Robert Southwell

Snow in Arcadia: redrawing the English lyric landscape, 1586–95

Author: Anne Sweeney

It has traditionally been held that Robert Southwell's poetry offers a curious view of Elizabethan England from the restricted perspective of a priest-hole. This book takes apart that idea – and the poetry – word by word and discovers layers of new meanings, hidden emblems and sharp critiques of Elizabeth's courtiers, and even of the ageing queen herself. Using the most recent edition of Southwell's poetry and manuscript materials, it addresses both poetry and private writings, including letters and diary material, to give context to the radicalisation of a generation of Southwell's countrymen and women. The book shows how the young Jesuit harnessed both drama and literature to give new poetic poignancy to their experience. Bringing a forensic approach to Southwell's ‘lighter’ pieces, it shows the extent to which Southwell engaged exclusively through them in direct artistic debate with Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare, placing the poetry firmly in the English landscape familiar to Southwell's generation. Those concerned with early modern and Elizabethan culture will find much of interest in this study, including insights into the function of the arts in the private Catholic milieu, touched by Southwell in so many ways and places, from William Byrd's holy music to Mary Stuart's coded embroideries.

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