- Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton: Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England (review)
- George Herbert Journal
- George Herbert Journal
- Volume 21, Numbers 1 and 2, Fall 1997/Spring 1998
- pp. 106-113
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Achsah Guibbory, Ceremony and Communityfrom Herbert to Milton: Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998. xiii + 275 pp. $59.95. by Sidney Gottlieb In her prefatory comments, Achsah Guibbory describes Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton as ten years in the making. This was unquestionably ten years well spent, resulting in a book that is a comprehensively researched, impeccably organized, clearly written, and persuasively argued analysis of some of the key conflicts that energized seventeenth-century England. Her basic effort is to lay bare the symbolic filiations, the serious issues at stake in what may strike contemporary readers as the tremendous heat generated by disputes over apparently trivial matters of ritual, ceremony, and worship. We may not completely abandon Swift's contemptuous horror at the fact that lives were — and continue to be — lost in battles over, in effect, which part of an egg should be broken first, but Guibbory asserts that the trivial often stands in for the substantive, and that the warring parties in the seventeenth century are not caricatured Big Endians and Little Endians but deeply thoughtful (and frequently self-doubting) "puritans" and "ceremonialists ," with "conflicting constructions of human (and Christian) identity and of personal, social, and political relations" (p. 6). Guibbory is anything but a literalist, and she constantly pushes past the debates over such things as vestments, set vs. extemporaneous prayers, altars, church music, and religious artifacts to get at the more important underlying conflicts: about the role of art and human invention in life and worship; the relation between body and spirit; the connection between person and person, in various forms of marriage, family, and more extended society or community; and the proper sense of "history — the relation of the past to the present, and more specifically the relation of the pagan, Jewish, and Catholic past to the Protestant present" (p. 14). Throughout the first chapter she defines puritans and ceremonialists according to their ideas — not "logically worked out positions" but "mental and emotional attitudes" (p. 6), she says — on these broad topics. There are few surprises in her descriptions. Puritans, for example, tend to be suspicious of human artistry, uphold a troublesome duality of spirit vs. body, set up barriers between individuals and anyone else but their God, and emphasize discontinuity with the past, rejecting Book Reviews107 pagan, Jewish, and Catholic traditions as fully abrogated by Christ. Ceremonialists, on the other hand, more fully accept the legitimacy and value of human creativity in art and worship, stress the interdependence of spirit and body and are therefore more receptive to the material aspects of holiness and happiness, privilege harmonious community over individuality and unrestricted freedom, and value historical continuity, thus allowing them to embrace rather than combat other traditions, such as Roman Catholicism. This summary is, I think, an accurate description of the polarity Guibbory sets up, but does not do justice to her careful treatment of individual cases, which takes up the bulk of her volume. She avoids oversimplifications and is alert to tensions in these respective "mental and emotional attitudes." And her primary goal is not to come up with a set of traits that allows us to identify an individual by pinning on a name, but rather to steer us to the constellation of important themes and the range of opinions implicitly if not explicitly summoned up when a writer, whatever his or her descriptive "affiliation," comments on such things as altars, prayers, and rituals, which we are now able to appreciate as significantly evocative rather than trivial matters. Although Guibbory is widely conversant with the pamphlets, sermons, and prose treatises on seventeenth-centurycontroversies, and quotes from these texts extensively in the course of her argument, her main focus is on how "imaginative literature" functioned in these conflicts (p. 7), and how these conflicts must be central to our understanding of the literature of the time. The chapters on literary figures set up a neat symmetrical balance: two ceremonialists (Herrick and Browne), two puritans (early and late Milton, with a chapter devoted to each), and one key person who straddles both realms (Herbert). She begins with Herbert, I believe, for rhetorical as well...