by Daniel Benjamin
Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014 | 248 pages
Contemporary language poetry highlights the opacity of poetic language, the occasions – to repurpose Wittgenstein’s phrase – when language goes on holiday, refusing to signify straightforwardly and instead insisting on its mute materiality. Scholars often attribute the concern with these non-semantic leftovers, whether they be sound-waves or ink patterns, to “the avant-garde experimentalism of the American Postmodern,” in turn the product of the “poetries and philosophies of the Modern Era.” But in Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England, Kimberly Johnson argues that a similar concern surfaced in the years following the Protestant Reformation. In particular, Johnson argues that the Eucharistic Controversy precipitated a linguistic and semiotic crisis in England.
Catholics had long held the consecrated bread and wine to be miraculously transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood. But the early Reformers challenged this traditional interpretation of Jesus’s “hoc est corpus meum” (“this is my body,” from which mocking Protestants coined the term “hocus pocus”). Though Luther accepted the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine, he thought the elements also retained their normal, corporeal status. Calvin, more radically, claimed Christ was present in the Eucharist only spiritually. Alternatives to and gradations of these interpretations proliferated.
In her introduction, after surveying the pre-history of the controversy, Johnson argues that the Reformation debate over the Eucharist triggered broader questions about how language signifies. “It became increasingly possible,” she writes, “to conceive of a sacramental system in which the referential meaning of signs may be divorced from the signs themselves.” Reformation “eucharistic theology,” it is argued, “influences representational practices,” catalyzing “a poetics that foregrounds the ritual’s inherent tensions between material surface and imperceptible substance, between sign and signified, between flesh and spirit.” In other words, as the link frayed between the host and Christ’s presence, the freestanding signifier became available to contemplate and deploy, without being rigidly bound to the signified. In addition, and paradoxically, this abstract sign, precisely when it is detached from what it signifies, comes simultaneously to be perceived as incarnating (embodying) Christ’s presence in the world. Rather than representing God’s presence, early modern devotional poetry instantiates it.
Johnson’s analysis begins with an examination of George Herbert’s collection The Temple, famous for its vacillations on the ontology of the Eucharist. Moving past the doctrinal wrangling characteristic of earlier Herbert scholarship, Johnson argues that Herbert’s doubts about Christ’s sacramental presence lead him to “preserve the significance of the sign in itself.” The Temple’s poetic form, she argues, its anagrams, meticulous typographical layout, and signature pattern poetry, embeds Christ’s spirit in the body of the text and thus aligns it “with the incarnationalist potentialities of Communion.”
In subsequent chapters, Johnson argues similarly about John Donne and Richard Crashaw. Donne develops his metaphysical conceits – torturously, ecstatically drawn out metaphors –Johnson argues, not just out of witty artistry, but to serve as “an incarnational machine, exemplifying the capacity of the medium to embody.” She then convincingly connects this project to Donne’s morbid fascination, in his sermons, with the gross particulars of decaying bodies. Similar treatment is accorded Crashaw’s bizarrely sensual language for the Eucharist, which has long consternated and amused critics. In one of his (particularly weird) epigrams, the communicant is invited to taste what Johnson correctly identifies as “specifically penile blood.” The outrageous “physicality disrupts sacramentalism,” reminding readers that they can taste God only indirectly, through a physical medium. Likewise, they can only experientially access God via signifiers, free-standing signs that seem to point towards, but give no direct access to, God Himself. (That Johnson draws close parallels between Crashaw, who wrote most of his mature religious verse as a Catholic, and Herbert, an Anglican priest, raises the question: if the Eucharistic debate really triggers a distinctively new poetics, would that poetics be shared by antagonists in the debate? Perhaps, but an explicit argument is in order.)
The best chapter in Made Flesh is the second, which treats the substantial repetition found in the work of colonial American pastor and poet Edward Taylor. Johnson brilliantly contextualizes Taylor’s poems in Calvinist anxieties about his own election (that is, his having been chosen by God), expressed as the desire to be the appropriate bride of Christ. Patterned after menstruation, the poems regularly purge Taylor of sin to prepare for the Eucharistic marriage to Christ. Taylor’s poems emerge as material objects that, independent of what they mean, affirm, by their very presence, his spiritual fitness.
Johnson’s central argument, that concern with signification as such traces back at least to the Post-Reformation period, raises a few questions. First, if Johnson’s broader claim is right, can we confidently attribute this change in poetic practice, as she does, specifically to the Eucharistic controversy? Seventeenth century England saw massive and diverse intellectual upheaval: the discovery of blood circulation and reception of the Galilean revolution, as well as a resurgent anti-monarchism and the rise of social contract philosophy. As has been frequently noted, these changes affected conceptions of language; Margreta de Grazia memorably writes about the “secularization of language” during the period. Recently, Roland Greene has argued that a newfound concrete literalism shaped, for instance, the cultural meaning of “blood,” which lost its role in a complex, quasi-allegorical hierarchy of meaning and became a specific, physical object. Religious debate contributed to that shift, but so did burgeoning empiricism, the decline of philosophical nominalism, and half a dozen parallel intellectual changes. Especially if, as Johnson argues in her conclusion, we see similarly newfound attention to signs themselves in non-devotional genres as well, how can we be confident that debates about the Eucharist drove this change?
Johnson also does not theorize her use of twentieth century poetics as a theoretical guide to Post-Reformation devotional poetry. Charles Bernstein, for example, celebrates “impermeable textual elements.” So, perhaps, do the seventeenth century poets under review. But Bernstein’s inheritance of post-modern skepticism, Marxist materialism, Modernist experimentalism, and abstract expressionism (to name a few salient influences) is not Herbert’s. If raw, intractable presence matters to devotional poets as a way to incarnate Christ, how does that goal compare to those of avowedly secular successors living several centuries later? Is Johnson arguing for an ahistorical core to lyric poetry, and if so, how does such an argument mesh with the Reformation context? Johnson’s readings raise these tantalizing issues, but absent explicit meditation, they remain puzzles.
But plainly, Made Flesh contributes numerous fresh readings of important poets and also provokes basic, profound questions about poetics and its history. The book’s main strength is surely its patient, careful attention to individual poems, to which Johnson brings an acute sense for crafted detail and its broader religious significances.
Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Atlantic online, and the Forward. More of his writing can be found on his blog: http://raphaelmagarik.com/my-work/.