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Thinking in Poetry: Three Medieval Examples

Thinking in Poetry: Three Medieval Examples

This set of two lectures (The William Matthews Lectures, Birkbeck College, London, 1993), here printed together, present a consideration of three examples of thinking in late-medieval English poetry about the theological, or “more precisely, [the] soteriological, question concerning the justice of God” when it comes to the distribution of heavenly rewards. The first part starts with an analysis of the post-medieval scepticism about the truth of poetical discourse – a position beginning to emerge as early as Philip Sidney, and evinced more recently by, among others, I. A. Richards, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Burrows posits, pace such theorists, that medieval poets did indeed “think in poetry,” which is to say, that they commonly undertook in poetry the kinds of arguments or “true” discourses that modern readers usually expect to find in prose non-fiction. Beginning with a brief overview of Dante, this first part goes on to consider the theological argument made by the Pearl-maiden in her justification of her share in the heavenly rewards. This survey is followed by an analysis of the Trajan episodes in B.11.140-56 and B.12.278-92 where L seems to grapple with the “problem of paganism” as Marenbon (no. 25) terms it. According to Burrow, the purpose of both Trajan’s speech in B.10 and Ymaginatif’s disputation in B.12, which constitutes “a prime and challenging example of ‘thinking in poetry’,” is to reaffirm the principle contained in Truth’s pardon – even the pagan may be saved through just living. Burrow argues that this reaffirmation may be seen as one of the principal concerns of the third visio generally, and that L is careful to excise any references to special papal intervention or posthumous acceptance of Christianity as in, say, Dante’s version of the Trajan legend, thus bringing him very close to a Pelagian position. The second part begins with a consideration of the third example – that of the unnamed virtuous pagan judge in St. Erkenwald. Burrow concludes the lectures by distancing himself from the more modern method of reading poetry, which, following Gerald Graff, he terms “antipropositional,” and suggests that the he offers these examples of “thinking” in poetry in support of the idea that some medieval poets used verse to present and develop seriously held ideas. The nature of debate or disagreement in Pearl or PPl, he argues, is very different from that in, say, The Owl and the Nightingale, and as such cannot be read on purely Bakhtinian or dialogic terms. According to Burrow, the examples of thinking analysed by him do present complexities and doubt, but these should not prevent us from considering the fact that the poets are also making truth-claims.


New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (2004): online journal (http://www.thenewcompass.ca/index.html/dec2004/burrow.html), no pagination.


Burrow, J. A.