Early modern devotional poetry, like any poetry that’s really about love and not a shadow play about politics, history, or some other avowedly serious subject, is embarrassing. It’s not that we cannot explain its monomaniacal obsessions and transgressive perversions, give them a reputable significance within an existing system of value or reduce them to broader goals: pleasure, ideology, salvation, communication, information, education. However, all of these goals end up denying the value of the activity, reading, that one purportedly loves. That’s the box in which all of the poets I analyze—John Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw—find themselves: all are trying to promote a mode of reading that is tantamount to devotion, that respects love as such.
But that’s also any teacher’s box: how to justifying paying devout attention to something when all that really matters is the answer, the use, the end. I do not think that this is just narcissistic shortsightedness on my part, finding too great of a parallel between what teachers and seventeenth-century devotional poets do. Rather, it’s right to cut education funding if all we do is teach people how to locate poems, events, or phenomena within a broader system of value, and then exploit, resist, or massage these systems. Culture and society already do that just fine. Nor do people need to learn to think critically about this culture: that’s part of culture too. Instead, the reading that comes out of devotional verse, the practice, shows that what we’re teaching is love, and nothing more. My book is a very small piece in the argument that love—love of the poem, love performed in the devotional act of reading—is the only valid justification for humanities teaching, and that we should embrace the embarrassing process of saying so.
So what is love? We’ve come to believe that we’ve got a pretty good bead on what love and desire entail. Love is the completion or continuation of desire. Desire is lack: we want what we don’t have and we are on a quest to achieve the entirely pragmatic goal of acquiring this thing that we lack. What could be simpler? My book contends that these confident truisms are woefully inaccurate as descriptions of how devotion and poetry work. They also reveal a fundamental embarrassment on our parts, that we are ashamed of the improvident attention that reading, teaching, and love all entail. A purposive, lacking desire is a means of justifying such attentions in the interest of a reputable goal: work. We insist that these poems are works, that the reading we bring to them is work, and that they are for work. We treat poems as a series of interconnected, complementary signs, conveniently replicating the complementary, interlocking disciplines that characterize universities and academic labor. Reading, though, is not the same thing as achieving such an abstract goal, even one as multivalent as meaning. It is first and unabashedly a set of irrational and purportedly shameful devotions: fandom, fanaticism, fetishism, and idolatry. Love, in this poetry, means attention without all of the explanatory and justificatory apparatuses implied by serious purpose and responsible pragmatism. That is what is most difficult, but also most vital to capture in reading and teaching this poetry: it is embarrassing but also valuable precisely because love is not work.
Ryan Netzley, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, is the author of Reading, Desire, and the Eucharist in Early Modern Religious Poetry.