contributor.author: David G. Allen

title.none: Rhodes, Poetry Does Theology (David G. Allen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.012 02.12.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David G. Allen, The Citadel, allend@citadel.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Rhodes, Jim. Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the PEARL-poet. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 324. $24.95 $54.95 0-268-03869-4. ISBN: 0-268-03870-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.12

Rhodes, Jim. Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the PEARL-poet. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 324. $24.95 $54.95 0-268-03869-4. ISBN: 0-268-03870-8.

Reviewed by:

David G. Allen
The Citadel
allend@citadel.edu

In titling his book Poetry does Theology, Jim Rhodes points to one of his two key premises. Instead of seeing the great narrative poems of fourteenth-century England as allegorical embodiments of established theological understandings, Rhodes argues that the poems were themselves vehicles for theological inquiry. Freeing themselves from any responsibility to preordained dogma, these poets used their works to explore ideas. Chaucer, for example, explored beliefs in fictional situations where "the diversity of opinion and points of view...prevent[ed] any particular set of theological or philosophical ideas from dominating the discourse" (9). Instead of preaching orthodoxy, these poets put orthodoxies to the test.

Rhodes's second, and considerably more debatable premise is that in "vernacularizing" theology, the poets of fourteenth-century England took part in an intellectual movement stressing the value and dignity of human life in the world. Relying on scholars such as Gordon Leff, Walter Ullmann, and Hans Blumenberg, Rhodes highlights the development of a semi-Pelagian insistence on human accountability by the philosophers known as the moderni. These moderns argued that God has harnessed his absolute power in a covenant with humans so that he will save those who do what is in them to be saved (facere quod in se est). In stressing that God's nature is completely inscrutable beyond this ordained covenant, philosophers such as Ockham turned attention to this world -- how it works and how men and women work best within it.

Preliminary to his central focus on the Pearl-poet and Chaucer, Rhodes devotes an early chapter to Langland and, most interestingly, Robert Grosseteste. He sees Grosseteste (d. 1253) as a forerunner of the later thinkers in stressing "the gradual perfection of human nature through time and through human instrumentality" (49). He reads Le chateau d'amour in light of Grosseteste's alchemical interest in transformation. The incarnation of Christ essentially opens the way for a transformation of the human body so that "the meaning of the incarnation is human dignity" (63). Langland built on Grosseteste's allegory of the four daughters of God to highlight the central importance of Christ's ministry in the world. Rhodes provides a detailed analysis of the exchanges between the four daughters and between Christ and the devils to argue that "Langland makes Christ the foundation of an ethical or this-worldly Christianity" (71).

Rhodes begins his long discussion of the Pearl-poet with Cleanness and Patience -- works of a straightforward homiletic style seemingly inhospitable to his key premises. But he argues that "the Pearl-poet does not reproduce biblical stories in order to provide a new reading of scripture for his own historical era -- thereby preserving the truth of scripture--rather, he infuses the parables with contemporary details in order to test the truth of tradition and to open the texts to alternative readings" (75). In Cleanness these "contemporary details" highlight the plight of the victims of God's wrath -- those who drowned in the Flood, the Sodomites, and especially the Wedding Guest of the parable who appeared in unclean clothes. In making characters even as menacing as the men of Sodom seem pitiful, the poet pushes his readers to question God's justice. With such questioning comes longing for salvation and then thankfulness for the new dispensation. For in taking on human flesh, God has come to understand human desires: "after the incarnation there is no limit to Christ's forgiveness and no threat of utter human destruction" (105). The details of Patience focus on Jonah's adaptability, the quality that enables him to sleep through the raging storm at sea and later to find himself a clean corner in the belly of the whale. But God always refuses to let Jonah rest in peace. Jonah complains but always carries on, enabling the reader to see him as an exemplar of patience, "the will to continue in the face of human suffering and discomfort" despite the inscrutability of God (124).

In his exchange with the Maiden, the Dreamer of Pearl functions as Jonah did with God. Instead of seeing it as a "Boethian dialogue" in which an authoritative teacher instructs a naïve pupil, Rhodes sees Pearl in terms of "Bakhtinian dialogic," in which "the Dreamer is no mere foil that feeds the Maiden easy questions" (126). The Dreamer's persistent questioning of the Maiden and his reluctance to accept her rendering of the parable of the workers in the vineyard reflect his sense of the importance of human effort. He awakens from his dream when he asserts himself by trying to enter heaven prematurely. But instead of returning to his grief-stricken stasis, the Dreamer at the end of the poem is ready to resume a life of action. His insistence on effort in his conversation with the Maiden and his own misguided effort to cross the river have restored him from paralyzing grief.

After a discussion of Saint Erkenwald, in which he argues that the poem downplays the doctrine of original sin in favor of a "citified theology" emphasizing virtuous action within human communities, Rhodes turns to Canterbury Tales. "Chaucer's theological outlook," Rhodes maintains, "is the most varied and comprehensive of all the major poets of the fourteenth century" (169). He concentrates on four tales to reveal Chaucer's "indirect" theological explorations, those of the Prioress, the Second Nun, the Reeve, and the Pardoner. Rhodes sees connections, first, between the Prioress's avoidance of unpleasantness in life and the extreme violence of her fiction and, more controversially, between her veneration of Mary's virginity and the anti-Judaism of the tale. Misunderstanding the virginity of Mary and the clergeon as a repudiation not of lechery but of human sexuality itself, the Prioress, like the little boy, may know some of the right words but none of the real meaning: "The Prioress's exclusive embrace of celestial love and her concomitant fear of the earthly confirm her own divided and unregenerated condition because they show that she has not yet realized that the world itself has been regenerated, that is to say, conquered by love" (193). The Second Nun provides the key corrective to her Prioress's retreat from adult responsibility. In stressing diligence and busyness and praising the achievements of the early church, the Second Nun "shifts the locus of human activity from a preoccupation with the other world to an increased concern for this one" (208). Like the Prioress, the Reeve shrinks from sexuality. Rhodes believes that Chaucer uses the Reeve, along with the Wife of Bath, to critique the clerical idea that sexuality in marriage is primarily for reproduction. His tale of misadventures in the dark is an escape from the "deep conflict between [his] desires and his religious discipline" (217). Like the Reeve, the Pardoner is deeply conflicted. But where the Reeve temporarily slipped the hold of his conflict with a "folkloric" bawdy tale, the Pardoner seems imprisoned in his own fantasy of himself as master con artist. But when Harry Bailey brings him up short, he is stunned into silence. His silent cooperation with the Knight's peacemaking may be an acceptance of the need to do more and be more on the pilgrimage through life.

There is much to recommend Poetry Does Theology. First of all, Rhodes has an exceptional feel for Middle English. This is no small thing. In his long chapter on the Pearl-poet as throughout the book, he quotes exclusively from the original. Instead of translating piece by piece, he enables the reader to follow difficult Middle English by artfully rephrasing quoted passages and highlighting significant words. His book is also solidly grounded in wide ranging research. His readings, particularly of Patience, Pearl, and the Reeve's Tale, are forcefully argued and will demand the consideration of others working on these texts. The depth of thought his readings evince goes a long way to justify his first key premise, that the poets of the fourteenth century vernacularized theological inquiry in their fictions.

My problem is with the second premise. In liberally quoting from his text, I hope to have shown how much Rhodes emphasizes temporal, rather than eternal concerns. But in stressing the historical Jesus as a model for those who would seek to do the good that is in them in the world, Rhodes does a better job of aligning the poets with our own moderns like Schillebeeckx and Kung than with those of the fourteenth century. Thrusting medieval thinkers into modern arguments is not necessarily a bad thing. Take as an example James Carroll's use in Constantine's Sword of Peter Abelard. Carroll sees Abelard's thought as a missed opportunity in the twelfth century but a viable option in our own as the Catholic Church struggles to redress its tragic history with Judaism. Whether he is right or wrong about Abelard, Carroll sees a new opportunity for old ideas. Rhodes, on the other hand, sees new ideas in old texts and goes in his conclusions far beyond the evidence of his quotations. The most significant problem is that, as he highlights the human struggle to do what is within oneself, Rhodes more or less takes the idea of Hell off the table. But the point of the concept of facere quod in se est was the imitation of Christ in the struggle for salvation. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vividly illustrates this concept in both its hopefulness about human action and its dread. If Gawain makes a misstep in his dealings with the lady, the devil and his minions await, just as surely as the huntsmen await their lord's quarry after each of his hunts. What else could be the point of all the hacking and chopping the poet so vividly describes? Young Luther found that, whenever he did what was within himself, he sinned. With Hell looming, he and his followers experienced modern Pelagianism as so frightening that they rushed to embrace justification through faith alone. It is impossible to believe that Grosseteste, Langland, the Pearl-poet, the author of Saint Erkenwald, and Chaucer all were able to resist the pull of the developing "guilt culture" that Jean Delumeau has described so exhaustively in his Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries. Langland starkly presented the options for human responsibility in passus 18. As Jesus died, some of the onlookers realized that he was God's son; others said that he was simply a witch. For the latter, their ends remained unchanged before them. For the former, however, quite a struggle had just begun.