Wrestling with God: Introduction
Mary Ellen Henley
University of British Columbia

Henley, Mary Ellen. "Wrestling with God: An Introduction." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 1.1-23 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/henley.htm>.

  1. For as long as human beings have believed in a single deity they have attempted to explain, describe, justify and rationalize, for themselves and for others, why they believe as they do and how the achieving and maintaining of such a creed can often involve fierce inner struggle. Thus, in a sense, their creed gives birth to a kind of literature, whether oral or written, which, in turn, adds to or subtracts from the number of believers in any given historical period -- theology begetting literature, as it were, and the subsequent literature siring further theological discussion.

  2. This phenomenon of literature begotten by the spirit of the times (modern critical theories notwithstanding) is more evident in some historical periods than in others, and in none so much as in the English Renaissance. Many writers of the age chose subjects with a theological bent -- whether their genre of choice was tract, sermon, sonnet, epic poem, Biblical exegesis, religious polemic, proselytizing pamphlet, or any other literary form -- perhaps because the time itself was so fraught with religious and political upheaval. This, in turn, produced in their works an aura of struggle or of self-inflicted soul-wrenching needful for final conciliation with God. Without fretting over autobiographical details, such a small poem, for example, as Donne's "Batter my heart" is full of this sense of violence; witness the poem's startling ending which equates freedom with being held in or reduced to slavery and chastity with a rape or physical violation by God. And the so-called mild and gentle George Herbert, who made many tortuous wrestlings seem mellifluous, sees the act of prayer itself as an "Engine against th'Almighty," a siege-weapon with which to coerce God. Writers of the seventeenth century harvested the fruits of the religious revolution and the bitter religious conflicts of the sixteenth century. It is, in fact, difficult to consider much of the literature of the time apart from its religious implications.

  3. This was a theological age that believed both religion and literature were of enormous importance. Human events were delineated against a background of divine providence, daily grace, eternal salvation, and inevitable mortality, with sin and its consequences universally assumed. Sacred echoes were used to empower the secular, the passionate, or the political. With persecution -- even execution -- perhaps waiting only for the accession of the next monarch, such obsessive interest in things spiritual is easily understood. Devotional writing obviously emerges from religious feeling and from the judgements made under the influence of faith and moral action. To know anything of that world, or of the literature that it fostered, we need to recall the Anglican temper, with its distinctive ethos and its familiar threefold appeal to Scripture, to tradition, and to reason.

  4. While the present collection of essays honouring Paul Grant Stanwood does not purport to follow any theory of his as a thesis, they do present some considerations of various writers from his favourite period of English literature. Most reflect the conflict of the volume's title, though one or two deal only with literary themes, and others demonstrate conflict of a secular rather than a spiritual nature. The two concluding essays delineate some of the influence of this period discernible in writers of the Romantic and the Victorian eras.

  5. The work begins with a dedicatory sonnet by X. J. Kennedy, an early colleague, who sees in a simple gesture of the young Stanwood traits of the scholar and teacher he was to become. It is a touching tribute from a friend of long standing.

  6. The first essay in the volume is by Louis Martz who, unafraid as always, leaps into the volume's topic with "the worm of controversy," using illustrations in the works of Donne and Herbert. Here we have a lucid discussion of the literature and the political / theological situation with particular emphasis on two of its leading writers. Martz points out the personal controversy within the Herbert family where George is "caught in a cross-fire from his relatives." He notes the slowly rising tide of anti-Calvinism, particularly as personified in the work of Donne, who did not shrink from addressing confirmed Calvinists with his idea of the clergy's need to be free of Calvinist domination.

  7. John Shawcross defines, in a specific way, the "wrestling" of the title in terms of the virtue and discipline of engaging in such activity with God. The opposition between godward thought and action and one's own ambitions for and understanding of oneself constitute the "wrestling." The "virtue" of the essay's title consists of moral excellence, meritorious action, manly courage and strength, while the "discipline," to Shawcross, consists of training to achieve moral behaviour. To illustrate his definitions he compares several poems by Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Henry Vaughan, concluding that Vaughan's work is an obvious example of simple devotional poetry, while Lord Herbert of Cherbury's poems exemplify meditative poetry beneath what Shawcross sees as the "dissimulation" which Cherbury adopted to conceal his inner struggle.

  8. The third essay deals with expressions of devotion par excellence for its subject is The Book of Common Prayer, which John Booty calls the "core" of Elizabethan spirituality. There is no element of struggle in this work where troublesome doctrinal issues fade and become indistinct. Booty sees it as the fundamental expression of and formative agent in the religion not only of Elizabeth's day but into the seventeenth century and beyond, in the lives of those who endorsed the work and made use of it in the years that followed its first appearance. If disorder can be read as a sign of "wrestling," then perhaps this work can assist in bringing order to the effects of human sin and pride. Booty makes particular reference to the work of Richard Hooker in defending and interpreting the ideas contained in The Book of Common Prayer, concluding that Christ's death illuminates the human condition of disorder and brings about our deliverance from it.

  9. A layman struggling with theological problems is the subject of Graham Parry's essay. Although relatively unknown today, William Austin's work, according to Parry, deserves a place of honour in the devotional writings of seventeenth-century England. Austin wrote devotions for the liturgical year including its fasts as well as its feasts, basing his works on biblical texts.  Since he took Lancelot Andrewes as his model, the works often sound like sermons. Austin was well known to Donne, Thomas Campion, Michael Drayton, Henry Peacham, and Ben Jonson. His works exhibit the private devotional customs of a pious gentleman of the time, inculcating love of family, friends, the arts, and God. Austin's devotions demonstrate that the devout layman can sound almost like a learned minister of long professional experience.

  10. A new use for the English elegy engages Claude Summers in his study of two examples of this literary form from the period: an effort to make it serve as a vehicle to explore large philosophical and religious issues. Two elegies are studied, one by Donne and the other by W. S., supposed by some to be William Shakespeare. Summers chooses to ignore the problem of authorial identity and concentrates on the poems themselves. He judges Donne's purpose as trying to discover some transcendental meaning for death; here is "wrestling" with God on a very specific topic indeed. Both poets contrast earthly and heavenly perspectives; but Donne seems intent on transforming the elegy into a medium for expressing religious and philosophical speculation.

  11. Another study in contrast is found in Ted-Larry Pebworth's essay comparing two sets of Lamentations, one by Donne and the other by Christopher Fetherstone. Pebworth makes a good case for Fetherstone's influence on Donne, although Fetherstone demonstrates an attraction for Calvin's teachings (which Donne eschews). Fetherstone actually disclaimed authorship of the work and declared that they were written by a friend.

  12. William Blissett's essay moves away from religious combat to the struggles of two young men, a year apart in age, intent, in their salad days, on achieving status and recognition in a court whose corruptions were not unknown to them, as witness Donne's Satyre IV and Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, or the Fountain of Self-Love. These are the chief works Blissett presents, for in them he finds evidence of each author's concern with the decline of morals in the court. Blissett sees Jonson portraying the courtiers (in his allegorical comedy) as full of self-love and punished sufficiently by being unmasked, and Donne as drawing attention to court degeneracy in his satirical poems.

  13. Another of Donne's satiric poems is discussed by Wyman Herendeen in his essay on The Progresse of the Soule. While he does not deny its satiric and mock epic characteristics, he prefers to make a case for this work as a causeway leading to the La Corona poems which, in turn, lead to the Holy Sonnets. He notes firm textual links and thematic parallels which give coherence to the satire as preparation for the two subsequent groups of poems. He envisions the focus of the first work as the journey of the disenfranchised soul, that of the second as salvation, while the third provides a kind of overview of mankind's progress through time, including struggles between spirit and body, faith and despair, in terms more ambiguous and dramatic than the views provided by the first two works. All three, he suggests, are examples of Donne's self-division between the extremes of the sacred and the profane.

  14. John Donne's Biathanatos is the subject of R. G. Siemens' essay, a work he sees as doubly conflicted: there is, first, the question of suicide, and, second, the identity of the speaker. Siemens maintains that to see Biathanatos as a suicide note is to over-state the biographical context's importance. Although the decision about suicide indicates a rather special episode of "wrestling," Siemens contends that there is also a wrestling on the part of the critic as to what the author's purpose might be in writing such a piece. Whether autobiographical or not -- and Siemens remains not uncommitted -- he judges the work as a rewarding one for  the study of Donne's personal situation.

  15. The entire series of Holy Sonnets is the concern of Diana Benet who hears in these poems the unique of Donne himself, ringing with wit, energy, and drama rather than exuding feeble piety. Eschewing the traditional determination of critics to avoid the biographical angle in the study of poetry in general and of Donne's work in particular, she makes a strong case for Donne's use of a biographical persona which she terms the "Pauline striver."

  16. Richmond Bridge chooses a specific one of the Holy Sonnets for his study of Donne -- the poem that has been called the Doomsday sonnet. He relates the ideas contained in the poem to similar ones expressed by Donne in his Sermons and Devotions, and thus sees this sonnet as somewhat autobiographical, although he does note a difference in volume between the octave voice, which he finds public and loud, and the sestet voice, which he deems softer and remarkably personal. Although this poem does not delineate much individual inner struggle, there is considerable upheaval evident in the contrast between its dread-inspiring vivid details of the Day of Judgement and the poem's gentler closing sestet seeking the grace of repentance.

  17. Another essay dealing with the whole range of Holy Sonnets is Bryan Gooch's discussion of the manner in which Benjamin Britten composed musical settings for Donne's poems. Gooch sees the music and the poems as being not only about death but also about love and faith, sin and guilt, redemption and transfiguration, and he judges that Britten tried to accomplish in his music what Donne did in his poetry. He recognizes not only the poet wrestling with God, himself, and his world, but the composer wrestling with the problem of faith in a tortured world with its own death and misery.  Britten, Gooch argues, seems to have resolved Donne's struggle by means of music.

  18. Leaving Donne behind, the essays move on to Milton. Ken Simpson writes of Milton and Paradise Regained. He evinces Milton's part in a revolution in ritual theory that  profoundly changed public forms of worship both inside and outside the Protestant church. He maintains that Paradise Regained illustrates the semiotic crisis that underlies many ritual experiments in the seventeenth century. His interpretation of Milton's work shows that what is essential for true worship is reading and writing with the Holy Spirit and that external worship is insufficient without inner worship and good works inspired by the Holy Spirit and revealed in free choice guided by Scripture and reason.

  19. The two concluding essays, by Lee M. Johnson and Kathleen Grant Jaeger, move beyond the actual century of Donne and Milton, into the romantic and Victorian eras. Johnson provides a new perspective on how poets wrestle, if not with God, then certainly with their great poetic precursors, as Coleridge and Wordsworth confront Milton and forge emblematic and symbolic forms of metaphysical significance. Jaeger, on the other hand, examines some opinions about Catholic persecution voiced in the Victorian period and spread abroad particularly in the novels of the time. Victorians dismissed the idea that Elizabethan Catholics had been persecuted in spite of harsh laws which were enacted whose enforcement became more rigorous as events subsequent to the excommunication of Elizabeth unfolded. Before she moves into the fiction of the time (Scott, Thackeray, Kingsley, et al.), she interestingly compares the non-fiction works of John Lingard, who sought to undermine popular prejudices, and James Froude, who strove to reinforce them.

  20. These essays are presented in admiration and respect to Paul Grant Stanwood on his retirement after a long and influential career as a teacher of the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The theological aspect of literature has engrossed Stanwood throughout his career, not only in a professional way but in his personal devotional life as well. In his study of devotional writings, of whatever period, he has sought meditative empathy rather than innovation for its own sake, concentrating particularly upon the devotional writers of the early Stuart reigns with what prescriptions and proscriptions these authors deemed necessary for a moral existence. So we find him editing the devotional works of John Cosin as well as Jeremy Taylor's precepts for holy living and dying, Donne's use of theological language, some of Hooker's interpretations of ecclesiastical law, up to his latest article on the correspondence of Isaac Basire, an English divine who served under Cosin.

  21. In focusing on theological writers and writings, Stanwood is certainly in tune with the way the seventeenth century viewed itself. Theology was the queen of the sciences, the focus of the university intellectual life. Other struggles, however, were in place as well, and so were new beginnings. This was the time when attitudes toward politics (Hobbes' argument for absolute monarchy and strict materialism), religion (the Cambridge Platonists and their rebellion against the materialism of Hobbes), science (the origin of modern scientific method in Bacon's systematic observation and experiment), religion and science combined (Browne's erudite confessions of a faith at once religious and scientific), and psychology (Burton's work on the symptoms, causes, and cures for melancholy), were just beginning to blossom; a time, too, when the strenuous political debates erupted eventually into the Civil War. How fortunate, then, that it was also a time of the remarkable flowering of an inner life of meditation, lyric poetry, and devotional writing of all kinds, and that this aspect of the time eventually came to engross a twentieth-century scholar such as Paul Stanwood.

  22. It is eminently appropriate, also, that this festschrift should premiere in the EMLS journal, for Stanwood has been closely involved with this scholarly electronic periodical almost from its inception. He was the strongest and most active supporter of EMLS in its infancy and through its first difficult stages, demonstrating in that support the qualities which have earned him such a strong and positive reputation in his department and in his field.

  23. A number of years ago an occasion arose when some of Stanwood's former students proffered critiques on the quality of his teaching. They spoke of the breadth of his scholarship and his profound knowledge of the period, the inspirational value of his genuine love of the seventeenth century and all its works, his commitment to teaching reflected in his patience and availability for discussion. Little fanfare has surrounded who this man is and what he does, but his sharing with countless undergraduate and graduate students his passion for the prose and poetry of the English Renaissance in his own inimitable manner has led many to the same conclusion: Professor Stanwood is what he teaches, exhibiting deep sympathy for the issues that define the religious temper of the early seventeenth century.

2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, LJ, WSH, 08 May 2001)