Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England

Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England

Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England

Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England

Synopsis

During the Reformation, the mystery of the Eucharist was the subject of contentious debate and a nexus of concerns over how the material might embody the sublime and how the absent might be made present. For Kimberly Johnson, the question of how exactly Christ can be present in bread and wine is fundamentally an issue of representation, and one that bears directly upon the mechanics of poetry. In Made Flesh, she explores the sacramental conjunction of text with materiality and word with flesh through the peculiar poetic strategies of the seventeenth-century English lyric.

Made Flesh examines the ways in which the works of John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Edward Taylor, and other devotional poets explicitly engaged in issues of signification, sacrament, worship, and the ontological value of the material world. Johnson reads the turn toward interpretively obstructive and difficult forms in the seventeenth-century English lyric as a strategy to accomplish what the Eucharist itself cannot: the transubstantiation of absence into perceptual presence by emphasizing the material artifact of the poem. At its core, Johnson demonstrates, the Reformation debate about the Eucharist was an issue of semiotics, a reimagining of the relationship between language and materiality. The self-asserting flourishes of technique that developed in response to sixteenth-century sacramental controversy have far-reaching effects, persisting from the post-Reformation period into literary postmodernity.

Excerpt

This is a book about how poems work, and about how the interpretive demands of sacramental worship inform the production of poetic texts.

If it seems impolite for a book to declare its intentions so brashly in its first gesture, such insolence has nevertheless been made necessary by the publication of several critical texts that set out to investigate what they term the poetics of the post-Reformation period, particularly in conjunction with a consideration of eucharistic theology. in what has become a minor fad in Renaissance literary criticism, a number of studies advertise themselves as engaged in an examination of the relationship between the sacramental theologies of the early modern period and the representational strategies of poetic texts; but too often these critical examinations seem to lose track of, or fundamentally to misunderstand, the terms in which they frame their projects. While a number of well-meaning critics have trafficked in phrases like “eucharistic poetics,” “sacramental poetics,” and “the poetics of immanence,” and have acknowledged, either explicitly or implicitly, the interpretive overlap between sacramental worship and the processes of signification, their attention remains focused not on poetics—that is, not on the way poems work as literary artifacts—but rather on whatever opinions concerning sacramental theology Renaissance literature seems to offer. the present study, by contrast, concerns itself primarily with poetics, with the ways in which poems communicate information beyond denotation and in addition to the referential content of words rather than with whatever thematic commentary poems may offer on the subject of the Eucharist. I am most urgently interested, in other words, in how poems say as opposed to what poems say. For it is in their concern with the success and failure of language to provide interpretive experiences that these poetic texts reveal . . .

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