In Daniel R. Gibbons's wide-ranging study on early modern liturgy and poetics, the question of what it means to participate in a unified spiritual community emerges as a central preoccupation for both English Protestants and Catholics. Gibbons's analysis of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer liturgies for the Communion and burial rites provides the historical and cultural foundation for his readings of the poems, which he discusses in individual chapters on Spenser's elegies, Southwell's lyric verse, Donne's divine poems, Herbert's The Temple, and Crashaw's English lyrics. Gibbon's central thesis is that the Prayerbook provided a rhetoric that enabled English worshippers to demarcate the boundaries of a unified religious community in post-Reformation England. Through its ambivalent language and prayers that could be interpreted variously to satisfy both traditionalist and Reformed worshippers alike, the Prayerbook's liturgies avoided alienating parishioners who ascribed to a range of religious allegiances — all of whom saw themselves as committed members of the nascent English church. While Gibbons largely moves away from the texts of the liturgies themselves in his readings of the poems, his claim is that the Prayerbook's language of accommodation and exclusion shapes the way poets defined religious identity and sought to include a diversity of religious beliefs in their imagined lyric communities. As a poetic device, this model of rhetorical accommodation allowed the many readers of a single poem — as Gibbons writes in his reading of Donne's Holy Sonnet 'Show me deare Christ' — to 'forge a timeless unified worshipping body' in spite of the 'multiple individual readings of a single prayer-poem' that this body of readers would likely construe (p. 162).
Gibbons's study is a continuation of the kind of historicist work accomplished by recent monographs on the literary influence of the Book of Common Prayer, most prominently Ramie Targoff's Common Prayer: The Language [End Page 207] of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and Timothy Rosendale's Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England (Cambridge University Press, 2007). But Gibbons's emphasis on the continuity of Catholic thought in the writing and dissemination of the Prayerbook sets his study apart from the body of recent scholarship on English state worship. Indeed, one of the strengths of Gibbon's book is its inclusion of both Catholic and Protestant poets in its treatment of liturgical poetics. Although Gibbons positions the Book of Common Prayer as the central historical text in his interpretations of the poems, his study is equally inflected by a range of Catholic sources — including Augustine, Nicholas of Cusa, the Spanish mystics, and François de Sales. Gibbons's study is rewarding and worthwhile in that it serves as a reminder that the actual religious practices that we tend to label as 'Anglican' or 'Reformed', and even 'Protestant' and 'Catholic', rarely accommodate themselves to such neatly defined categories. In every chapter, Gibbons re-emphasizes the fluidity — and even self-contradictory quality — of post-Reformation English religious identity. This fluidity is what enables Gibbons to undertake parallel readings of poets who seem to write from vastly different theological commitments. For example, Gibbons makes the claim that both Spenser and Southwell respond to and challenge the cultural and psychological rifts left by the Prayerbook's Order for the Burial of the Dead — despite the fact that the former led state-directed anti-Catholic reforms in Ireland, and the latter was a Jesuit priest executed by the English state for his clandestine missionary work. Gibbons's decision to include in his study poets of diverse religious loyalties is testament to the wide-reaching cultural influence of the Book of Common Prayer, and the way that its liturgical rhetoric was appropriated and reimagined by those from opposing religious poles in Tudor and Stuart England.