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Northern Europe during the fifteen and sixteenth centuries provided a stage for the first actions of what is now reckoned to be one of the most momentous events of history-the movement called Protestantism, one which in its explosive effects was destined to change the cultural, social, and ideological condition of... show more Northern Europe during the fifteen and sixteenth centuries provided a stage for the first actions of what is now reckoned to be one of the most momentous events of history-the movement called Protestantism, one which in its explosive effects was destined to change the cultural, social, and ideological condition of the western world.
As everybody knows, it not only was an event, it is an event: it has been and is of major ever since. The ideas and world-views of men like Luther and Calvin have been psychologically recurrent; not only they as persons but the claims they have made remain vital.
Protestantism has moulded saints. Philosophy has felt its mighty impact. Cultural and social mores have been its devisings. Schools of economics have been founded on its gospels. Since literature can’t be divorced from life, it follows that plays and novels and poems have been shaped as expressions or rejections of it, or as digressions from it. Here is a chance scattering of names: Milton, Donne, Goethe, Thackeray, Rilke, Carlyle, T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Sigrid Undset, Samuel Beckett, Gabriel Marcel. We have but to read them to test the degree to which the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism affects the form and content of literature. It is not that these writers are propagandists-they aren’t; they are artists first of all. It is that their attitudes toward religion condition what they create, even to the configuration of the poem lying down there on the printed page, the texture of the prose, the choice of one word over another, the development of characters in a novel, or the structure of a plot.
Since there is a basic connection between the dialectics of religion and the work of some artists, we are short-sighted if we don’t learn the dynamics of a creed when it is subsumed within a poem or a novel.
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