Sidney’s Psalms

Impersonating Devotion

by Constance M. Furey

What can biblical psalms teach us about literary devotion? An unexpected answer to that question is provided by Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595), a touchstone of literary criticism in its time and in ours. The argument in this essay unfolds from analysis of a single paragraph, which reveals how Sidney’s description of King David’s Psalms challenges our regnant categories in the following way: If today religion connotes fidelity or devotion to an external authority, as for many it does, and if literature entails authorial sovereignty and independent creativity (also a widespread assumption), then Sidney’s approach deviates by equating divine inspiration with poetic creativity. His celebration of variable voices and personae, in particular, undermines the distinction between fidelity and autonomy by offering the psalmist’s voice as a model of transformative self-expression.

The essay begins:

What can biblical psalms teach us about literary devotion? An unexpected answer to that question is provided by Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595), a touchstone of literary criticism in its time and in ours…. Few studies linger over the details of this sketch, for it appears just before Sidney differentiates divine poets from right poets and appeals to Aristotle’s definition of poetry as an art of imitation. This ordering makes it tempting to treat David as prologue to the main event and to conclude—as many commentators have done—that Sidney is most interested in defending secular poetry. Others counter that biblical sources and theological ideas inform all of Sidney’s work. Yet none acknowledge that Sidney’s account of David challenges our regnant categories in the following way: If today religion connotes fidelity or devotion to an external authority, as for many it does, and if literature entails authorial sovereignty and independent creativity (also a widespread assumption), then Sidney’s approach deviates by equating divine inspiration with poetic creativity. His celebration of variable voices and personae, in particular, undermines the distinction between fidelity and autonomy by offering the psalmist’s voice as a model of transformative self-expression.

It is all too easy to take the Psalms for granted and presume that their importance is understood. There is no more important devotional source for biblical traditions, but even those who have never read the Hebrew or Christian Bible, or prayed the Psalms alone or with a religious community, are likely to know and appreciate some of their most familiar phrases and to imagine that the Psalms are also literary because of these memorable expressions of emotion. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength,” we read in the King James Bible’s version of Psalm 8. And “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” these same translators offer us, in Psalm 23. Many Psalms describe God as “my rock and my fortress” (as in Psalm 31), and the Psalms—from a Hebrew word meaning something sung—soar with words of praise for the creator and creation. The Psalms are, in short, well known as texts that provide comfort to those who grieve, refuge to those in need, and satisfaction for the righteous. But how? What gives the Psalms such a satisfying intensity? Since late antiquity, Christian commentators have emphasized that the power of the Psalms arises not just from their content but also from their form, and from the poetics of voice and personification, in particular. This commentarial tradition’s longstanding interest in poetic personae coalesces in Sidney’s work and should—or so the current essay argues—prompt a new understanding of the relationship between religious and literary devotion.

Certainly most scholars of English Renaissance literature know that their favorite authors read, prayed, and often also created their own poetic psalms. One could fairly say that the Psalms filled the airwaves in premodern Europe. England was no exception. Before Henry VIII dissolved most monasteries, the entire Psalter was recited at least weekly by monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Psalms were less frequently, if no less devoutly, prayed by pious laypeople, who could read them in books of hours and penitential psalm collections and hear and sing them in church. The metrical version of the Book of Psalms by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins was the best-selling book in early modern England: appended to the Book of Common Prayer beginning in the 1560s, it was sung and recited by generations of English churchgoers well into the nineteenth century. The Psalms were cited by John Calvin and numerous other reformers as evidence that no other poetry needed to be written. The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America, in 1640. And the Psalms unquestionably influenced all early modern lyric poets within Christianity’s orbit.

Yet agreement on the fact that the Psalms matter does not mean consensus on how. The centrality of the question as well as uncertainty about the answer is especially clear when it comes to Sidney. In addition to his memorably vivid appeal to King David in a work avowedly not limited to defending religious poetry, Sidney also embarked on a poetic translation of the entire Psalter. This project was completed by Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, after his untimely death (he was felled by gangrene after being wounded by a Spanish cannonball, when he was only thirty-one years old). The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter is invariably described as metrically inventive, and often praised as inspiring all subsequent English poetry—echoing John Donne’s appreciative insistence that the Sidney translation “both told us what, and taught us how to do.” Accounts of the place of the Psalms in Sidney’s literary theory nevertheless vary widely, ranging from detailed appraisals of his rhetoric and theology to grand claims about how the Psalms provided religious cover for what was ultimately a secular vision of imaginative writing.

What these assessments have in common are two mistaken (and usually unstated) assumptions. First, that when Sidney talks about the poet being “lifted up with the vigour of his own invention,” he must be talking about a singular voice. Second, that this description cannot apply to the divine poet, because his creative strength would come from God rather than “his own invention.” Both impressions can find textual support. Sidney regularly refers to “poet” in the singular, and “own” had the same meaning in his day as in ours, connoting possession by a singular person or thing. And Sidney refers to both “divine poets” and “right poets,” appearing to distinguish between them. Yet these unexamined notions are wrong. Consequentially so.

This misreading of Sidney arises from a limited understanding of how the poetics of personification and textual voices relate to the personhood of writer and reader. Personification should be understood as connoting both anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities) and voice (a correlation still apparent in the description of grammatical voices, for example, “first person”). Understood in this sense, personification was crucial to Sidney’s conception of poetic force and energy. It was essential to the distinction he draws between poetry’s capacity to deceive and distract, which he condemns, and its unrivaled ability to conjure alternative realities and make them appealing, which he commends. In particular, Sidney’s focus on the rhetorical practices (rather than thematics) of personification, rooted in his devotional experiences of the Psalms, differs in decisive and revealing respects from personification understood, as Susan Stewart has described it, as one of lyric poetry’s primary aims and challenges. Sidney’s account of personification differs from that of modern theorists because he is not concerned, as they are, with the challenges of alienation, objectification, agency, and imaginative writing’s capacity to destabilize reality. The intrigue of Sidney’s work comes from his psychologically astute insistence, informed by a long history of Psalm commentators, that poetry is powerful precisely because it offers readers and writers alike the opportunity to identify with multiple voices, unimpeded by the structural logic of narrative or drama—and thereby offers an alternative to contemporary literary theory’s emphasis on agency and objectification. Continue reading …

CONSTANCE M. FUREY is Professor and Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Recipient of a multiyear Luce Foundation grant for a collaborative project, “Being Human,” she is also the author of two monographs, most recently Poetic Relations: Faith and Intimacy in the English Reformation, published by the University of Chicago Press. Among other projects, she has written multiple essays on the Immanent Frame blog, including “Human” for the Universe of Terms Project, and is at work on a co-authored book about devotion in religion and literature.

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.