While the concept of grace is usually thought to be a purely theological one, this book looks specifically at “The Politics of Grace.” The time period under study by author Deni Kasa (Associate Fellow of the Faculty of History, Univ. of Oxford) is the 1600s in England.

Martin Luther and his followers “saw grace as a source of spiritual regeneration that should not be used to undermine political authority.” Calvin “followed suit on the need to separate grace from resistance theory.” Very noble, but the idea that Protestants should not resist against princes who were persecuting them was not exactly realpolitik.

Kasa devotes the opening chapter to The Faerie Queen, the epic poem of the 1590s, by Edmund Spenser. He used the idea of equity to offer “a legal and political framework through which to transform grace into a marker of the superior civility of the Protestant English in comparison to the Catholic Irish.” Spenser famously argues that “the Irish have been so thoroughly corrupted by their religion” that they are unable to accept grace. They are, in fact, “agents of elemental chaos.” Kasa writes that in Spenser’s view “Irish culture and religion is so devoid of grace that the Irish will never voluntarily follow an equitable law and must therefore be reformed with inflexible force.” Alas, the intervening 400 years has shown little improvement on that island.

The first female poet in the English language, Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645), extended Spenser’s condemnation much more widely. “Lanyer suggests that men have a monopoly on learning that makes them ignorant of grace.” So half the population is now condemned! In her poem Salve Deus, even Saint Peter comes up short. “Peter’s mistake is to assume, as men are wont to do in the poem, that knowledge of God involves an ascent from ignorance to knowledge.” But, for Lanyer, “women’s relationship to grace seems to transcend time and place. Unlike Peter, the women know that to ascend is to descend because, like the Christ whose grace they reflect, they are partly invisible in the kingdom of this world.”

In chapter 3, Kasa turns his attention to Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who was considered the best poet in England during his lifetime (lead photo). The work under study here is his poem Davideis, which remained unfinished. “Cowley uses the language of grace and conversion to describe the subjective effect of divine harmony on a human being.” In a scene shot through with an erotic charge, Jonathan, encountering David after he slew Goliath, “is struck with amazement by David’s beauty.” To quote Cowley here, I have modernized some words:

                                He saw, and straight was with amazement struck,

                                To see the strength, the feature, and the grace

                                Of his young limbs.

“Throughout this scene, Cowley suggests that the entirety of creation is moved by the beauty of grace to behave in ways that seem supernatural.” Cowley then compares grace to magnetism, which on its surface does little to dilute the erotic subtext. But Dr. Samuel Johnson has it right, Kasa states, when (in his analysis of Davideis a century later) he “captures the intellectual abstraction that one feels when reading Cowley as he yokes grace, friendship, divine love, and magnetism in the same metaphor.” By “converting erotic possibilities into metaphysical conceits”, Kasa tells us, “Cowley diminishes the erotic charge that might have existed between Jonathan and David.”

The final 2 chapters treat with John Milton. I find it ironic that the grace of King Charles II saved Milton’s life. He showed more grace to Milton than Milton ever showed to his father, King Charles I, who Milton was quite happy to see die for his (Milton’s) warped sense of grace.

In Paradise Lost, Kasa writes, “the Son praises not only the Father’s grace but also his own interpretations of what grace means.” In this instance, it is not “the Son” who reinterprets what grace means, but the very human Milton himself. Accordingly, the Son in Paradise Regained “shows that rhetoric and poetry are legitimate when they are understood as the fruits of grace.” Very convenient for the poet Milton, but not for the King of England or the 200,000 lives lost in the Civil War!!

These two chapters by Kasa are extremely cogent, and should be read by all Milton scholars. The elitism of Milton beggars the imagination. Kasa distills Milton’s message: “Only men as educated as Milton will be able to interpret and teach as Jesus does.”

In his important conclusion, Kasa writes that in the texts he studies in this book, “grace in these poems is a way to justify other forms of domination. Each poet wants to imagine grace as a source of political agency.” I wonder what Luther would say to that?

A very fine and insightful book, highly recommended to all who study the 17th century.

Image: Abraham Cowley, in a painting from 1666. National Portrait Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.The Politics of Grace in Early Modern Literature is by Stanford University Press. It lists for $75

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.