Johnson 2014

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Johnson, Kimberly. Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

"This book demonstrates the ways in which the sacramental conjunction of text and materiality, word and flesh, in the ritual of Communion registers simultaneously as a theological concern and as a nexus for anxieties about how language -- particularly poetic language, with its valences of embodiment -- works." (2)

modern critics arguing about what theologies Donne and Herbert represent -- Louis Martz arguing for Catholicism on the one hand, Barbara Lewalski for "Protestant poetics" on the other (3-4)

  • "Not surprisingly, the Eucharist has come to serve for modern critics, as it did for early modern divines, as a kind of litmus test for confessional allegiance" (4)
"a doctrinally definitive approach may prevent even acute readers from appreciating how adaptable, porous, and sometimes inconsistent Christian worship was in the post-REformation period, for both communities of worship and individuals alike. Studies that ground textual analysis within historical context have done much to illuminate the complexity of belief in the period, and have helped demolish any notion that post-Reformation doctrine, institutional or otherwise, was consistent. And yet the persistent assumption that a poem declares any given writer's creed or that it presents a stable articulation of a doctrinal position threatens to reduce poetic utterance to a transparent referential instrument, a straightforward and aesthetically naive expression of the spiritual life of the poet." (6)
"Made Flesh addresses the phenomenal and epistemological overlaps between textuality and sacramental worship to demonstrate that in the period following the religious Reformation of the sixteenth century, the lyric poem becomes a primary cultural site for investigating the capacity of language to manifest presence. In poems that employ the presentational, and representational, strategies of Communion, 17th-century writers assert the status of poems as artifacts with corporeal as well as symbolic resonances, such that the poems themselves embody the shifting and precarious relationship between materiality and signification -- which, not incidentally, is precisely the issue that produces conflicting accounts of the operation of the Eucharist." (6)
"as currents of receptionism and memorialism were introduced ever more fervently into the theological conversation over the course of the 16c, it became increasingly possible to conceive of a sacramental system in which the referential meaning of signs may be divorced from the signs themselves." (15)
"In working through shifting conceptions of the significative status of the physical world, Reformation debates about the sacrament -- the defining controversy of the Reformation itself -- focus precisely on the relationship between signs and signifieds, presence and presentation, materiality and tropology. To put it another wya, the history of eucharistic theology in the 16c is a history of theories about the operations of signification and figuration." (15)


"Calvin's comparison registers the proximity between the symbolic action of the sacrament and the ysmbolic action of art, a similarity that does not differentiate the literary from the pictorial. Indeed, by understanding both eucharistic and verbal signs as kinds of icon, Calvin foregrounds their physical valences, offering a conception of signs that maintains their visual presence, their perceptible materiality. From this perspective, the sacramental elements are experienced as aesthetic objects of devotion, appealing to the spiritual precisely because they are material." (19)
"The model of devotion that emerges out of 16c theology is, finally, textual." (21)
"post-Reformation poetry is self-consciousy engaged with its own capacities -- and failures -- to manifest presence, and thus registers vividly the ways in which signification informs and is informed by eucharistic controversy." (22)
"For in their fixation on the perceptual absence of Christ's body and on the mechanisms by which that absence is redressed, and in their reimagining of the Eucharist's underlying assumptions regarding the capacity of signs to manifest corporeal presence, reformers interrogate the very phenomena that animate lyric poetry." (26)
"I wish to demonstrate that the 17c witnesses the development in English poetry of particular poetic strategies that directly respond to the hermeneutic challenges of sacramental worship and replicate its conflicts." (27)

Herbert -- using strategies to "arrest readerly absorption -- that is, to prevent the dissolution of the sign into the signified, the word into content"

"The antiabsorptive turn in the post-Reformation lyric asserts the significance of the material in the representational ground, and so conserves in the material a mechanism for presence. To put it another way, by maintaining readerly awareness of the substantiality of words, the post-Reformation lyric provides an event in which reading becomes an encounter with fully present signs." (28)

'The Bodie and the Letters Both': Textual Immanence in The Temple

"For both Communion and the Incarnation provide for Herbert a literary model in which the divine Logos gains significance by its material expression, a model that Herbert imitates in his own poetic texts." (39)
"I argue that Herbert's sense of the affinity between text and sacrament is recorded in the very representational architecture of The Temple. Herbert himself provides in the later version of 'The H. Communion' a virtual pronouncement of the way that texts, like sacraments, can operation with an incarnational, instrumental force born simultaneously of the substance of their signifieds and the accidents of their material expression." (40)
"For Herbert, sacramental efficacy is achieved by the simultaneity of material and spiritual, a correspondence whose ideal, in 'The H. Communion,' takes the form of a piece of writing." ($0)
"Herbert's work is, I argue, radically invested in promoting its own surface, asserting the sign as such as an object rather than treating the text as a transparent conduit to content. Herbert's incarnationalist poetics bespeak a fundamental faith in the meaningfulness of the material in general and of the material valences of text in particular. When, in 'The H. Scriptures I,' Herbert says of the Bible that 'heav'n lies flat in thee' (14), he affirms that the physical dimensions of the page parameter heaven itself, and he reacts accordingly with a desire to 'Suck ev'ry letter' (2) of that page. Herbert's attention to the topography of text, with all its surface contour and formal architecture, is at bottom a confirmation of the text's objecthood. In this projecct, Herbert shows himself to be in sympathy with the textual experiments at Little Gidding, the religious community established by Herbert's acquaintance, Nicholas Ferrar. The Ferrar household pursued a rigorous devotional life that included communal worship and biblical study; part of this pactice involved the construction of Gospel concordances or 'harmonies,' in which passages from the four gospels were cut and glued into new arrangements in order to harmonize their narratives. 'One of these books,' reprorts Ferrar's brother John, 'was sent to Mr. Herbert which, he said, he prized most highly as a rich jewel.' The book arts projects of Little Gidding, with their endlessly mobile word packets in a variety of fonts, emphasize the physical manipulability of text as well as its hefty substantiality, and argue implicitly that content is contingent on the material. Their emphasis on the physical artifact as an instrument that expresses holy worship claims for words and phrases a meaningfulness that inheres in their very objecthood." (43)
"Throughout The Temple, Herbert performs a poetics that likewise claims for language a meaningful objecthood, a poetics in which the material of text tenaciously obtrudes into the transparency of semantic projection." (43)