Paul’s Rapture and Will’s Vision: The Probelm of Imagination in Langland’s Life of Christ
This article considers the significance of L’s allusion to St. Paul’s rapture (described in 2 Cor. 12:4), which occurs as a seeming non sequitur, ambiguously voiced, interrupting Christ’s proclamation of mercy in PPl B.18/C.20, the climax of L’s account of the life of Christ. The most important context for understanding this citation (after Paul’s letter itself) is Augustine’s taxonomy of varieties of visionary experience set forth in De Genesi ad litteram, a text widely cited in medieval discussions of vision and incorporated into the standard gloss of 2 Cor. 12:4. While some scholars have read the Pauline allusion as L’s way of drawing an analogy between his dreamer’s experience and Paul’s, this article argues that the citation instead draws attention to Will’s visionary experience not as revelation but as an example of what Augustine calls visio spiritualis, a category of vision that relies on imagination, the faculty of mind referred to in the Middle Ages as the vis imaginativa. As Augustine describes it, visio spiritualis, unlike revelation, is an imaginative activity available to all people, but one that does not carry any guarantee of visionary truth: the vis imaginativa, upon which visio spiritualis relies, carries great potential but can be faulty and misleading. Nevertheless, medieval thinkers such as Richard of St. Victor also believed that it could be spiritually useful, functioning as a stepping stone along the path to those higher forms of spiritual contemplation that transcend the use of images. The citation of the Pauline line in B.18/C.20 registers L’s engagement with contemporary thinking about both the utility and the dangers of imaginative activity. L negotiates the delicate balance between imagination’s profits and perils as they pertain not only to devotional practice – what the ordinary Christian should do, imaginatively and spiritually, with the story of Christ’s life – but also to L’s life work, the writing of vernacular religious poetry.
The Chaucer Review, 48:4 (2014), 395-412.
Sisk, Jennifer L.