“Constable’s Spirituall Sonnettes and the Three Spiritual Ways”
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies ,Volume 14 No. 2 (2006)
Spirituall Sonnettes:To the honour of God and hys Sayntes by Henry Constable (1562-1613) has not received the recognition it deserves as the sequence containing arguably the finest religious sonnets in English before Donne’s. One of the causes of this lack of recognition may be the sequence’s apparent lack of organization. The seventeen sonnets individually address figures in the heavenly hierarchy in regular descending order from “God the Father” to St. Margaret until the final six, where we find another three sonnets each to the Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene.
Applying the traditional structural paradigm of the “three spiritual ways,” the scheme of the soul’s progression to God developed by the Church Fathers, however, accommodates the final six sonnets and offers a view of the sequence as an organized whole. The first eleven sonnets represent the soul in the first two stages, purgation and illumination. Poems emphasizing the struggle for purification from earthly desires occur in a generally alternating pattern with poems in which the illumined soul reflects knowledge of, and meditates on, a divine mystery or saint’s life. The lack of a formal division between the poems portraying the soul in the purgative way and those portraying it in the illuminative is consistent with the recursive nature of the soul’s progress according to the doctrine of the three spiritual ways. The final six sonnets, however, consistently create a predominant image of the soul in the third, unitive stage through several features that create a personal, intimate tone: petitioning the addressee for the experience of spiritual love and divine union; sustaining the petition through both octave and sestet in four of the sonnets; frequently using the first person pronoun; and, in three of the sonnets, describing the soul’s union with the divine through imagery of sexual pleasure.
Contributing to the portrayal of the soul’s progression along the three ways is Constable’s adaptation of several conventions of Petrarchan love poetry: the address to a lady; the use of certain expressions and images, including those representing sexual love; and the sonnet form itself.