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Fulke Greville and the Calvinistic Poets of the Tudor Age

Fulke Greville and the Calvinistic Poets of the Tudor Age

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
www.virtueonline.org
May 26, 2019

It was not only the theologians, bishops, clergy and various statesmen of the English Reformation era that established the Calvinistic basis of Anglicanism, there was also a coterie of eminent Elizabethan poets who through opinion, verse, and action reinforced the Augustinianism of the national Church. This fraternity in the faith espoused the fundamentals of the Gospel in terms of the utter corruption and helplessness of fallen human nature and the necessity of the sovereign intervention of effective and distinguishing grace.

Sir Philip Sidney, perhaps the most celebrated of this cluster of genii, received a thorough schooling in the doctrines of Calvin from Thomas Ashton a staunchly convinced disciple of the great Genevan, whose religious instruction derived principally from Calvin's Catechism, and in due course Sidney died on the battlefield defending the cause of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries, a cause to which he was utterly devoted even before arms of war were ever taken up in resistance to the threat of annihilation that loomed over them from the forces of Philip of Spain.

Edmund Spenser was once secretarial assistant to the Calvinistic Bishop of Rochester, John Young, and upheld the doctrines of grace and endorsed their great exponent Edmund Grindal in his majestic poesy in such works as The Fairy Queen and the Shepherd's Calendar:

The Fairy Queen, Book 1, Canticle X - Her faithful knight fair Una brings to House of Holiness, where he is taught repentance, and the way to heavenly bliss.

What man is he, that boasts of fleshly might,
And vain assurance of mortality,
Which all too soon, as it doth come to fight,
Against spiritual foes, yields by and by,
Or from the field most cowardly doth fly?
Ne (nor) let the man ascribe it to his skill,
That through grace hath gained victory.
If any strength we have, it is to ill,
But all the good is God's, both power and eke (also) will.

The Shepherd's Calendar, July - Argument. This AEglogue is made in honor and commemoration of good shepherds, and to the shame and dispraise of proud and ambitious Pastors. Lines 126 - 132. Wherein Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, is described as a good shepherd.

Such one he was, (as I have heard old Algrind often sayne) That whilome (formerly) as the first shepherd, and lived with little gain: . . .

John Donne, in the earlier phase of his poetic composition during the reign of Elizabeth, ultimately became renowned as the English Augustine, and in the Jacobite period differed only from the Puritans in church polity and issues concerning liturgy. His sermons and personal correspondence affirm the doctrine of election in a studiously balanced way though he does acknowledge the fact of the great decree prior to creation in a veiled supra-lapsarian sense. "His position is ambiguous, as he also believed in the 'first judgment before all times'" (Neil Rhodes, John Donne Selected Prose, Penguin p. 340).

Donne's thought is stupendously uplifting: Of "God himself, it is safely resolved in the school, that he never did anything in any part of time, of which he had not an eternal preconception, an eternal Idea, in himself before . . . There is so much truth, and so much power in these Ideas, as without acknowledging them, no man can acknowledge God . . . Of all things in heaven and earth, but of himself, God had an Idea, a pattern in himself, before he made it. . . God hath elected certain men, whom he intends to create, that he may elect them, that is, that he may declare his election upon them. God had thee before he made thee . . . God did not elect me as a helper, nor create me, nor redeem me, nor convert me, by way of helping me; for he alone did all. And he had no use at all of me. God infuses his first grace, the first way, merely as a Giver; entirely, all himself; but his subsequent graces, as a helper; therefore we call them Auxiliant graces . . . "(Penguin, pages 239 - 242),

Where now is this sturdy, powerful Anglicanism of our Elizabethan forbears? In our age of moral and spiritual flimsiness Anglicanism has been de- gutted. We have dwarfed God in our minds and habitual thinking. Our poets reviewed here would plead with us,"Let God be God!" And expand your microscopic and feeble brains!

George Herbert (of the next century) also evinces subscription to Augustinianism in aspects of his literary effort and avers to the great Father of Scottish Presbyterianism leader Andrew Melville that the theology of Anglicanism is identical to his. "George Herbert had been brought up a Calvinist in matters of doctrine, as most English Protestants were in his day. The dispute with the Puritans was over ritual, not doctrine, and when Herbert attacked Andrew Melville on the subject of church services he assured his Puritan opponent that they nevertheless agreed wholly on the nature of God. Lancelot Andrewes and Herbert once debated the doctrine of predestination of which the former disapproved, after which "Herbert wrote him a long letter in Greek explaining his point of view. He had apparently not changed it since, for the God he describes in one of his poems is the God of the Calvinists, 'Who gives to man, as he sees fit, Salvation or Damnation' (Marchette Chute, Two Gentlemen, The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick, Dutton, Ny, 1959). Chute does mention, quite accurately, that Herbert's views in his poetry were much milder than Calvin's "stern" system and that he struggled with God sometimes as a friend and sometimes as an enemy. Herbert was a man of tender and pastoral heart, which, as the gospel does, majors on mercy.

Another poet whose life bridged the Elizabethan and Jacobite reigns was the former satirist Joseph Hall who shed his poet's mantle for a bishop' garb and was chosen as an English representative at the Synod of Dort with whose findings he was in full accord.

In a literary sense the most pronouncedly Calvinistic of these poets seemed to be the affectionate admirer of Phillip Sidney, Lord Brooke, the eminent poet Warwickshire Fulke Greville, whose memorial may be visited at the Church of St. Mary in the city of Warwick.

As with his fellow poets Greville possessed a penchant for romantic themes but it is his religious work that displays the depth of his rare talent and which rates him as a most profound thinker upon the plight of mankind and the sovereign, unmotivated, unbidden mercy of God which he sought so earnestly and celebrated so marvelously.

Emrys Jones in his editorial introduction to The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth century Verse alludes to Greville's "fathomlessly gloomy Calvinist lyrics" but that sentiment may simply indicate a lack of taste for the lyricist's deep understanding of and desire for the dramatic redemption of the perilously lost human soul and the restoration from its misery.

Subsequently, Jones recognizes Greville's "unique and irreplaceable contribution to writing in the English language" and renders the appreciative comment as to"Fulke Greville's powerful religious lyrics".

Few poets seize upon the doleful state of human nature with such powerful descriptiveness as Greville. He knows the depravity of our race and of his own heart, even in the profession and exercises of religion:

Eternal truth, almighty, infinite,
Only exiled from man's fleshly heart,
Where ignorance and disobedience fight,
In hell and sin, which shall have greatest part:
When thy sweet mercy opens forth the light,
Of grace which giveth eyes unto the blind,
And with the Law even ploughest up our sprite
To faith, wherein flesh may salvation find;
Thou bidd'st us pray, and we do pray to thee,
But as to power and God without us placed,
Thinking a wish may wear out vanity,
Or habits be by miracles defaced.
One thought to God we give, the rest to sin,
Quickly unbent is all desire of good,
True words pass out, but have no being within,
We pray to Christ, yet help tp shed his blood;
For while we say Believe, and feel it not,
Promise amends, and yet despair in it,
Hear Sodom judged, and go not out with Lot,
Make law and Gospel riddles of the wit:
We with the Jews even Christ still crucify,
As not yet come to our impiety.

Here is a comment apt for our age of defection.

Sion lies waste, and thy Jerusalem,
O Lord, is fall'n to utter desolation,
Against thy prophets and holy men,
The sin hath wrought a fatal combination,
Prophaned thy name, thy worship overthrown,
And made thee, living Lord, a God unknown

Two following verses finish thus:

Impiety, O Lord, sits on thy throne
Which makes thee, living light, a God unknown.

There lives no truth with them that seem thine own,
Which makes thee, living Lord, a God unknown.

And the final verse:

Yet, Lord, let Israel's plagues be not eternal,
Nor sin for ever cloud thy sacred mountains,
Nor with false flames spiritual but infernal,
Dry up thy mercy's ever springing fountains.
Rather, sweet Jesus, fill up time and come,
To yield the sin her everlasting doom.

Thom Gunn in his Selected Poems of Fluke Greville states, "Greville shared with Sidney an interest in Calvinism, which was also a political interest in that century when 'religious opinion was, far more often than not, political opinion also.' (J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, 1928, p. 78). It is important to remember, though, that their Calvinism was not that brand of Puritan thought which challenged the authority of the monarch."

(It is important to recognize, also, that some historians, unlike Gunn, do not recognize a subtle distinction between theology and politics when they make the claim that certain persons were anti-Calvinist in their views. As with Donne, their religious views happened to be Calvinian and the differences contested were of a political nature or to do with Church Polity and worship styles).

Thom Gunn discerns that Fulke's preoccupation is with the genuineness of prayer and the "Protestant concern with sincerity". This drive for unstinting candor in Greville probes the soul almost beyond the limit of spiritual endurance, almost beyond Luther's self-confessed despair if the Lord did not abridge the experience.

An example of Greville's relentless heart searching is found in Caelica Poem XCIX:

Down in the depth of my iniquity,
That ugly centre of infernal spirits;
Where each sin feels her own deformity,
In those peculiar torments she inherits,
Depriv'd of human graces and divine.
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

And in this fatal mirror of transgression,
Shows man the fruit of his degeneration,
The error's ugly infinite impression,
Which bears the faithless down to desperation;
Depriv'd of human graces and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

In power and truth, almighty and eternal,
Which on the sin reflects strange desolation,
With glory scourging all the sprites infernal,
And uncreated hell with unprivation;
Depriv'd of human graces, not divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

For on this sp'ritual cross condemned lying,
To pains infernal by eternal doom,
I see my Savior for the same sins dying,
And from that hell I fear'd, to free me, come;
Depriv'd of human graces, not divine,
Thus hath his death raised up this soul of mine.

Greville's depths of soul-searing honesty eventually elevate us to the ecstasy of soul salvation. We scarcely appreciate our Redeemer until we have reached the nadir of our evil impotence to help ourselves.

Gunn describes the above as "one of the great religious poems". And elsewhere he draws the inevitable conclusion from Greville's verse: "The God is not to be trifled with, or subjected to ambiguities. The craving for certainty of grace is painful."

This is perhaps a lesson for own shallow generation. Most literary specialists, critics. professors and the like, do not much care for the religious convictions of some of our greatest poets, but the stalwart confessors of the faith examined here are proclaimers and keepers of our precious heritage of Scriptural truth that we should never devalue of ignore. Faith was the backbone of their art and similar faith ought to be the strength of every Anglican heart.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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