Mary, Mary, quite contrary

See the Virgin Blest
January 4, 2008

In See the Virgin Blest: The Virgin Mary in English Poetry , Barry Spurr works with the central contention that Mary is "irresistibly poetic". In support of this, Spurr presents the extraordinary wealth of roles and symbols attached to the Virgin Mary and her seemingly inexhaustible appeal to writers, from the Middle Ages until the present day.

The book focuses principally on canonical authors, from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden (with some attention to American and Australian poets). Chapters are organised chronologically, beginning with "Medieval Maria", leading on to "Renaissance Regina", "The Romantic Virgin", "Modernist Mary", and concluding with "Mary Today". The titles indicate the content: despite the acknowledgement - made most explicitly at the opening of the second chapter - that periodisation is a blunt instrument, Spurr's decision to organise the material in this way results in some predictable typecasting.

Thus, medieval Marian poetry is characterised by convention and didacticism; that of the Renaissance by "a new understanding of human existence"; that of Romanticism by its "focus ... on the imagination and on spirituality"; that of modernism by its "revolutionary changes and enrichment"; that of today by a postmodern "flourishing of Marianism in all its forms". This is unfortunate, not least because it risks being reductive.

Throughout, Spurr attempts to provide contextual material, biographical information about the poets and close readings of the literature itself. Yet this proves problematic: the sketches of each period are often too brief, seeming little more than hasty preludes. And while there is much engagement with the poetry the readings tend towards aesthetic judgment or biographical explication rather than analysis; approaches which too often shut down a poem's ambiguity.

Thus, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "accessible" Mary is seen as the result of "the (male) heterosexual poet's normative reciprocity with the female", while Wilde's transformation of a beautiful young boy in the first version of a poem into the Virgin in a later version signals a "distancing", itself indicative of a "characteristic homosexual idealisation of the female". Simplistic - and problematic - assumptions are made about both poets' sexualities and how these determine representation of Mary. One risk is that poetry is seen as little more than a transparent window on to the poet's personal life, or as a passive reflection of the time in which it is written - a view that goes against the book's overall aim to highlight the complex and highly intertextual nature of Marian poetry.

It is undoubtedly a daunting task to tackle several centuries of this poetry; it is also easy to criticise a project that attempts so much. Yet what is striking is the paucity of secondary literature being used. Perhaps this is due to a decision not to overwhelm the book with historical or theoretical detail, but it would have benefited from a wider range of reference. Despite this, the author succeeds in mapping for readers interested in poetry (and for those interested in Mariolatry) the fascination of poets with this central female figure in Western culture.

Anke Bernau is a lecturer in medieval literature and culture, Manchester University.

See the Virgin Blest: The Virgin Mary in English Poetry

Author - Barry Spurr
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 2
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 9781403974921

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