28 APRIL 1939, Page 28


Recusant Poets. With a Selection from Their Work. Vol. I. St. Thomas More to Ben Jonson. By Louise Imogen Guiney. (Sheed and Ward. as.)

MISS GUINEY began this magnificently thorough anthology in 1913. Her work was nearly finished when she died in 5920,

and it has been completed by her friend, Mr. Edward O'Brien, who has brought up to date the biographical and biblio- graphical notes. Miss Guiney in her introduction makes the modest claim that the value of the collection is as much historical as literary ; the scholar must decide on that, but the general reader will be astonished by its wealth of little-known poetry.

" The term recusant has been given the widest possible mean- ing—to include any Catholic who suffered from the civil power for his faith, but the contributions have been wisely confined to those which have some bearing on Catholic doctrine or ideals. Many of the poets, of course, are familiar : More him- self, Constable, Lodge, Southwell, Surrey ; some have been known only to specialists, and a few make their appearance for the first time in print. It is by no means a purely heroic company, and far from a saintly one—here is the turncoat Alabaster and cowardly, light-headed Copley, who, when he was a student in Rome—so Father Parsons reported—went up to the pulpit to preach with. a rose in his mouth. It is a pleasant irony that this Bye Plot conspirator, who made a confession implicating his friends, should have been the author of the fine stoic lines : "Give me the man that with undaunted spent Dares give occasion of a Tragedie."

Here, too, are the merely unattractive or the grotesque— Myles Hogarde, of Pudding Lane, with his eye for other men's errors, and Pickering, the too-careful Dominican of the Pil- grimage of Grace, who tried to rewrite the popular songs of that wild and hopeful year in a seemly and pedantic way : "It is wrytyn in the machabies—Loke well the stork- Accingemini potemes que estote filii."

It is interesting to watch how, among these unprofessional poets, the heroic and the uncertain, the rash and the too politic, the main themes change. At first the theme is social—

the decay of charity and hospitality : the greed for wealth. Men who were born in the pre-capitalist age describe with indignation the new capitalist spirit—which they still hope to see pass.

"Such bribyng for the purse, which ever gapes for more, Such hordyng up of worldly welds, such kepyng muck in store ... Such falshed undercraft, and such unstedfas: wayes, Was never sene within men's hartes, as is found nowadayes."

This is the theme, too, of the magnificent and anonymous marching song of the Pilgrims of Grace : it is astonishingly explicit in a poem by William Forrest, who inventories in minute detail the old just wages for a winter or a summer day, and such post-Reformation abuses as paying a woman less than a man for the same work. As time goes. on, this theme vanishes : people can no longer remember the old social system ; if the subje,ct re-emerges, as in one of Lodge's poems, it is in the form of nostalgia for something which will never return : "Then, then did flourish that renowned time, When earth and ashes thrusted not to dime."

This was the swan-song of the social conscience among Roman Catholic poets. The subject of martyrdom next began to take the principal place as the Douai victims accumulated : the peril of in- formers, the activities of Topcliffe, the warder knocking at the cell-door; and the anonymous author of Calvary Mount

recounts the whole routine of martyrdom, from the stretching of the joints to the last hurdle ride. Again we notice the concreteness of the expression, which became yet barer with the years, until- in a" poem, not printed here as it dates from

1646, we read : But quick and live they cut him down, And butcher him full soon: Behead, tear and dismember straight, And laugh when all is done.'

A practised poet, of course, dealt very differently with the same material: "Rue not my death rejoyce at my repose It was no death to mee but to my woe The budd was opened to let owt the rose The cheynes unloosed to let the captive goe "; but we can be glad that those others—who were only poets by accident—stuck to the bare fact.

It is not till the second half of this period that the third theme emerges—the doctrinal. The social changes had been obvious from the start and martyrdoms did not take place in a corner : it needed time for men to feel the weight of the sacramental loss. It was not really oppressive until they had reached that state described by Constable in a sonnet outside the scheme of this book : "Hope, like the hyena coming to be old." An anonymous poet writes on "the new learning " ; William Blundell of Crosby carefully notes the changes one by one and concludes in a tone which reminds us of his cavalier descendant : "the time is now as all men see new faiths have kild ould honestie."

And Constable in a sonnet describes the Blessed Sacrament with the exactness of a theologian—again we note the admirable, almost prosaic, precision of these poets, which seems more alive to us today than the rich imagery of Spenser. Only occasionally does this general reader feel inclined to quarrel with the editor—in the suggestion that the lovely singable lament over Walsingham may have been written by Southwell (surely it lacks altogether the heavy intellectual groundswell of his poetry) and in the inclusion of so much of Surrey's beautiful and inapposite verse. This is to draw the net too wide—the mainspring of his poetry was mainly aristocratic. It wasn't the faith he missed in prison so much as the " palme play" at Windsor, the cry of hounds, "the wanton talk, the divers change of play," the favour of a Court. He seems more out of place in the company of the martyrs than the coward Copley or poor uncertain Alabaster : dying a patrician death on Tower Hill, unacquainted with that dingy cell in Newgate which was known to more base-born