Recusant Literature

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Though technically the term "recusant" applied to all who, contrary to the Act of Uniformity of 1559, refused to attend Anglican services (see recusants), recusant literature is a convenient term covering religious works by English Catholics in penal times. This literature stems from the late medieval and early Tudor religious writers, but increasingly reflects contemporary trends, particularly in Italian and Spanish devotional works, thus acting as a medium for their transmission to the main body of English literature. The highest point in quality and quantity of recusant literature was the late Elizabethan period, when such writings shared in the general richness and variety characteristic of the age and responded with a frequency and force to match the intensity of persecution and controversy. Then came a gradual decline common to all religious writing, the nadir being reached in the 18th century; and it did not receive a fresh impetus until after the Emancipation Act of 1829, the indirect effect of the oxford movement, and the general Catholic revival. This falling off was mainly the result of Catholics' becoming an underprivileged minority with a weakening cultural tradition and few educational opportunities; and while those who were exiles could obtain a thorough academic training, they tended to lose touch with English thought and idiom. Thus, some of the best writers were converts (permanent or otherwise), such as William Alabaster (15671640), Richard Crashaw, and John Dryden, and it was on converts that the literary movement of the "second spring" was mainly dependent.

Publishing Difficulties. In assessing the achievements of recusant writers, it should be remembered that until well into the 17th century a large number of their works were composed in Latin, or if expressly aimed at Continental readers, in one of the European languages. Further, the imperfections sometimes found in their compositions may be attributable not to lack of ability but to necessary haste or the adverse conditions under which most recusant books were printed. Analysis is further complicated because many works are anonymous (mainly for reasons of security) or of composite authorship.

Despite the difficulties in publishing recusant works in the early period owing to lack of funds and the rigorous legislation of the English government, more than 250 books in English alone were printed during the reign of Elizabeth I, some on secret presses at home, but most of them abroad, especially in France and the Low Countries, generally by foreign printers, though sometimes under English supervision. They were then dispatched to the main centers of English Catholic life on the Continent and smuggled into England. Distribution was fairly successful, important polemic and devotional works being eagerly sought after by Protestants as well.

The leading English Catholics, especially Cardinal William allen, Thomas stapleton, and Gregory martin, were acutely aware of the value of the written word as a weapon of Catholic action and were themselves among the chief and most successful writers. The Jesuits, however, explored the different fields with the greatest concentration and effect, the foremost being Robert persons, Robert southwell, Henry garnet, and Edmund campion.

Prose Writings. Recusant prose grew and withered with its counterparts in other fields of English. Basically, it derived many of its characteristics from Thomas more: its fullness of vocabulary, its relatively plain style, some of its graphic description, its cogency and occasional sleight of hand in argument; but it lacked More's deep sense of humor, and at best rose only to a blatant irony in polemic. For all its virtues, it cannot be claimed as the only true mainstream of English prose between More and Dryden (J. S. Philimore's theory, Dublin Review, 1913, which held currency until very recently), nor can More be accorded the sole paternity of modern English [as R.W. Chambers implied in The Place of St. Thomas More in English Literature and History (London 1937) and in On the Continuity of English Prose (London 1932)].

Early Apologetic Prose. The early phase of recusant prose, mainly apologetic in scope, is characterized by the Louvain group of theologians, chief among them being Thomas Harding, John rastell, Thomas Stapleton, and Nicholas sander, all of whom participated in the "Great Controversy," a 64-book saga occasioned by Bishop John jewel's "Challenge Sermon" of 1559. They all show great intellectual power and scholarship in a style that is formal, lucid, and relatively simple, with a tendency to balanced sentences and syllogisms, especially in the work of Harding, the most distinguished of the group, whom the poet Gabriel Harvey praised as a "thunder and lightning orator in divinity." By the 1580s prose style became infinitely more varied, animated, and vigorous, losing much of its academic rigor in its calculated appeal to the general reader. In the best writers, especially Persons and Southwell, there was a successful blend of native and classical elements in language, syntax, and allusion, but subject matter was never buried by excessive euphuism. The new vigorousness of style resulted partly from a more conversational if not colloquial diction, but it was reinforced also by a vehemence of fury in the face of political and religious oppression. At best, as in Southwell's Humble Supplication (1595), this style has an overpowering cogency, but it can degenerate into a torrent of invective in which no adjective is too base for inclusion, as sometimes happened in the controversies between the secular clergy and the Jesuits, especially in the pamphlets of Antony Copley (see archpriest controversy; blackwell, george).

Marked contrasts in this period are to be found not only between, for example, the almost frigidly formal style of Garnet and the vigorous, though rhythmically harsh writing of Campion, but also within a single writer, who might follow a quietly eloquent preface to the "Catholic reader" with an intemperate tirade against the object of his particular aversion. Perhaps the most marked contrasts are to be found in the works of Cardinal Allen, if one compares the graceful and controlled True, Sincere and Modest Defence (1584) with the violent Admonition to the Nobility and People of England (1588). Persons towers above the rest as the most prolific and versatile writer, equally at home in polemic and devotional writing, and, though he lacks geniality, he has many other gifts: clarity, flexibility, conversational ease, and a time-lessness justly praised by Swift [Tatler, No. 230 (1710)].

The Rheims New Testament and Devotional Writing. The great achievement of the early period was the Rheims translation of the New Testament (1582) effected mainly by Gregory Martin, and followed by the complete Bible in 1609. Despite its numerous unnatural Latinisms, which resulted from following the Vulgate too literally, it has a fine feeling for phrases and cadences, and was used as a source for nearly 3,000 readings in the Authorized Version (1611).

Whereas until the New Testament was published writers were fully engaged in burning controversies on the origins of the Church in England, the political position of Catholics, the persecution of missionary priests and similar issues, devotional works now made their appearance and soon dominated and renewed the life of recusant prose, while controversial works began to lose their directness and relevance and became clumsy and desiccated in style; there were a few notable exceptions, such as the graceful and penetrating works of Edmund Lechmere (d. c. 1640). The two main types of devotional literature were: first, translations of new and traditional prayers and meditations, including the popular Manual compiled by George Flinton (1583), the Jesus Psalter (1575), and the Primer or Office of the Blessed Virgin published by Richard verstegan in 1599 and often reprinted until the 18th century; and second, treatises on how to live a good Christian life, among them numerous translations of the imitation of christ, and the writings of Spanish mystics, such as louis of granada, Diego de Estella, and Gaspar Loarte. Such works were to have a marked influence on English literature, especially because the Protestants, having little similar literature, were heavily dependent on them. The most influential of the English devotional treatises was Persons's Christian Directory (originally published as The First Booke of Christian Exercise, 1582). Based on the Ignatian prayer of self-surrender, it derived much of its material from Loarte and Louis of Granada, but is less baroque and shows affinities with the medieval tradition of rolle and hilton. Skillfully integrated, with a perfect balance of intellectual and emotional appeal, the work proved so popular that it was pirated by the Protestant divine, Edmund Bunny, while writers as diverse as Robert Greene and Richard Baxter bore testimony to its influence.

Southwell also exerted influence, for through his baroque Marie Magdalen's Funeral Teares (which ran to at least 20 editions) and his penitential poems, he introduced from the Continent the post-Tridentine literature of tears and linked the English elegiac temperament to a religious theme. Thomas Nashe and Thomas Lodge are among those who immediately reflect his influence. Other leading devotional writers are the versatile Sir Tobie Matthew (15771655), author of two fine original works and nine masterly translations, including that of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, and the two mystics, Benet Canfield, who, in the tradition of Hilton, used a very fundamental and abstract approach, and his disciple, David Augustine baker, whose voluminous works combine boundless aspiration for union with God with a sober, practical sense.

Effective prose writers from the late 17th century onward are scarce, the most distinguished being Richard challoner. His devotional works (e.g., Garden of the Soul ), with their deep, unostentatious spirituality, long set the pattern for English devotional reading; his other achievements include a competent revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible and the remarkably acute and accurate Memoirs of English Missionary Priests (174142). Able controversialists include John Gother, highly praised by Dryden and Butler; Robert Manning, a learned, fairminded, and fluent writer; and Joseph and Simon Berington, the former having a particularly vigorous and sustained style. There were also two notable historians: the lively but prejudiced Charles Dodd and the scrupulously fair and objective John lingard.

Poetry. Much recusant poetry is mediocre and anonymous, scattered in commonplace books. It is devotional in character, and when it deals in apologetics, it normally fails (as in Miles Hoggard's works); the notable exception is Dryden's controlled and artistic Hind and the Panther (1687). The chief theme of the early period was the traditional de contemptu mundi, though usually with a greater emphasis on the joys of heaven than in the medieval period ("Jerusalem, my happy home" being a classic example). Combined with this was the theme of penitence, generally based on the subject of Mary Magdalen or Saint Peter as a starting point for meditations (as in Southwell and Richard Verstegan). While Marian devotion is strongly represented (e.g., in Henry walpole, John Brerely, and Crashaw), Christ dominates, especially in the early 17th century, when particular emphasis was placed upon His Passiona highly relevant theme in time of fierce persecution. There were also a large number of poems on individual saints, normally grouped in a collection of sonnets (e.g., in William Alabaster, Henry Constable, and Tobie Matthew).

Recusant verse began in a plain native tradition, with a simple, forceful diction but also a rhythmical clumsiness that makes the lyrics seem heavy compared with those of the 15th century. It is at its best in the poems of Thomas More and Thomas Vaux, and in the ballads on stirring subjects such as the pilgrimage of grace and, later, the martyrdom of Campion. The clumsiness, the jog-trot iambic regularity, and the excessive alliteration did not materially, alter until Southwell, Constable, and Alabaster instilled a more classical smoothness, and introduced Petrarchan and baroque elements, especially the conceits. Despite a seeming artificiality, Southwell used language in a highly emotive way particularly fitted to his method of meditation. Typical of his style is The Burning Babe, a poem much admired by Ben Jonson, but the most influential of his meditative poems is the frequently imitated St. Peter's Complaint (1595). Though they employed secular elements, Southwell and his contemporaries strongly believed that poetry should be used only for religious subjects, a feeling echoed by Alabaster and Constable, who signified their change of heart in spiritual sonnets, Alabaster's being founded on scriptural tradition, Constable's based on Tansillo, Tasso, and Jacque de Billy.

Southwell's influence pervaded much of 17th-century religious verse, particularly that of Crashaw, who was, however, even more exuberant in his use of language. Though a poet in his own right, Crashaw was highly derivative; for example, he borrowed from francis de sales, especially from the Treatise on the Love of God, echoing it not only in general spirit but also in the use of metaphor and in the technique of associating the spiritual with everyday life. Apart from the emblematic work of Henry Hawkins, Parthenia Sacra, there was little else of distinction in the 17th century, and the 18th century was in general as barren of good religious verse as of love poetry. The main literary form became the hymn (among the best settings being the translations of Dryden), and it was not until Gerard Manley hopkins that a truly great Catholic religious poet again emerged.

Drama and Novel. Recusant literature has practically no drama, for even in the 17th century, when there was a distinguished group of Catholic dramatists, only a handful of plays reflected pronounced Catholic sympathies: Philip Massinger's Virgin Martyr (1622) and The Renagado, which has a Jesuit as a leading character and deals with Penance and baptismal regeneration; and James Shirley's Grateful Servant, which glorifies the Benedictine Order, and his St. Patrick for Ireland. The novel made a tentative Catholic start with Eliza Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791) and Henry Digby Beste's Four Years in France (1826), but it is largely out of the Oxford Movement controversies that the Catholic novel and the new Catholic literature in general developed. This development was stimulated mainly by the work of John Henry newman.

Bibliography: a. f. allison and d. m. rogers, A Catalogue of Catholic Books in English 15581640, 2 v. (London 1956). j. b. collins, Christian Mysticism in the Elizabethan Age (Baltimore 1940). j. gillow, A Literary and Biographical History or Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics from 1534 to the Present Time, 5 v. (London-New York 18851902; repr. New York 1961). l. i. guiney and g. bliss, eds., Recusant Poets (New York 1939). m. hagedorn, Reformation und spanische Andachtsliteratur (Leipzig 1934). e. hutton, Catholicism and English Literature (London 1942). p. janelle, Robert Southwell, the Writer (New York 1935). l. l. martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven 1954; repr. pa. 1962). h. e. rollins, ed., Old English Ballads: 15531625 (Cambridge, Eng. 1920). o. shipley, ed., Carmina Mariana, 1st series (London 1893), 2d series (London 1902). a. c. southern, Elizabethan Recusant Prose, 15591582 (London 1950). a. warren, Richard Crashaw (repr. pa. Ann Arbor 1957). p. caraman, ed., The Other Face (New York 1960).

[a. g. petti]