restricted access The Rhetoric of Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (review)
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Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. $100.00 cloth.

Ceri Sullivan's investigation of the impact of casuistry and the discourse of conscience on the seventeenth-century religious lyric immediately confronts us with an arresting cover image: on a platter atop an old wooden table rests a circle of oranges surrounding a disembodied heart. The edge of the platter holds open a book of psalms, suggesting the intimate relationships between psalmic soul-searching, probing the heart, and everyday nourishment. A literal illustration of the initial set-up of Herbert's "Love unknown," the image is not stylized in a manner reminiscent of the hand striking the rock-hardened heart in Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillans; rather, its photographic realism highlights Sullivan's emphasis on somatic representations of interiority in the work of Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan.

Following the claims of Stuart theologians, Sullivan defines the conscience as a form of syllogistic reasoning, in which an individual's actions are judged against "laws laid down in heart or scripture," so that the soul can voice the proper response (p. 1). This view runs counter to current conceptions, Sullivan argues, in that "Our own, colloquial idea of the conscience has to do with feelings and acts — a primitivism that comes from widespread secularism, lingering Romantic notions of an untutored self, and postmodernism's joyous indolence" (p. 25). By contrast, Renaissance theorists treat the conscience within the realm of judicial rhetoric. It is "the act of deciding," she contends, "that is the act of conscience" (p. 21). As a dialogic process involving both the human and the divine, the conscience only partly belongs to the poets. It entails a shared exchange.

This definition of conscience allows her to explore productively the close connections between rhetoric and moral reasoning, in particular, the use of specific tropes (subjectio, enigma, antanclasis, aposiopesis, and chiasmus) to investigate the problems arising from cases of conscience. In the cases of Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan, Sullivan draws attention to how often and how willfully the heart resists concluding the syllogism, thereby opposing the presumed wishes of divine authority. These poets rely on shared tropes to equivocate when saying the "correct words" would result in an undesirable abnegation of personal agency. [End Page 116]

The primary strength of the book is the insightful analysis of the various tropes, especially Sullivan's commentaries on the discursive dilemmas these poets confront. After advancing her definition of the conscience, each subsequent chapter identifies a spiritual issue or poetic phenomenon in need of further elucidation, then introduces a relevant cultural context (e.g., legal opinions about torture, views on tattooing, habits of scriptural reading, and the like), followed by analysis of specific poems. While Sullivan discusses a plethora of poets, Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan receive the most attention. In each chapter, she typically addresses all three in turn to show similarities and differences among them. Sometimes an extensive contextual discussion, while intriguing, might range so broadly through examples that it occasionally threatens the clarity of a chapter's overall line of argument. On balance, however, the book's emphasis on the linguistic process of moral reasoning usefully showcases how specific rhetorical strategies can be used to resist divine presumptions. The treatment of shared tropes and strategies allows us to see with greater clarity commonalities among the poets, as well as important temperamental distinctions.

The notion of resistance dominates much of the book, beginning with Sullivan's reading of torture imagery. In contrast to previous scholarship that stops short of explaining "why torture occurs" in such poems as Herbert's "Confession," "Love unknown," or "Affliction" (I), Sullivan finds in the rigorously concrete and accurate descriptions of torture techniques a canny awareness of how the victim in these poems is supposed to ventriloquize the torturer's answers to his or her own questions. However, in poem after poem, the conscience first evades its role with this subjectio before acceding. A "full confession," the "answer God is looking for," may well come forth; but the manner of forcing it from the heart, the "torturer's subjectio," also "allows poets to disclaim any part...