Conflicts of Devotion

Liturgical Poetics in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Daniel R. Gibbons
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , March
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this volume, Daniel R. Gibbons, associate professor of English at the Catholic University of America, investigates the rhetoric of communion and mourning in 16th and 17th century post-Reformation British poetry in light of the publication of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer (first published in 1549 and revised in 1559).

Methodologically, Gibbons attempt to escape questions of politics and theology. He presents instead a detailed analysis of textual nuances in Cranmer’s somehow unsettled Book of Common Prayer, designed as it was, “to produce a new unified English and Christian ‘we’” in times of religious conflict (5). Questions of “real presence” and mourning for the dead lay at the very core of this complex task. Cranmer attempted to resolve the matter in a rhetorical style, by Gibbons described as via negativa, “a complicated interlacing of diverse voices, the silencing or simplification of…papistical rituals and prayers, the introduction of Protestant content into traditional structures and forms” (40). The prayer book made an attempt to include all: it was “stuck in a recursive system” that could not be logically resolved, as it invited both “conditional” or “mystical” readings that would have to leave out any semantic excess (53). The Book of Common Prayer was characterized by a strategic application of both accommodating and excluding rhetoric.

 These rhetorical strategies were, as Gibbons illustrate, integrated and absorbed into the very matrix of liturgical poetics. The selected poets under scrutiny in the investigation represent different denominational views but, as Gibbons argues, within the realm of religious literature in post Reformation Britain, confessional categories like Protestant, Catholic, Puritan, and Anglican were porous (16). Gibbons focus on the spiritual tensions, fractures, and negotiations among different spiritual communities, and how it gave rise to imaginative poetic appropriation. This approach allows him to “recognize what fertile grounds those very social and religious fractures provided for early modern lyric poets determined to revitalize their spiritual communities with songs of consolations and songs of devotion” (14). The writers examined—Edmund Spenser, Robert Southwell, John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw—share a common interest in “promoting spiritual community.”

Spenser—whose life and poetic work were closely intertwined with Elizabethan theo-politics—struggled with uncertainties about practices of mourning expressed in the Prayer Book. Spenser used poetic rhetoric as a means to propose new devotional opportunities for mourners. He provided a kind of emotional poetic consolation, a “poetic substitute for traditional liturgical mourning” (112).

The Jesuit martyr, Robert Southwell (executed in 1595 and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970), was, in spite of his Catholic beliefs, equally affected by the uncertainties expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. He created a poetics of communal mourning, intended for a theologically diverse audience, but uses “careful language that resists the theological sensibilities at work” (148) while seeming to subscribe to the rhetoric of exclusion.

John Donne’s poetry incorporates a well-orchestrated polysemy that allows readers to interpret in ways that satisfy individual confessional preferences, be they Reformed, Catholic, or Calvinist. He attempts to escape “logical closure” and instead “opens the possibility of ecstatic devotion transcending theological division” (172). In the semantic of Donne’s poems, argues Gibbons, devotional conflict is never finally resolved. The incorporation of complex rhetoric loaded with ambiguity and paradoxes seems to invite and encourage his readers to a form of humble unknowing. “The ostensible struggle in these lines is with…the relationship between individual agency and divine intervention in spiritual salvation” (163). The poems are thus first and foremost accommodating and mystical, while at the same time attempting to mediate grace.

George Herbert’s The Temple is organized, states Gibbons, like a place of worship, and contains specific poems named after liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer and locations in the Church (202). His rhetoric is at one and the same time excluding and accommodating, which shines through in his poetic reflections on the relation between the interior and exterior man/church. Herbert continuously places spirit over matter, while at the same time showing that “external things were important signs, pathways, and provocations in the particular lives of Christians” (209). In particular, exterior signs that “gesture away from themselves toward God” (210), such as the reception of Communion, represented important locations of mediation between man and God through material objects. Herbert does not, however, close the subject of “real presence,” never referring to the consecrated host as either bread or flesh. The poem is—and teaches—a devotional practice in itself.

Richard Crashaw’s lyrics are “concerned with erasing religious boundaries rather than maintaining them” (231). His optimistic poetic accommodation serves as a concluding remark on the “unintended possibilities for rewriting spiritual community inherent in the English Prayerbook’s liturgical poetics” (232). Crashaw was a traditionalist, and his poems were preoccupied with sensual spirituality. His contemporaries accused him, among others, of worshipping the Virgin. Crashaw attempted to overcome confessional differences and merge the best from both worlds: Roman Catholic and Reformed. He used an even more accommodating rhetoric than the Book of Common Prayer.

Gibbons illustrates in a most stimulating way the appropriation of religious and liturgical changes in poetic production. His investigation illuminates a fundamental premise and paradox of the whole sola scriptura movement: that the attempt to produce clear, plain, and reliable meanings through translation into the venacular, to produce a completely transparent text available to all without clerical mediation (37), necessitated a reconciliation of “the various readings of the reformers themselves” (38). The Book of Common Prayer illustrates that post-Reformation theologians and writers struggled with religious ambiguities, tensions, and textual polysemi. According to Gibbons, the unsettled rhetoric of the Book of Common Prayer left ample space for poetic innovation. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History, focusing on medieval and early modern religious cultures, at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel R. Gibbons is assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in English at the Catholic University of America.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.