Essay 'Recusant Sincerity: Henry Constable at Spiritual Sonnets,'

Citation metadata

Author: Jerome Mazzaro
Date: Fall 1990
From: Essays in Literature(Vol. 17, Issue 2)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,151 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[In this essay, Mazzaro argues that Constable's sonnets comprise a Catholic model of spiritual sincerity, as opposed to the individualistic and formally iconoclastic Protestant model.]

Despite Sidney Lee's feeling that Henry Constable's Spiritual Sonnets were written about 1593, scholars have been unable to agree on anything more specific than a “time after his conversion” to Roman Catholicism in late 1589. Like Lee, George Wickes seems to favor a date close to or “immediately after the secular poems” while, on the basis of “the familiarity they display with Catholic doctrine and emotion,” Joan Grundy argues for a later date.1 Critics have noted foreshadowings of their devotion to saints in the sonnet, “Sweet hand the sweet (yet cruell) bowe thow art” (1.3.2), which appeared in the 1592 edition of Diana, and have cited as a resolve toward religious verse Constable's comment at the close of these secular pieces to leave “such vain poems” and “employ the remnant of with to other, calmer thoughts, less sweet and less bitter.”2 Wickes proposes even that the spiritual sonnets “breathe an air of sincerity that is rare in the secular” ones, and in an effort to locate the basis of this “air,” J. De Oliveria e Silva argues their “native” or “plain” style: their diction is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, their summary statements tend toward folk aphorism, folk proverb and metaphors, and their tone is moralistic.3 Certainly, if one considers “sincerity” the registering of opinions counter to those commonly held, Constable's registering of Catholicism against a prevailing Anglican sensibility, like Sappho's preference o Anaktoria over horsemen, infantry, or ships (Edmonds Fragment 38), must be deemed sincere. But the poems do not offer those examinations of conscience which readers of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton have come to expect as sincerity in religious sonnets, and in this difference they set up a Catholic model for sincerity that opposes the individualistic and formally iconoclastic Protestant one.4

There is no question that Catholicism and especially Counter-Reformation Catholicism demanded a degree of conformity. One has only to think of Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake in 1600 for his eccentric views, and of the forced recantation of Galileo Galilei in 1616. But Englishmen had the accounts, too, of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563) ringing in their ears, tales of dissenters who had gone to their deaths during the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor. Still, in art, this pressure toward conformity allowed for individuality and formal experimentation, and one has the work of Constable's contemporary co-religionist and fellow countryman, Robert Southwell, as evidence of difference in form, diction, and style. Southwell did not, like many continental Counter-Reformation Catholics, subscribe to the fashion for sonnets. Nor in his homeliness, emblematic imagery, and adaptations of profane love conventions to sacred themes, did he, like English Protestant sonneteers, challenge accepted views. Although, as Louis L. Martz remarks, Southwell's poems at times describe “the need for [Catholic] self-analysis” (i.e., the discovery of God's image within), they do not, as do the poems of Donne and Herbert, “present, with quivering intensity, the very act of analysis.”5 Rather, in theme and execution, their native style, obstrusive rhetoric, and concettist's eye for paradox, parallelism, and striking imagery combine, in the manner of Arthur Rimbaud's “derangement of the senses,” to refresh accepted views or expand their applications through novelty. In both instances, the difference of approach or theme which creates the sense of novelty also argues his individuality and sincerity.

Constable's literary temperament, however, seems to have been at core more conventional. Although among the first and most influential of the English writers of sonnet sequences, he illustrates mainly in the early works the prevailing “role of poetry in the courtier's existence.” The poems are “a means of gaining favour” and “a graceful embellishment to the well-rounded life, one of the arts of the ideal courtier.” They in no way reveal him as an innovator but, rather, as “an alert follower, sensitive to literary fashions” and “widely read in the poetry of France and Italy,” and they reinforce Wickes's description of him as “typical” of his class and generation.6 Grundy sees in the secular sonnets no “face” and no “individual handling of common material.” The works lack “personality.” “There is a detachment about [the] writing so complete as to appear ... artistic indifference. Execution is all.” The construction is mathematical and almost syllogistic. Metrical and structural subtlety and complexity are absent, as are individualizing imagery and diction.7 This facelessness occurs despite a naturalness in the word order and selection that, at times, as in “My Ladies presence makes the roses red” (1.3.1), gives life and charm to what, in his own day even, must have been emblems and worn or dead metaphors. In the opening poem on Sidney's death (3.2.4) and especially in the concluding prayers of the Spiritual Sonnets, this facelessness is transcended not so much by a loss of conventionality but by a concentration or energy caused by the pressure of thought and emotion. The effect for modern readers is not a “face” but a recognition of “those general passions and principles by which,” as Dr. Johnson says, “all minds are agitated” and the “escape from personality” T. S. Eliot so praises in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1920).8

Even when most reflective of conventionality, the failure of Constable's writing to affect negatively his literary reputation among contemporaries suggests some difference in Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan sincerity. In his own day the secular sonnets were admired and imitated. Scholars note that Shakespeare must have been at least acquainted with them and that Michael Drayton profited from their study. They also cite imitations of them by Barnabe Barnes, Richard Barnfield, Bartholomew Griffin, and Sir William Alexander and their being linked by Ben Jonson and Drayton to Sidney's sonnets as modern classics. John Bodenham and Gabriel Harvey include him in lists of the day's leading poets, and in Hypercritica (1618) Edmund Bolton pronounces him “a great Master in the English Tongue” and notes that no other Englishman has “a more pure, quick, or higher delivery of Conceit.”9 What Elizabethans seem to perceive as sincere is a conformity between public and private postures based, as Wickes and others have insisted, on poetry's being a social activity and, therefore, subject to a kind of “determinism” from without. This determinism is based on decorum and expectation. Just as a sincere monarch was expected to bring her personal feelings publicly into accord with the requisites of her office, so, too, sincere poets were expected to bring their personal sentiments into harmony with larger social and religious world pictures. However temporary, mechanical, or incredible these accords may appear to later readers, they seem to be acceptable to Elizabethans who either appreciated the effort or believed that the personal and public would eventually come to agree. Not to make the effort would be to encourage the discord, hypocrisy, alienation, and dis-ease common in Elizabethan villains.

Elements of this conformity and conventionality of presenting character are carried over into the spiritual sonnets. Both Diana and the Spiritual Sonnets are, for example, patterned on number or “speculative music.” Constable ends the first when he reaches “the climatericall number 63.” He then subdivides it into three groups of twenty-one, approximating the broad divisions of comedy, history, and tragedy based on Vergil's Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid that the editors of Shakespeare divided his plays into. In The English Ayre (1926), Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) notes a tendency of Elizabethan song books to contain twenty-one songs and ventures that “the precise significance of this figure is not clear, though the product of two such traditionally fortunate numbers as 3 and 7 may have been considered singularly propitious.” More recently, Robin Headlam Wells points out that “of the 33 books of lute songs published between 1596 and 1622 nearly three-quarters [use multiples of seven] with 21 as the favorite number.”10 Allowing for the first three sonnets to approximate one “three-person'd God,” the Spiritual Sonnets divides into five groups of three—five, too, being significant in Christian number symbolism.11 Both collections show, moreover, constable's consistent preference for the Italian sonnet form of octet and sestet, frequently ending the seset like Sidney in a couplet (cdcdee). Contentions by scholars, then, that Constable was won over to Catholicism not by aesthetic considerations but, like John Henry Newman, “by the seemingly irresistible logic of the Catholic position” seem correct,12 and any Catholic model for sincerity which evolves must not be tied too tightly to form.

Like “Sweet hand the sweet (yet cruell) bowe thow art,” “Grace full of grace though in these verses heere” is cited as a precursor of the later work for “a piety keeping with that of the religious sonnets.”13 It illustrates what modern readers meet in the way of facelessness in both Constable's handling of material and his attainment of “those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated.”

Grace full of grace though in these verses heere
My loue complaynes of others then of thee
Yet thee alone I lou'd and they by mee
(Thow yet vnknowne) only mistaken were
Like him which feeles a heate now heere now there
Blames now this cause now that vntill he see
The fire indeed from whence they caused bee
Which fire I now doe knowe is yow my deare
Thus diverse loues dispersed in my verse
In thee alone for ever I vnite
But follie vnto thee more to rehearse
To him I flye for grace that rules aboue
That by my Grace I may liue in delight
Or by his grace I never more may loue.

The opening quatrain for which the second quatrain seems no more than an illustrative, extended parallel begins with an allusion whose outrageousness puts all piety in doubt. One wonders at the piety of a voice that would announce a collection of sonnets in so blatant an echo of Luke 1:28 and the angel Gabriel's annunciation to the Virgin Mary. However witty it is, it does not foster a unified impression, if one is to accept seriously the poem's final lines and their positing of a deity toward whom the speaker would fly “for grace,” either to live by the lady or, by the lord's grace, never again to love.

Moreover, although the selection of one woman above all others is part of the Annunciation, the announcement is, also, one of pregnancy. Is the Grace of the poem to be thought pregnant by Constable's imagination? toward what end? It is he who is producing, not she. Or is one to assume the opening is “occasional,” an allusion to Lady Day, March 25, the traditional beginning of the new year? and perhaps of a new life after the climacteric of 63 sonnets? L. I. Guiney's identification of the lady in Recusant Poets (1939) as possibly Grace Talbot, the youngest daughter of George Talbot by his wife Gertrude, who was cousin to Henry Constable's father, provides no clue.14 Nor do efforts to attach the sources of the poem's ideas and images to Lorenzo de'Medici's Selve d'Amore (post-1486) and cite analogues to perceptions of false love as shadows of one true love in Shakespeare's Sonnet 31 and Donne's “Aire and Angels” and “The goodmorrow.” Nonetheless, if the final lines do not accord tonally with the “personality” of the opening line by virtue of their uses of “grace,” they do express in their appeal to deity for assistance appropriate or decorous actions and suggest with their own pressure of thought and emotion the sincerity of Dr. Johnson's “generalized passions and principles.” And, if one accepts the Lady Day allusion not as a reference to a real lady but to a poetic inspiration liberated by conversion, then Grundy's sense of the poem as linked to the Spiritual Sonnets becomes more plausible.15

“To Sir Philip Sydneyes Soule” (3.2.4) shows a similar fragmentation and flash of sincerity in its closing sestet. Again, the sincerity results from a pressure of thought and emotion, but whereas in “Grace full of grace though in these verses heere” the pressure was aided by multiple meanings for “grace,” in the Sidney sestet dual meanings are avoided.

Giue pardon blessed soule to my bold cryes
If they importune interrupt thy songe
Which now with joyfull notes thou singst among
The Angells queristers of th'heauenlye skyes
Giue pardon eke deare soule to my slow eles
That since I saw thee it is now so long
And yet the teares which vnto thee belong
To thee as yet they did not sacrifice
I did not knowe that thow wert dead before
I did not feele the griefe I did sustayne
The greater stroke astonisheth the more
Astonishment takes from vs sence of payne
   I stood amaz'd when others teares begun
   And now begin to weepe when they haue don.

In its solicitations and apologies, the octet is wholly conventional. The speaker first asks pardon of Sidney's “blessed soule” for any offense that his “bold cryes” might cause in interrupting its joyful song. For this literary image of Heaven as a great choir, one need go no further than Revelation 14:3 or Dante's Paradiso and its imitations. The speaker then asks pardon for the more personal offense of having been out of contact for so long and for, as yet, not properly mourning the death. The formality of both petitions reinforces Grundy's complaint that in the secular sonnets too often “passion and beauty exist only as themes upon which to perform elegant literary arabesques, and not as part of [any] actual experience.”16

With what De Oliveira e Silva describes as Constable's “dulled ... capacity to feel ... pain” at “the sense of shock ... upon hearing of Sidney's death considerably after it happened,”17 the sestet completes the move toward intimacy that was begun in the second quatrain. The directness and simplicity of the statements do suggest the “facelessness” of sincere and deeply felt emotion coevally as they do not impede Constable's usual penchant for rhetoric. The parallel explanations of lines 9 and 10 echo the parallel requests for pardon in lines 1 and 5, and in the interplay of “astonisheth” and “Astonishment” and “begun” and “begin” in lines 11-14, there is some of the same flare for verbal wit that one has in “grace.” Again, the tonal difference between the sestet and octet seems in excess of the normal statement of theme (octet) and reflection (sestet) one has in the Italian sonnet. The intimacy and intensity implicit in the emotion of the poem's close render the elaborate formality of the octet ingenuous or, at least, in this instance, disinterested, and despite the action's decorum, one wonders at a “personality” that can be said to unite the two moods.

Often seen as an analogue to, if not an influence on, Shakespeare's Sonnet 99, “My Ladies presence makes the roses red” is better at sustaining and integrating a single tone throughout. The consistency results from a more concentrated field of referents. Their density conveys “personality” and a sense of sincerity, based like Aristotle's rule for credibility (Ars poetica 1461b) on persuasion rather than truth: given the options one has, the results seem right.

My Ladies presence makes the roses red
Because to see her lips they blush for shame
The lilies leaues for envy pale became
And her white hands in them this envy bred
The marygold abroad the leaues did spread
Because the suns and her power is the same
The violet of purple coloure came
Dy'd with the bloud she made my heart to shed
In briefe all flowers from her theyre vertue take
From her sweet breath theyre sweet smells doe proceed
The liuing heate which her eybeames doe make
Warmeth the ground and quickneth the seede
  The rayne wherewith she watereth these flowers
  Falls from myne eyes which she dissolues in shewers.

There are no questions of hyperbole, natural distortion, and literary precedents. Roses do not blush from seeing the redness of one's lips. Nor do lilies blanch for envy of one's white complexion. Marigolds do not grow from energy generated by humans. Nor do violets gain color from the blood of a lover. Still, the effort to persuade and impress by such implausible statements suggests the kind of emotion “in excess of the facts as they appear” which often occurs in the early stages of love. That the excess should, by the references to flowers, occur in the spring is part of an established mythology that makes the season appropriate for man's fancy's turning to thoughts of love. Indeed, the mythology is so pervasive that one may not heed sufficiently at first the sonnet's rhetorical design which places its two most personal statements at the closes of the octet (lines 7-8) and sestet (lines 13-14). The speaker's contributions to flourishing spring are his blood and tears. While reflective of the extents to which some men feel that they have to go to secure their lady's favor and the conventional cruel mistresses of Renaissance sonnet sequences, the sacrifices are set in otherwise positive circumstances and do not seem to partake in any of the conventional Renaissance accusations of cruelty as a means of softening the lady's heart.

“Sweet hand the sweet (yet cruell) bowe thow art” is similarly consistent in its presentation, though unlike the flowers of the previous sonnet, its use of religious imagery to depict profane love is mannerist and more in keeping with Donne's ironic tone in “The Canonization” than the more sincere strains of the spiritual sonnets. Again, however grotesque the comparison may seem to modern readers, the radical notion that the arrows of love are the lady's fingers and not her eyebeams has precedents in the poetry of Giovanni Mozzarello, Lorenzo de'Medici, and Philippe Desportes, and Lee finds representations of both Saint Francis and Saint Sebastian used in the love poems of Mellin, de Saint-Gelais. There is no reason to suppose, then, as Robert Fleissner does, that the poem's “allusions to five arrows reflects Constable's Roman Catholicism” or that the saint's inclusion, like the later prayers to saints, is a reflection of the Council of Trent's directive to Catholic artists to use their energies in “the defense and celebration of specifically Catholic themes.”18 The Saint-Gelais sonnets cited in Lee date before the final decrees of the council.

Sweet hand the sweet (yet cruell) bowe thow art
From whence at me flue ivorye arrowes flye
So with flue wounds at once I wounded lye
Bearing in breast the print of every dart
Saynt Francis had the like yet felt no smart
Where I in liuing torments neuer dye
His wounds were in his hands and feete where I
All these same helplesse wounds feele in my hearte
Now (as Saint Francis) if a Saint am I
The bow which shotte these shafts a relique is
I meane the hand which is the reason why
So many for devotion thee would kisse
   And I thy gloue kisse as a thinge devine
   Thy arrowes quiver and thy reliques shrine.

Grundy notes that, except for Saint Bonaventure's Vita, “most early accounts state that ... St. Francis felt `sharp pains' before discovering the marks on his body” and suggests that it or a faulty recollection of another account may be the source of line 5.19 The revering of relics, though reasserted by the council, has a long tradition and earlier justifications in Matthew 19:20, Acts 19:22, and Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica. Again, in their difference, both the kind of inventiveness and irony in the Constable sonnet convey “personality,” and if readers doubt the sincerity of the love depicted, they do not doubt the sincerity of the pursuit. While not promosing Donne's “canonization” through intensity and subsequent regard by writers and future lovers, Constable's lover displays the same recklessness and naughtiness in his witty disregard of established conventions. Were she to accede to these advances, the lady would be agreeing to rethink these conventions. The agony he feels is not yet the ecstasy of baroque art; rather, it looks backward in its reverence ultimately to Petrarch and Petrarch's adoration of his love's hand and “charming and spotless glove” (Poem 199). Again, although pain occurs, it prompts no accusation of cruelty. Its causer is “sweet” and already worthy of reverence.

Readers expecting these fragmentations within and among sonnets to somehow unite into “one significant, consistent, and developing personality” are soon disappointed. Diana has no narrative by which one can judge character change. Nor is there a submergence of personality in a mnemonic or occult structure based on place, number, and image. Sonnet 1.2.1. does not anticipate Sonnet 2.2.1. Nor are there precise linear contrasts or “distinctions.” The sequence does take up a number of standard Renaissance images—eye, hair, hand, etc. It also suggests some correspondence in its placements of the sonnets to the Princess of Orange (2.2.1) and (2.3.1), the Countess of Shrewsbury (2.2.2.) and (3.2.3.), and Penelope Rich and her daughter (2.2.6 and 7), (2.3.6. and 7), and (3.2.7). The placements seems, however, reflective more of social rank than of related themes. Constable's own references to his sequence are in the plural—“sonnets,” “verses,” “orphans,” etc.—and one is wise to accept his description of its being “divided into 3 parts, each part containing 3 severall arguments, and every argument 7 sonnets.” The first part recounts the “variable affections of loue,” detailing “the beginning and birth of his loue” (1-7), “praise of his Mistresse” (8-14), and “several accidents” that happened during its progress (15-21). The second part offers praise to individuals, beginning with the English Queen (22-24), the Scottish King (25-28), and several noble ladies (29-35), and ending with commemorations of events involving a number of these same ladies (36-42). The final section contains lamentations of misfortunes in love (42-49), the deaths of individuals (50-56), and finally the end and death of his love (57-63). In addition to the rhetorical progression from comedy to history to tragedy mentioned earlier, one has in the devotion of the second arguments in parts one and three and the whole of the second part to actual people the suggestion of an extrinsic design.20

The doctrinal interests of the opening spiritual sonnets perfectly suit Constable's conventionality and the nonpersonal or collective nature of doctrine. The initial line breaks on the pronoun “wee” and then proceeds to define man's general being in relations to God. When “my” occurs, it denotes difference rather than claim or possession. In line 11, for example, “my mynde” differs from, while yet echoing, “thy mynde” of line 3, and in line 13, “my hart” offers a variation on the love of lines 5-8. The only other use of “my” in the opening sonnet occurs in line 10 where God is said to have “the tytle of my father,” though the title's conferrer is not identified. In the third sonnet, when “my” returns to the text, it does so again to distinguish “my love” (line 10) and “my soule” (line 11) from God's love and the Holy Spirit. Efforts to account for the intended lack of individuality of these sonnets by claiming Johnson's generalizing “pressure of thought and emotion” are somehow beside the point if “sincerity” is to be defined as honestly held difference.21 Rather, to the extent that Constable, is “sincere,” he is so in the public, communal, and hence, conventional manner of the liturgy which joins its celebrants to the living and the dead. This “congregation” justifies Grundy's assertion that, in its treatment of theme, the Spiritual Sonnets “is at times liturgical.”22 “To the blessed Sacrament” (1.4) uses “I” once more to differentiate its speaker from what he is contemplating, but rather than remerge with that object, as Marsilio Ficino advocated, the speaker—in a comparison of the soul's imprisonment in the body (“in earth”) to “our” forefathers' imprisonment in Limbo—asks to be not himself but as “others freed from purgyng fyre” (italics mine). As in the second sonnet, no first-person references appear in the group's closing offering, “To our blessed Lady.”

Complementing this opening liturgical strategy of impersonality is a strategy based on mathematical and conventional non-liturgical religious groupings. As mentioned earlier, the Spiritual Sonnets appear to divide into five groups of three. The first group, which contains the three sonnets to the Trinity, Christ as the Holy Sacrament, and the Virgin Mother as the Church, flows into what Thomas Roche has rightly seen as a grouping from the Confiteor—the sonnets to the Archangel Michael, to Saint John the Baptist, and to the Saints Peter and Paul (“beato Michaeli Archangelo, Beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis apostolis Petro et Paulo”).23 These three sonnets to male figures are then balanced by three to female figures, fleshing out a linear chronology that begins with Michael's battle in heaven and ends with the death of Margaret. At the same time that this chronology reflects a conventional superiority of male to female, it follows a chiastic descent from heaven [Michael] to earth [Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene] and back to heaven with Margaret as heaven's “fayre amazon.” In addition, one notices that battle imagery surrounds both Michael (2.1) and Margaret (3.3), that beheadings befall John the Baptist (2.2) and Catherine (3.2), and that divine forgiveness accompanies Peter's denials, Paul's early persecutions (2.3) and Magdalene's early life (3.1). In contract to the Holy Eucharist which is celebrated in the first grouping (1.4), sacraments of the dead—Baptism and Penance—are celebrated in these groups (2.2) and (3.1). Constable's use of hierarchy and impersonal rhetorical chiasmus to embellish and order the poems is followed by his use of hierarchy and equally impersonal correspondence in the sequence's final two sonnet groups. Mary is superior to Magdalene, and one can see congruent rhetorical strategies in the openings of sonnets 4.1 (“Sovereigne of Queenes”) and 5.1 (“Blessed Offendour”) and 4.3 (“Sweet Queene”) and 5.3 (“Sweet Saynt”).

The spiritual sonnets which emerge as seeming most individual to modern readers are “To St Margarett” (3.3) and the first and last of the final sonnets to Mary Magdalene (5.1 and 3).24 All three concern the turning of opposing secular and spiritual love into direction. Although perhaps prepared for by the sestet of “To St Mary Magdalen” (3.1), the break from impersonality in the sestet of “To St Margarett” is marked by an embrace of mystical imagery associated with religious meditation, the directives of the Council of Trent, and baroque art. As in so many of the secular sonnets, there is a separation of octet and sestet, in this instance centering on gender. Having described a woman taking on male qualities to oppose the efforts of a tyrant and the devil to corrupt her, the male speaker invokes the saint's aid in his efforts to repeat her steadfastness.

Fayre Amazon of heaven: who took'st in hand
   St Mychaell, ∧ St George to imitate:
   and for a tyrantes Love transform'd to hate,
   wast for thy lylly faith retayn'd in bande:
Alone on foote, ∧ with thy naked hande
   thou dydd'st lyke Mychaell, ∧ his hoste; ∧that
   for which on horse arm'd George we celebrate:
   whylst thow lyke them, a dragon dydd'st withstande.
Behold my sowle shutt in my bodyes layle,
   the which the Drake of hell, gapes to devoure;
   Teach me (o virgyn) how thou dydd'st prevayle:
Virginity thou saiest was all thy Ayde:
   gyve me then purity in steade of power,
   and let my soule mayde chaste, passe for a Mayde.

Assuredly, as lines 1-2 show, the speaker knows intellectually how Margaret prevailed: she “took'st in hand / St Mychaell, ∧ St George to imitate,” and her aid was Virginity. He now needs to know personally how this was done, not so much by his undergoing a sex change as by his yielding his masculinity to mysticism's traditionally femininely imaged soul. The yielding makes novel what otherwise would seem redundant. Asked for is not her virginity but, as in Milton's Comus (1634), chastity passing “for a Mayde.” It is, as Angus Fletcher points out, life lived actively in recollection of and accordance with an Ideal.25

Along with the difference and distance posited in the sequence's opening poem the difference and distance posited in the opening line of the sonnet's sestet is, thus, narrowed by instruction (“Teach me”) and charity (“gyve me”) in preparation for, rather than in actual union. As likeness between the saint and speaker increases, so, too, does likeness between him and deity, and this increased potential for likeness invites a greater number of first-person adjectives and pronouns. Like the first sonnet to Our Blessed Lady (4.1), the first of the Magdalene sonnets (5.1) continues the preparation and narrowing. It asks that the speaker's soul not be a “foolysh vyrgyn ... with empty lampe” (Matthew 35:1-13) but rather, like Magdalene, carry for an ointment box “a breast with oyle of grace” (Matthew 26:7). In this way, the zeal which burns within him can make his heart seem like a lamp and give him place in his spouse's palace. This “place” is still not the spouse's bed, and the next sonnet (5.2) indicates that before that can be achieved, the object not the passion of the speaker must be redirected:

And if thou change the object of my love,
  the wyng'd affection which men Cupid call
  may gett [God's] syght, ∧ lyke an Angell prove.

Actual union is projected in the final lines of the sequence's last sonnet (5.3) and calls again for its occurrence not, as in mystical verse or baroque art, in life but after death. In doing so, it repeats the hope of the final sonnet to Our Blessed Lady (4.3) that, when the speaker shall behold Christ “aeternally” (i.e., in death), then shall beauty's self (Christ) his “enamored sowle embrace ∧ kysse.”

My body ys the garment of my spryght
  whyle as the day tyme of my lyfe doth last:
  when death shall brynge the nught of my delyght
My sowle vncloth'd, shall rest from labors past:
  and clasped in the armes of God, inioye
  by sweete conjunction, everlastyng ioye.

Much as in the secular sonnets, phrases and sentiments in these spiritual sonnets echo those in others' works, as if Constable, in his efforts to become like the saints and deity, is also drawn closer to the writers of these works. Principally, as Wickes notes, they are the Italian Counter-Reformation writers of rime spirituali, and Wickes identifies the probable influences of Erasmo da Valvasone, Tasso, Gabriele Fiamma, and Angelo Grillo, stating that, in some cases, a phrase or sentiment had become so widespread and conventional that it is difficult to assign a particular writer as its source.

Grundy adds the names of Ferrante Carrafa and Casio de'Medici, whose Vita e morte de Miser Iesu Christo (1525) also begins with a series of sonnets to the Trinity. For this reason, while not negating the possible novelty of the expressions in English for Protestants who were not abreast of the latest Catholic writing as generating in Constable's day a sincerity based on the registering of opinions counter to those commonly held, modern readers are likely to demand more authority and intrinsic evidence in accepting views that the poems are sincerer that the secular sonnets. Unlike Milton, Constable does not use the common phrases and sentiments to support his own positions. Rather, they are models inviting his conformity. Martz's sense that “likeness” centers Catholic self-analysis might itself be an acceptable explanation if Constable were not also so conventional in his secular work and if the exposition in the spiritual sonnets were not at times as detached as that in the secular works. While supporting the conversion, Constable's biography does not explain why intrinsically the sonnets seem sincere or why, as opposed to the secular works. While supporting the conversion, Constable's biography does not explain why intrinsically the sonnets seem sincere or why, as opposed to the secular sonnets and in defiance of his own impersonal strategies, readers sense “one significant, consistent, and developing personality.”27

Indeed, the emergence of a single personality with a clearly defined, immediate goal contributes to the sincerity that modern readers find in these closing sonnets and the sequence as a whole. Gone is an earlier confusion as to whether a speaker is merely posturing or trying in truth to convince his lady by analogy of so personal a feeling as love: we are like other literary lovers; therefore, current expectation demands that we be lovers. As in Constable's successful secular poems, the effectiveness of this persona is tied, in part, to restricted range. The spiritual sonnets focus narrowly on divine and human love, systematically moving from the first and its echoing human “holy love” to the obligations that love incurs and, through the invocations, examples, and intercedings of saints, to the speaker's seeking past his corrupt, worldly state.28 Throughout the process, partition gives shape and a significance. The original divisions of deity and his difference from man flow into man's division into gender and his differences from one another. These differences set in motion the sequence's lively, final internal tension between what the speaker perceives he is and what others have shown him that he might be with God's help. What is required at this point to escape personality and isolation is not the force of an argument to convince an other but simple assent. Thus, Constable is able to turn his propensity for conformity and literary convention into an acceptable religious intercession and invocation. In so doing, he creates his own model for recusant sincerity in forgiveness and in his affirmation of the Council of Trent's positions against certain Protestant beliefs. These beliefs held that intercession and invocation are opposed to the faith and truth which one should have in God alone, denied the all-sufficient merits of Christ, and were not sanctioned by Scripture and the Church Fathers.


1 Joan Grundy, The Poems of Henry Constable (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1960) 59. I have used her text throughout for my citations of Constable's poems. George Wickes, “Henry Constable's, Spiritual Sonnets,” The Month 18 (July 1957) 32. The date of Constable's conversion is also in dispute. Some scholars have made it as late as 1591. I have gone with the Wickes date. For the later date, see L. I. Guiney, Recusant Poets (London: Sheed, 1939) 305, and John Bossy, “A Propos of Henry Constable,” Recusant History 6:5 (1961-62):234.

2 See Robert F. Fleissner, Resolved to Love: The 1592 Edition of Henry Constable's “Diana” (Saizburg: Institute für Anglistik and Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 1980) 72. Grundy 179.

3 Wickes 33. J. De Oliveira e Silva, “`Plainness and Truth': The Secular and Spiritual Sonnets of Henry Constable,” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 15:3/16:1 (1983-84):33-42. He cites Douglas L. Peterson's The English Lyric from Wyatt to Donne (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967) for the views on “plainness.” The rationale, however, was first articulated by Yvor Winters in “The 16th Century Lyric in England,” Poetry 53 (1939):258-72, 320-35; 54 (1939):35-51, and is common to a number of Renaissance scholars.

4 For treatments of Donne, Herbert, and Milton in these contexts, see my “Striking through the Mask: Donne and Herbert at Sonnets” in Like Season'd Timber: New Essays on George Herbert, ed. Edmund Miller and Robert DiYanni (New York: Lang, 1987) 241-53, and “Gaining Authority: John Milton at Sonnets,” Essays in Literature 15 (1988):3-12.

5 Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954) 206-07.

6 Wickes, “Spiritual Sonnets” 31, and George Wickes, “Henry Constable, Poet and Courtier, 1562-1613,” Biographical Studies, 1534-1829 2 (1954):272.

7 Grundy 70-71.

8 Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale UP, 1968) 1:62. Johnson makes his statement to counter Alexander Pope's claim that “had all the speeches [in Shakespeare's plays] been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have apply'd them with certainty to every speaker.” For T. S. Elliot's “escape from personality,” see his Selected Essays 3rd ed. enlarged (London: Faber, 1958) 21.

9 Grundy 60-65.

10 Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), The English Ayre (1926; rpt. Westport, CT: Greenwood P. 1974) 67; Robin Headlam Wells, “Ars armatoria: Philip Rossester and the Tudor Court Lyric,” Music and Letters 70 (1989):60.

11 Alastair Fowler's Spenser and the Numbers of Time (New York: Barnes, 1964) is a landmark in the study of Elizabethan uses of number. More recently Thomas P. Roche has applied it to English sonnet sequences in Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequence (New York: AMS, 1989), including Constable's. Constable's interest in numbers and the number five in particular is conveyed in his “Sonnet before `Edm: Bolton his Elements of Armories' (1610)” (Grundy 187) and “Sweet hand the sweet (yet cruell) bowe thow art” (131).

12 Grundy 15.

13 Grundy 54.

14 Grundy 219.

15 In Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequence, for instance, Roche argues against modern realistic, biographical, and psychological readings of sonnet sequences (ix-x), insisting upon more metaphoric, symbolic, and religious developments (vii-xviii).

16 Grundy 54.

17 De Oliveira e Silva 36.

18 Sidney Lee, “Introduction,” Elizabethan Sonnets (1904; rpt. New York: Cooper Square, 1964) 1:lxiii; Fleissner 72; and Grundy 78.

19 Grundy 229.

20 See Roche 318-42.

21 Grundy 82. See, also, De Oliveira e Silva's view of Constable's being “distinctly impersonal in praising God `The Father,' `The Sonne,' and `The Holy-ghost' in the first three Spiritual Sonnettes.” He contrasts the lack of “personal relationship with Deity” to Donne, Herbert, and the Spanish mystics (35).

22 Grundy 81.

23 Roche 189. I do not agree with his efforts to link the next three poems to “the Litany of Saints” category of holy Virgins and Windows, since the order he cites excludes Saint Margaret and has several others saints between Mary Magdalene and Catharine. However, I would agree that the sonnets are an effort to suggest more of “the other saints” (omnibus sanctis) included in the Confiteor.

24 While in no way impugning the religious sincerity of the final sonnets to Our Blessed Lady, I am not as impressed by their rhetorical sincerity as is De Oliveira e Silva.

25 Angus Fletcher, The Transcendental Masque (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971) 209-26.

26 Wickes, “Spiritual Sonnets” 34-35; Grundy 78, 250.

27 Eliot 203. Bernard of Clairvaux and his widely known “inde anima dissimilis Deo, inde dissimilis est et sibi” in his In Cantica canticorum sermo 82.5 are the sources of many of these tendencies toward “likeness.” See, especially, Pierre Courcelle, “Tradition néoplatonicienne et traditions chrétiennes de la `Région de dissemblance,'” Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age 32 (1957):5-33, and Robert Javelet, Image et ressemblance au douzième siècle (Strasbourg: Letouzey, 1967) 1:266-85 for histories of the idea.

28 It may be significant that in parts 2 and 3 of the sequence where the sacraments of the dead are celebrated, the word “love” does not occur. It is present only in parts 1, 4, and 5.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420009225