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The Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw: A Critical History.

Is there a Catholic tradition in English poetry? Are there ways in which we can define and describe that tradition so as to distinguish it from other post-Reformation writing? Cousin's title suggests these questions, but his book does not answer them.

C. describes two stylistic traditions in English Renaissance religious verse: the "plain style," rooted in late Medieval writing, with its "immediacy of tone ... lack of ornament ... and ... use of metaphor to crystallize meaning rather than to beautify ..." (8); and the European Counter-Reformation style, formed in great part by Jesuit literary theorists and poets, with its appeal to the emotions, its delight in "sensuously compelling images," its fascination with the highly wrought conceit, and its will to "entice the reader and carry him away" (17).

Turning to works by Southwell, Constable, Alabaster, Beaumont, Habington, and Crashaw, C. looks for traces of these stylistic traditions. He finds, e.g., Southwell mingling "the culture of post-Tridentine Europe with that of his homeland" (71). But C.'s real interest is in close readings of particular poems and in their implicit theological convictions. He concludes, e.g., that Southwell's "St. Peter's Complaint" is about "the dialectic between egocentrism and theocentrism" (61). The problem with such conclusions is that they do not define Southwell's poetry in specifically Catholic terms. C. notes that Southwell "writes for a Catholic people virtually without their priests, and ... appears to take on for them the role of spiritual counsellor or director" (70). But he doesn't explain how Southwell tries to fulfill that role.

Where might he begin? Terror. As Helen C. White and Geoffrey Hill have pointed out, the imminent threat of martyrdom framed Southwell's life and mind, and his poetry features an almost obsessive fascination with betraying and being betrayed, and with lurid descriptions of wounding, mutilation, and execution. Confronting and transcending this terror is one of the ways Southwell "writes for a Catholic people."
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Author:Pfordresher, John
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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