Friday, January 30, 2015

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation (Part 10) : Nahum Tate

The eighteenth-century English poet, playwright and one-time poet laureate Nahum Tate ( 1652-1715 ) movingly describes the terrors endured by the Blessed Virgin when her Son was lost : 

    ( when our Saviour at Twelve Years of Age, had withdrawn 
     Himself )

    Tell me, some pitying angel, quickly say
    Where does my soul's sweet Darling stray,
    In tigers', or more cruel Herod's way?
    O! rather let his tender foot-steps press
    Unguarded through the wilderness
    Where milder savages resort,
    The desert's safer than a tyrant's court.
    Why, fairest object of my love,
    Why dost thou from my longing eyes remove?
    Was it a waking dream that did foretell
    Thy wondrous birth? No vision from above?
    I call - He comes not - flattering hopes, farewell.

    Me Judah's daughters once caressed
    Called me of Mothers the most blest.
    Now (fatal change!) of Mothers most distressed!
    How shall my soul its emotions guide.
    How shall I stem the various tide,
    Whilst faith and doubt my labouring thoughts divide?
    For which of thy dear sight I am beguiled,
    I trust the god - but oh! I fear the child!
                                                ( 1 - 20)

The disparate length of the two stanzas, which  number twelve and eight lines respectively, possibly serves to emphasise the age of the Lord Jesus Christ when in the words of the poet He "had withdrawn Himself". Tate uses the ploy of rhetorical question to underscore the helplessness of the Blessed Virgin and the twenty-line poem contains no fewer than nine questions. The incremental tension produced by this repetition builds up a picture of a distraught mother who has no though in the world beyond the welfare of her lost child, and demonstrates psychological insight into the maternal heart on the part of the poet.

The poet has an effective way of introducing a connotation-provoking pause in the poem, as may be seen where the mother says: I call - He comes not ( 12 ) as well as in ( fatal change ) ( 15 ) , both of which interjections emphasise the instant reversal from joy to anguish within one who once seemed to embody all the dreams of every woman born since the banishment of Eve from Paradise.

To the modern ear, the choice of the word flattering to precede hopes ( 12 ) does not appear to be a felicitous one, as it seems better fitted to be included in the reflections of a woman of marked social aspirations than of those of one rooted in the will of God to the exclusion of all personal considerations. The closing line: I trust the God - but oh! I fear the child! ( 20 ) while referring to Christ's Divinity and His Humanity, would seem to indicate that Tate honour Mary's greatness not as a goddess - which she is not - but within the limitations of her profound humanity.

1  The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation - Nahum Tate - Thérèse1947: 146

Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation ( Part Nine) : John Donne

Like Crashaw , John Donne ( 1573-1631 ) , the giant among the metaphysical poets, experienced the religious controversy from both sides of the fence. Born and raised a Catholic, Donne became an Anglican, in which faith he took holy orders. From the evidence of his poetry, his vision of doctrine did not belong totally to either Catholicism or Protestantism.

In 1593 , when Donne was in his 21st year, his brother died of the plague , contracted during an epidemic at Newgate Prison where he was incarcerated for sheltering the Catholic priest William Harrington, who was hanged, drawn and quartered. In about 1597 Donne became an Anglican. His secret marriage in 1601 to Ann More, niece by marriage to his employer , Sir Thomas Egerton , Lord Keeper of the Great Seal , cost him his employment. Until he took Anglican orders in 1615, he was without regular occupation, struggling to survive with a wife and a young family. His poetry contains several references to the Blessed Virgin, some cautious; others more forthright. In his poem Upon the Annunciation and Passion falling upon one day, Donne is venturesome. He writes:

     She ( the speaker's soul ) sees at once the virgin mother stay
    Reclus'd at home, Publique at Golgotha.
    Sad and rejoyc'd shee's seen at once, and seen
    At almost fiftie, and at scarce fifteene.
    At once a Sonne is promis'd her, and gone,
    Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John
    Not fully a mother, Shee's in Orbitie,
    At once receiver and the legacie.
    all this, and all betweene, this day hath showne,
    Th'Abridgement of Christs story, which makes one
    (As in plaine Maps, the furthest West is East )
    Of the Angels 'Ave' and Consummatum est. [It is accomplished)
                                                            ( 11-22 )

This poem was written "on the last day of 1608, as that was counted, i.e. March 25, 1609" 
( Grierson 1985: xli ) . The feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on 25 March; nine months before Christmas Day. When Good Friday falls on the same day, the poet conflates the Annunciation and Good Frday. This is why Donne thinks ( and makes the reader think too) of Mary as, on the one hand, not fully a mother ( 17 ) , since the Annunciation only predicted the birth of Christ, and on the other hand bereft of her Son because the Crucifixion took place on the same day. The leap from one to the other and back again is what initially tinges the poem with enigma. Once this is clarified, it is possible to comprehend Donne's metaphysical conceit that the two events, like the two feastdays, happened together, with no time lapse between Annunciation and Crucifixion, so that, although Mary has not yet had time to become a mother to Christ, He is already dying, giving her as mother to John, the disciple "whom Jesus loved" ( John XIIV:23 ) as a legacie ( 18 ) . In this way Donne creates a scene of confusion - an imagined one - around her, because of the calendar, and describing her as in Orbitie ( 17 ) . Pursuing this ploy of deliberately confusing the reader, the poet further challenges the latter's intellect; aggravating the apparent enigma by his use of strong contrasts, such as Reclus'd . . . Publique ( 12 ) , Sad and rejoyc'd ( 13 ) , at almost fiftie and at scarce fifteene ( 14 ) , promis'd . . . and gone ( 15 ) and receiver and the legacie ( 17 ) . The poem is a more intellectual advance on the mediæval theme of Mary as being simultaneously mother, daughter, wife and sister of God. Like Milton, Donne is showing his intellect but with a difference; Milton's cleverness may be seen as destroying the picture of a real event, while Donne does not pretend to describe a real event ( though he gives us two ) but presents an imagined confusion, which amounts to a sort of wonderment by the speaker's soul at the great roles Mary played, and still plays in his religion.

Donne deals more realistically - certainly more immediately understandably - with the subject of the Blessed Virgin in his poem The Litanie,  1  in which he calls Mary: 

    . . . that faire blessed Mother-maid
    Whose flesh redeem'd us; that she-Cherubin 
    Which unlock'd Paradise, and made
    One claime for innocence, and disseized sin [dispossessed]
                                                       ( 37 - 40 ) 

The reference to the unlocking of Paradise ties up with the Biblical text ( Genesis III: 24 ) which tells of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise :

    And he cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of
    pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way,
    to keep the way of the tree of life.

After audaciously adding that Mary's womb was a strange heav'n, for there/God cloath'd himselfe, and grew. ( 41 - 42 ) , Donne goes a step further in daring and adds; Our zealous thankes we poure. ( 43 ) , and clearly manifests his belief in the intercessional powers of the Blessed Virgin in his concluding lines : 
    . . . As her deeds were
    Our helpes, so are her prayers; nor can she sue
     in vaine, who hath such titles unto you ( God )
                                                     ( 43 - 35 )

Donne's intellect and his metaphoric eloquence are evident in the imagery of the Divine Babe, cloath' (ing) himselfe ( 42 ) in the enclosure of the Blessed Virgin's womb. The poet's legal background - he entered at Lincoln's Inn as a law-student in Mary 1592 ( Grierson 1985 : xiv ) is revealed in the precision and economy of his expression. By representing the Blessed Virgin's powers of intercession as those of an advocate, suing on behalf of his client , while in his own right possessing title ( 45 ) to the judge who occupies the Bench, Donne likewise bears witness to his legal training.

    Salvation to all that will is nigh
    That All which always is All everywhere;
    Which cannot sin, and yet, all sins must bear;
    Which canno die, yet, cannot choose but die - 
    Lo, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie
    In prison in thy womb; and though he there
    Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet, he'll wear
    Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
    Ere, by the spheres time was created, thou
    Wast in his mind - which is thy Son and Brother
    Whom thou conceivest - conceived; yea, thou art now
    Thy Maker's Maker and thy Father's Mother:
    Thou has light in dark, and shut in little room
    Immensitie, cloistered in thy dear womb
                                                    ( 15 - 28 )

Donne's legal precision of expression is manifest in his Marian poem, La Corona, of which Annunciation is the second of seven stanzas, all composed in sonnet form and, but for the introductory one, all comments on events in Christ's life. In Annunciation, Mary is hailed as the faithful Virgin, who was conceived by God and has herself conceived God.

As in some of his other works, effective use is made of contrast in this sonnet, which, like most of Donne's metaphysical poetry, is taxing to the intellect and requires concentration to analyse. Christ, the immortal, dies for sin ( 18 ) , he lies in prison in th (e) womb ( 20 ) , yet created time by the spheres ( 23 ) . Christ, the sinless, suffers for sin ( 21-22 ) . Christ as Creator-God, creating all, including the Blessed Virgin and her role in His Plan, conceives ( 25 ) Mary, though in human terms she conceives Him. Mary, His daughter, becomes His mother ( 26 ) . The darkness of her womb is lit up by Christ's eternal light ( 27 ). The tiny space in her dear womb cloisters immensitie ( 28 ) . The depiction of the Blessed Virgin's womb which houses immensity is a far cry from Watkyns' description of it as being neither soft nor brave.

1 The Litanie - John Donne : Stanza V. The Virgin Mary : For that faire blessed Mother-maid - Grierson 1985 : 309/10

2 Annunciation - John Donne: Holy Sonnets: La Corona - Donne 1985:290

Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation (Part Eight) : Henry Fauna

Henry Fauna ( 1621 - 1695 ) , who greatly admired George Herbert, believed tht the latter's religious writings inspired many to a deeper Christian faith. Though, like his role model, Fauna was a Calvinistic Anglican ( King 1982 : 138 ) , he wrote a poem titled The Knot, 1 which symbolises the Blessed Virgin as the true Loves-knot ( 5 ) by the tying of which 

    God is made our Allie,
    And mans inferior Essence he
    With his did dignifie.
                                     ( 6-8 )

Fauna introduces his poem by hailing Mary as Bright Queen of heaven! Gods Virgin Spouse ( 1 ) ,
a variant on the Latin prayer to Mary known as the Salve Regina ( Hail Holy Queen ) . This kind of appellation had not been used in English Marian poetry since the death throes of the Middle Ages. The light joyousness of the mediæval religious lyrics is recalled in lies which describe Mary as the glad worlds blessed maid! ( 2 ) and sing of her beauty which tyed life to thy house/and brought us saving ayd (3-4). Implied in the rhetorical question contained in the final stanza is a note of warning not to break the bond between mother and Son :

    And such a Knot, what arm dares loose
    What life, what death can sever?
    Which us in him, and him in us
    United keeps for ever.
                                        ( 13-16 )

It is an enigma how any poet sharing the strict Protestant views of the era could have composed a poem in praise of the Blessed Virgin with so light a touch. No harm appears to have come to Fauna as a result of his boldness, for he lived to be one of the "distinguished survivors of the catastrophe" of social conflict and civil wars ( Quennell 1973 : 93 ).

1  The Knot - Henry Fauna : Bright Queen of heaven, God's Virgin Spouse - Nicholson 1924 : 61

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation (Part Seven); Joseph Beaumont

There is a profound simplicity in Joseph Beaumont's ( 1616-1699 ) description of Mary's purification:


    May we have leave to ask, illustrious Mother,
    Why thou dost turtles bring
    for thy Son's offering,
    And rather giv'st not one lamb for another

    It seems that golden shower which th' other day
    The forward faithful East
    Poured at thy feet, made haste
    Through some devout expence to find its way

    O precious poverty, which canst appear
    Richer to holy eyes
    Than any golden prize
    And sweeter art than frankincense and myrrh
                                                     ( 1-12 )

Striking is the imagery contained in the poet's query: (Why) rather giv'st (thou) not one lamb for another ( 4 ) . The Biblical depiction of Christ as the voiceless Lamb of God who uttered no sound as he was being sacrificed for the sins of mankind ties up with the presentation of a lamb at the temple when the new mother was being purified after her confinement. The poor instead gave two turtle doves. In subsequent stanzas the poet explores the symbolism of the birds: the silver which they wear upon their wings ( 14)  will render the Son pure and fair, the Eternal Dove ( 18 ) , the Holy Spirit, will come Down from his nest above ( 19 ) and settle on Christ's dear head ( 20 ) . 

Extending the lamb metaphor, Beaumont directs his musings to Christ's sacrifice : 

    Heaven will not have Him ransomed, heaven's law
    Makes no exception
    For lambs, and such a one
    Is He: a fairer Lamb heaven never saw 
                                                         ( 21-24 )

He pursues the theme of lambs and turtle doves for the world's ransom until the final stanza, in which he resolves the enigma of the need for the sinless Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world in a quatrain in which he gives an explanation which is unique in Marian poetry, since it points out that Christ even secured His mother's safe passage to Heaven.

    A dear and full redemption wil He give
    Thee and the world: this Son,
    and none but this alone
    By His own death can make His Mother live.
                                                          ( 37-40 )

1 The Purification of the Blessed Virgin : May we have leave to ask, illustrious Mother - 
Joseph Beaumont - Thérèse 1947 : 144

Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation (Part Six); Richard Crashaw

The powerful imagery in the poem An Hymne of the Nativity by Richard Crashaw ( 1613?-1649 ) is alive and evocative. A Puritan, Crashaw converted to Catholicism and became secretary to an Italian cardinal. Though he lived to be disappointed by "the wickedness of Rome itself and by the iniquities he detected in his master's own entourage" ( Quennell 1973:133 ) , his disenchantment with Catholics, unlike that of the Reformers, did not extend to the tenets of their doctrine, as his poetry in praise of the Blessed Virgin demonstrates. He conjures up a tranquil picture of celestial peace in the rough stable where Christ was nourished by his mother with 

    . . . two-sister-seas of Virgin-Milk
    with many a rarely-temper'd kiss
    that breathes at once both maid and mother
    warms in the one, cools in the other.
                                      ( 87-90 )

Thus he movingly pictures the passionate tenderness of the young mother who, as she passes her on from one breast to the other, rains kisses on Christ's fave, providing her infant with emotional bonding while dispensing the life-giving nourishment of her mother's milk. By drawing attention to Mary's emotional as well as physical succour of her Son, Crashaw reveals her contribution to Christ's total wellbeing in a way which erases Milton's apathetic picture of her as a passive wetnurse.

Crashaw's poem On the Assumption must surely rank as one of the seventeenth century's foremost praise poems to the Virgin Mary, proclaiming as it does Mary's bodily and spiritual entry into heaven in ringing tones, with distinct overtones of bridal splendour, expressed in images from The Song of Songs : 


    Hark! she is call'd, the parting houre is come.
    Take thy Farewell, poore world! heav'n must goe home
    A peece of Heav'nly Earth; purer and brighter
    than the chast stars, whose choice lamps come to light her
    While through the Christall orbes, clearer than they
    She climbes; and makes a farre more milky way.
    She's called. Harke how the dear imortall Dove
    Sighes to his silver mate. Rise up, my Love,
    Rise up my faire, my spotlesse one,
    The winters past, the Rain is gone:
    the spring is come, the Flow'rs appeare,
    No sweets but thou are wanting here.
    Come away, my love,
    Come away, my dove,
    Cast off delay:
    The Court of heav'n is come,
    To waite upon thee home;
                                              ( 1-17 )

According to Cousins ( 1991: 151 )  these lines imply that Crashaw "interprets the Assumption as a celebration of Mary's unique role in the redemptive pattern of history". 

The poet contrasts the impoverishment of the poore world ( 2 ) at Mary's departure with the enrichment of heaven by her arrival. He describes her journey in measured, dignified stages - there is no time pressure, no flight into Egypt, but the glorious return body and soul of the created being to the Creator Whom she bore. Thus the choice lamps of the chast stars ( 4 ) light her way while she rises through the Christall orbes (5), which could refer to the Eyes of Christ watching her progress from Heaven but whose literal meaning is
"the concentric hollow spheres supposed to surround the earth and carry the planets and stars with them in their revolution" ( Martz 1963 : 314 ) . The poet's use of quotations from the Song of Songs, surely one of the most glorious elements of the Old Testament, raises the expectancy to fever pitch at the thought of the splendid reunion about to take place between Mary and her Son. 

This poem has something in common with George Herbert's Ana- ( Mary/Army ) gram. Though the economy of words ( eighteen in all ) in the couplet contrasts with Crashaw's composition, it has a similarly splendid Old Testament ring.

Herbert's anagram could be cited as a classic example of the poet as a person who has the ability to evoke a response from the human heart by his handling of words, as we have seen. In similar manner, Crashaw finishes the saga of Mary's earthly life by superimposing the beauty of her soul upon her body and describing her departure into orbit to her heavenly destination with Biblical grandeur.

Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation (Part Five): John Milton

The chaos in the politically and religiously unstable England of the seventeenth century was reflected in its lack of Marian poetry. The poets of the era, a number of whom had been born during Elizabeth's reign, remembered the lesson learnt during the preceding century: if they valued their lives and liberty they must needs be circumspect in their writings about issues which might be interpreted as being Catholic-orientated. Hence they wrote with caution and in much of the surviving poetry of the era, praise of Mary is often under-stated. Even when writing about Christ's Nativity, the poets generally left out any reference to the Blessed Virgin or trod gingerly when writing about her.

Rowland Watkyns' couplet; Upon Christ's Nativity or Christmas, written in 1662, tersely states:

    Christ had four beds, and those not soft, nor brave,
    The Virgin's womb, the manger, cross and grave.

By equating the gentle protection of the Blessed Virgin's womb with the coarse hay within the manger, the agonising cross and the cold sterility of the claustrophobic tomb, the poet leaves the sense of his lines open to connotation. The womb is in fact soft; the connotation of brave, whether noble or courageous, is left open to interpretation: from the Christian perspective today the cross is most noble, even if the secular perspective of first-century Romans may have been that it was shameful.

When John Milton (1608-1674) mentions the Blessed Virgin in his poetry, he is so circumspect that he succeeds in creating the mother as a negative personality, a voiceless backdrop to Christ's Birth, instead of a woman of vitality with a prominent and God-given role in bringing forth One Who is God's Son and hers also.

Milton introduces his poem: On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,  1 composed in 1629, with a verse in which but a single line describes the Blessed Virgin, when he writes that Christ was of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born (3). He proceeds to lavish two stanzas on Nature and the winter snow which cast a Saintly Vail of Maiden white (42) over the earth to hide its foul deformities (44) from her Maker's eyes (44). On the auspicious occasion of Christ's nativity it seems inconsistent to sing the praises of the virgin snow while failing to do the same for the virgin mother. If Milton intends to make use of the snow imagery as a symbol of Mary's virginity, the matter of the foul deformities (44) to which he refers needs to be resolved, for the fact that there were no such distortions in Mary's character may be inferred from the Archangel Gabriel's greeting to her in the Biblical words:

    Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee : blessed are
    thou among women . . . Fear not, Mary, for thou has found
    grace with God 
                                                             ( Luke 1 : 28-30 ) .

In his poem, Milton describes Astaroth or Astarte, the Semitic goddess of fertility sometimes regarded as a moon goddess ( Martz 1963 : 260 ) as Heav'ns Queen and Mother both, emphasising the inconsistent viewpoint of his era which regarded as idolatrous the fact that such titles were traditionally and/or doctrinally applied to the Blessed Virgin, yet saw no harm in bestowing them on pagan goddesses.

Faint praise of Mary is sounded in the final stanza, where the poet writes : 
    But see the Virgin blest
    hath laid her Babe to rest
                              ( 237-238 )

Having thus timorously conceded that indeed Mary is blessed, Milton hastily continues : Time is our tedious Song should here have ending ( 239 ) . If the poet himself regards his composition as tedious, who is the reader to disagree? However, the fact that he manages to render boring a topic ablaze with literary and religious possibilities is proof that a poet who writes on the Birth of Christ cannot capture his readers' interest by playing down the actual event and ignoring the personae involved in favour of astral bodies.

This assertion may be thought to lack perspective, in the light of Bruce Kin's ( 1982 : 161-162 ) laudatory critique of On the Morning of Christs Nativity, which he hails as 

    .. . one of the greatest English odes ( using the ) soaring,
    diving, here-and-there movement of the Pindaric ode to shift
    the focus from the Christ child to the Incarnation of the
    Redeemer of fallen man and nature, and to set His birth
    within the vast perspectives of human and eternal history 
    . . . along with ideas which centuries of Christian
    scholarship had evolved to harmonise pagan with Christian
    history and myth, into a comprehensive cosmological view.

Nevertheless, it is suggested that is God, Who created the universe, had desired a broad canvas for the Birth of the Christ Child, He would not have limited the setting of His Son's arrival to the rough, malodorous interior of  a stable, nor chosen for characters a teenage girl, a baffled carpenter, a band of rough shepherds and a triumvirate of wise men. It is the inspired simplicity of the nativity scene that causes Christian hearts to lift at its commemoration and it was in reducing the issues pertaining to the cosmos by becoming an Infant in poor circumstances that Christ established Himself as the focal point in the life of Everyman. Milton's poem, however cleverly comprehensive, lacks an essential quality of child-like wonderment. The mediæval poets were always impressed in wonderment at the truths of faith. By allowing his academic powers to overshadow the sensitivity of his intellect, Milton (and others like him) rendered himself incapable of sharing that wonderment or of conveying it in a genuine manner to his reader and resorted to an ostentation which, for all its superficial brilliance, lacks genuine substance.

That John Milton lived long enough to gain a far deeper comprehension of the Blessed Virgin's prominence in the life of her Son is evident in Paradise Regained, published in 1671, forty-two years after the publication of On the Morning of Christ's Nativity and three years before his death.


    But to his mother Mary, when she saw                                                                                  60
    Others returned from baptism, not her Son
    Nor left at Jordan tidings of him none,
    Within her breast though calm, her breast though pure,
    Motherly cares and fears got head and raised
    Some troubled thoughts, which she in sighs thus clad: -
    'Oh what avails me now that honour high,
    To have conceived of God, or that salute,
    "Hail, highly favoured, among women blest!"
    While I to sorrows am no less advanced,
    And fears as eminent above the lot                                                                                         70
    Of other women, by the birth I bore:
    In such a season born, when scarce a shed
    Could be obtained to shelter him or me
    From the bleak air? A stable was our warmth,
    A manger him; yet soon enforced to fly
    Then into Egypt till the murderous king
    Were dead, who sought his life, and, missing, filled
    With infant blood the streets of Bethlehem.
    From Egypt home returned, in Nazareth
    Hath been our dwelling many years; his life                                                                            80
    Private, unactive, calm, contemplative,
    Little suspicious to any king. But now,
    Full grown to man, acknowledged, as I hear
    By John the Baptist, and in public shown,
    Son owned from heaven by his Father's voice,
    I looked for some great change. To honour? no;
    But trouble, as old Simeon plain foretold,
    That to the fall and rising he should be
    Of many in Israel, and to a sign
    Spoken against - that through my very soul                                                                             90
    A sword shall pierce. This is my favoured lot,
    My exaltation to afflictions high!
    Afflicted I may be, it seems, and blest!
    I will not argue that, nor will repine.
    But where delays he now? Some great intent
    Conceals him. When twelve years he scarce had seen,
    I lost him, but so found as well I saw 
    He could not lose himself, but went about
    His Father's business. What he meant I mused - 
    Since understand; much more his absence now                                                                       100
    Thus long to some great purpose he obscures.
    But I to wait with patience am inured;
    My heart hath been a storehouse long of things
    And saying laid up, portending strange events. ' 
       Thus Mary, pondering oft, and oft to mind
    Recalling what remarkably had passed
    Since first her salutation heard, with thoughts
    Meekly composed awaited the fulfilling.
                                                             ( 60-108 )

Whereas the poet devotes more space to the Blessed Virgin in the later poem, however, there is no suggestion of honour to Mary in her own right. The entire passage from Paradise Regained (Book II lines 60-108 ) , is a historical treatise of her involvement with her Son until the time he launched into his public life, after being baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist ( Matthew III-13-17 ) , in which hardly anything is said about Christ's mother herself. Nevertheless there is a slight thawing in the poet's attitude in Mary's regard, particularly discernible in his depiction of her maternal concern in the introductory six lines, his acknowledgement of her overriding motherly fears for her Son as she tells His History in the main body of the poem and finally the description of her as meekly composed ( 109 ) . What emerges above all is Milton's empathy with Mary's sorrows, born from the wisdom that accompanied his old age and his infirmity, and the poet's recognition of the fact that Mary herself is totally indifferent to any splendour implied by the prominence she has been given by God, and which she values only because it brought her Christ for her Son. Despite this maturity of understanding and wisdom and his touching empathy with a fellow human being's sufferings, Milton's Puritan instincts nevertheless preclude his engaging in any form of hyperdulia.

Dr Luky Whittle

 1 On the morning of Christ's Nativity: This is the month and this is the happy morn - John Milton - Martz 1963:251

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation [Part Four]

One of the many sonneteers of the Elizabethan era, the Catholic poet Henry Constable (1562-1613), in an eloquent and sonorous sonnet praises the Blessed Virgin by making specific mention of her relation to each of the three members of the Trinity.


    In that, O Queen of queens, thy birth was free
    from guilt, which others doth of grace bereave
    When in their mother's womb they life receive,
    God as his sole-born daughter loved thee.
    To match thee like thy birth's nobility,
    He thee his Spirit for thy spouse did leave,
    Of Whom thou didst his only Son conceive,
    and so was link'd to all the Trinity.
    Cease then, O queens, who earthly crowns do wear
    To glory in the pomp of worldly things!
    If men such high respect unto you bear,
    Which daughters wives and mothers are of kings,
    What honour should unto that Queen be done,
    Who had your God for father, spouse and son?

The poet painstakingly builds up a strong religious argument in defence of the devotion to the Blessed Virgin, culminating in a rhetorical question which leaves the reader in no doubt as to his personal fidelity in Mary's regard. The sonnet concludes with an extended rhetorical question of four lines, in which the poet expressed his pro-Marian sentiment and juxtaposes the Blessed Virgin as Queen of Heaven with queens who earthly crowns do wear (9).

In his poem titled The Ghyrlond of the Blessed Virgin Marie, Ben Jonson (1573-1637) takes the five letters of the Blessed Virgin's name as it is spelled by the French, Marie, to weave a garland in honour of the Daughter, Mother, Spouse of God (56) : The M. the Myrtle, A. the Almonds clame,/R.Rose, I.Ivy, Sweet Eglantine (3-4). Of these, myrtle forms the base as Love, here studies to keep Grace alive (8). The Almond bloom is used to knit thy Crowne, and glorifie the rest (12). The Rose with its fragrance is used to top the fairest Lillie, now, that growes/with wonder on the thorny regiment (15-16). Humble Ivy (17) is but a basic component of the crown, yet no faith's more firme, or flat, then where't doth creep (20). Eglantine/which of the field is clep'd [called] the sweetest brier (21-22) completes the garland. They embody the three cardinal virtues, Love and Hope, and burning Charities/(Divinest graces) (29-30) and also Mary's Trinity in Union met (36) (of which Dante Gabriel Rossetti will make mention in the Marian poetry of the nineteenth century) : Daughter, and Mother and the Spouse of God/Alike of kin, to that most blessed Trine/of Persons, yet in Union (One) divine (37-39). Jonson's reverence for Mary is second only to his devotion to the Blessed Trinity and it is the threefold relationship she shares with God which accounts for her glory in his sight. Whether the work has any great literary merit, is debatable. This poem, of which even today many variations in honour of mothers and a variety of virtues survive, is memorable rather for its devout intention than for the poet's mastery of any literary technique.

The seventeenth century is a turbulent chapter in English history, fraught with civil wars. While the poet Thomas Traherne (1636?-1674) in his poem Christendom wrote: . . .

    . . . holy children, maids and men  
    make up the King of Glory's diadem

the people of his time continued to believe as in the sixteenth century in the use of torture and the death penalty for individuals practising a Christian belief not in conformity with that of the prevailing mores of the country at the time. 

When the unwed Queen Elizabeth I died without issue in 1603:

    . . . (T)he 'classical' will of the wisp was still being 
    fitfully pursued. The heyday of Elizabethan son passed
    with Gloriana herself. The closing decade of her reign was 
    a time of deep disturbance and even of apprehension (and was
    followed by the arrival of) poets in whom a graver note
    (was) heard.
                                                                   Sampson 1970:159

James, I, who succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne, was the son of Lord Darnley and his wife Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart, who was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, wife of James IV of Scotland and sister of Henry VII and thus next in succession to the English throne after Henry VIII and his children (Barnhart 1956:743). King James I's father, who was distantly related to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been strangled in 1567. His mother in her turn was beheaded in 1587 on being declared guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth I. James was succeeded upon his death by his son, Charles I of England, who became embroiled in political strife and was executed at Whitehall. In January 1651 Charles II was crowned at Scone. In September of that year he was defeated by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who was proclaimed England's Lord High Protector in 1653 and ruled England until his death in 1658.

The restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 marked an end to the civil wars and a new era for literature and the theatre. Charles ruled until 1685 when he died and was succeeded by his son James II, a convert to Catholicism who planned to make himself an absolute monarch and restore the Roman Catholic Church in England. In 1688 the latter's son-in-law, William of Orange, arrived in England at the invitation of a group of noblemen and churchmen. William and his wife Mary ruled England from 1689 to 1702.

Dr Luky Whittle

Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation [Part 3] Robert Southwell

The oft-repeated Eva/Ave theme is employed in The Virgins Salutation, whose first stanza reads as follows:

    Spell Eva backe and Ave shall you finde
    the first began, the last reverst our harms
    an Angels witching worded did Eva blinde
    an Angels Ave disinchants the charmes,
    Death first by womans weakenes entred in,
    In womans vertue life doth now begin.

Southwell juxtaposes two angels, one of darkness whose witching words (3) blind Eve with its charmes (4), and one of light who disinchants (4) these. The alliteration womans weakenes (5) ties up with that of witching words (3) by gathering all that is negative in woman in this stanza under the first letter of her name. By picturing the angel of light as one who disinchants the charmes (4), the poet by implication contrasts these with the enchantment and charms of Mary whose vertue (6) has revitalised womankind.

In The Visitation the poet describes the Blessed Virgin as to be proclaimed Queene and mother of a God (1), who in her humility scorns pomp and ceremony and who, although a prince she is, and mightier prince doth beare (7) has remained humble enough to hasten to the bedside of an ageing cousin. In substituting prince for a more feminine appelation, the poet manages to strengthen the connotation, as the princes of his period would have led armies to military victory, whereas the princess of the same era would have performed a more passive role. Once again, Southwell's genius for juxtaposing the divinity and humanity of Christ comes to the fore in an arresting concluding couplet:

    With secret signes the children greet each other,
    But open praise each leaveth to his mother.

In The Nativitie of Christ, Southwell provides an exquisitely conceived metaphor to ilustrate the father/daughter/spouse theme:

    Behold the father is his daughters sonne
    the bird that built the nest, is hatched therein.

Rather than intrude on the deity by a more straightforward approach, the poet borrows from creation the image of the self-sufficient bird family, one of nature's species on which a caring father as well as a mother has been lavished, presenting the perfectly balanced imagery of the tightly-knit, mutually dependent and supportive bird family of father, mother and newly-hatched young, to represent the mystery of Christ's dependence upon the Blessed Virgin.

In The death of our Ladie, the poet describes the hollow emptiness left in Christian hearts when Mary renders mankind an orphan (4), though it was no death to her but to her woe (7). The end of Mary's life on earth terminates only her spiritual anguish, in terms of Catholic teaching that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven on the grounds that, being without sin, she, unlike the rest of humanity, is not subject to death. Like its fellows, this lyric is as much a doctrine lesson as a poetic exercise.

Dr Luky Whittle

Edited by Catherine Nicolette

Marian Poetry in England in the Transition Period During and After the Reformation [Part 2] Robert Southwell

Photograph by Lumiere Volunteer, Britain; volunteer copyright

In 1561, English Catholics set up a college, called the Catholic Mission at Douai, France. Here priests were trained to mission in England. In this climate of fear of religious persecution, the best of what little Marian poetry appears to have survived from the era was composed by one who was tortured thirteen times before being hanged and quartered at Tyburn in 1595. He was the Douai-trained Jesuit priest Robert Southwell (1561-1595) whom Sampson (1970:160) calls "the only poet of the age (who was) in essence a religious poet" and who used the poetic and metrical fashions of his era as well as earthy language in order to express his spiritual beliefs.

Two strong features marking Southwell's Marian poetry are his ability to encapsulate great ideas in a few simple words and his use of juxtaposition, contrasting the human virtues of simplicity, courtesy, humility and realism with spirituality in his very human depiction of the Blessed Virgin. Practicality mixed with tender humous is the keynote of his poem New Heaven, New Warre, where he addresses the heavenly chorus of angels, as he speaks of the Baby's hunger, saying to Raphael:

    Come Raphaell, this Babe must eate,
    Provide our little Tobie meate. 

He describes the Baby's feeding at His mother's breast in realistic, almost earthy terms:

    the same you saw in heavenly seate
    is he that now sucks Maries teate. 

There is a truth contained in the simple couplet: that, in His zeal for the redemption of humanity, the King of Heaven was prepared to undergo the full human experience from birth to grave. It is Southwell's talent to use an immediate reality to reflect a supernatural truth. "This attempt to express the eternal through the imagery of the temporal", writes Sansom (17) :160), "is not repugnant to the practice of his Church, which has always sanctioned material representations of the immaterial." 

While counselling his reader not to waigh Christ's mother's poore attire (15) in the poem New Prince, new pompe, Southwell, expressing himself colloquially, by implication contrasts Mary's earthly poerty with the ternal abundance lavished on her.

In his poem The Virgine Maries conception, the poet affirms the Catholic Church's teaching on the Immaculate Conception - widely accepted by Catholics of his time though it only became a point of dogma in the nineteenth century. In the first line of this delicate extended metaphor, Southwell explains the conception of Mary in the words: Our second Eve puts on her mortall shroude (1). Contrast is put to striking effect in the words: 

    Her being now beings, who ere she end,
    shall bring the good that shall our ill amend 

Mary's conception in the womb of her own mother marks the preparation for the coming of the Messiah, as it marks the time when earth breeds a heaven, for Gods new dwelling place (2). This conception has taken place in the normal way: Of man and wife this babe was bred in grace (18). However, Grace (God) and Nature (humanity) . . . die their force unite/to make this babe the summe of all their best (7/8). Christ will be the product of the fusion of God and humanity and Mary is the being God will use to achieve this fusion. She has to be conceived without sin four only weights bred without fault are namde (13). In this context, the word weights could be taken as a pun on wights (creatures). 
Thoug Mary was weighed and not found wanting by God, Southwell could here be ointing out that she was at the same time a wight, and as such entirely dependent on the power of God. Lest the joint doctrines of Mary's virginal motherhood and the Immaculate Conception should still be considered obscure, the poet dismisses any lingering doubts concerning them in a decisive concluding couplet which, like the closure of the sonnet, endeavours to sum up succinctly the point he has striven to make in his preamble:

    Wife without touch of man Christs mother was
    Of man and wife this babe was bred in grace.

In Her Nativity, Southwell employs the imagery of the heavenly bodies of stars and sun to denote the birth of the woman who in turn will give birth to the Light, of whom the Evangelist John will write: "God is light, in Him there is no darkness" (1:5). The poet equates Mary's confinement in the womb as a preparation for her own birth and that of her Son in turn with joy in

    . . . the rising of our Orient starre
    that shal bring forth the Sunne that lent her light.

She will bring peace when giving birth to Christ, the Prince of Peace, and soone rebate (dull_ the edge of Sathans spight (4). Another explanation for the use of rebate and spight in this instance could be the idea of paying back. Satan's "spite" in corrupting Adam and Eve will be paid back by Christ - evil being trumped by good. In the same poem Southwell continues the metaphor of Elias little cloude first used by him to describe Mary in The Virgine Maries Conception. He states that the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament were the flowers culled and distilled by time into the little cloud as showers 

    whose gratuitous drops the world with joy shall fill,
    whose moisture suppleth every soule with grace

and in so doing revivifies the dying race of Adam. Suppleth can be seen not only as an expression for "supplies" but likewise for "making supple" or rendering pliant man's obdurate soul. Metaphors aboud in his descriptions of Mary as God's royall throne (13) on earth, the cloth from which His Mortal Body is to be cut and the quarry from which Christ, the Cornerstone, will be cut. Though mary's body is a fruitful soul, it is free from mortall seede (16) so that her virginal integrity is not broken by her conception of the Son of God. Like The Virgin Maries Conception, the poem concludes with an encapsulating couplet:

    For heavenly flowre shee is the Jesse rod,
    The child of man, the parent of a God.

Dr Luky Whittle

Edited by Catherine Nicolette