Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England by Kimberly Johnson
Kimberly Johnson’s Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England offers a much-needed contribution to “a minor fad in Renaissance literary criticism” today: theological poetics (1). Recent studies in the field by Theresa DiPasquale, Victoria Kahn, Eleanor McNees, Ryan Netzley, Regina Schwartz, and Robert Whalen, along with what Johnson calls the “stealthily enduring 1954 study” by Malcolm Mackenzie Ross, have created a veritable trend in early modern scholarship (2). And while an addition to this seemingly comprehensive series might appear excessive, Johnson’s new book adds valuable insights to this widening debate over the theological foundations of early modern aesthetics and politics.
Made Flesh unveils the mechanics of early modern English poetry in an effort to demonstrate the intimate relations between lyric verse and the Eucharist in post-reformation England. In Johnson’s own words, the book is “most urgently interested … in how poems say as opposed to what poems say” (1). She is concerned with the formal, structural, and tropological techniques used by seventeenth-century English poets rather than the signified content of their verses. By bracketing out other considerations, Johnson is able to concentrate on the structural foundations of early modern lyric poetry and discern hidden connections between poetics and the Reformation.
Johnson’s introduction positions her book between two interventions—one historical, one theoretical. On the one hand, she enters the long history of theological debates over the Eucharist (from Origen and Tertullian to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin) to place a particular emphasis on Calvin’s understanding. She claims that it is his “legacy to which the English divines of [End Page 144] the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are heir” (19). On the other hand, she situates the book within current debates over the origins of modern poetics. Considering the theories of twentieth-century poets such as Charles Bernstein, Allen Grossman, and Susan Stewart, Johnson claims that early modern poets like John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw invented an antiabsorptive poetics (a term borrowed from Bernstein’s A Poetics ) that persists today.
This antiabsorptive poetics is at the heart of Made Flesh and constitutes Johnson’s most original contribution. She argues that such a poetics “foregrounds the nondenotative qualities of its language … [and] impedes ‘the transparency effect,’ in which meaning is conceived as somehow standing behind the words, waiting to be claimed” (23). She explains that this stubborn materiality of language “replicates the [eucharistic] challenge of discerning Christ’s body through the representational veils of bread and wine” (121). Such a concept allows Johnson to move her study of theological poetics beyond traditional debates over the doctrinal allegiances of early modern poets—a debate which Johnson situates between Louis Martz’s Catholic-oriented The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (1954) and Barbara Lewalski’s Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1979). Rather than following these studies into arguments over Donne’s crypto-Catholicism or Herbert’s reformed Anglicanism, Johnson concentrates on how the English “lyric poem becomes a primary cultural site for investigating the capacity of language to manifest presence”—a capacity shared by both the sacrament of the Eucharist and antiabsorptive poetics (6).
To make her case, Johnson offers a series of close readings that connects post-Reformation eucharistic theology to early modern lyric poetry. The core chapters of the book are best understood in two distinct parts. The first two chapters investigate the structural poetics of George Herbert and Edward Taylor; the second two explore the semiotics of John Donne and Richard Crashaw. In her readings of Herbert and Taylor, Johnson demonstrates how their poetry expresses a poetics of “antiabsorptive textual substantiality,” achieved principally through the structural and formal elements of their verses (87). Herbert’s The Temple emphasizes the materiality of poetry by drawing the reader’s eyes to the visual forms of its verses and the reader’s ears to its sounds. In this sense, reading Herbert’s poetry is akin to experiencing the materiality of the Eucharist. Both rituals call for an immanent experience [End Page 145] of a signifier in itself, either the divine Word or the fleshly bread. Johnson continues her study of these material parallels between verse and Eucharist with a reading of Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations. She shows how the English minister used poetry to cleanse his sinful soul for the “Wedden Feast” of the Lord’s Supper (80). Poetry is a tool that aids Taylor’s spiritual progress. His verses materially represent his invisible soul’s struggles each month in preparing for the Eucharist. Both The Temple and Preparatory Meditations showcase ways in which post-Reformation poets confronted an early modern crisis of deus absconditus in the material forms and structures of their poetry.
With Donne and Crashaw, Johnson focuses on the semiotics of poetry to show how their “extravagant metaphors … relocate significance to the fleshly, in order to claim the poetic sign as an efficacious and substantive object and communicative end in itself” (88). In Donne’s poetry, the “trope is … not a referential tool but a presencing machine” (90). In one instance, Johnson demonstrates this by investigating the biblical tropes in Death’s Duell, explaining how a traditional metaphor like the bowels of compassion becomes materialized in Donne’s poetry as the actual bowels of Christ (95). By incorporating a symbolic metaphor within the actual body of Christ, Donne transforms a traditionally translucent image of meaning into a corporeal and antiabsorptive image of religious meditation. Following her study of Donne, Johnson explores Crashaw’s pervasive use of corporeal language. She claims that Crashaw sees his fleshly images as poetic recreations of the Eucharist itself. Indeed, Johnson builds on the work of Richard Rambuss and others in asserting that Crashaw’s poetry exemplifies a radically eucharistic understanding of the body and flesh as intimate sites of religious devotion. She explains that each poem referring to the body of Christ constitutes a spiritual encounter in which the Christian is asked to consume the flesh of Christ in the form of a sign. Her most interesting examples of this include Crashaw’s epigram on Luke 11 (“Blessed be the paps which Thou hast sucked”) and “On the wounds of our crucified Lord,” whose first two lines read, “O these wakefull wounds of thine! / Are they Mouthes? Or are they eyes?” (140). Because of their frequent use of fleshly and corporeal diction, Donne and Crashaw constitute the most impressive and convincing examples of an antiabsorptive poetics at work in post-Reformation England.
Johnson’s concluding chapter extends her argument by claiming that this antiabsorptive poetics influenced the entire “literary culture of seventeenth-century England,” including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Robert [End Page 146] Herrick, and continues to affect the poetry of “our secular postmodernity” (148, 164). Although her readings of Herrick’s poems to Julia are some of the most compelling in her book, such a broadening of her original argument places it in stark contrast to Victoria Kahn’s The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts, published the same year as Made Flesh, which convincingly argues against the growing claims that early modern theology almost exclusively shaped the poetics and politics of the period. Kahn follows the work of Hans Blumenberg, Erich Auerbach, and Hannah Arendt in privileging the autonomy of secular poiesis and its pivotal position in the development of early modern culture. She contends that early modern theological innovations should be seen not as the cause but as the result of early modern poetics. Even though Kahn and Johnson stand in distinctly different theoretical camps on this issue, they constitute the two most promising developments in recent scholarship on the theological poetics of early modern Europe.
Readers of Made Flesh may wish for a more complicated account of early modern poetics that could bridge the gap between these two horizons. Unfortunately, the boldness of Johnson’s central thesis makes scant room for other, more compatible accounts. For example, in Baroque Science (2013), Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris claim that early modern scientific innovations created a break in signification toward the “sovereignty of the signifier”—a concept akin to Johnson’s antiabsorptive poetics. However, by arguing that seventeenth-century English poets created antiabsorptive “strategies that directly respond to the hermeneutic challenges of sacramental worship,” Johnson limits the purview of her book to a narrower question of theology and poetic semiotics (27). Although a more contextual approach to this rupture of signification at the intersection of early modern science, theology, politics, and aesthetics has yet to be written, Johnson’s original work contributes a critical piece to this larger puzzle.
Made Flesh constitutes a clear and refreshingly bold intervention in the widening discussion of theological poetics, and it will prove compelling to a variety of audiences, including scholars of the English renaissance, early modern theology, cultural studies, and poetic theory. Most importantly, Johnson’s concept of antiabsorptive poetics delivers a new and useful way to understand the complicated history of early modern lyric poetry and its relation to contemporary theology. And by including the voices of contemporary poets like Bernstein and Stewart in her historical analysis, Johnson demonstrates that [End Page 147] early modern poetic innovations are not only important issues of academic history and theory, but also central concerns for postmodern poets. Indeed, Made Flesh offers scholars and artists alike a new way to see the past, present, and future possibilities of poetic practice in the light of theology.
Hudson Vincent is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His current research focuses on early modern literature and aesthetics in England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. He is particularly interested in the Baroque as a diachronic, transnational, and panaesthetic style. In a 2013 issue of Cultural Studies, he published an oral history of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, England.