The Glasgow Review Issue 1

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'Divided and Distinguished Worlds':  Greville's Religious Poetry

Donald Mackenzie

Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity
Borne under one Law, to another bound.
Vainely begot, and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound.

Those lines, spoken by the Chorus Sacerdotum in Mustapha, have sometimes been taken as the quintessential Greville;[1] and not without reason. They give expression, classic in its finality and in the resonance of suggestion it wakens, to the sense of entrapment, of a locked and tormenting dualism at the core of human experience, which seems the burden of much of his work. Yet we need to distinguish. Dualism is emphatically there in the lapidary pronouncements that stud the later poems of Caelica (`Grace is the seed of peace, in dead flesh sown' or `The earth must burn ere we for Christ can look').It is there in the startling fissures that recurrently open in his treatise poems. In A Treatie of Humane Learning he takes it as axiomatic that the outward churches are hopelessly corrupt; nonetheless rulers must

assist Church-censure, punish Error
Since when, from Order, Nature would decline,
There is no other natiue cure but terror;
By Discipline, to keepe the Doctrine free,
That Faith and Power still relatiues may be.[2]

That last line has no tinge of irony and the whole passage (stanzas 80-93) is a classic illustration of how an extreme world-rejecting idealism can precipitate the most corrupting kind of world-acceptance. In such instances dualism is articulated through antitheses that are absolute - and flat. But the dualism of the Mustapha Chorus is tormenting because its (no less absolute) antitheses are unrestingly at war, grappled to each other by alliteration and chiasmus, voicing the paradox of man as inevitably, by nature, a sinner and not, on that account, less guilty.

Such a paradox is open to manifest objections, conceptual and moral. Yet - at least for some readers - it responds to a deep human intuition or experience: the experience of a capacity for evil or sin that lies outside and before conscious acts of wrong choice. This is one reason for the long hold of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. The roots of that doctrine reach back into the New Testament; in Greville's period it had been vehemently restated in the Protestant Reformation, not least by Calvin for whom `man is corrupted through natural vitiation, but a vitiation that did not flow from nature ... Yet we call it "natural" in order that no man may think that anybody obtains it through bad conduct, since it holds all men fast by hereditary right.'[3]The distinctions Calvin strives to maintain in that formulation are expanded a little earlier in the same chapter of the Institutes:

we cannot think upon either our first conditionor to what purpose we were formed without being prompted to meditate upon immortality and to yearn after the kingdom of God. That recognition, however, far from encouraging pride in us discourages us and casts us into humility. For what is that origin? It is that from which we have fallen. What is the end of our creation? It is that from which we have been completely estranged, so that sick of our miserable lot we groan and in groaning we sigh for that lost worthiness.[4]

From such a statement - which could serve as a gloss on the Mustapha Chorus - Calvin develops the paradoxical command that `when man has been taught that no good thing remains in his power ... he should be instructed to aspire to a good of which he is empty, to a freedom of which he has been deprived.'[5]

Those passages from the first chapters of Book II of the Institutes deliberately recall the opening of the entire work with its harsh rhetorical emphasis on self-knowledge (by the knowledge of God) as primarily a knowledge of human wretchedness.[6] By setting God and man in such emphatic juxtaposition - and it is in the end juxtaposition, not antithesis - Calvin makes the relationship between them powerfully dynamic, the harshness of his emphasis only intensifying that dynamism. And such a dynamism is what the Calvinist Greville releases in the surging and abstracting (abstracting, not abstract) survey of Caelica XCVI.

It opens with a measured analysis of the idolatry of Pleasure which yields to a subtler, shifting evocation of its tyranny, at once passive and dynamic:

Which faire Vsurper runnes a Rebels way
For though elect of Sense, Wit and Desire
Yet rules she none, but such as will obey,
And to that end becomes what they aspire;
Making that torment, which before was play,
Those dewes to kindle, which did quench the fire.

This in turn opens into the vision of human nature as radically eccentric, driven by itself beyond itself, through its corruption to its salvation:

In which confused sphere man being plac'd
With equall prospect ouer good or ill;
The one unknowne, the other in distaste,
Flesh, with her many moulds of Change and Will,
So his affections carries on, and casts
In declination to the errour still
As by the truth he gets no other light,
But to see Vice, a restlesse infinite.
By which true mappe of his Mortality,
Mans many Idols are at once defaced,
And all hypocrisies of fraile humanity,
Either exiled, waued, or disgraced;
Falne nature by the streames of vanity,
Forc'd vp to call for grace aboue her placed:
Whence from the depth of fatall desolation,
Springs vp the height of his Regeneration.

The hint of jingle in that last couplet signals that it is at best prophetic of a salvation still to come. The spacious stanza that follows does something to embody that salvation but its final lines return us to waiting and dualism which the final stanza half-transcends in a fusion of promise and threat:

Flesh but the Top, which onely Whips make goe,
The Steele whose rust is by afflictions worne,
The Dust which good men from their feet must throw,
A liuing-dead thing, till it be new borne,
A Phenix-life that from selfe-ruine growes,
Or Viper rather through her parents torne,
A boat , to which the worlde it selfe is Sea,
Wherein the mind sayles on her fatall way.

Sonnet XCVI can be taken as a focal poem for the last stretch of Caelica, the specifically religious poems from LXXXVI to CIX. It resumes both the vehemence and the measured control of earlier poems (compare its final stanza with Sonnet LXXXVI, its evoking of salvation with Sonnets LXXXVIII and LXXXIX) and it leads directly into the pivotal poems of redemption (XCVII-XCIX). The final stretch as a whole can be divided into four groups: the poems of religious warning and summons to salvation (LXXXVI-LXXXIX), the poems of redemption (XCVII-XCIX) with the magnificent, corrosive Sonnet C as their coda, and, flanking this second section two groups (XC-XCV and CI-CVIII) of poems given over to caustic analysis of human psychology, politics, social structures. Taken together those last two groups unfold a sub-Pascalian analysis of human instability. (Sub-Pascalian because, although Greville is closer to the Pascal of the Pensées than any writer of the English Renaissance, he lacks Pascal's finality of aphorism, his dialectical integration of human grandeur with human misery. He remains a dogged cartographer of the fallen human condition where Pascal is its magisterial geometer.) It is worth noting that the first group of those analytic poems runs up into Sonnet XCVI where for once analysis achieves something of Pascal's sweep; and that the second group runs out into the monochrome apocalypse of CIX, a poem whose desolation fuses the religious with the political.

This summary is enough to indicate that `specifically religious' is a misleading phrase where Greville is concerned. It is a key feature of his work that he is never a dedicated and exclusive poet of the sacred. Such a dedication is first undertaken, in the English Renaissance, by the Jesuit martyr Southwell in the 1590s and magnificiently developed by Herbert and his followers in the next century. Greville, like Wyatt and Sidney and Ralegh and Donne, is a worldly poet who sometimes writes religious poems. This is not unconnected with the fact that the poems of this final stretch of Caelica constitute in the end as impressive a body of religious verse as the English Renaissance produced - and one that has hardly yet had its critical due.[7] In what follows I want to elicit the pattern traced by its pivotal poems and to propose some contexts for them, specifically in Elizabethan demon-ology and in the thought of Calvin. Greville's relation to the latter needs more exploring than I can give it here but I hope at least to suggest that it is more fruitful than has often been supposed.

At the same time Greville is a poet of renunciation and palinode. We enter this final stretch of Caelica through the bi-valved gateway of sonnets LXXXIV and LXXXV, the first a palinode on earthly love, the second a purged and singing celebration, unique in Greville, of the heavenly love which is `the Peace, whereto all thoughts do striue'. The palinode deploys that image of Cupid, deriving ultimately from the conceits of the Anacreontic poems and the Greek Anthology, which in Renaissance love-poetry can displace the medieval `Lord of terrible aspect' with the image of Love as capricious child. Greville's use of this image in Caelica is notably frequent and charged with a caustic energy not found in, say, Astrophel and Stella. Sonnet LXXXIV resumes the Anacreontic conceits of previous poems, transfusing them with a sense of proud and confessed and honourable waste:

to thy Boyes play I gaue all my youth
Yong master, I did hope for your promotion.
While some sought Honours, Princes thoughts obseruing,
Many woo'd Fame, the child of paine and anguish,
Others iudg'd inward good a chiefe deseruing,
I in thy wanton Visions ioy'd to languish.

The measured summary of the world as Greville habitually surveys it turns in that last line to a discriminating self-judgment whose edge is sharpened in the final stanza:

Thy playes of hope and fear were my confession,
The spectacles to my life was thy blindnesse;
But Cupid now farewell, I will goe play me,
With thoughts that please me lesse, & lesse betray me.

Part of what lifts this above the common run of palinodes is its lack of violence, its scrupulous, unobtrusive respect for the complexity of experience. It recognizes the selfless devotion inextricably intertwined with self-indulgence in the amorist's career, and that such selflessness is no guarantee against waste. The penultimate line draws up the `play' of the Anacreontic Cupid into a hard-won wryness, perfectly matched by the bleak equipoise of the line that follows. The complexity of judgment so firmly controlled here prefigures much in the poems that follows. Nothing is more striking in these than Greville's scrutiny of human instability and self-deception:

Thou bidst vs pray, and wee doe pray to thee,
But as to power and God without vs plac'd,
Thinking a wish may wear out vanity,
Or habits be by miracles defac'd.

In this poem (CVII) the evoking of the self-paralysed will is twined from the beginning about the invocation of the

Eternall Truth, almighty, infinite
Onely exiled from mans fleshly heart.

And, partly because of this, a curious subterranean movement begins to make itself felt in the closing lines of this poem of stasis.

For while wee say Believe, and feele it not,
Promise amends, and yet despaire in it,
Heare Sodom iudg'd, and goe not out with Lot,
Make Law and Gospell riddles of the wit.
We with the Iewes euen Christ still crucifie
As yet not come to our impietie

Syntax and rhythm create a degree of forward movement even as the poem insists upon impass. The term to which it moves is `not yet' with its compounding of warning and hope - a climax crucially different from the despair of Sonnet CIX.

Movement within seeming stasis, the presence of God within and under the conditions which negate his presence - these are crucial to the two sonnets that follow. The locus of both is the dimensionless inner world, spatially grasped as an objective hell - which it is. We are at the heart of Greville's world of the imprisoned self whose imprisonment is now revealed as not only psychological but cosmic, an imprisonment that can only be broken from outside. In XCVIII imprisonment is mastered through the builded liturgical structure which confesses it. The emergence (for the first time since sonnet LXXXIV) of a first-person speaker does not mark a change to the autobiographical. Rather it signals the shift from the community (`We with the Iewes euen Christ still crucifie') which the preacher of the previous poem shares with his audience to the `I' of a corporate impersonality. Simultaneously the balancing discriminations of earlier poems, the dynamic instability of sonnet XCVI settle into the equipoise of the refrain

Lord, I have sinn'd, and mine iniquity,
Deserues this hell; yet Lord deliuer me

with its firm beat of appeal from within and against a desolation confessed as just. The hope no more than latent in the `not yet' of XCVII has confirmed itself in the `yet' of XCVIII. Stanza two expands, and stanza three deepens both the desolation and the confidence of the appeal. In the latter `mine iniquity' has become `this horror of iniquity / And hellish grave', `man's degeneration' a `fatall absence from my Sauiors glory'. The imperative of the earlier appeal widens into the balancing conditional:

If from this depth of sinne, this hellish graue,
And fatall absence from my Sauiors glory,
I could implore his mercy, who can saue,
And for my sinnes, not paines of sinne, be sorry.

An undertow of uncertainty (`if I could ... but can I?') or even terror (`If I could ... but I cannot') is matched by the firm indicative of `who can save', and the whole comes to rest in the final `thou wouldst deliver me.'

To enact release from the imprisonment so magisterially graphed here Greville in the next poem repristinates, in a new theological context, the ancient doctrine or myth of the Harrowing of Hell. Rooted in several enigmatic New Testament texts, the belief that Christ, after his bodily death, descended into the underworld (the descensus ad inferos) found a place in the Apostles' Creed and is widespread in the Church Fathers.[8] As the doctrine ramifies and solidifies into myth it gathers into itself Old Testament imagery of the warrior Jehovah and perhaps echoes more remote. The apocryphal fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus gives it a garish but at times not uncompelling dramatization.[9] This dramatizing dominates the medieval versions, supremely Langland's in Piers Plowman. At the same time the credal article undergoes a theological development finally summarized by Aquinas:

On descending into hell, Christ at once liberated the saints who were there at the time. He did not however immediately lead them forth from the place called hell, but in hell itself made the light of glory shine upon them. And it was fitting that his soul should remain in hell as long as his body lay in the tomb.[10]

Of the Reformers it was Calvin who broke most decisively with this understanding of the article, interpreting it instead of Christ's redemptive suffering on the cross:

If Christ had died only a bodily death it would have been ineffectual. No - it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God's vengenace, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason he must grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and with the dread of everlasting death ... Christ was put in the place of evildoers as surety and pledge - submitting himself even as the accused - to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained ... the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appropriately speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.[11]

This interpretation of the descensus cuts away the processional drama, the cosmic triumph, of the medieval versions with their gathering of the Old Covenant and the New into a single spectacle. Calvin retains the old language of conflict (`he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death') but brackets it within a language of accepted vicarious suffering which makes Christ more intimate with the sinners he redeems. Drama has not been lost but it is more mysterious than in the medieval versions, a drama of action hidden in utter passivity.

This understanding of Christ's Passion as his vicarious descent into the hell which is exclusion from God Greville enacts with a concise magnificence in Caelica XCIX. It is a poem almost completely static which has at its centre an absolute turn, from damnation to redemption, so unobtrusively carried that one hardly notices it happening. There is only the small decisive shift - significantly the adding of a `not' - in the refrain of stanza two; and then we have the sudden majestic sweep of stanza three:

In power and truth, Almighty and eternall,
Which on the sinne reflects strange desolation,
With glory scourging all the Sprites infernall,
And vncreated hell with vnpriuation;
Depriu'd of humane graces, not diuine,
Euen there appeares this sauing God of mine.

In fact the turn is carried across stanzas two and three, subliminally by the sequence of rhymes - degeneration / desperation / desolation curving to a climax in vnpriuation - and, more explicitly, by the sequence of images: mirrour, reflects, with glory scourging. Greville combines the triumphant spaciousness in the older concepts of the Harrowing of Hell with his labyrinthine exploration - half psychological, half metaphysical - of the inner life of the self which in this poem is encompassed and interpenetrated by the saving action of God. The curious powerful image of the third line (perhaps prompted by the episode of Christ's cleansing of the Temple) plays against the recessive mirroring of opposites in

And vncreated hell with vnpriuation.

The coinage `vnpriuation' simultaneously evokes and negates the concept of evil as privation, developed by some Christian theologians out of classical Greek metaphysics and attractive to them, in part at least, because it seemed to offer a way out of the impasse between a monism which would ultimately deny the existence of evil and a dualism which would allow it an independent status over against God. Evil as privation is a concept that exercises Greville elsewhere.[12] Here its negation perfectly embodies the understanding of the Passion - the fulness of the divine power poured out in self-emptying - with which he is working. The dualism which haunts or penetrates his work is transcended in a chiasmic pattern of atonement.

I have suggested elsewhere that chiasmus is the characteristic figure of atonement, as paradox (verbum Infans, figlia del tuo figlio) of the incarnation and oxymoron (the Pauline `spiritual body', soma pneumatikon) of the resurrection. Chiasmus can hold opposites in a pattern which finally returns upon itself. As such it is apt to an understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, as God's redeeming by entering into, taking upon himself, that which is most completely opposed to him. So Paul speaks of God making Christ `to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.' So, in modern theology, Karl Barth has expounded the atonement as the journey of the Son of God into the far country which is also, and simultaneously, the homecoming of the Son of Man.[13]

Chiasmus is, with antithesis and zeugma, one of the recurring features of Greville's poetry and, as he deploys them, such figures are characteristically used to judge and define and bound (as against, say, the rich play of the heterogenous they can create in Pope). One reason why Caelica XCIX can be claimed not only as perhaps Greville's greatest poem but as a climax to his oeuvre is that it harnesses the figures which commonly analyse his fallen world to the evoking of redemption. But its final word is not with those subtleties but with the clarity of

For on this sp'ituall Crosse condemned lying,
To paines infernall by eternall doome,
I see my Sauiour for the same sinnes dying
climaxing in the perfectly controlled monosyllabic surge of
And from that hell I fear'd, to free me come.

The hell which in the opening of this poem was the gravitational centre of the sinner's being is now cast behind as purely external, a transcended possibility. Yet it is wholly characteristic of this final stretch of Caelica that those poems of redemption should be followed by Sonnet C which provides what is almost a sardonic inversion of the process we have traced, tracking evil backwards into the dark intricacies of the self.

It finds a context in Elizabethan discussions of demonology though surpassing most of them since the demonologists, as Wilbur Sanders observes, are `an undistinguished crew and don't get very far' with the issues they, half-unwittingly, raise.[14] Nonetheless they are struggling, as he recognizes, towards a synthesis of conceptions of evil as subjective, arising from the dark underside, the whispering corruption, of man's nature and evil as alien, an attack from without on the integrity of the self. Most of them are sceptical, in varying degrees, about apparitions and the alleged power of witches. (This holds for George Gifford, who explicitly writes to controvert the view that all witchcraft is only delusion, as it does for the ruthlessly sceptical Reginald Scot). The demonologists try to distinguish between mere delusions and genuine manifestations of evil spirits.[15] Drawing on physiology and psychology they try to formulate an account of evil as experienced from without and yet parasitically dependent on its victim. Lambert Daneau, who says firmly that `Satan can do nothing but by naturall meanes and causes' writes `the phantasie is hurt and disturbed by Satans meanes, and the outwarde senses buried, and by him marvellously troubled.'[16]

This is close enough to Caelica C to tempt one to propose it as a source. Where Greville differs is in the greater intricacy of his compressed analysis and in his distribution of emphasis. Where Daneau speaks of `the phantasie hurt and disturbed by Satans meanes' Greville speaks of `selfe-offence', so pointing us back to the restless, finally imprisoning, activity of the self that bulks so large in earlier poems of Caelica. Yet the external world is present as an activating context for inward evils in the opening quatrain with its surprisingly strong verb `cast' at the end of line one, the focussing abstract phrase `Distinction lost' at the beginning of line two, its abstraction characteristically animated in `gone down with the light'. Implicit in

The eye a watch to inward senses plac'd

is the suggestion of beleaguerment which becomes clamorous in the next stanza. And in

Not seeing, yet still hauing power of sight

there is a low-keyed vibrancy of privation, a thwarted capacity which makes possible the active self-thwarting that follows:

feare stirr'd vp with witty tyranny
Confounds all powers, and thorough selfe-offence,
Doth forge and raise impossibility.

With `impossibility', the climax of the octave, the sonnet's counter-movement is under way. But, as in some earlier poems of the sequence, this counter-movement encompasses an intensifying of the original one. The implicit privation of the first stanza becomes (with a hint of the ninth Egyptian plague?) `thicke depriuing darknesses'; the turmoil of the second stanza condenses into the finality of `hurt imaginations'. Simultaneously the `selfe-offence' is projected, even ordered, in `proper reflections' and `images of selfe-confusednesses' And what is so projected and ordered can be judged and, in a sense, dismissed by that puncturing final couplet:

And from this nothing seene, tels newes of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward euils.

This can be seen as carrying through the expulsion of the powers of evil triumphantly enacted in Caelica XCIX. The rejection of all visions of devils as illusion puts Greville firmly on the `rationalist' wing of contemporary thought. But it is a rejection more than balanced by the masterly evocation of the inward evil which projects (and by implication veils) itself in such illusions. If Sonnet C can stand as an epilogue to the poems of redemption, it is a double-edged one.

Such double-edgedness, such an abiding recognition of ambi-valence, is one element in Greville's power. The sonnet sequence, when handled as a sequence, opens itself to the exploring of fluctuation and ambivalence. From its foundations, in Dante and Petrarch, the sonnet, again especially in sequence, has also offered its practitioners the possibility of combining the excluding intensity of lyric with the analysis or meditation proper to more discursive forms. We see those possibilities realized in the two most notable English Renaissance sequences, those of Shakespeare and Sidney. Caelica deserves to take its place with them as a third, even though Greville overflows the bounds of both sonnet form and sequence (only 41 of its 109 poems are actual sonnets). As it advances Caelica becomes increasingly a verse commonplace book in which Greville enters the observations of his dogged, unsleeping, at times magnificent, analytic intelligence. It is that intelligence which holds in so firm a focus the ambivalences of both inner experience and the outer world of political and religious institutions. And the ambivalence is permanent. Dualism may be, as we have seen, transcended but it cannot, in this world, finally be escaped. And Greville is perhaps most haunting when his analytic recognition is infused with that sombre plangency of contemplation which the reader comes to recognize as his deepest note. We hear it in the Mustapha Chorus from which I began; we hear it in `Syon lyes waste' which closes Caelica and which creates in English more fully than anything of its period I know the quality of such Old Testament litanies of desolation as Psalm 74 or Lamentations.

Syon lies waste, and thy Ierusalem,
O Lord, is falne to vtter desolation,
Against thy Prophets and thy holy men,
The sinne hath wrought a fatall combination,
Prophan'd thy name, thy worship ouerthrowne,
And made thee liuing Lord, a God vnknowne.

Whatever its date of composition it makes the perfect ending to Caelica for its final world-rejecting, apocalyptic appeal reminds us that this poet of a profoundly fallen world is - in the end and not only in the end - also a poet of redemption:

Yet Lord let Israels plagues not be eternall,
Nor sinne for euer cloud thy sacred Mountaines,
Nor with false flames spirituall but infernall,
Dry up thy mercies euer springing fountaines,
Rather, sweet Iesus, fill vp time and come,
To yeeld the sinne her euerlasting doome.


[1] As eg by C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, (Oxford, 1954), pp 524-5.

[2] All Greville quotations are from the Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville edited by Geoffrey Bullough, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1939).

[3] Institutes of the Christian Religion edited by J. T. McNeill, 2 vols (London, 1961), I, 254. All Calvin quotations are from this edition.

[4] Institutes, I, 244.

[5] Institutes, I, 255

[6] See eg Institutes, I, 35-43.

[7] The best published account I know is in Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry (London, 1982), pp 65-76. There are some acute remarks in Yvor Winters' pioneering essay on `Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance' in his Forms of Discovery (Chicago, 1967), pp 1-120. Richard Waswo's careful exposition of the poems as a sequence in The Fatal Mirror (Charlottesville, 1972), pp 108-54, is largely conducted in terms of their subject matter.

[8] For a survey of the history of this belief see eg the article by Friedrich Loofs in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings et al, 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1908-26), IV, 654-63.

[9] The Gospel of Nicodemus is translated in The Apocryphal New Testament, edited by M. R. James (Oxford, 1924).

[10] Summa Theologiae (III, q 52 a 4),translated Thomas Gilby et al, 61 fols (London, 1969 - ), LIV, 165.

[11] Institutes, I, 515-6.

[12] See eg the Prologue to Alaham, 11. 21f; Caelica C, discussed below; Waswo, p 128.

[13] 2 Corinthians, 5:21. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translated G T Thomson et al, 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1936-69), IV/1 and IV/2.

[14] Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1969), p 201. The chapter on `Supernature and Demonism in Elizabethan Thought' gives a concise survey of the field.

[15] See eg George Gifford, A Discourse of the subtill Practises of devilles (London, 1587), sig C l.v; Louis Lavater, Of ghostes and spirites, translated by R. H. (London, 1572), pp 10ff.

[16] Lambert Daneau, A Dialogue of Witches, English translation (London, 1575), sig I 11 v and sig G II v - G III. Cf Gifford sig E1.