Elizabeth Clarke, Politics, Religion and the Song of Songs in Seventeenth-Century England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. viii+265pp. ISBN 978 0 333 71411 9.

Marie-Louise Coolahan
National University of Ireland, Galway

Marie-Louise Coolahan, "Review of Elizabeth Clarke, Politics, Religion and the Song of Songs in Seventeenth-Century England". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 8. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revclarke.htm

  1. The eight-chapter Bible book known as the Song of Songs, or Canticles (or less accurately, the Song of Solomon), has long proved tricky for theologians and serious-minded readers. Since the second century the bridegroom and bride have been interpreted allegorically as symbols of Christ and the Church. Yet its irrepressibly erotic charge, its articulations of sexual attraction, have bemused and troubled devotional readers. It is the jack whose box is never entirely closed shut. Elizabeth Clarke’s new study is a comprehensive investigation of the reception and political deployment of this ‘radically unstable’ text across the seventeenth century. Clarke’s focus is ‘mainstream’ religious belief, defined as ‘the spirituality common to many aristocrats and gentry as well as many of "the middling sort", which can be described as Reformed in theology, and which is broadly Calvinist’ (1). Her avowed interest in mainstream readers does not preclude discussion of some Catholic perspectives. Moreover, Clarke’s expert unfurling of historical moments fuels the book’s broader narrative about the evolution of uses of this text from the Jacobean period through to the 1680s.

  2. Clarke persuasively demonstrates the Song of Songs to be a prism through which we can better understand the ‘struggle over the identity of the Church of England in the seventeenth century’ (3). We are shown how the text was made to fit particular political aims. The trajectory follows the rise of Calvinism up to the Interregnum through to its subsequent marginalisation at the Restoration and eventual denigration as Nonconformism. While not exclusively concerned with the evolution of Calvinist thinking and political influence, a key value of this study is its mapping of the interdependent roles of Calvinist reading, subjectivity and ideas of nationhood. Clarke demonstrates the centrality of principles of inclusion and exclusion to Calvinist readings of the text: the bride is Christ’s beloved, and she is placed in opposition to—even persecuted by—those institutions, the ‘watchmen’ that surround her but cannot help her find her beloved. This tension, Clarke shows, becomes one of the battlegrounds of interpretation. The ease of slippage between interpreting the bride as the church and as the individual believer made conflicts with the state and its institutions inevitable. Further, as readers came to identify the bride with the individual member of the elect, this led to the convenient castigation of those who saw carnality in the text as self-identifying members of the reprobate. Thus, interpretation of the Song of Songs itself became a gauge of the reader’s election, conveniently and simultaneously rejecting outright the viability of any carnally inclined readings.

  3. This book is arranged chronologically and, while close attention is paid to genre, of greater importance to the narrative is the historicist concern with the politico-religious imperatives that inform the biblical text’s interpretation at particular moments. The first chapter focuses on the Jacobean era, considering the evidence for nationalistic readings of the biblical enclosed garden and relating them to the internationalist protestant politics of Prince Henry shifting, after his death, to his sister Elizabeth, married to the elector Palatine in 1613. It traces how preachers opposed to their brother Charles’ Spanish match used the Canticles to articulate that opposition; as Clarke observes, in that climate ‘all references to marriages real or spiritual could be interpreted as having political resonance’ (40). This climate, of course, was dominated by the Calvinist/Arminian debate; Clarke shows how the Synod of Dort informed and fuelled contemporary uses of the Song of Songs. The Calvinist reading—that grace given by Christ, and not good works, led to salvation—was troubling to Arminian thinkers in its emphasis on the passivity of the saved soul. This leads to an exciting reading of Donne’s sonnets as expressing Arminian positions, elucidating further our sense of his complex theology.

  4. Chapters 2 and 3 are focused on the 1630s. By contrast to the Jacobean period, the ‘watchmen’ who jeopardise the enclosed garden are no longer securely identified as foreign; they come to symbolise internal, indigenous religious threats. The rhetoric of the Song of Songs resonated for critics of Archbishop Laud’s reforms and Clarke argues that the text was now appropriated as code for Laudian persecution. Chapter 2 develops a central current of the book’s analysis: the threat posed by the Calvinist identification of the bride as the individual true believer as a fundamental challenge to the institutional church. As dissenters such as Burton, Bastwick and Prynne were mutilated, they adopted the language of martyrology and combined it with that of the mystical marriage in order to represent the Laudian hierarchy as persecutors of the true church.

  5. The third chapter sidesteps, very productively, to the 1630s royal court in order to discuss Catholic uses of the Song of Songs. This works excellently as a welcome counterweight to the book’s emphasis, up to this point, on Calvinist exegetical ends and it extends the generic reach of the discussion to emblems and masques. Clarke’s detailed comparative discussion of the Jesuit Henry Hawkins’ emblem-book, Parthenia Sacra, and Francis Quarles’ bestselling Emblemes is enlightening on the infusion of aesthetic values by those of religion. The Catholic tradition of reading the enclosed garden as symbolising the Virgin Mary is aligned with the complexity of Hawkins’ visual sign system. Quarles—who used plates from Jesuit publications—is argued to be ‘in sympathy with Puritan interpretations’ (89), adapting the visual images to clarify their meanings and appeal to a popular readership. The royal couple’s performance of a very different, but equally idealised, marriage is discussed in light of Carew’s Coelum Britannicum and Davenant’s Salmacida Spolia and usefully contrasted with the mystical marriage of scripture.

  6. Chapter 4 focuses on the 1641 commissioning by the parliamentary Committee for Religion of a new set of annotations to accompany the King James Bible, synthesising those of Calvinist commentators. The first edition, based on Haak’s Dutch and Diodati’s Italian commentaries, appeared in 1645, followed by an enlarged edition in 1651. Now in the ascendant, Calvinist exegetes could no longer identify the state as their political opposition. Clarke’s discussion of the work of these annotators most usefully concentrates on their treatment of the first five verses and the fifth chapter of the biblical text. These are reproduced here, enhancing the discussion for the reader. The second half of this chapter treats of radical and millenarian readings of the biblical text as prophecy, alongside the Restoration counter-responses of Anglicans like Simon Patrick. At the Restoration, such commentaries become ‘necessary aids to the control of sectarianism and political subversion’ (128). But Clarke also argues for a shift in the conceptualisation of annotation, from a means of ‘empowering the individual to interpret Scripture for herself’ (130) to an assertion of a specific reading—even to the point of replacing scripture itself.

  7. Chapter 5 interrogates the role played by the Song of Songs for women’s authorship in the seventeenth century. The discussion ranges from the well-known poet Aemilia Lanyer (whose work was published in 1611) to the Nonconformist Julia Palmer, whose poetry dates from the 1670s. Clarke rigorously interrogates the question of whether the female voice of the biblical text affected women’s entry to authorship. She draws attention to the established reading of the bride as the church and how this hindered specific female identification with the figure. She traces the appropriation of the bride’s voice in women’s poetry and spiritual journals to argue for women’s rights and to defend transgressive and radical theological positions. Clarke argues that the possibilities for female authorship opened up by the cultural currency of the Song of Songs were particular to their time, rather than opening up the floodgates for women’s wider participation in authorship. What’s more, Clarke proposes that, rather than propelling women to further experiments in literary authorship, the Song of Songs, with its emphasis on the representation of sincere truth, thwarted the creativity of early modern female authors. This is a provocative and important question and Clarke is right to argue it forcefully and polemically. As with much of this book, which is filled with insightful and stimulating interventions, this would make an excellent study in itself.

  8. The final chapter focuses on the 1670s pamphlet controversy over correct modes of interpreting the Song of Songs, pitching Restored Anglicans (like William Sherlock) against persecuted Nonconformists (such as John Owen) in the battle to claim their church as the true bride. By the end of the 1670s, the Anglican view had prevailed to such a degree that the very use of the Song of Songs in itself—as in a 1679 speech by Shaftesbury—was intended and perceived as a signal of Nonconformism. Clarke’s epilogue brings the story into the 1680s, with a survey of the writings of Benjamin Keach. She argues that, by the end of the century, the mystical marriage trope had been domesticated; it moved from the practically political realm of public oratory to the spiritually individual realm of private reading, from sermon to fictional romance. The relative political stability of eighteenth-century England coincided with the move of the Song of Songs out of the currency of political debate into the less contentious realm of spiritual love.

  9. This is a study of enormous range, bursting with detailed discussions of genres from the sermon to annotation, poetry, emblem and masque. The biblical book is this study’s linchpin but it is also revealed as underpinning a vast amount of politico-religious writing of the period. Hence, not only does this book have much to tell us about the currency and reception of the Canticles, it simultaneously uses this hook to illuminate the religious and gender politics of the seventeenth century.




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© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).