Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660

Article excerpt

Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp xi + 309, £37.50 ($59.95), ISBN 0521580900

This challenging and thought-provoking book contains many important lessons for both literary critics and historians. Successfully straddling the increasingly permeable boundary between the two disciplines, it takes as its subject imaginative writing composed between 1558 and 1660 in response to, and against the backdrop of the religious controversies generated by the long Reformation and of the proscription and repression of the Church of Rome and its adherents in England. Alison Shell ranges widely from devotional poetry, drama and verse allegory to emblems, hymns and masques in a highly original attempt to reclaim Catholicism from the literary margins and underline its crucial role as a stimulus to creativity in the century ending with the restoration of Charles II to the throne. Through a series of acute and textured close readings of works within, on the edges of, and outside the academic canon, she offers a compelling analysis of the powerful imprint which Catholicism and anti- Catholicism have left both on English literary culture and on the practice of professional criticism. Part I is an extraordinarily penetrating examination of the confessional politics of canon formation. The opening chapter argues that critics have been largely unconscious of the polemical stereotypes of Catholic idolatry, decadence and evil which structure Italianate revenge tragedy and consequently have unwittingly helped to perpetuate the denominational prejudices which pervade such plays. Chapter 2 addresses the other side of this lingering legacy of anti-Catholicism in the academy: neglect. Calling for renewed attention to the English Catholic 'baroque', it demonstrates that unappreciated 'recusant' poets such as Robert Southwell and Richard Crashaw played a key part in steering sacred verse in a new direction and in stimulating a fashion for religious lamentation which cut across confessional barriers. Here, as elsewhere, Shell is keen to emphasise the extent to which Catholic discourse was integrated into the Protestant mainstream. The 'seepage' (17) of texts such as Southwell's Saint Peters Complaint (1595) into the public domain through the midwife-like services of commercial printers does much to qualify prevailing assumptions about Catholicism's status as a clandestine 'catacomb culture' (16), a beleaguered minority group living in quarantine from the miasma of Protestant heresy surrounding it. …

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