Posts Tagged ‘Holy Sonnets’

On 31 October, 1517

October 13, 2017

All sorts of things have been reminding me of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther‘s 95 theses, whether or not these were actually nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Having a Catholic school education in England in the 1960s was an interesting experience, as there was still some of the feeling of being a member of a persecuted minority in the air; we were presented with a sketchy outline of the split in the Church as part of history lessons at primary school. Moving to a secondary school where the Anglican Church was the norm and saw itself as continuous with the church brought to England by Augustine at the end of the sixth century, I was offered an account of events from an opposite perspective, together with no small amount of mockery of Catholic beliefs and practices. Then I moved to a Catholic secondary school and got everything in more detail from the ‘right’ perspective again…

I suppose those experiences were useful in terms of teaching me about different viewpoints; they certainly got me interested in what could have caused such major ructions at the heart of Christianity. I’m still learning, and there’s an excellent explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this week’s edition of The Tablet.

My travels have taught me how different the Reformation was in Germany compared with England; in Germany there seems to have been much more of a continuation than a violent rupture; no mass iconoclasm such as destroyed so many cultural riches in England. I continue to be appalled by the vandalism and wanton destruction of Henry VIII’s reign.

There are three writers who I’ve found very helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the religious issues and historical events. One is a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1950s, Philip Hughes, who wrote a short volume on the Reformation in general, and a second, monumental tome, The Reformation in England, which details the demolition of Catholic England.

Then there is Eamon Duffy, who has written works of socio-religious history which trace the actual effects of the English Reformation on its people in two detailed and astonishingly well-researched books, The Stripping of the Altars, and The Voices of Morebath. This second volume looks at the changes as they affected on small rural community over the years between the first breach with Rome and the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose hefty tome Reformation came out in 2003, and which I have decided to revisit as we come up to that symbolic 500th anniversary. I’ll write more about his book when I’ve finished it.

And then, I cannot forget some of the literature which uses the Reformation as its starting-point. Kingsley Amis‘ novel The Alteration posits the Reformation never having happened in England and focuses on the moral horror of a young boy who is due to be castrated to preserve his voice for use by the Church. And Keith RobertsPavane, a far better novel for my money, is set in a world where the Reformation also didn’t happen, along with various other events consequent upon it…

A curious novel – Q – was published a decade or so, apparently written by an Italian collective who presented themselves as one Luther Blissett. It focuses on the social upheavals in Europe during the early years of the Reformation particularly the Anabaptists and the events in Munster, along with the early efforts of Rome to thwart what was going on.

Finally, I can’t overlook the astonishing religious poetry of my favourite poet, John Donne, a man genuinely torn by the religious strife in England and the theological controversies – although he ultimately knew which side his bread was buttered on. He brings to his Holy Sonnets and other poems the same ardour he brought to his sexual conquests and fantasies in his love lyrics, before he ‘saw the light’, took holy orders in the Church of England and went on to become Dean of St Paul’s and a man whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Not much likelihood of similar fervour nowadays.

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Poetry: my choices

January 6, 2015

I looked at my shelves to see what poetry I have collected over the years, apart from the usual anthologies. Chaucer is there, representing for me the time when a recognisable English begins to flower into poetry, now deemed too difficult for our sixth form students, by and large. Shakespeare, obviously, though as I’ve opined elsewhere in these pages, it’s his dramatic rather than his lyric poetry that moves me most, and the lyrics of the metaphysical poets shine out most strongly to me from that time period – Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan. After that, there is a huge gap until the twentieth century, where I have been enchanted by Eliot, Cummings, Larkin and others… so I will not claim any kind of comprehensive knowledge or appreciation of poetry: it’s what I like and what speaks to me.

Poetry used to be narrative; Milton has always astonished me, and I’ve always been conscious of being in a very small minority here. Paradise Lost works best when read aloud – Anton Lesser’s stunning account on Naxos Audiobooks is highly recommended. Sounds, words, rhyme and rhythm, all the other poetic devices come alive in their full glory, as does Milton’s inventiveness with the language, rivalling Shakespeare’s.

Poetry has always been associated with love and passion; for sheer verve I’ll take The Sunne Rising or The Flea, by Donne, or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris, for tenderness Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning is hard to beat. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are very clever. As I taught Love Through The Ages as a unit in the sixth form I came to know and like much twentieth century love poetry for its honesty, frankness, passion and eroticism, its attempts to break out of the old and often rather sexist conventions.

The other side of that coin for me has always been religious poetry, with feelings running as deep, and  just as unfathomable. Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Herbert’s The Temple are obvious, but Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach speaks to a more modern age, an age of doubt and questioning, as does Larkin’s Church Going, which is probably my favourite, working on so many levels, very clever but beautifully understated…

I’ve written earlier about war poetry, portraying the unspeakable, and sometimes I have been struck by other, more ephemeral verse, about nature, natural beauty, different ways of seeing things. And this, for me, is poetry’s value and achievement: briefly I share someone else’s view of something, I stop and contemplate and wonder and am entranced…

Poetry: John Donne

December 20, 2014

If asked, he’s my all-time favourite poet, for his wit, mainly, and the astonishing range of his poetry, from the passionate love lyrics of his early days to the deeply religious poems by the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Sadly, I had fewer opportunities to teach his poetry than I’d have liked, because, to quote an examination board official, “he’s too difficult for today’s students”. Whilst that comment had me seething, there is some truth in it as I recall being observed by a headteacher early in my career who was somewhat astonished at my ability to deliver a crash-course in basic theology to sixth-formers… o tempora, o mores…

Donne wrote in those far-off days when any educated man could turn out a decent poem for an occasion or to a lover, in English certainly and perhaps in Latin or Greek, too. I’ve come to feel, over the years, that Donne surpasses Shakespeare as a poet (of verse, not of drama, obviously) in the breadth of his achievement and the astonishing versatility of his language. Yes, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, but Donne wrote a wide range of different lyrics. Shakespeare is in some ways more polished, Donne rougher but livelier too, and more sparkling.

There is the spectacular (sexual) energy via the direct address in such poems as The Sunne Rising and The Flea – who could imagine a lover lecturing his mistress on an insect, as a way of persuading her into bed? There is the real tenderness of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which shades delicately into a hint of sexuality at the end. And contrast the verse structures of these three poems! And then jealousy: the woman spooked in The Apparition

When it came to religion, there is the genuine doubt which sprang from an age of religious turmoil, the yearning for God, and the love for Him. The Holy Sonnets may perhaps be more sober than the love lyrics, but there is still the atonishing boldness of the direct address in Death Be Not Proud and the sexual violence of Batter My Heart. And then, the tenderness, the quietness of the Hymn To God The Father, with the subtle wit in playing with his wife’s name.

Donne wrote in the days when so many writers – perhaps Shakespeare most of all – were doing amazing things as they experimented with the versatility of the developing English language; Donne works in many examples of wit, learning, puns, metaphors and conceits to astonish his readers. His life speaks through his verse: from the would-be courtier, the lover whose real love and unconventional marriage cost him advancement to the Anglican priest searching for God and faith in such troubled times: for me the poet par excellence from the most energetic age of English literature.

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