Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview
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Kate Narveson


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Religion in Early Modern Literary Study

I, it is even I that have broken covenant with thee, I have beene wise to deceive my selfe; abusing my reason rather why to doe amisse, then how to amend. I have falsified my faith; I have riotously run after the vaine conceits, or rather deceits of sin.... O bottomlesse sea of misery and sorrow, wherein I have plunged my selfe! Alwaies sinking, and yet by the infinitenesse thereof, never at the bottome; which I am able neither to abide, having the fire-brands of all furies within mee; nor yet to avoid, being fettered therein with the cruell chaines of my own feare. O my soule . . . loath thy self ... for thou canst neither loath nor torment a more cursed creature. Alas! how is my soule abandoned?

So wrote Sir John Hayward in The Sanctuarie of a troubled Soule, published in 1604 and running to thirteen editions by 1640. As we turn increasingly to religious texts to understand early modern subjectivity, we face the problem of how to approach this sort of statement. Is this a Calvinist attempt to make vivid the depravity of man through the scripturalist antithesis and parallelisms befitting a Protestant style? Or is it the expression of an emerging individualistic subjectivity fraught with the anxiety of existential isolation? Although approaches to religious texts became more varied during the 1990s, a divide remains between people for whom it matters whether John Donne was Anglo- Catholic or Calvinist—or avant-garde conformist or hypothetical universalist— and people for whom the real question is whether his religious behavior reveals an anxious negotiation with absolutism or a homoerotic Christ, that is, between those who look at religion as propositional belief and those for whom it is a cultural system imbricated in structures of power, gender, ritual, sexuality, and so forth.

That such a fault line should open in the study of religious literature is predictable, since religion makes totalizing claims about the human—about ethics, anthropology, and politics as well as about salvation—and religions

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