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Poetics of the Incarnation

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

Cristina Maria Cervone
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Poetics of the Incarnation
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0747-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    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 language-focused 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...

  4. Chapter 1 The “Enigma” of Signification in “Figurative” Language
    (pp. 19-55)

    What is the “mirror” through which, and “enigma” in which, the likeness of God may be glimpsed?¹ What mode of perception permits such a glimpse? For fourteenth-century writers, Christ’s joint divinity and humanity situates him ideally as mediator between God and mankind. As Julian of Norwich puts it, “be [by] the endles assent of the full accord of al the Trinite, the mid person would [desires to] be ground and hede [head] of this fair kinde [human race]” (53.34–36).² The very middleness of the hypostatic union serves to point in two directions at once: toward the likeness of God...

  5. Chapter 2 Elisions of Abstract and Concrete, Epitomized in a “True-love”
    (pp. 56-84)

    Earlier I noted how Julian, Hilton, and the Cloud-author distinguish between “bodily” and “ghostly” interpretations of language, with the Cloud-author’s “bodely conseyte of a goostly þing, or elles a goostly conseyte of a bodely þing,” Julian’s “gostly weping,” and Hilton’s explanation how to “turne lightli inowgh alle sich wordes of bodili thyngis into goostli undirstondynge.” They point towards spiritual understanding by means of analogy with a physical experience of the material world. Ironically, that spiritual understanding must be represented in concrete terms precisely because the very nature of its subject matter is highly abstract. This chapter investigates what happens when...

  6. Chapter 3 Agency: When Christ as “Doer” Is Also the “Love Deed”
    (pp. 85-123)

    Linguistic dilation, as I have argued, exemplifies what can happen when language gains enough agency to achieve near-personification. This elasticity in the linguistic system momentarily draws the focus away from a previous center of attention and then releases it again. Linguistic dilation relies on a fleeting shift in agency; agency is key to the rhetorical strategy even when not the primary center of attention. in his 1997 exploration of the importance of the Incarnation for vernacular theology, Nicholas Watson noted how in certain vernacular texts, including Piers Plowman and A Revelation of Love, “the act of kenosis itself, Christ’s extravagant...

  7. Chapter 4 Time in Narrative: The Teleology of History Meets the Timelessness of God “in plenitudo temporis”
    (pp. 124-158)

    While time might not necessarily be a central topic in a given narrative, of course a narrative cannot help but take some stance with regard to the passage of time, even if only because narratives present themselves through a process of interpretation over time. For writers interested in the Incarnation, diverse ways time can be represented in narrative offer useful perspectives from which to view the nature of the hypostatic union: the cascading outpouring of God’s love may be depicted as an event leading to other events, for example, but also (and at the same time) as a relationship of...

  8. Chapter 5 “He is in the mydde point”: Poetic Deep Structure and the Frameworks of Incarnational Poetics
    (pp. 159-208)

    From the topic of time within narrative, this chapter moves to the large-scale structural forms that lie at the heart of an Incarnational poetic. When John Cap-grave sought “to uttir pleynly in langage of oure nacion, / Swech straunge doutes that long to the Incarnacion,” he wanted to articulate both clearly and fully.¹ When I discussed Capgrave in my introduction, I focused primarily on vernacularity and historical moment, only briefly raising the issue of poetic form, which I wish to consider here more extensively. In an Incarnational poetic, the capacity of language to express fully, making manifest more than it...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 209-214)

    Although scholarship is shifting the paradigm, many English medieval religious lyrics are still often thought of, in general terms, as treating doctrine in a simplistic way expressive of a rudimentary faith. The achievements of conspicuously brilliant medieval poems, such as The Dream of the Rood or Pearl, ensure that we recognize that theological poetry in English does not emerge fully formed in the seventeenth century with the great metaphysical poets. Nevertheless, many medieval poems—particularly shorter poems—still tend to be classified as didactic, or affective, or are selectively mined for choice imagery, in ways that threaten to marginalize them,...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 215-282)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 283-300)
  12. Index
    (pp. 301-310)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 311-312)