The Religious Epigram in Early Stuart England

By Doelman, James | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Religious Epigram in Early Stuart England


Doelman, James, Christianity and Literature


The epigram, widely practiced in the early seventeenth century, has received remarkably little attention from scholars, and the religious epigram, as a distinct application of the form, has attracted almost none. Only Richard Crashaw's attempts (in both Latin and English) are well known, but his Epigrammatum sacrorum liber (1634) is just one example of a mass of writings that reached their English peak in the mid-1630s (Young). A thorough study of the style of this genre and its relation to the religious lyric and emblem is needed, but my purpose, drawing principally on the epigram collections of the 1630s, is to consider four questions: how was the form understood by its practitioners and audience, under what circumstances and for what function were these epigrams written, to what function were they later put in circulation or publication, and, finally, what different role did the satiric religious epigram fulfill? Ultimately, I argue that the religious epigram was a subgenre that never fully overcame its vexed legacy and reputation, in either its devotional or satiric modes.

Religious epigrams in early seventeenth-century England were part of a broad European phenomenon: Neo-Latin, French, and German religious epigrams were widespread, with a tradition going back well into the sixteenth century. (1) This is considerably earlier than English attempts at the genre, which I identify as reaching their high-water mark in the early to mid 1630s. (2) The secular epigram in England had reached its peak between 1595 and 1620, best-known in Jonson's English epigrams and John Owen's neo-Latin ones. I suggest that the cultivation of the religious epigram in England in the 1620s and 1630s stems from both direct imitation of the continental religious tradition and the adaptation of the English secular tradition represented by Jonson, Owen, and Sir John Harington. Also clear is that religious epigrams in England were very much a manifestation of the university culture of Oxford and Cambridge: they were most often written and collected by students and scholars and published by Oxbridge printers.

Nearly all Renaissance epigrammatists looked back to Martial, the most prominent classical poet in the genre. Martial's style, tone, and the organization of his epigram books were imitated by self-consciously literary writers like Jonson and Owen, and his example offered the genre a classical legitimacy. However, while Martial was highly venerated as a stylist, his frequent obscenity was a significant difficulty for both Renaissance readers and those who wished to rehabilitate the form for Christian use. A range of writers attempted adaptations and censored editions to render him suitable for a Christian readership. Jesuit scholars in particular developed these expurgated texts, which culminated in the widely used edition by Mathaeus Raderus in 1599, one mocked by John Donne as "gelded Martial" (Sullivan 294). Taking a different approach was the Lutheran Johann Burmeister, who in 1612 published a faithful edition of Martial, Martialis Renati. Parodiarum Sacrarum partes tres Quibus obposita M. Val. Martialis Epigrammata that combined the original epigrams with more edifying paraphrases or parodies on the facing page (Sullivan 281). Such attempts helped to edify the form, making possible the original religious epigrams of the period. But Crashaw also laments at length that the "seed of Idumaea" had grown in the soil of Bilbil, the home of Martial (642). He is wishing, vehemently, that Martial had been a Christian poet. While the goal of Crashaw and others was to sanctify and reclaim the form, to achieve a Christian parody of it, often the result feels closer to burlesque. Ruth Wallerstein writes: "To characterize them [Crashaw's epigrams] in a word, they translate the Bible into Ovid" (59-60). (3)

A number of early seventeenth-century epigrammatists directly mark their conversion of the form in program poems, using the language of repentance and conversion as they adopt religious subject matter. …

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