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W. Scott Howard, ed. An Collins and the Historical Imagination
by Frances M. Malpezzi

Howard, W. Scott, ed. An Collins and the Historical Imagination. Surrey, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. xi + 255 pp.  ISBN: 978-1472418470. $120.00 cloth.           

In his introduction to the essays that follow, editor W. Scott Howard notes that An Collins and the Historical Imagination “celebrates Collins’s writing within her own time and ours through a comprehensive assessment of her poetics, literary context and reception, and critical tradition” (2). Indeed, by close reading of the text, by contextualizing the work and placing it within particular literary, religious, or political traditions, and by examining the history of the text and the reception of the work, this valuable collection of essays provides readers with critical insights and background information for understanding the seventeenth-century poet’s Divine Songs and Meditacions

Framed by Howard’s introduction and an Afterword by Elaine Hobby, the book’s ten essays are “multifaceted” and “thematically linked” (14). Although three of the essays, those by Helen Wilcox, Sidney Gottlieb, and Bronwen Price, are revised versions of previously published works, they remain important inclusions for a book intended to “define the center and circumference of Collins scholarship for twenty-first century readers” (14). The volume also includes two appendices. Appendix A on Richard Bishop’s 1653 printing of Divine Songs and Meditacions includes photographic reproductions of pages from the Huntington Library’s copy of that work as well as detailed information about Bishop. Appendix B focuses on Collins’s poem, “Another Song. The Winter of my infancy,” providing photographs from the Huntington Library’s volume, a new transcription, and annotations by Howard and the volume’s contributors. An extensive bibliography and an index are included.    

The collection decidedly enhances our understanding of Collins’s work in its treatment of her poetics. Essays examine her Divine Songs as spiritual autobiography and as meditative and devotional poetry. The authors consider her style, her use of rhetorical traditions, her imagery, her meter, and the interrelationship between poems as they present extensive and close analyses of her work. They also place her work and her life against the backdrop of the turbulent religious and political strife of her time.

Howard’s thorough introduction provides both a context for and an excellent overview of the material that follows, detailing background for studies of Collins thus far, discussing the significance of the individual essays, and indicating the interrelationship of those essays. Most significantly, Howard articulates the organizational pattern of the volume and makes clear the thematic relationships of the essays in each section.                                                                                                          

Howard notes that the book’s first section, the essays by Stanley Stewart, Lyn Bennett, and Susannah Mintz, treat Collins’s work within the tradition of British and European meditative verse. Stewart’s “An Collins: Fiction and Artifact” concerns Collins’s emphasis on the personal voice and finds that like Thomas Traherne she must have believed “that an author’s inner life, when expressed in writing, set forth a truth that was not reducible to the terms of religious and philosophical controversy” (24). Stewart, editor of the 1961 Augustan Reprint Society text of Collins’s Divine Songs, finds similarity in Collins’s and Traherne’s outlook but also notes the considerable differences in the reception of their work. Bennett, writing on meditation and rhetoric in Collins’s ‘The Discourse,’” is also concerned with the private mode of the expression of Collins’s inner life but examines as well the intersection of that private mode with the public nature of the poetry. Bennett, known for Women Writing of Divinest Things (2004), on the work of the Countess of Pembroke, Lady Mary Wroth and Aemelia Lanyer, focuses here on the way Collins’s poetry of meditation depends upon and makes use of classical rhetorical conventions. She sees “The Discourse,” Collins’s longest poem, as “at once a work of public rhetoric and private meditation” (52).  In “An Collins and the Divided Self,” Mintz reads Collins “through potentially incompatible feminist and disability perspectives” (56) and finds that Collins “figures disablement less as an encumbrance than as an opportunity to rethink the grounds of identity” (68). Mintz concludes that Collins’s work challenges many of the attitudes of her time, especially those “toward the body, womanhood, and religious convictions” (69). 

Howard points out that the second section, Chapters 4-6, expands on the previous subject, presenting comparative studies of Divine Songs and source texts as well as contemporaneous works. Helen Wilcox, editor of the comprehensive Cambridge edition of Herbert’s English Poems, provides sensitive readings of Collins and other poets inspired by Herbert. Wilcox suggests Collins and Herbert have in common their treatment of the subject of suffering, their “use of autobiographical experience as the starting point for a devotional understanding of God,” and the use of the “plain style as the most appropriate language for sincerity” (80). Mary Eleanor Norcliffe, in “Garden and Antigarden in the Song of Songs and Divine Songs and Meditacions,” takes on a subject one might well have expected from Stanley Stewart—Collins’s appropriation and transformation of the garden imagery of the Song of Songs—and she relates Collins to other writers in the period who also used garden imagery in their devotional poetry. Patricia Demers examines the “distinct yet surprisingly related lives” (105) of Collins and Marie Guyart Martin, Mère Marie de L’Incarnation, OSU (1599-1672). While Collins and the Ursuline nun in New France write in different genres, Demers finds “tensions between the writing self and the surrounding world crackle throughout their texts” (108). 

In the next section, chapters 7-9 delineate relationships between religious meditation and spiritual autobiography and also consider some very public aspects of Collins’s voice in Divine Songs. In “An Collins and the Life of Writing,” Herbert scholar and Collins editor Sidney Gottlieb discusses Collins’s treatment of the subject of writing in her spiritual autobiography, especially writing as a call from God, a poetic vocation. Gottlieb sees Collins’s poetry of affliction as a “positive poetics,” one of “strength and confidence and spiritual buoyancy” (125). Her affliction, moreover, is not just of the body but of the body politic. As a result, writing is also a very public act, one intended “to have real consequences” (130). Gottlieb’s Collins is a “poet militant” (131) doing God’s work in the world as she deals with social and historical afflictions. Marie H. Loughlin focuses on the rhetorical strategies and topoi Collins’s Divine Songs has in common with women’s sectarian autobiography. She also points out how Collins’s work differs, especially in the presentation of “each stage in the seeker’s spiritual journey as valuable in and of itself” (138). In “‘The ‘image of her mind’: Dissent and Femininity in Divine Songs and Meditacions,” Bronwen Price looks at Collins’s dissent as providing “an intersection between her devotional and feminine identities” (155). Price argues that “In taking apart and remodeling her identity as a Christian, she dismantles and reframes her identity as a woman” (168). 

The essays in these three sections place Collins in very particular early modern literary contexts. Wilcox, for example, looks at Collins in relation to other mid-seventeenth-century writers inspired and influenced by the poetry of George Herbert: Henry Colman, Julia Palmer, and Cordell Goodman. Norcliffe, writing on Collins’s garden imagery, particularly her appropriation of the Song of Songs, draws comparisons to Robert Southwell, George Herbert, and Anne Bradstreet. Loughlin relates Collins to women’s sectarian spiritual autobiographers in the period: Anne Wentworth, Barbara Blaugdone, Joan Vokins, Elizabeth Stirredge. These studies of Collins thus extend our knowledge not only of her but also of other writers and literary traditions in the early modern period. Just as Mary Wroth followed the conventions of the sonnet sequence tradition, at the same time differentiating by making the voice of the lover female; just as Aemilia Lanyer conformed to the traditions of affective piety in her meditation, differentiating by insisting that misogyny is unChristian; so Collins both conforms to and diverges from the conventions of the genres with which she works, as these essays demonstrate. As a result, we come to understand better not only Collins’s Divine Songs but early modern spiritual autobiography and meditative and devotional poetry.  

The book’s concluding section contains two essays and the already-described appendices. Robert C. Evans’s “The Collins Legacy: Representations by Scholars and Editors Since 1653” traces the editions of Divine Songs and suggests “the importance of studying her book as a book (that is, as a finished entity with a coherent design)” (171).  He believes the book tells us something of how Collins wanted to be perceived as an author. Evans, editor of the complete photographic facsimile edition of Divine Songs (2003), gives us a detailed history of the editions of her work in print and, more recently, online, as well as the representation of her poems in anthologies. In her Afterword Elaine Hobby provides a study of Collins’s varied experiments with verse form and suggests the poet was interested in “finding new poetic forms” to present her essentially mainstream Protestant beliefs (195). She charts the forms Collins created for the 13 songs in her collection and argues that the poems in Divine Songs were selected by the poet from a larger oeuvre.

Given the long inaccessibility of Collins’s text, it is not surprising that we have waited until 2014 for a collection of essays that represents “the first comprehensive assessment” of her 1683 Divine Songs. In his essay, Stanley Stewart writes eloquently of the importance of “the democritization of Renaissance scholarship” (32) which has occurred as editions of Collins and other once little-known writers have become more readily available. Stewart notes that

Two hundred years ago, only people like John Payne Collier, who knew the likes of the Duke of Devonshire, and had earned the admiration and trust of the literary aristocracy, had access to rare books such as Collins Divine Songs and Meditacions… .  They were a privileged few: literary mandarins, with unhindered access to the thousands of rare books and manuscripts in the possession of the British museum and rich private collectors. (32)

Certainly the editorial work of three of the essayists in this volume made this assessment a possibility: Stanley Stewart’s 1961 partial facsimile edition, Sidney Gottlieb’s scholarly edition of 1996, and Robert Evans’s complete photographic facsimile edition of 2003.

We also know that attention to early modern women writers was slow in coming, the result of ages-old biases. But for those of us old enough to remember when early modern women writers were not taught in undergraduate or graduate classes, the past several decades have been intellectually exciting as we discovered, explored, and taught works that had become accessible. Stewart believes, “Our understanding of the Renaissance can only be made richer by reading prose and poetry of the time that we have not read before” (32). The truth of this statement is evident whether we are reading the sonnets of Mary Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer’s poetic meditation on the passion and death of Christ and her country house poem, or the spiritual autobiography and devotional poetry of An Collins. Knowing the works of these writers deepens our understanding of the early modern period and enhances our insight into the literary traditions that influenced them.  

While the essays in An Collins and the Historical Imagination bring us insight into her work, we are reminded of how little we know about the writer herself. We lack the simplest biographical details, such as the date of her birth and the date of her death.  More complicated issues also remain a mystery. What was the nature of her disability? What was her religious persuasion? Was she Catholic, mainstream Protestant, noncomformist? What were her political views? Even her name is problematic: though she lived in an age when spelling was not regularized, “An” is still troublesome. While factual details may be unavailable, authors in the collection do speculate based on their readings of Divine Songs and Meditacions. One of the most interesting speculations comes from Elaine Hobby’s Afterword. Although Divine Songs and Meditacions is generally seen as the work of a young woman, Hobby believes the poems were written across the “span of a good number of years” (197). She postulates that the thirteen songs included in Divine Songs (each with a different verse form) were representative examples maturely selected from the corpus of her work.

Many of the essays also consider where Collins scholarship is headed and contain suggestions for further work. As Evans notes, “We now have all the materials necessary to begin a more probing study of Collins not merely as a woman or a representative of her age but as an often talented writer—in short, as a poet worthy of being read for her artistic skill and rhetorical power” (190). Whether dealing with issues of interiority/exteriority, the private/public mode, self-fashioning, disability subjectivity, genre, structure, or form, much more remains to be said about Collins’s Divine Songs and Meditacions as well as about Collins’s context within the early modern period in Britain.  Stewart notes that the “task of mining her poetry for literary and social history is surely not finished” (32). A useful work for scholars of early modern devotional literature, women writers, or disability studies, W. Scott Howard’s An Collins and the Historical Imagination is an essential publication for those studying or writing about Collins’s Divine Songs and Meditacions.

 

Frances M. Malpezzi
Arkansas State University  

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45.1.9

Cite as:

Frances M. Malpezzi , "W. Scott Howard, ed. An Collins and the Historical Imagination," Spenser Review 45.1.9 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed May 26th, 2019.
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