Divine desire : incarnational poetics in the Harley lyrics
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This essay develops a literary-historical and theoretical framework within which to consider the anonymous Middle English penitential lyric “An Old Man’s Prayer,” from British Library MS Harley 2253. Beginning with a review of the methodological problems involved in contextualizing medieval lyrics, I proceed to situate the religious lyrics in relation to the rise of affective devotion to the humanity of Christ in the later Middle Ages. By arguing for the capacity of the genre for aesthetic and conceptual complexity, I seek to establish lyrics as a form of ‘vernacular theology,’ a recently developed critical category in medieval studies from which lyrics have so far been excluded. “An Old Man’s Prayer,” examined in relation to other selected Harley lyrics, serves as the primary textual test case for a hermeneutic which reads for “Incarnational poetics,” that is, the ways in which the claims of orthodox Christology shape and structure the form and thematics of medieval poetry. Emphasizing the centrality of Incarnational doctrine, I contend against the reduction of the essence of medieval Christian worldview to contemptus mundi. More specifically, I seek to demonstrate the reconciliation effected by the Incarnation between this-worldly and spiritual desire, between the material and transcendent realms, as represented in “An Old Man’s Prayer” by the speaker’s implicit affective identification with Christ’s passion. Invoking the discourse of desire, I engage the psychoanalytic approach to literary studies, which I find ultimately insufficient for achieving a satisfactory interpretive “fusion of horizons” between medieval texts and current criticism. Thus, I turn to the contemporary theological perspective of John Milbank, whose ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ provides a theoretical basis for an Incarnational hermeneutic.