Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric

Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric

Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric

Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric

Excerpt

If we accept the catalogue of faults which some commentators level against the Middle English religious lyrics, we can immediately sentence these poems to a circle in some aesthetic inferno and turn our attention to other literary matters. For--item--the problems which these lyrics raise are more theological than literary. And --item--we modern readers can find little relevance in a theology constructed upon an alien, if not outmoded, system of beliefs. Item. The religious subject matter actually fettered the talents of the lyrists, and we may marvel that any good religious lyrics came out of England at all. Item. The lyrics are flat. They do not produce a tremolo with arrowlike flight straight from the heart. These charges point out, in effect, that the religious lyrics have no significant theological, emotional, or literary value. And we shall probably agree to these charges if we try to read the lyrics as sermons, or if we insist upon evaluating them as though they had been written by Romantic or modern poets. Of course the lyrics are disappointing and do not invite rereading if we expect to push aside the diction and find an author carrying his heart in his hands. Significantly enough, these poems were not written in anticipation of modern preconceptions about the lyric. They are songs. And they must be judged as such.

As songs, the religious lyrics bear strengths and . . .

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