Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love

Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love

Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love

Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love


The Gospel of John describes the Incarnation of Christ as "the Word made flesh"--an intriguing phrase that uses the logic of metaphor but is not traditionally understood as merely symbolic. Thus the conceptual puzzle of the Incarnation also draws attention to language and form: what is the Word; how is it related to language; how can the Word become flesh? Such theological questions haunt the material imagery engaged by medieval writers, the structural forms that give their writing shape, and even their ideas about language itself. In Poetics of the Incarnation, Cristina Maria Cervone examines the work of fourteenth-century writers who, rather than approaching the mystery of the Incarnation through affective identification with the Passion, elected to ponder the intellectual implications of the Incarnation in poetical and rhetorical forms. Cervone argues that a poetics of the Incarnation becomes the grounds for working through the philosophical and theological implications of language, at a point in time when Middle English was emerging as a legitimate, if contested, medium for theological expression.

In brief lyrics and complex narratives, late medieval English writers including William Langland, Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of the Charters of Christ took the relationship between God and humanity as a jumping-off point for their meditations on the nature of language and thought, the elision between the concrete and the abstract, the complex relationship between acting and being, the work done by poetry itself in and through time, and the meaning latent within poetical forms. Where Passion-devoted writing would focus on the vulnerability and suffering of the fleshly body, these texts took imaginative leaps, such as when they depict the body of Christ as a lily or the written word. Their Incarnational poetics repeatedly call attention to the fact that, in theology as in poetics, form matters.


et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
—John 1:14

The gospel of John’s description of the Incarnation—of God taking on human form—proposes not only a conceptual conundrum (in the well-known words of Luke’s Gospel [1:34], “how shall this be done?”) but also a languagefocused one: “The Word was made flesh” sounds like a metaphor that links God and humanity by figurative signification of the word “word,” yet in Catholic tradition, John 1:14 is not to be understood as metaphorical. Moreover, John 1:14 immediately raises an important interpretative question: what is the relationship of the Logos (here, “Verbum” or “the Word”) to language? While this phrasing puts a focus on language and its sometimes challenging signification, the conceptual difficulties raised by John 1:14 are not themselves a result of phrasing. the mystery of the Incarnation has sparked the interest of writers since the time of Christ. Some of them, like those who are the subject of this study, have elected to think through their puzzlement over the “how” of the Incarnation in poetical or rhetorical forms rather than, for example, theological or philosophical treatises.

As is well known, the latter half of the fourteenth century saw Passion devotion increasingly spurring people’s desire for intense affective and personal identification with Christ’s suffering. At the same time, however, certain writers were engaged in less emotional, more intellectual investigations of Christ’s humanity, investigations that intriguingly focus on the language through which writers speak their thought and on the written form such thought takes. Among them were individuals as widely recognized by medievalists today as William Langland, Julian of Norwich, and Walter Hilton, and as obscure as the unknown authors of the Charters of Christ and of a few lyric poems with botanical imagery. Such writers turned to the hypostatic union—the conjoining of . . .

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