Imagining Unity: The Politics of Transcendence in Donne, Lanyer, Crashaw, and Milton
Yeo, Jayme M.
Snow, Edward A.
Doctor of Philosophy
"Imagining Unity" investigates how an evolving concept of transcendence in early modern England, influenced by Reformation and counter-Reformation theology, created new ways of responding affectively and philosophically to emerging articulations of national identity in British devotional poetry. My project focuses on a series of politically disruptive moments in the seventeenth century--from the residual trauma of the Protestant Reformation to the Civil War of the 1640's--that troubled England's developing sense of national identity. In the shadow of these troubles, devotional poets reworked ideas of transcendence that they had inherited from medieval Catholicism to provide a sense of national cohesion in the midst of a changing political landscape. This dissertation explores transcendence as it is reconceived by four different authors: John Donne's work translates Catholic iconography to symbolize the ascension of a Protestant England; Aemelia Lanyer's poetry appeals to the exclusivity of religious esotericism as a palliative for the actual exclusion of women from political life; Richard Crashaw's writings reinterpret mystical union to rescue sovereignty from failure; and John Milton's work revises transubstantiation to authorize a new republic. By investigating how early modern poetry reimagines transcendence in response to political events, my project widens ongoing conversations in political theology and "the religious turn" of literary studies, which are often unilaterally focused on the influence that religion had on politics in the course of an inevitable secularization of culture. My contribution to this work, and the underlying premise to my argument, is that literature provides a forum for rethinking religious concepts at the heart of political organization despite the apparent impulse toward secularization. In doing so, literature serves as a cultural medium for testing the conceptual limits of transcendence--its viability as a tool for inspiring and maintaining social unity. This dissertation ultimately witnesses a concerted effort in the early modern period to extend the life of religious ideas within the political imagination through devotional poetry's insistent recasting of transcendence as central to the formulation of the body politic.