Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Article excerpt

Cristina Maria Cervone, Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love (Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-8122-4451-9. £45.50.

This ambitious, closely written book acts as a counterweight to recent emphases on affect in late medieval evocations of the Passion, by redirecting our attention toward a very different kind of response to the Crucifixion in fourteenth-century poetry and prose: a metaphoric, unemotive, and reified response to Christ's body, channelling the paradox of the Incarnation. Using a selection of vernacular texts: Julian's Revelation, Hilton's Scale of Perfection, Piers Plowman, the Charter of Christ poems, and botanical lyrics figuring Christ as a 'true-love' or fleur-de-lys, Cervone examines three image groups that loom large within them: Christ's body as book or text, as clothing or enwrapment, and as plant or organic growth. She argues that these images should be construed as thought-experiments, telling us through metaphor something about the simultaneity of divinity and humanity in the hypostatic union which non-figurative language would be incapable of conveying. As such, she suggests that theology is undisseverable from poetics in these vernacular writings, and takes more general debates about vernacular theology over the last twenty years in a new direction by demonstrating the ambition and creativity of the way in which the English vernacular tackles the problem of paradox and of the ineffable, namely, through the use of the superejfability of compressed figuration.

Cervone adds flesh to the bones of this overarching purpose by conducting a series of minutely observed close readings of specific images and passages from within these texts. Dividing her material by reference to the range of ways in which figuration can operate, she explores moments of linguistic ingenuity and play where a fragment of language momentarily acquires agency ('linguistic dilation'), reflecting the Word made flesh, or where grammatical form is scrambled, and the doer and the deed become one (Christ does the deed of love and is the deed of love in the Charter poems), signalling the Incarnation through grammatical paradox. …

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