- 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...