Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Imitatio Christi: The Poetics of Piety in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Imitatio Christi: The Poetics of Piety in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Imitatio Christi: The Poetics of Piety in Early Modern England. By Nandra Perry. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014, Pp. viii, 280. $32.00, paper.)

Imitatio or imitation was, as Nandra Perry shows in this ambitious and provocative book, a persistent theme in Renaissance humanism as well as in Catholic and Protestant religious thought. The idea of imitation was so widespread that it would be difficult for readers to understand the literature, theology, and devotional writing of the early modern period in England without some grasp of the concept. Perry's analysis begins appropriately with Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, a fifteenth-century classic from the Devotio Moderna movement in the Netherlands. Kempis treats the imitation of Christ's life and Passion on the cross as the key to salvation and the living of a Christian life. This approach focuses on the physical body of Christ, which Kempis discusses in the final chapter in sacramental terms as the sustenance at the heart of Christian experience. What Perry describes is the process by which English writers from Thomas Rogers and Sir Philip Sidney to John Milton reinterpreted imitation to express distinctive and very influential ideas.

Among the important and persuasive arguments that Perry develops is that Thomas Rogers, the translator of Kempis' book into English in 1580, reinterpreted Kempis' text to focus attention on Christ as the Logos or divine Word and on the words of scripture as the means of understanding Christ as savior. Rogers omits from the translation the final chapter of Kempis' book with its treatment of the transubstantiation of the material elements of communion into the body of Christ. Scripture becomes for Rogers the means of communicating Christ. Thus Rogers helped to formulate a Reformed imitatio based on the following of the divine word. Rogers and his contemporary Sir Philip Sidney were pioneers in this new Protestant approach to imitation. Sidney, whose Arcadia (1590) and The Defence of Poesy (1595), published after his death in battle in 1586, went further by relating to this theme that of imitation as an act of the creative imagination expressed in poetic language by means of metaphors, idealized social settings, and characters of symbolic significance. Aristotle and other ancient thinkers had represented imitation as art imitating nature in such a way as to bring out a deeper meaning than actual events conveyed, a view rediscovered by Renaissance humanists in Italy and France. These two conceptions-Protestant and humanist-were uneasy partners, as Perry's further discussions show. …

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