- Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World
Regina Schwartz's tour de force, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World, argues that the Reformation's central religious controversy over the Eucharist jolted sensibilities that had formed over many centuries and became the occasion for the articulation of a new, "modern" world-view. Schwartz demonstrates that the pre-modern world rested upon sacraments inviting participation in spiritual communion that would eradicate the distance between humanity and divinity, materiality and the eternal. These sacraments, in turn, relied on a "divine hermeneutics" of Biblical precedent that was challenged by reformers' insistence on the symbolic nature of the sacrament, which stood in for but was no longer in contact with the Transcendent. This early modern, anti-material ideology produced a persistent nostalgia for divine presence and for the availability of meaning that would, in turn, engage, transform, and transubstantiate the reader. Admittedly grounded in a similar nostalgia, Sacramental Poetics effectively transforms such longing into a sharply articulated, powerfully political and contemporary vision for the future.
It was the poets of the Reformation who articulated this nostalgic desire for "a dinner that they could only imagine" (17). As we see in chapters on William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Donne, and George Herbert, the transcendental character of the sacrament, banished from the realm of religion, lent itself to this so-called secular form of culture: "A sacramental poetry is a poetry that signifies more than it says, that creates more than its signs, yet does so, like liturgy, through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements" (7). While the Reformation attacked the Catholic reading of the Eucharist, the poetry of the period allowed for the ongoing experience of the mystery of the sacrament through metaphor.
The chapter on Shakespeare develops the claim that "if, in one sense, the Elizabethan theater competed with the Mass for an audience, in another, deeper sense, it replaced it, becoming the first truly Reformed Church" (42). Othello becomes the test case for this argument, presenting Desdemona's death as sacrifice through allusions to the Mass as well as its infernal parody. The play thereby refuses to deliver redemption and instead leaves its viewers with a religious craving for justice. Noting the Greek etymology of sacramentum as mysticum, Schwartz finds in Milton a desire to take on the mystery of doing justice. Although in his prose Milton, like Donne, vituperates against Eucharistic real presence, Paradise Lost is read here as the creation of an ever-transubstantiating or "digesting universe" (64). In the garden where Adam and Raphael partake [End Page 192] of their meal and Eve famously "[m]inistered naked," salvation is not rooted in memory or promise, set apart from its inhabitants, but is the effect of a perpetual cosmic communion where the universe is ordered by the process of all turning into God. In her most complexly argued chapter, Schwartz engages Milton's struggle to accept rather than revile materiality.
Donne responds to the problem of materiality by embracing sexuality and desire as the medium of one's relation to the divine; immanence in the poems is not transcended as idolatrous figure but instead transubstantiated as a vehicle for contact with the eternal. More specifically, in "The Ecstasy" "Donne puts marriage in the place of the Eucharist as the 'sacrament' or mystery of union" (108), thereby deferring the physical presence of God from the Eucharist to the resurrection, a move with extensive theological precedents. This love of and love in death ultimately recalls or repeats the sacramental sacrifice.
Herbert develops even more precisely poetry's sacramental character according to which the mystery of the Word is grounded in the poetic word that is co-authored by human and divine: in "A True Hymn," for instance, what cannot be said is completed by God ("God writeth, Loved"). But it is ultimately in Herbert's deployment and theorization of...