The Muse of Mount Orgueil: a reading of William Prynne’s poetry
Paul D. Green

Green, Paul D. "The Muse of Mount Orgueil: a reading of William Prynne’s poetry". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 4.1-73 <URL:>.

  1. Following his second trial and judicial mutilation in 1637, Prynne was removed from the Tower of London to Carnarvon Castle on August 4. He found the castle a “nasty dogg-hole” but, as Ethyn Williams Kirby states in her biography of Prynne, his transfer to the Isle of Jersey (October 10) was due to the authorities’ alarm at the number of his visitors and his continued communications with puritans in London. There were also rumours of communications with Scottish Covenanters, and of his sending a seditious book in cypher to another enemy of Archbishop Laud, John Williams Bishop of Lincoln. [1]

  2. After a fourteen week journey (he arrived at Jersey on January 17, 1638, according to a marginal note to a prefatory poem “To the Christian Reader”), during which he complained of terrible storms and the company of papists, he was placed at Mount Orgueil Castle by the governor of the island, Sir Philip de Carteret. In A New Discovery of the Prelates Tyranny (London, 1641), Prynne claims that there he was closely guarded and denied visitors. It was during this three year period of confinement in Jersey that most of Prynne’s poems were conceived [2] , with the exception of Comfortable Cordials against Discomfortable Feares of Imprisonment, and other sufferings in good causes. These latter, according to an inscription in the frontispiece, were “written by Mr. William Prynne on his Chamber walles in the Tower of London, during his Imprisonment there”. The rest were perhaps written either with rude writing materials, or in rudimentary form, during his Jersey imprisonment. This is what Prynne somewhat opaquely implies, but these protestations may merely have been a cover for complicity by the Carterets in allowing Prynne writing materials against the stipulations of the authorities.

  3. In “To the Christian Reader”, Prynne speaks cryptically of his muse, “Some Sparkes wherof rakt up in Ashes then, I layd aside, for want of  Inke and Pen” [par] 4R , ll. 19-20. Viewing retrospectively his three years at Jersey, he implies at least an editorial arrangement of the in situ productions: “I have blowne up these buried Sparkes a new, And here present them to thy Christian View” [par] 4V ll. 33-34. There may here be a paronomastic reference to the name of Prynne’s customary publisher, Michael Sparke Senior, who collaborated with a printer named Thomas Cotes to produce the combined volume of poems. The corpus [3] of Prynne’s poems was thus printed together in London after his triumphal return there in 1641. [4] It comprises:- i) three groups of  poems, many around sonnet length but sometimes up to forty lines, under the title Mount Orgueil: Divine and Profitable Meditations  ii) a longer poem entitled The Soules Complaint against the Body  iii) Comfortable Cordialls, a collection of short poems and epigrams which focus on Prynne’s experiences of punishment and captivity in the Tower.      

  4. Apart from Edmund Miller's fine preface to the poems, the critical response is at present brief and Kirby’s biography allots them barely one small page. [5] Of the qualities of the “stern and unlovely verse”, she says that it is “crabbed and gnarled”, aimed at moral improvement, and that “it represents an indomitable spirit.” William L. Lamont makes just one comment about the verse, regarding a specific area which I address below (para.16, infra). The DNB has it that “[r]hyme is the only poetical characteristic they possess” (Vol.46, p.433). In Hudibras, Samuel Butler, in mock-heroic invocation of a muse for his lampooning of puritans, calls upon
  5. Thou that with ale, or viler liquors,
    Didst inspire Withers, Pryn, and Vickars
    And force them, tho’ it was in spite
    Of nature, and their stars, to write [6] .           

  6. David Norbrook has repaired neglect of George Wither’s work [7] , whose poetic attainments are of course greatly superior in technical accomplishment to those of Prynne. However, despite being a republican for most of his poetical career, and notwithstanding the chastity and elegance of his love lyrics, his work does not afford that clear manifestation of zealous puritan sensibility found in Prynne’s verse.  Peter Davidson’s recent wide-ranging anthology, which on the whole succeeds in its attempt to include “disparate and divergent voices” [8] , contains no example of Prynne’s considerable poetic output. Yet the poems offer an opportunity to observe the essential puritan mindset expressed within contexts which differ from the author’s customary genre, the polemical prose pamphlet.

  7. The first collection of poems in the 1641 volume is entitled Mount-Orgueil: or Divine and Profitable Meditations, Raised from the Contemplation of these three Leaves of Natures Volume, 1. ROCKES, 2. SEAS, 3. GARDENS, digested into three distinct Poems. To which is Prefixed, a Poeticall Description, of Mount-Orgueil Castle in the Isle of Jersy. The title, and the meditational mechanism of many of the poems, participates in a trend followed by a very different devotional work, Partheneia Sacra (1633), by the Jesuit Henry Hawkins. Hawkins’ “Symbolical Theologie” [9] uses symbols from Nature (particularly gardens and related topoi) to praise and meditate upon the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  8. This technique is situated in exegetical tradition by Wolfgang Lottes, in his article about Hawkins'  work of devotional prose: “The idea of the two books of the revelation of God, the Bible and Nature (liber creaturum), had been expressed by St Bernard, St Bonaventure, and other authorities in comments on Genesis and Canticles.” [10] One might add the Neoplatonic OT exegeses of Philo of Alexandria (c.30BC-c.AD45), an earlier interpreter of the contiguities of Nature and Scripture. However, as Edmund Miller has said concerning Prynne's development of a Protestant poetics: "the moral and devotional truths of Christianity are read directly from the physical details of nature. Prynne is attempting to sweep away the history of commentary and bring us back into the garden with nothing but the Scriptures as our guide."(Introduction, p. ix).

  9. Keith Thomas has shown how religious and emblematic views of Nature associated with mediaeval art and symbolism formed a contrastive background to the development of objective principles of taxonomy and classification which characterize the botany and zoology of the early modern period. Alongside increasingly scientific and analytical ways of thinking about Nature, Thomas also underlines the continuing potency of religious impulses: “The scope of natural history in the early modern period far transcended practical needs, and derived from a combination of religious impulse, intellectual curiosity and aesthetic pleasure. It was religion which taught that the natural world was God’s book and that its study was a direct route to understanding the divine wisdom.” [11]  
  10. In the dedication of this collection of poems to Sir Philip Carteret, “Governour and Baliffe of the Isle of Jersy”, we find the first of Prynne’s avowals of the artlessness of “these rude meditations” [par] 3R. Although I think this very rudeness often develops a poetic value of its own, the precedence which devotion is to take over artfulness is suggested in “To the Christian Reader”. Prynne describes the effects of his contemplation of the three leaves of Nature’s volume:

    In which pursuite, I found such inward Joyes,
    Such Cordiall Comforts, as did over-poise
    My heaviest Crosses, Losses, and supply
    The want of all,
    Foes did me deny;
    Give me assurance of a sweete Returne
    Both from my
    Exile, Prison, and mine Urne:
    Revive my cold dead Muse, and it inspire
    Though not with
    brightest, yet with Sacred fire

    [par]4R  ll. 11-18.

  11. There is often a meandering discursivity in the rhythm and content of Prynne’s fractured iambics that effectually imparts the flow of consciousness, as it moves within and between the books of Nature and of Scripture. The apparently spontaneous mode of the meditations gives the impression of a fusion or interpenetration of Nature and Scripture in the mind of the poet. On this count, Edmund Miller remarked that Prynne's use of the device of asyndetic listing confers "a breathless urgency to Prynne's poetry that is exactly appropriate to his theme." (Introduction, p. x).

  12. The rhythm of the heroic couplets is varied with the potential anapaestic substitutions of ll. 13 and 16, and by the internal rhyme of line 13. The enjambment of lines 12 to 13, successful in its matching the sense, introduces a further rhythmic variation due to the unusual length of the vowel in “over-poise”. The placing of two almost synonymous words in apposition (“Crosses” and “Losses”) is an instance of Prynne’s frequent use of simple mechanisms to maintain the flow of verse, and the impression of a stream of consciousness responding directly both to the liberating powers of Nature, and to the frustrating context of confinement. In finding assurance not only for the restoration of his freedom and worldly fortunes, but for a return from “mine Urne”, the dedication introduces the theme of intimations of the Resurrection glimpsed through the patterns and cycles of Nature. [12]     

  13. The verse epistle “To the Christian Reader” concludes by stating the purpose of the poems, and by invoking the Holy Spirit for a primarily spiritual rather than poetic function:

    Thy Comfort, Profit, is all I desire,
    Next to Gods glory; Lord, let the sweete fire
    Of thy good Spirit by these lines convoy
    Flames of Love, zeale [sic.], Comfort, Grace, & Joy
    Into each Readers soule, that he may see
    Meditations were inspir’d by Thee.                                                        

[par] 4V ll. 47-52.

  1. There follows “A Poeticall Description of Mount-Orgueil Castle in the Isle of Jersy, interlaced, with some briefe Meditations from its rockie, steepe, and lofty Situation.” The poem combines with spiritual meditations Prynne’s ability to capture hard and rugged texture, and introduces some of the recurrent moral themes of his poetry:

    A proud High-mount it hath, a Rampeir long,
    Foure gates, foure Posternes, Bulworkes, Sconces strong,                       
    All built with Stone, on which there mounted lye,                                       
    Fifteene cast peeces of Artillery;                                      
    With sundry Murdering Chambers, planted so,
    As best may fence it selfe, and hurt a foe.

    A1R ll. 9-14.

  2. The negative implication of those “Murdering Chambers” is muted by their defensive role in this poem. The themes of war and human violence are developed in later poems (vide infra, 56; 57). The castle, built upon a rock, is presented as a symbol of Christ as a refuge for his persecuted “members”, whose enemies are destroyed, like the waves which beat against the rock, by their own fury:

    Thus potent Tyrants, whiles they strive to quash
    Christs feeble members, oft themselves quite dash
    To shivers, ‘gainst the Rocke Christ, upon whom
    They safely founded stand what ever come.

    A1V ll. 35-38. 

  3. The poem demonstrates, according to William M. Lamont [13] , a questionable form of élitism. Prynne claims that the castle’s “haughty name” (l. 43) should not lead us to look for pride in that “lofty pile” (l. 1). On the contrary, he finds that pride is more likely to be found in “worthlesse upstarts, beggers, peasants vile” (l. 57) than in “those of better Birth, Blood, Place” (l. 59). Although this provides a corrective against easy equations between low social status and humility, the idea that Christ preached humility from Mount Olivet to show “that pride more oft doth dwell / In lowest valleyes, and meanest Cell; / Than in the greatest Mounts, Men, Minds” (ll. 65-67) perhaps shows a Prynne driven by a need to extol the social superiority of the Carterets. Poem 8, from the third section of Rockes Improved (p. 26), gives the contrary notion, and so evinces the problematic nature of Prynne’s negotiation of the relationship between social place and piety:

    Rockes for the most part lowly are and meeke: 
    The Saints are so, and no high places seeke;
    In this vaine world...

    (ll. 1-3).

  4. The poet’s notions of hierarchy, nobility and class are areas which emerge with somewhat more complexity in other poems. Poem 16 (p. 46) decries “carnall Men advanc’d, fortifide / With potent Friends, wealth, Honours” who “swell with Pride” (l. 7-8).

  5. The first of the three collections of poems which make up Mount Orgueil is entitled Rocks Improved, Comprising Certaine Poeticall Meditations, Extracted from the contemplation of the Nature and Quality of Rockes; a barren and harsh Soyle, yet a Fruitfull, and Delightfull subject of Meditation. The collection is preceded by a dedication and a “Proeme”, and divided into five “rankes” of meditations, each followed by a conclusion. The title Rockes Improved has several potential meanings in relation to these poems, since the various “rankes” compare rocks with “ungodly Men”, “Sinnes”, and “God’s Elect”. The common factor of improvement as spiritual amelioration is thematically underpinned by the idea of Prynne’s taking the raw material of Nature to produce spiritual allegory.

  6. Rockes Improved is dedicated to Lady Anne Carteret, the wife of Sir Philip Carteret, with a further attestation of their rudeness, a quality fitted to “that high rockie place”, Mount Orgueil: “The Poem’s like the Subject, barren, rude, / Uncompt, yet wholsome to an heart renu’d ” (A4R ll. 5-7). “Meditations of the first Ranke, Parallelling Christ and Rockes together” consists of 38 poems, varying from four to 32 lines in length. The poems throughout Mount Orgueil are of similar length, except for several slightly longer poems. Poem 1 of this “ranke”, [“The Stony Rockes no other Father know”], uses a description of the creation of rocks, and their transmutation from liquid to solid, to express the mystery of Christ’s divine Sonship. A further dimension is added to the poem by a Scriptural place given in the page margin. I quote this short poem in full (the bracketed letters, which refer the reader to Scriptural verses listed in the margins, are reproduced from the original text) [14] :

    The Stony Rockes no other Father know    
    But God who made them, from whose(c) word they flow
    So Christ (both God and Man) no Father knowes
    But God eternall; from whose Loines he flowes
    By such a Generation as exceedes
    Mens shallow Thoughts, and in them wonder breeds.    

                                                                                                                    (p. 2).

  1. Hence, the concept of fathership is extended to include the creational utterance of God. This is celebrated in the doxological element introduced by the scriptural place: (c) Psalm cilviii, 5, “Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded, and they were created.” A further Scriptural place is adduced which diversifies the concept of spiritual generation to include the spiritual birth of Christians: (c) John iii, 3: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”   
  2. The poem finds its antithetical counterpart in a short poem of the second collection, A Christian Sea-Card:

    The Sea a (h) world of ugly monsters breedes
    Within her wombe, the which she dayly feedes.
    Whole worlds of monstrous Sinnes and lusts are bred
    In wicked Hearts, and dayly nourished.

    (p. 76-77).

  1. The image of perverted generation is enhanced by the Scriptural place given in the margin: (h) Lamentations iv, 3, “Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones: the daughters of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness”. A frequent meditational purpose of the poems, and of their vivid images, is to invite contrition and the conviction of sin.  

  2. In poem 6 of Rockes Improved, Prynne sets his meditations upon the liber creaturum against the Roman Catholic use of images. If the rock which Moses smote to bring forth water (Exodus xvii, 6) was a figure of  the wound in Christ’s side which yielded water and blood (John xix, 34), then “every Rock whence Cristall waters spring” is “a lively Picture” which is to “bring / Our Rocke Christ to our Mindes” (ll. 15-17). For Prynne, the liber creaturum contains meditational material which, compared to the crucifix, “doth in more lively wise / Present Christ and his Passion to our Eyes” (ll. 25-26). His thought is summed up in the provocative but witty couplet: “Let Papists then behold their painted stickes; / Each Rocke to me shall be a Crucifixe”(ll. 27-28). [15]

  3. In poem 16, he equates Old Testament sacrifices with Christian “Praises, Almes, Teares, Prayers, Cryes” (l. 5). The sacrifices were offered “upon bare Rockes”, not “on Altars gay”. [16] To be acceptable these Christian sacrifices must be “laid on Christ our Rocke” so that they will “mount to Heaven sweetned with the fume / Of his rich Odors, which their stincke consume” (ll. 9-10). Thus Prynne deploys a vivid confutation of justification by works, even by the fervent “Sacrifice” he has described in line 5. Moreover, in the context of the anti-Catholic resonances of “Altars gay”, the “fume / Of his rich Odors” contains an ironic animadversion of Roman Catholic censing, and the whole poem seems to attack the concept of sacrifice in the Mass.

  4. The poem has a marginal allusion to Hebrews xiii, 15 (“By him therefore let us offer sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name”), and to I Peter ii, 5 (“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ”). Thus, both the liber creaturum and Scripture are brought to bear against the ritual of the Roman Church. The sacerdotal role of the Christian laity, whose spiritual sacrifice and virtuous life makes a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, is placed in complete opposition to the formal procedures of the Roman clergy. Such is the force of this poem’s antisacramentalism, if we follow the implications of its Scriptural citation within the poem’s context, that one might question the function Prynne ascribed to Presbyterian or other puritan ministers. If the sacerdotal role of the laity is opposed to that of clergy, it becomes difficult to envisage even a pastoral function for the clergy. A Presbyterian, and later an Erastian [17] in his views on Church government, in this poem Prynne’s thought seems to point towards Robert Browne’s early anticlericalism. Although one cannot generalize Prynne’s ecclesiology from this short poem, it appears to show how his anti-Catholic sentiments can produce broader conflict within representations of the sacerdotal roles of lay Christians and clergy.    
  5. Poem 8 demonstrates the ubiquitous detail of the Christological correspondences which Prynne creates with features of the natural world. As clefts and holes in rocks provide refuge from danger, so souls find refuge in Christ’s wounds. Prynne calls on his readers to share in these mental associations, in order to “imprint” them on their minds, to produce solace and remembrance:

    Yea let each Hole and Clift which we espie
    In Rocks, present Christ’s wounds, Holes, to our Eye,
    And so imprint them in our Hearts and Minde,
    That they may still sweete Solace in them finde.

  (p.5, ll. 9-12) [18]

  1. In poem 12, Prynne reverts to the theme of the metals and precious stones that are extracted from rock (cf. poems 4 and 5), but develops the theme by considering the outward form of Christ. Rather than a contemporary Catholic emphasis on the beauty of Christ, this poem concentrates on making a point about what it suggests is a common disparity between outward beauty and inner qualities:

                                     Rockes have no outward(y) forme nor comelinesse
                                     To make them lovely. Scripture is expresse
                                     That Christ our Rocke had none, whence most despise
                                     Him whiles they view Him but with carnall Eyes.
                                     And yet as Rockes, though ragged, vile and bare
                                     In outward forme, containe within them rare
                                     And precious Jewels, Stones, Mines, of all Kinds;
                                     So though our Rocke, Christ, unto carnall Minds
                                     In outward shew seemes base; yet in Him lye
                                     The richest Treasures, Mines, Gems, hid from eye:
                                     O judge not then by (c) outside, since corse skinne
                                     And rags oft times have Treasures, Pearles within,
                                     Whiles guilded Outsides (like a (e)  painted Grave)
                                     Nought else but Dust, Drosse, Dung, within them have.                                     

  1. The citation of Isaiah liii, 2: (y)“There is no beauty that we should desire him”, is corroborated and given greater homiletic weight by the less obvious Scriptural place from 1 Samuel : (c) “But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart”. This passage relates God’s rejection of Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, and of his other six sons, in favour of his youngest son, the shepherd boy David, to be anointed as king by Samuel. Thus, as David is usually taken as a figure of Christ, the Scriptural place is doubly relevant.           

  2. The syntactical parallelism of “Rockes” and “Scripture” at the beginning of lines one and two is introduced with a casual discursiveness. The poem again demonstrates a free-flowing style which privileges the tendentious outpouring of content over finished form, and suggests the stream of meditative consciousness at work, in a man for whom Scriptural citation is second nature. In this sense, Prynne’s frequent use of functionally synonymic enumeration ( in lines 7, 10, 12, 13) not only suggests the profuse fecundity and diversity of the liber creaturum, but subjects poetic form to meditational matter and maintains the free flow. There is also a useful and natural hiatus between the end of line two and the beginning of line three: the lengthy pause after “Scripture is expresse” serves to place qualitative emphasis on the importance of the Scripture which follows.

  3. The rhyme between “despise” and “carnall eyes”, again shows the simplicity of the verse’s formal properties, but also links with the “carnall Minds” of line eight. This matches the poem’s movement from a defence of that which has “no outward form nor comeliness” to an attack which culminates in the vilification of those “guilded Outsides” of line 13. [19]   The use of images of dirt and maculation, a recurring topos in the poems, give the poem a climactic closure. This effect is, of course, complemented by the alliterated ‘d’ of the three objects in apposition in the final line “Dust, Drosse, Dung”.

  4. In an essay, Martin Ingram discusses “bitterness of style” and “intemperance of language” as components of style in puritan writing [20] . I concur with the idea of “bitterness”, with the etymological sense of mordant animosity (the OED gives a Gothic origin), and the connotations of pungent tastes and astringent cures which the OED traces to Old English. The attribute of “intemperance of language” I am more inclined to resist, at least in one sense. In Prynne, the bitterness of puritan invective is robust, pungent, strong or severe, sometimes indelicate, but never profane or linguistically obscene. For a puritan of Prynne’s zeal and formal moral rectitude, cold-blooded printing of coarse obscenities or swearing would be seen as intemperate use of language and completely taboo. There are many denunciations of such language in Histriomastix, as is readily seen from the "Index" at the end of that work. 

  5. In alluding to Christ’s admonishment of the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees, Prynne uses the “whited sepulchres” of Matthew xxiii, 27 (here paraphrased to become “a painted Grave”) in an accommodated sense. For the target is no longer the moral hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, but the vainglory of those comely persons who are the antithesis of “the ragged, vile and bare”, a comeliness which is an outward cover concealing very different inner and intrinsic qualities. In poem 6 of the second part of Rockes Improved, which compares rocks with sins, Prynne fulminates against the deformities caused by sin. Although the descriptions are apparently external and physical, the metaphorical status of the transformations in line 5 show that inner states are primarily under consideration:
  6. Rockes are deformed, horrid, barren, vile;
    And so are sinnes, with all whom they defile.
    These make Men ugly, filthy, Steril, base,
    And all their Glory, Beauty, quite deface;
    Yea, change them into Monsters, wolves, dogs, swine;
    Nay Fiends incarnate. O then Sinnes decline!                                           

  7. Images of rock yielding sweetness and consolation, hidden precious gems, and as “The safest refuge of his Saints” (poem 10, 1. 8), are recurring motifs in the first section of Rockes Improved. In parallel with these images, Prynne develops the idea of the godly minority who struggle against powerful forces of evil arrayed against them. This thin godly line is at once heroical and fragile. It is Christ’s “chosen Band” (poem 15, l. 4), “his church and feeble Sheepe” (poem 13, l. 3) and would be swept away easily but for “his mighty power” (poem 13, l. 6). The slender number of the “chosen Band [21] is set against Prynne’s concept of the “Multitude” of Roman Catholics: “Hence may all Popelings Learne, that Multitude, / Christ’s, or his Churches truth doth ill conclude.” (Poem 21, ll. 21-22). The idea is repeated in poem 22, p.49, where “Multitude, and visibility / Appeare ill Markes a Churches Truth to trie” (ll. 9-10).

  8. Patrick Collinson mentions the tendency of the more zealous puritans to see themselves as a beleaguered but special minority [22] , while Peter Lake remarks that confrontation of superstition and ignorance in the population was a role which the puritans saw as theirs. [23] In Milton’s PR, Jesus and Satan refer, respectively, to “the headstrong multitudes (II, 470) and “the dizzy multitude (II, 420). In Book III, Jesus delivers a sharp invective against “the people” who are “a herd confused” (49), “A miscellaneous rabble, who extol / Things vulgar” (50-51). 

  9. If puritan religious thought involved a self concept of being the “chosen Band”, few in number, this could merge uncomfortably with celebrations of social superiority centred on rank or birth, and by implication, wealth. Peter Lake thought that the “puritan world-view was associated with the progressive forces of capitalism”. [24] However, Prynne adopts a flexible approach which varies to both praise and decry aspects of the courtly few and the multitude.         

  10. In poem 18, the selectiveness of the elect band is increased again by the extreme ardours which must be overcome by those who would reach Christ and “climbe upon Him, and a building reare” (l. 10). The rhythm, punctuated by the hiatus produced by enjambment of ll. 3-4 and by the alliteration in l. 3, conveys mimetically the surging advances, the checks and pauses for rest:

    No lasie, fearefull Persons can ascend
    Steepe Craggie (s) Rockes, but onely those who bend
    Their Mindes, Force, Might thereto, who hardly get
    Upon them but with earnest paine and sweat,
    Nay falls, oft-times, and Bruises... 

  11. Reference (s), to Amos vi, 12:  “Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen?”, offers a sardonic aside on the unfitness of the fearful and slothful for this undertaking. An appropriate citation for the poem’s theme, Amos vi is an attack upon “The wantonness of Israel” (King James gloss), and addresses “them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria” (verse 1), and “That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches” (verse 4).     

  12. Elaborating on the “strait gate” of Matthew vii, 13-14 [25] , Prynne balances the difficulties and exclusivity of the spiritual ascent, with the rewards of scaling “A Rock so Narrow, craggie, steep, Sublime”(l. 7). However, as in many of the poems, the function of poetry to delight is heavily subordinated to the transparent portrayal of the stresses and strains of heroic and uncompromising puritan virtue. The poem also embodies with practical rigour the first commandment [26] which it refers to in its final couplet, calling on those who would climb “this Rocke” to “addresse themselves with (z) all their might / Unto this worke, which will their paines requite.” (ll. 13-14).                            

  13. Rather than subtlety or artfulness in the explication of the sometimes laboured metaphysical conceits, one finds an impressiveness of range and diversity of conception in the simple parallels between the physical properties of natural phenomena and moral or spiritual themes in Rockes Improved. For example, poem 19, “[Rockes are too Hard, on which to sleep secure]”, figures the need for followers of “this Rocke” (Christ) to be vigilant against “world, flesh, Devill” (l. 6). The absolute pattern of humility given by the descent from Heaven of the “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, most High, / Nay second Person in the Deity” is found to resonate in another quality of rocks: “Rockes humble are, and never upwards tend, / Mount, swell, but downe their Heads and Motions bend” (poem 22, ll. 1-2).

  14. There are often contrastive turns between the themes or perspectives of groups of poems. For example, poems 21 and 22 dwell on the “ragged” and “humble” aspects of  rocks, while poem 23 introduces a refreshing and arresting change: “High Rocks a pleasant Prospect yeeld, whence Men / Sea, Land, nay Heaven may better Ken.” (ll. 1-2).     

  15. In Poem 32, the rending of the rocks upon Christ’s death is the basis of a vivid prosopopœia, which also shows the childlike process of some of Prynne’s metaphoric inventions, often situated quizzically between wit and earnest naivety:

    When Christ gave up the Ghost, the Rockes did rent,
    The Death of this cheefe Rocke for to lament:
    Yea, to beare witnesse of his Deity,
    Who though he dy’d, made Rockes in pieces flye.

    (ll. 1-4).

  1. In Poem 35, the callous response of men to Christ’s Passion and death is contrasted with the paradoxically sympathetic behaviour of rocks in rending, and in providing his tomb: “the Rocks rent, and Him House-room give!”(l. 14).        
  2. A similar glee before the miraculous is found in Poem 20, with its image of Christ’s walking on water, “Lifting his Head above the proudest Seas” (l. 5). The epideictic conceit, concerning the behaviour of rocks near water, culminates in the pleasing absurdity of the final couplet with its sailing and swimming rock: “All other Rockes in waters sincke, Christ Sailes, / Swimmes, walkes upon, and over them prevailes.” The preternatural and superior order of the spiritual body over natural bodies is again introduced in Poem 33, which describes the claritas or divine lustre of the resurrected body:        

    Christ at the last will scoure off all our Rust,
    Drosse, and Corruption; and our Corps restore
    To such a State, that it shall dye no more;
    But live in endlesse Glory, and excell
    The shining Rayes, which in Starres, Moone, Sunne, dwell.

(ll. 7-11).

  1. The stoical fortitude of Christ in the face of suffering is delineated by the passivity of rocks before an array of elemental physical forces and their actions:

    Rockes are most Patient and doe not complaine
    Cry, stir, though Tempests, Seas, Winds, Axes, Rain,
    Nay Sledges beat upon them, and them bruise,
    Break, hew, cleave, pierce, cut, lance, & much misuse.

(Poem 30, ll. 1-4).

  1. This enumeration and accumulation of words and images with hard or harsh textures, and of verbs of violent force, is entirely characteristic of Rockes Improved. It also features in A Christian Sea-Card, where the sublime and the destructive powers of the sea are effectively evoked by Prynne’s “barren, rude, / Uncompt” style. [27]

  2. The second group of meditations in Rockes Improved compares “Rockes and Sinnes together” (p.19 ff.). Poems 1, 2, 3 and 4 compare the heaviness and textural qualities of rocks with the encallousing effects of sin. Poem 2, for example, uses the crushing effect of heavy rocks to suggest the traumatic and characteristically puritan experience of the conviction of sin:

    Rockes presse and bruise Them sore on whome they lye
    And for meere anguish make them Roare and Cry.
    Sinnes doe so too; when God doth once awake
    Mens soules, their Pressure makes them roare and quake.


  1. However, this painfulness is seen as preferable to the condition of those who cannot perceive the weight of the rocks of sin: “Though stony hearts them light and easie deeme” (poem 1). In poem 9, Prynne repeats this admonishment, and broadens its application by suggesting a political analogue: “O then beware lest Sinnes make us secure. / No State’s so ill, as that which seemes most sure (ll. 5-6).

  2. Insensitivity to sin, and the gradual stealth but deadly results of sin’s progress, are suggested in several of these poems, as Prynne returns to a theme which received his attention in Histriomastix. [28] In poem 10, the very insensateness of rocks assumes, paradoxically, a prosopopœic liveliness and impudence:
  3. All Rockes are blushlesse, shameless, impudent;
    Sinnes are so too, nought can them daunt, relent.
    And by degrees Mens Hearts, Browes they so steele
    That they no Sinne
    , Blush, shame, disgrace can feele.
    Take heed then lest Sinne, first, us shamelesse make,
    Then Senselesse, Gracelesse, fit for Hells dread Lake. [29]                   

  4. The third section of Rockes Improved is entitled “Meditations of the third Sort, suiting Rockes, and Gods Elect together.” Poems 1, 2, 3 and 4 compare the steadfastness and intractability of rocks to the dependability and perseverence of “Gods Chosen Sheepe” (poem 1, l. 3). The theme of disparity between outer form and essential quality is taken up in poems 5, 6 and 7: “Yet though Rockes Outsides be but base and rude, / They richest mines within their wombes include”. These three poems initiate a thematic development whereby the operation of divine grace upon the godly is compared to the transformation of crude stone which is “hewed square” to make “The fairest Temples, Buildings” (poem 7, ll. 1-2). The operation of grace involves an embellishment of the soul for “God’s Elect”, and a precisian’s sense of “Place” and orderliness:

    Stones digged out of Rockes and hewed square
    The (n) fairest Temples, Buildings make that are.
    So Gods Elect, though vile whiles that they lye
    In Natures Quarries in deformitie;
    Yet hew’de out thence, squar’d, polisht by Gods Grace, 
    And layd in order in their proper Place,
    Become (o) rich Temples wherein God doth dwell,
    And doe all other structures farre excell,
    In worth, and glory: Lord thus square, and lay
    Us in these Sacred walls, which last for aye. 

(Poem 7, ll. 3-10).

  1. The poem contains a certain ambiguity: if “God’s Elect” remain “vile” whilst in “Natures Quarries”, it is uncertain whether this condition persists until their perfection in the eternal “Sacred Walls” which suggest paradise. The references cited for (n), from I and II Kings and from II Chronicles, concern the building of Solomon’s Temple by the servants of Hiram king of Tyre. Prynne sees this construction process as an Old Testament figure for the Pauline concept of Christians as the fabric of the temple of the Holy Spirit: (o) “In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians ii, 21-22).

  2. A further reference, to I Kings vi, 7, which describes the preparation of the stones away from the temple site so that the construction process would be silent, adds to the mystical allusiveness observable beyond the surface simplicity of the poem. The life of “God’s Elect” during their life in the world may be seen as being under a process of hewing, squaring, polishing and laying in order. The final couplet transfers the fruition of this process from the Pauline sense of actuality in the world (c.f. Ephesians iii, 3: “In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit”), to the more anagogical and apocalyptic context of the Johannine New Jerusalem. [30]  

  3. The role of “Saints” in the world is treated in poems 9, 10, and 12. Their “holy Lives” and “frequent Prayers” are described as “States surest Guards; Forts, both in Peace and war” which “Shield-off Judgements, Foes, Plagues, yea Gods Ire” (poem 9, ll. 3-5). William Lamont has pointed out the influence on Prynne of Thomas Beard, puritan schoolmaster to Oliver Cromwell. [31] Beard’s The Theatre of Gods Iudgements (a third edition was printed in 1631) claims that all occurrences are by the “prescription” of God’s will and are disposed by Him “after a strange and admirable order”. In Histriomastix, Prynne had posited links between plagues, disasters and the unsaintly activities of the theatres. [32] He also cites Beard as an authority in Histriomastix (Fol. 556V, 557R, 557V). The influence is apparent in many of the poems, such as poem 8, p. 42: “Christ (who seekes our Soules to save) / Doth dayly knocke by his Word, Grace and Spirit, / Saints, Preachers, Motions; and oft times them smite / With sundry Judgements, Tempests, Seas, Malles, Winds” (ll. 1-2).

  4. In another emphatic evocation of the conviction of sin experience, the “Saints” are said to be the only recourse for “Sinne-sicke Soules, and those who feele the Sting / Gripes, Torments, Flames of Hell and Conscience” (poem 10, ll. 4-5). A sense of separateness from the world, religious intimacy and mutual support within the godly community culminates in the wistful pathos of the final couplet “Since no ungodly wretch can cheare, or ease / A Sinne-sicke Soule, nor aking Heart appease.”

  5. The following section is entitled “Meditations of the fourth Classe, sampling Rockes, and Rockie Hearts, with ungodly Men, together”. The first four poems repeat ideas from the second section, which compared rocks with sins, such as the shame, impudency and injuriousness shared by rocks and sinners. Poem 5 expands on that intimation of anti-war sentiment upon which I remarked concerning the “Murdering Chambers” of “A Poeticall Description of Mount-Orgueil Castle” (supra, 13):

    The most mischievous Instruments of war
    Wounds, Bloodshed, first from (z) Rockes extra-cted ar;
    As Canons, Musquets, Bullets, Sword, Bills, Speares
    With other weapons, where with Man kills, teares,
    Torments, Maimes, Stabs his Brother in despite,
    As if he did in nought but blood delight:
    So from Mens Stony (a) Hearts first flow and spring
    All Mischiefes, Murders, Warres, Sinnes, each ill thing:
    These were the Artists which did first invent
    Each bloody, murth’ring, warlike Instrument;

(ll. 1-10, p. 31).

  1. The poem’s first Scriptural reference (z) is to Job xxviii 2: “Iron is taken out of the earth, and brass is molten out of the stone”. The heading in the King James Bible gives the purpose of this chapter as demonstration that “There is a knowledge of natural things, But wisdom is an excellent gift of God”. Job traces the sources of material commodities and then asks “But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?”(Verse 12). This distinction between concrete and abstract, between natural and divine philosophy, operates as a subtext in the poem and parallels the poem’s comparison between the origin of metals in rock, and the origin of “All Mischiefes, Murders, Warres, Sinnes, each ill thing” in the hearts of men. The second Scriptural reference (a) is to Matthew xv, 19, and to the pandemic Antediluvian violence described in Genesis vi, 5. The poem’s thought about the aetiology of war, its main theme, is based on Christ’s reproach of the Pharisees, who had upbraided the disciples for not washing their hands before eating. Jesus replied that it is rather things which issue from the mouth (and hence the heart) which defile, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew xv, 19). Prynne adds the collective activity of “Warres” to the more personal sins listed by Matthew. The concluding lines again seem to suggest that war is the result of the aggregate of human sin, rather than the result of dynastic conflict, economic or political causes:

    O cursed Hearts of Rocke from whence doe flow,
    All Evills, Mischiefes, woes we heare, see, know!
    Lord free and ever keepe us from such Hearts,
    Which are the Cause of all our Sinnes, Ills, Smarts.

 (ll. 13-16).

  1. Poem 7 moves from a further denunciation of the “hard and flinty” nature of “Mens Stony Hearts” (l. 7), to a contemplation of Christian redemption: “Nought but Christs blood these Adamants can thaw / And square them to the Models of Gods Law” (ll. 15-16). Although this possibility is again mentioned in poem 18, where the “barenesse, vilenesse” of  “Stony Hearts” is clothed and adorned with “Christs rich Robes of Grace” (ll. 4-5), this section of poems concentrates on the intractability of “an obdurate Heart”, the greatest of “Plagues” (poem 26, ll. 3-4).

  2. Rockes Improved ends with “Miscellanie Meditations of the fifth Kinde” which is largely a recapitulation of the images, themes and conceits of the first four sections. Poem 4 describes the persecution and imprisonment of “Gods dearest Saints” (l. 3) who, in being ignominiously confined like treasures “hid in coursest Rockes” (l. 2), share with “Jewels” a “common Case, / And State on Earth” (ll. 3-4). The poem’s apophthegmatic conclusion that “The choycest Things Men ever closest Locke” (l. 19), prepares a contrast with the conclusion of poem 5, a model expression of the uncompromising detail of puritan sartorial stipulations: 

    Rockes love to shew, not hide their Nakednesse:
    Adam and Eve blusht at their Naked Dresse
    When they beheld it, and did hide for shame,
    Till they with Coates of Figge-leaves vail’d the same.
    Those wanton Females then that take delight,
    Their Naked Breasts, Neckes, Armes, ( like some strange sight)
    To shew to others, without Blush or shame,
    In spight of God, Men, who them taxe and blame:
    Are rather shamelesse Rockes than Adams Race;
    And for the most part voyd of Sence, shame, Grace;
    If not of Honour, and true Chastitie,
    Sith most is common which doth open lye.                                          

  3. The penultimate line, with its “If”, seems to place the relationship between chastity and sartorial pudency as speculative, as if to emphasize the gravity of an accusation against “Honour, and true Chastity”. But the final line modifies the relationship to one of axiomatic certitude and closes the poem with the pregnancy of consummate insinuation. The word “common” connotes not only a lowness of worth, but also the notion of commonness of sexual availability. [33] A neat ambiguity is produced by “most is common” (l. 12), since this could mean that things which lie open are the most common, or that things which are open are usually common. A further ambiguity lies in our inability to determine if this availability is merely visual, or if it involves possession in a physical sense. The values and sensibilities which this poem expresses are fully in accord with Prynne’s swingeing attacks of women’s fashion within Caroline society and the Caroline court in Histriomastix. [34] Equally astringent criticism is delivered against the “Unchristian Cultures, Fashions and Attires” of males, the chief topic of Prynne’s The unlovelinesse of Love-lockes (p. 55). [35]         
  4. The second group of poems within Mount Orgueil is entitled A Christian Sea-Card. Consisting of sundry Poeticall Meditations, raised from the Contemplation of the Nature and Qualities of the Sea. [36] “The Prologue” (p.59) describes again the role of liber creaturum within the homiletic and meditational process of the poems:

This Worlds an ample Volume , where we may
Not onely Read , but See God Day by Day;
And every Creature which it doth com-prize,
A Text to preach him to our Hearts and Eyes

(ll. 1-4)

  1. For Prynne, the sea is a cryptogrammatic signature for many of God’s properties. In “The Prologue”, he gives his opinion that “Amongst the world of Creatures” (l. 11), the sea “Shewes him [God] most cleerely to our Minds and sight” (l. 14). In the first group of meditations, the sea is an apt vehicle for evoking the sublime and wrathful magnificence of the Beardian avenging God. Control over “Such foaming bedlam Seas” (l. 12) is evidence of the strong help which allows “Gods chosen Band” (l. 26) to “defie / All Tyrants rage” (ll. 27-8). In “Meditations of the second Sort”, the sea is “a lively Type” of “his deare blood, which doth our sinnes out-wipe” (p.66).

  2. The final poem in this short series (poem 4, p. 68) contains an effective prosopopœia: “The Seas faire, lovely, shining azure Face” (l. 1.). Like HopkinsThe Wreck of the Deutschland, the poem reaches poignantly for a resolution of the destructive and the salvific powers represented by the sea:

    Sweete Jesus when the Sea we view or passe,
    Present thy selfe thus to us in its glasse:
    Then if it wrecke or drowne us, yet shall we
    Through thy Bloods Sea, escape and saved be.

(ll. 11-14)

  1. In the “Meditations of the third Ranke”, which describe the sea as “A lively Emblem of the State and plight / Of God’s Elect” (ll. 2-3, p.68), there is a thematic progression which moves from persecution, to God’s control of persecution and affliction (and the necessity of adversity), to the eventual rewards of adversity. Within this progression, Poem 8 plots the nadir and the resurgence in the fortunes of the godly. It appears to describe, or anticipate, Prynne’s triumphal return to England in 1642 (ll. 9-10), and again parallels patterns of decay and reflourishing in the liber naturae with reversals in the temporal and spiritual life of man:

    When the Seas are at their lowest Ebbe, they then
    Forth-with begin to spring and flow. So men
    Belov’d of God, when as they seeme to lye
    At lowest Ebbe, in deepest misery,
    Past helpe, past hope in Carnall mens account,
    Beyond all expectation, spring and mount
    Above their Crosses, and enjoy a Flood
    Of Peace, wealth, honour; and the greatest good.
    If old examples faile, you may now view
    The truth hereof in some yet fresh and new.          

  2. In “Meditations of the fifth Sort”, the sea provides “A lively Mappe of this vaine World” (p.80). In poem 6 of this series, Prynne formulates another reproach against vainglory. The initial terms of this comparison between the treacherous attraction of the sea and of the world suggest that the target is feminine vanity. However, the poem’s development makes it clear that Prynne’s attack is more general. [37]   The poem berates vanity in what he sees as the excessive pomp of the state machinery, and those who signal ostentatiously a happiness which is illusory and ephemeral:

    The Sea a smiling, shining azure face
    And lovely out-side hath her selfe to grace;
    Wherewith she hides her savage cruelty,
    Rockes, Shelves, Gulfes, and those Monsters that doe lye
    Close couch’d in her, to wrecke and to devoure
    All those her beauty drawes within her power.
    This cheating flatring world, mens soules to traine
    Into her deadly Snares (where they remaine
    Fast hampered till they perish) still presents
    Her selfe to them, deckt with such Ornaments,
    Such out-side, beauty, pompe, State, gaudinesse,
    And seeming shewes of present happinesse,
    As ravish most mens Eyes and Hearts with Love

    (ll. 1-13)

  1. “[S]eeming shewes of present happinesse” exemplifies Prynne’s abiding Spenserian vigilance concerning the relation between surface and essence.    
  2. The final collection of poems in Mount Orgueil is entitled A Christian Paradise: or A Divine Posie, Compiled of sundry Flowers of Meditation, gathered from the Sweet and Heavenly Contemplation of the Nature, Fruites, and Qualities of Gardens. “The Preface” begins with a final invocation of the Muse of Mount Orgueil and states a high artistic purpose for which the lyrical and poetic limitations of Prynne’s verse may not seem adequately equipped:

    Soare up my Muse upon the Eagles Wings,
    Above the Clouds, and scrue up all thy strings
    Unto their Highest Straines, with Angels Layes
    Mens Soules to ravish, and their Hearts to raise
    From Earth to Heaven, with those sweetest Notes
    Which Gardens tender to thy plodding thoughts.

          (ll. 1-6).

  1. Despite limitations in poetic form, A Christian Paradise is a detailed expression of puritan piety in response to a liber creaturum which is cultivated by God and man. Moreover, in poem 32 (p. 151), Prynne redresses that somewhat crude form of social élitism which I noted at the outset of Mount Orgueil:

    And how mean men for birth, state, fortune, place
    Oft times transcend in wisedome
    , parts, arts, grace
    In rarest gifts
    , and vertues of each kind
    The Greatest Nobles
    , Peeres, in whom we find
    Too oft more shew than substance
    , lesse within
    Than in a russet coat, or courser skinne

        (ll. 9-14)

  1. If A Christian Paradise does not produce the aesthetic masterpieces which the ravishing “Angels Layes” of the preface invoked, Prynne places the Nature he observes in gardens above human art, as being evidence of instantaneous creation by the Word of God:

    Each Plant, Herbe, Roote, Grasse, Flower, which doth grow,
    In Gardens, Gods Almighty power forth show.
    Since all the Monarches, Artists, Men that live,
    With all their might, wit, skill, can never give
    Life to [sic] existence to the smallest flower,
    Much lesse an Essence...

(Poem 3, ll. 1-6, p. 119).

  1. It is perhaps consonant with the iconoclastic element of puritanism that the human art of the garden takes a definite second place after the works of God as the author of natura naturata. As can be seen from his attitude to fashion, cosmetics and theatre in both the poems and Histriomastix, Prynne sees his duty as the extolling of the works of the divinity over the products of human art. The ordinances of God are seen to be under threat from the perverse propensities of human artfulness, from the moral deficiencies and injustices which art may sustain and proliferate. In this sense, the very artlessness of Prynne’s poetry constitutes a component of its essential puritanism.

  2. In The Soules Complaint against the Bodies Encroachments on Her: and the Generall Neglect She findes with most, “I Soule” (l.1) expresses Prynne’s resentment at the “many hundred Trades” (l. 23) whose activity serves the body and its parts, “to decke, make, keepe them faire” (l. 28). The “labour, thoughts, time, care” (l. 88) bestowed upon “backe and bellie” (l. 89) and “my varlet flesh” (l. 64) are presented as the symptoms of usurpation by “this Rebell Slave” which “dethrones me quite” (l. 19). Despite the unrestrained bitterness of Prynne’s reproach of the body (and here the poem operates within generic precedents which Ethyn Williams Kirby traces to the Middle Ages) [38] , there is compelling pathos in the character and predicament of the soul:

    I Soule, vive Image of the Trinity,
    The Breath of God, the Pearle, which Christ did dye
    To purchase; Temple of the Holy Ghost,
    The charge of Angels, and the Heavenly Host.
    Earths Wonder, Devils envie; Mans Prime Part,
    The Master-peece of God and Natures Art;
    Worth thowsand worlds; whose Pearelesse Dignity
    No tongues of Men or Angels can descry,
    Must here with brinish Teares, and Sobs relate
    My Scorned, Slighted, and Neglected State  

  (ll. 1-10, p. 177).

  1. Placed after The Soules Complaint, and at the end of the edition of Prynne’s poetry published by Michael Sparke Senior in 1641, are the earliest and perhaps most rudimentary of his poems: Comfortable Cordials, against Discomfortable Feares of Imprisonment, and other sufferings in good causes. Written on his chamber walls during his first term of imprisonment, they are meditations on the paradox of freedom and clarity of conscience within circumstances of physical confinement. The straitened circumstances of composition and the potent emotions of the captive are better attested than any merit of poetic form in Comfortable Cordials; but the indomitable spirit which Ethyn Williams Kirby spoke about in the poems [39] is apparent in the witty references to his judicial mutilation. The facial scars from his branding (“SL” for seditious libeller) are reinterpreted as “Stigmata Laudis” or “Lauds Stamps”, and his cropped ears are compared favourably to the adorments worn on the ears of courtiers:

    Th’ unmanly Courtier with his Mistresse Haire,
    And Jewels, lades his eares, to make them faire.
    When as Brands, Scarres, and Croppings farre more dight
    A Christians eares, and make them shine more bright.

(Poem 7, ll. 1-4, p.5).

  1. It is no difficult matter to locate flaws and serious limitations in Prynne’s poetry. These include excessive repetition in ideas and in diction, and redundant enumerations to fill out metre; though these are often justified for that emphatic anadiplosis identified by Edmund Miller (Introduction, p. x). There is frequently poor closure of periods and an inept employment of rhythm in the closure of stanzas and of poems.

  2. Positive poetic qualities include the effective suggestion of hard textures and the sublimity of elemental forces, along with the ability to convey unmoderated emotive passion. There is also some evidence of subtle thematic progression within series of poems. An inventive, engaging and meaningful use of the device of prosopopœia is a vibrant element of Prynne's poesis. Edmund Miller has discussed the effective use of the rhetorical figures of asyndeton and anadiplosis, and posits cogently the possible influence of some of Prynne's phrasing upon the poetical characterization of Milton's Satan (Introduction, p. x).

  3. The poems articulate the function of puritanism as a check against the dangers of    untrammelled art, and represent, sometimes with admirable and distinctive wit, the importance of sartorial modesty for the religious ethic of puritanism. The meditational content of the poetry is often creative and dynamic: Prynne seeks to activate and reinforce links found in the Bible between the liber creaturum and the liber scripturae, while producing fresh associations from his own observations of Nature and Scripture.

  4. The historical value of the poems is enhanced by their fulsome and unprecedented, if often unsophisticated poetic expression of the cast of mind of an archetypal English puritanism. In their context, removed from the personalizing polemics of political pamphleteering, and in their spontaneous and charged responses to Nature and to Scripture, Prynne's poems provide an excellent opportunity to observe closely the spiritual and psychological workings of, arguably, the essential English puritan mind. Moreover, the vein of puritanism that is perhaps an inescapable part of our collective consciousness bids us put off those reservations that have prevented a closer and more sympathetic engagement with Prynne.  


[1] Ethyn Williams Kirby, William Prynne: A Study in Puritanism (New York, 1931; 1972), 48. See also, Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (London, 1813), III, 848.

[2] The DNB states that Prynne was denied ink and paper during the period of incarceration commencing in 1637.  

[3] With the exception of a collection of epigrams: Pleasant Purge for a Roman Catholike to Evacuate His Evil Humours, Consisting of a Century of Polemical Epigrams wherein Divers Grosse Errours and Corruptions of the Church of Rome are Discovered, Censured, Refuted, in a Facetious, yet Serious Manner (1641). These were not printed in the volume I used but are listed by Ethyn Williams Kirby.   

[4] On his recall from exile in November 1640 by the Long Parliament, and the panegyrical reception which Prynne and Henry Burton received from crowds, horsemen, and coaches, vide William M. Lamont, Marginal Prynne: 1600-1669 (Routledge & Kegan Paul,1963), 49. Also Kirby, William Prynne 52-3.

[5] William Prynne, 49-50.

[6] Samuel Butler, Hudibras Part 1, Canto 1, ll. 645-8.

[7] David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 140-158. Norbrook's edition of Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder is, of course, shedding further light on the relation between puritan sensibility and republicanism in early modern England. See also, Poems by Thomas St. Nicholas and His Family, ed., H. Neville Davies (Birmingham University Press, 2002).

[8 Peter Davidson, Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse 1625-1660 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998), xxxii.

[9] Henry Hawkins, Partheneia Sacra (John Cousturier, 1633), 261.

[10] Wolfgang Lottes, ‘Henry Hawkins and  Partheneia SacraRES 26 (1975), 276.

[11] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin, 1983).

[12] C.f. Poem 31 [“The Floods, windes, stormes against the Rockes oft beate”], p.15. Here Christ is assailed by “windes; / Floodes, Tempests, Heate, Cold, Crosses  of all Kindes, / Which for a time did hide, immerge, at last, / Quite over-whelme Him” (ll. 5-8). Also, Poem 34: [“Rockes though they drowned be, appeare againe...” ].

[13] William M. Lamont, Marginal Prynne,176.

[14] I give examples from the thick marginal references to Scripture only where relevant to purpose. 

[15] C.f., Poem 37 (ll. 15-20):

Thus Barren Rockes unto a pious Minde
May fruitfull prove, if it Christ in them finde;
When they in Name and Nature thus expresse
Unto the life, with Fruite and Pleasantnesse;
Farre better than all Pictures which the Blinde,
Dull Papists make, to bring them to their Minde.

The poem suggests that “those Idols” have “thrust aside / These better Pictures” (ll. 25-26). Prynne posits a  conflict between the iconography available through meditational perceptions of nature, and the iconography of religious art and pious objects. Thus, items like the crucifix are seen as iconoclastic towards the liber creaturum.                        

[16] Poem 17 is an eight-line confutation of altars, since “Christs death overthrew / All Altars but Himselfe, both old and new.” This poem also draws upon the ideas of a spiritual priesthood in Hebrews vii, viii, and ix. Hebrews opposes the sacrifice of Christ to that of “the blood of bulls and goats” (ix, 13). The book does not entirely negate the use of figural representation of “the pattern of things in the heavens” (ix, 23), and Prynne neglects to consider that the sacrificial element of the mass might be a figural representation of the heavenly pattern, and “real” only insofar as its transubstantiation of the bread and wine.       

[17] William M. Lamont, Marginal Prynne, 84; 149ff.

[18] C.f., Poem 38: “Teach us thus sweetely to behold, and view / Thee in each Rocke we see...” (ll. 3-4).

[19] There is probably allusion to the traditional, creative and moralistic etymology of “hypocrite” as meaning gilded over with gold. Cf. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (Longman, 1977): I, iv, 4.4; IV, ii, 29.4-5; IV, v, 15.1-6. 

[20] Martin Ingram, in eds., Durston C. and Eales J., The Culture of English Puritanism (Macmillan, 1996), 58.

[21] Cf. poem 14, p.28 : “Saints in all places are most thinne and rare” (l. 2).

[22] Patrick Collinson, ‘A Comment: Concerning the Name Puritan’ JEH 31, 483-8.

[23] Peter Lake, ‘Puritan IdentitiesJEH 35, 117

[24] Ibid.,112.

[25] “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”, Matthew vii, 14.

[26] (z) Deuteronomy vi, 5: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”.

[27] Prynne describes his poetry thus in the dedication of Rockes Improved to Lady Anne Carteret, wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey, Sir Philip Carteret.

[28] “But albeit Playhaunters feele no hurt at first...” (p.958), William Prynne, Histriomastix (London, 1633).

[29] C.f. Histriomastix, pp 512-513 and Fol. 514-516 where “impudency, immodesty, and shamelesnesse” are contrasted with “all modesty, al shamefacenesse” and “He who is past all shame, is certainely past all  grace” (p.513). “Impudency and shamelesnesse” are described as “infallible symptomes of a cauterized conscience, an obdurate heart, a reprobate sence; of a man given wholy over unto sinne and Satan: yea they are very dangerous presages of a man bound over to eternall destruction.” (p.513-Fol.514). 

[30] C.f., Revelation iv, 12 “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which cometh down out of heaven from my God...”.

[31] He says Beard was “a formative influence on Prynne”. Marginal Prynne, 31.

[32] Histriomastix, fol. 559; 561.

[33]  C.f. Nicolas Caussin, The Holy Court (1634), 267., where the practice of “community of beds” (a “law” attributed to Plato, according to Caussin) is advanced as a reductio ad absurdam against those whose court Platonism was accompanied by immodest apparel.

Vide also the specific depreciatory use in Rich. II, V, iii, 17: "He would unto the Stewes, / And from the common'st creature plucke a Glove / And weare it as a favour."

[34] Ibid., pp. 159, 179-221, 258, fol. 514, 879-890.

[35] Vide also, Histriomastix, pp. 188-195; 209, 210, 211, 882, 883, 888.  

[36]  A sea-card was a mariner’s geographical chart or the graduated compass card. Both meanings convey the  poetic allegory of Christian guidance to the port of heaven. C.f. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, II, vii 1.6. (p.223 n.).

[37] By way of contrast, poem 14. (p.95), singles out the specifically feminine use of beauty patches, “Anticke Patches of a Sable dye” (l. 6). 

[38] William Prynne, 49-50.

[39] William Prynne, 49. Vide also, for a pertinent study of the conventions of seventeenth-century prison literature, Raymond A. Anselment, " 'Stone Walls' and 'Iron Bars': Richard Lovelace and the Conventions of Seventeenth-Century Prison Literature", Renaissance and Reformation, 17 (1993), 15-34.   

Works cited                                   

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  • Beard, Thomas, The Theatre of Gods Iudgements: Revised and augmented. Wherein is represented the admirable justice of God against all notorious sinners, both great and small; but especially against the most eminent persons of the world, whose transcendent power breaketh thorow the barres of humane Iustice; deduced by the order of the Commandements  (London, 1631).
  • Butler, Samuel, Hudibras (London, 1678).
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