Early Protestantism developed an antipathy toward poetry that was typical of its age, rather than demonstrating any particular distinguishing theological roots. The early Christian writer Tatian (born c. 120) was skeptical concerning the merits of classic rhetoric and poetry, both of which he regarded as encouraging deception and a disregard for matters of truth. Plato's severe censure of poetry was widely accepted within early Christian circles and percolated into the Christian tradition.
The Protestant debate about the merits of poetry began to take its distinctive form in England during the 1590s as the case for poetry began to be made seriously in the writings of Sir Philip Sidney. Aware of the religious hostility toward the notion, Sidney was obliged to combine his intellectual defense of poetry with a certain amount of political diplomacy as he sought to position himself in relation to the religious critics of this emerging art form.17 Sidney was aware of the immense influence of Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse (1579), which followed Plato in arguing that poetry and drama were morally disruptive and should therefore be banned from "a reformed commonwealth."
The nub of Gosson's case against poetry and drama was that they were sensuous, indulgent, flamboyant forms of art that lacked the simplicity and rigor of plain words. Using a culinary metaphor, Gosson suggested that poetry and drama were like rich, extravagant food that gave rise to pleasure—contrasting with the Protestant moral values of frugality and personal discipline.18 Drama, he argued, forced the players to be tricksters, "telling lies by counterfeiting of other personalities than their own." These arts were out of place in a Protestant commonwealth because they propagated fiction and deceit instead of concentrating human minds upon the elegant simplicities of truth.
In responding, Sidney was obliged to take into account Gosson's Puritan reworking of Plato's fundamental charge that poetry was an inferior and deceptive mimesis, lacking rigor and honesty in comparison with philosophy. It was a charge that could be met by pointing to poetry's capacity to transform, while shrewdly observing that Plato condemned the abuses of poetry, not the art form itself. However, poetry's association with generating pleasure on the part of the reader proved much more difficult to rebut, partly because Sidney himself clearly regarded this as one of poetry's chief virtues. In the end, Sidney was able to turn Gosson's argument against himself by arguing that the pleasure offered by poetry was actually profit and improvement.
A close reading of Puritan critiques of poetry suggests that the basic objection lay in rooting religious discourse in what Samuel Mather termed "our own fancies and imaginations" rather than in the divine "types" revealed in scripture or in the created order of nature.19 Poetry and drama alike proceeded from the imagination and were therefore fictions. This is certainly the view that we find in the noted Puritan writer Richard Baxter, who argued that literature actively promoted a culture of falsehood that "dangerously bewitcheth and corrupteth the minds of young and empty people."
Yet the Protestant critique of poetry began to lose its edge as more and more Protestants broke rank and wrote poetry that was well received within their communities. In Puritan America, the most conspicuous example was Anne Bradstreet (1612-72), one of the most important figures in the history of American literature, and considered by many to be the first American poet.20 Her poems, written in a deceptively simple style, rest on a rigorous Puritan theological foundation, while being firmly anchored in the realities of American colonial life of that age.
In England, Anglicans served as trailblazers for religious poetry. John Donne (1572-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633) both demonstrated the potential of the poetic genre to communicate theology through an essentially imaginative engagement. Each proved that it was possible to communicate—and commend—Protestant ideas through the poetic medium. George Herbert's poem The Elixir represents a powerful statement of the transforming impact of Christ upon mundane human life, allowing the Protestant work ethic to be set out with a new vitality:
A servant with this clause Makes Drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, Makes that and th' action fine.21
John Donne was able to use the same medium to set out the Protestant doctrine of the bondage of the will through sin that requires God to "batter down" human resistance to the transforming power of grace:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.22
The two intellectuals who played an important role in directing the course of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth—Andrew Marvell (1621-78) and John Milton (1608-74)—both demonstrated that Puritans could write poetry just as good as anyone else's, and poetry would give their ideas a way to reach new audiences.
Yet important though these stimuli were to the development of Protestant poetics, the most significant catalyst was the rise of hymn-ody in the eighteenth century. Hymns were religious poems set to music and intended to edify and inform congregations. Suddenly, poetry was seen to have a thoroughly acceptable Protestant function— not the generation of aesthetic pleasure—always frowned on by the more austere forms of Protestantism—but the education and shaping of minds. Protestantism may not itself have yielded a vast poetic heritage; its function has been more to shape the minds and outlooks of poets than to produce poets.23
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