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  • Robert Southwell, and the Mission of Literature, 1561-1595: Writing Reconciliation
  • Alison A. Chapman
Scott R. Pilarz . Robert Southwell, and the Mission of Literature, 1561–1595: Writing Reconciliation. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. xxvii + 300 pp. index. illus. bibl. $84.95. ISBN: 0–7546–3380–2.

Scott R. Pilarz argues resoundingly that all of Robert Southwell's literary works are marked by the impulse toward reconciliation. Pilarz shows howSouthwell repeatedly sought to find a conciliatory middle ground between opposing extremes of feeling, loyalty, and belief, and unlike more radical Protestant and Catholic voices of the time, Southwell eschewed vituperative rhetoric. This conciliatory stance is epitomized in his Humble Supplication, a text that argues eloquently for the compatibility of Catholicism and loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. Pilarz stresses repeatedly that Southwell saw poetry and literature as a primary means for effecting such reconciliation. Pilarz's point is significant, and I wish, given his deep expertise on Southwell, Pilarz had done a little more to situate Southwell's literary vision in relationship to other early modern writers (his interests lie more with Southwell's relation to the Jesuit and English Catholic tradition). However, Pilarz has provided an important contribution to our understanding both of Southwell and of the complex situation facing English recusants.

Pilarz convincingly shows how Southwell's urge toward reconciliation emerges out of his deep pragmatism. Southwell, for example, opposed the Babbington plot because he realized that such designs only made the plight of ordinary Catholics more desperate. Repeatedly, Pilarz depicts Southwell pragmatically negotiating between the tensions of hard-line dogma and the realities of pastoral care. In writing to his father, a lapsed Catholic with notoriously flexible religious allegiances, Southwell maneuvers between the positions of dutiful, obedient son and reproving priest. Pilarz's discussions are so convincing because they acknowledge head on how complex English Catholic life was "on the ground" (a phrase that Pilarz uses many times and one that exemplifies his refusal to simplify a difficult, shifting reality). Pilarz observes in his introduction that "Religious identity in [End Page 712] Southwell's England was more fluid than once imagined" (xxviii), and he points out that the still-dominant Louis Martz-Barbara Lewalski binary (either English devotional poets were influenced by the Catholic, Ignatian meditative tradition or they drew their inspiration from the Protestant Bible) is too simple a view given the complex interweavings of the English Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Pilarz demonstrates how Southwell's impulse toward reconciliation emerged out of his Jesuit training. Pilarz's own membership in the Society of Jesus gives him a vantage point from which to probe the theological tradition that Southwell knew, and the result is an accurate, modulated view of how Southwell both relies on and yet adapts Jesuit principles. This theological awareness is presented clearly, and it provides a fresh understanding of how Southwell mingles a classically Jesuit intellectual energy, a commitment to literature, and an unflagging pastoral care. Pilarz, unlike some other writers, manages to steer clear of hagiography. He allows Southwell's life as covert priest and martyr to speak for itself, and he does not flinch at exposing Southwell's emotional immaturity while in Douai and Rome. In the process, Pilarz creates a more complex picture of this important English writer.

Despite these many strengths, the book has an organizational weakness. Pilarz seeks to reassess Southwell's "life and works" (xiv, xxviii, emphasis added), but this mingling of biography and literary criticism can sometimes be confusing as first one then the other mode dominates. For example, the middle of the book settles into a predominantly biographical pattern as Pilarz describes in detail Southwell's years in Douai and Rome. Pilarz uses these events as background for discussing, among other works, Southwell's "The Sequence," a series of Marian poetic meditations written in Rome. He then shifts in the same chapter to Southwell's Humble Supplication, a work composed after five years as a fugitive priest back in England. Pilarz wishes here to draw a thematic link between two works written in praise of women (the Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth), but the unsignaled shift is disorienting in a work organized biographically in...


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