as a poet is] in doing away with neo-platonic machinery” (34). It appears, then, that Sweeney has chosen to replace the term “neo-platonic” with “allegorical”, as though the two words were always synonymous. Consequently, Sweeney seems committed to using the term “metaphor” in place of “allegory” or “allegorical figure” (she describes Southwell’s Magdalen as “the perfect metaphor for … English Catholics” [138].) It might be argued that Southwell did not eschew allegory entirely but rather rendered his allegorical characters and settings more dynamic and effective by means of the emotional and psychological toolkit acquired from his Ignatian training.

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