- Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England by Kimberly Johnson
Kimberly Johnson argues in this book that, too often in recent studies, scholars claim to be examining the ‘poetics’ of early modern literary engagements with sacramental theology, but instead treat literary texts as mere communication devices for religious ideas. In contrast, Johnson focuses on the actual ‘poetics’ of poetry: that is, ‘the ways in which poems communicate information beyond denotation’ (p. 1). In short, Johnson analyses how poetic form conveys meaning as much as content does.
Rather than use poetry to discover a poet’s confessional identity, Johnson is more interested in the complexity of literary engagement with Eucharistic worship. Accordingly, Johnson begins by defining what a real poetics of the Eucharist might be, arguing that the post-Reformation lyric poem ‘becomes a primary cultural site for investigating the capacity of language to manifest presence’ (p. 6). As in other recent works on literature and the Eucharist in this period, Johnson focuses on the importance of figural language for such poems, arguing that the ‘model of devotion that emerges out of sixteenth-century theology is, finally, textual’ (p. 21).
After her Introduction, Johnson devotes chapters to George Herbert, Edward Taylor, John Donne, and Richard Crashaw. In the first chapter, Johnson shows how Herbert’s poetry on the Eucharist represents the sacrament as manifest both materially and spiritually, neither giving way to the other. In the second chapter, Johnson focuses on Taylor’s textual strategies of self-feminisation, showing how Taylor’s ritualistic monthly self-abasements in poetry serve as a kind of ‘menstrual poetics’ (p. 87), and use poetic form to make present what ‘cannot be perceived’, that is, God’s grace (p. 65). In Chapter 3, Johnson argues that Donne understands metaphor as what makes God present in the world; in his use of metaphor, she suggests, Donne makes the sign a thing in itself, not simply a carrier for the meaning of the signified. In Chapter 4, she argues that Crashaw’s persistently and often perversely physical poems show ambivalence about the ‘corporeal expressivity of incarnational Christianity’ (p. 138).
In her Conclusion, Johnson examines the implications of Eucharistic debates about the sign and the signifier for more secular works by Robert Herrick and Ben Jonson, and argues that post-Reformation poetics, with its focus on the materiality of the poem, prefigures Modernist and Postmodernist poetics’ similar investment. Johnson thus ends by tracing the continuity from seventeenth-century to twentieth- and twenty-first-century theories that the poem should be, not mean. [End Page 190]