Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.3 (2001) 561-584
[Access article in PDF]
"That spectacle of too much weight":
The Poetics of Sacrifice in Donne, Herbert, and Milton
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
Copie thy fair though bloudie hand?
If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.
This essay began with a question that has been rattling around in my head since I first began studying devotional poetry: Why did the scenario of the Christian sacrifice prove such a vexed and perplexing subject for lyric poetry in seventeeth-century England? Why, that is, did the Passion shift from being a site of the deepest imaginative engagement for medieval Catholic writers to a comparatively marginal subject, which challenges and defeats the best efforts of mortal devotees? As Donne in "Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward" deliberately rides away from the east, the scene of the sacrifice, so does Protestant lyric devotion in seventeenth-century England move away from identification with the spectacularly gruesome suffering of the crucified Christ toward the apprehension of the extravagant mercy ensuing from Jesus' victory over sin and death on the cross. There are many reasons for this change, but a central reason is a renewed emphasis in Reformed religion on the Davidic and Pauline notions that the only sacrifice God desires occurs neither in sanctified architectural space nor in explicit corporeal suffering but rather in the interior spaces of the believer. Sacrifice is not so much a ritual action as a devotional state achieved in the temple that is the heart of the devout. [End Page 561]
In The Poetry of Meditation, Louis Martz helped revive the study of seventeenth-century religious lyrics by locating a range of these poems amid the practices of Catholic, and specifically Ignatian, meditation. Martz demonstrates how Ignation meditational structures urge devotees to exercise their imaginations in order to envisage the Passion of Jesus, and to position themselves emotionally in relation to this vivid scene of profound suffering. 1 To exemplify this process, Martz cites texts such as Luis de la Puente's Meditations, a work which enjoins the believer to
set before mine eyes Christ Jesus crucified, beholding his heade crowned with thornes; his face spit upon; his eyes obscured; his armes disjoincted; his tonge distasted with gall, and vineger; his handes and feete peerced with nailes . . . and then pondering that hee suffereth all this for my sinnes, I will drawe sundrye affections from the inwardest parte of my heart, sometimes trembling at the rigour of God's justice. 2
Martz argues cogently that "such practices of 'composition' or 'proposing' lie behind the vividly dramatized, firmly established, graphically imaged openings that are characteristic" of poets such as Donne and Herbert. 3
If these writers look toward the scene of the Passion, however, they do so through squinting eyes amid slumping postures, as if they were glimpsing a trauma too immense for human comprehension. The poems explored in this essay--Donne's "Goodfriday, 1613," Herbert's "Sacrifice" sequence, and Milton's "Passion"--are not so much vivid dramatizations of the sacrifice as they are performances of the enormous difficulty of apprehending what is, in Donne's words, a "spectacle of too much weight for mee." 4 These writers ask how the immense suffering of the Christian sacrifice can be represented in poetry, free of the inevitable anesthesia of memory and the distorting fictions of the imagination. They record not just the immense spiritual benefits that ensue from the sacrifice of the suffering Jesus but also the prodigious psychological costs of that beneficent sacrifice for the mortal worshipper. They offer a way of engaging with the Passion that is not so much a poetry of meditation as it is a poetry of immolation.
Passionis in this context an enormously rich and elusive term, designating both the enormous agony of Jesus and the swirl of emotions that this suffering instills in the individual believer. What becomes for...