Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way/One Equall Light: An Anthology of the Writings of John Donne

By Johnson, Pegram, III | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way/One Equall Light: An Anthology of the Writings of John Donne


Johnson, Pegram, III, Anglican and Episcopal History


DANIEL W. DOERKSEN AND CHRISTOPHER HODGKINS, EDS. Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way. Newark, New Jersey: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Pp. '567, index. $62.50.

JOHN MOSES, ED. One Equall Light: An Anthology of the Writings of John Donne. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. Pp. xvi + 352. $28.00.

Centered on the Word is a compilation of fourteen scholarly essays, plus an introduction by the editors. The basic thesis of the collection is that the Elizabethan and Jacobean archbishops of Canterbury and many other English Christians of the day could be considered Calvinist in the general sense that the English Bible was more or less at the center of their piety. The editors are particularly interested in showing the effect of the English Bible read from a Calvinistic perspective on such writers as Herbert Spencer, Aemilia Lanyer, Thomas Cranmer, William Shakespeare, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, William Baspoole (annotator of the medieval manuscript, Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of Manhode), and the anonymous female author of Eliza's Babes. Some of the material is very familiar and several works very unfamiliar; I dare say that William Baspoole and Eliza's Babes are particularly obscure. The thesis is convincing generally, though more so for some of the literary figures and artifacts than for others. Spencer is dealt with in two essays, Donne in four, and the rest one each. One essay deals generally with "Publishing the Sole-talk of the Soule: Genre in Early Stuart Piety" and another with "Plays Out of Season: Puritanism, Antitheatricalism and the Closing of the Theaters."

Though each of the essays is stimulating in its own way, only occasionally falling into literary critical pedantry, 1 have chosen to concentrate briefly in this review on several of the essays about John Donne. The first essay by Raymond-Jean Frontain is '"the man which have affliction scene': Donne, Jeremiah, and the Fashioning of Lamentation." Frontain argues convincingly that Donne assumes certain biblical identities as a way of dealing with crises in his life and that of the people he serves. Louis Martz in his study, The Poetry of Meditation, published in 1954, showed how Renaissance devotional poets sometimes used the meditation technique of Ignatian meditation with its composition of place, that is to say, an imaginative reconstruction of biblical scenes. Frontain, who is seemingly influenced by Martz, argues that this is particularly true of Donne in his identification with Jeremiah as a man of affliction. Donne in his "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day" describes himself as "every dead thing" (line 12). The essayist wonders, "And who else but Donne, after emphasizing the spent, shrunken, sap-sunken condition of the physical world, would fashion himself as the very emblem of grief and despoliation?" Who indeed?

In Robert Whalen's essay, "Sacramentalizing the Word: Donne's 1626 Christmas Sermon," Whalen seeks to show that the sermon is illustrative of "a moderate, if largely tacit, predestinarian Calvinism even while advancing sacrament and ceremony as essential elements of Christian worship." In the Christmas sermon Whalen finds Donne's attempt at eucharistic theology in an era in which the Thirty-nine Articles were being both appropriated and rejected by some Elizabethan Roman Catholic recusants and Calvinists alike. In one image in the sermon Donne describes the attempt at defining the sacrament as "diving in a bottomless sea, they poppe sometimes above water to take breath, to appear to say something, and then snatch at a loose proposition, that swims upon the face of the waters. …

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