Divine Meditations The William

Alabaster (1597-1598?) Some question remains regarding the period in which William Alabaster composed the 77 sonnets included in his The Divine Meditations. Critics believe they were written during Alabaster's imprisonment between 1597 and 1598 after his first conversion to Catholicism. They appear in two manuscripts, and the manuscripts have some sonnets in common. While many are titled and numbered, others are only numbered. Alabaster's work represents a look forward to the 17th century, in which the sonnet form would remain a popular vehicle for occasional poems, including devotionals. They are collected into sequences later titled by critics The Portrait of Christ's Death, Penitential Sonnets, Resurrection, Upon the Ensigns of Christ's Crucifying, Miscellaneous Sonnets, New Jerusalem, and Personal Sonnets. A final grouping of two poems, Questionable Sonnets, for a total of 79 sonnets, cannot be attributed to Alabaster with complete confidence. They were found, according to Helen Gardner, in the only known copy of "the 1613 edition of Boys, An Exposition of the Festivall Epistles and Gospels, preserved in the Library of Lambeth Palace."

Written in both the Petrarchan and the Elizabethan form, with the Petrarchan Alabaster's favored approach, the sonnets' first purpose appears to be that of meditation, as the group title given the collection indicates. Alabaster's purpose causes the sonnets to lack the universality that promoted the sonnet form's appeal (although JoHN DoNNE would later successfully adopt the same form for his meditations), and it may in part be responsible for the categorization of Alabaster as a minor poet. As noted by the critics Story and Gardner, if not always "good," Alabaster's poetry "is usually interesting." The sonnets' most commonly shared weakness is reflected in their concluding lines, as if Alabaster did not quite understand how to complete his thought, such as in Sonnet 10. Number 9 also bears a weak conclusion, possibly due to its emotionally charged topic of Protestantism and Alabaster's vituperative attack against Luther. After lambasting "damned Luther, swollen with hellish pride" for his presumption, offering a contrast with St. Peter's devotion evidenced through his shunning of "world and goods and wife," Alabaster concludes,

And who might less than Luther, that did dwell In such acquaintance with the fiends of hell, And married (incest!) with a sacred nun?

Even if such an attack suited the sonnet—and it does not—Alabaster's emotionally wrought hyperbole destroys the grace inherent to the form. While in praise of God in number 61, "Incarnatio Divini Amoris Argumentum," Alabaster stumbles over a final line, burdened by the need to provide an awkward rhyme. After utilizing the metaphor of romantic love to describe God's love for man, a CoNCEIT later also adopted by Donne, Alabaster adds a fairly successful five lines:

But man did love the gift, and not the giver, Yet see how God did in his love persever: He gave himself, that as a gift he might Be loved by taking, putting on our feature So to be seen in more familiar sight, but concludes with a decidedly awkward thud: "How must we love him that so loves his creature!" In some cases, Alabaster's choice of metaphor dooms his effort, as in Sonnet 64, which begins, "Jesu, the handle of the world's great ball." The jarring contrast between the imagery evoked by the formal address, Jesu, with that of a common tool, not to mention the ball, a sporting object, renders the line a failure. He echoes the conceit in line 5, "Jesu, the handle consubstantial," which also contains an eye rhyme that results in unintentional humor.

All of the sonnets do not share such problems, as demonstrated in Sonnet 43, considered one of the more superior. Alabaster uses as an extended metaphor the concept of the "threes," based on the traditional Christian understanding of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as the triumvirate. He begins,

Thrice happy souls and spirits unbodied, Who in the school of heaven do always see The three-leaved bible of one Trinity, In whose unfolded page are to be read The incomprehended secrets of the Godhead.

The next lines explain that love remains necessary to the act of reading and learning God's life lessons, with the final couplet admonishing, "From word to word: for all is but one letter, / Which still is learnt, but never learnt the better." The conclusion benefits from repetition of the term learnt, as well as the placement of a preponderance of syllables in the second phrase, emphasizing its heady message.

Many of the sonnets incorporate the expected paradox notable in the approach of metaphysical poets and poetry, including Sonnet 15. Much of that paradox reflects the mystery implicit in Alabaster's subject of Christianity, described by Story and Gardner as an infinite God's assuming of man's finite form. An example appears in Sonnet 54, titled "Incarnationem Ratione Probare Impossibile": "Two, yet but one, which either other is, / One, yet in two, which neither other be / God and man in one personality." Alabaster's obvious delight in the mystery that is the deity is evident in his production of a word riddle emphasizing the act of riddle solving often depicted in mythology as a test of courage and mettle. He also suggests the inadequacy of the human mind, easily deceived by what appear to be simple concepts, which upon consideration challenge comprehension. He employs paradoxes familiar to Christians, such as water that burns, "The smouldering brimstone and the burning lake" (Sonnet 46, "Of His Conversion") and maternal imagery to evoke God's nurture, "O holy mother, New Jerusalem" (Sonnet 42).

As might be expected the poems adopt abundant Christian symbolism, some of which remains accessible by the common Christian reader because of its physical presence in church iconography. For example, Alabaster uses the grape cluster as symbolic of Christ; the grapes often appear in stained-glass windows, easily observable by worshipers. He also enjoys enticing readers to admire his wordplay, manipulating sound and meaning to high effect, as in his final lines of Sonnet 48, "That fire may draw forth blood, blood extend fire, / Desire possession, possession desire."

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