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Breaking the Silence

Poetry and the Kenotic Word


Edited By Malgorzata Grzegorzewska, Jean Ward and Mark Burrows

This book of essays on poetic speech, viewed in a literary-critical, theological and philosophical light, explores the connections and disconnections between vulnerable human words, so often burdened with doubt and pain, and the ultimate kenosis of the divine Word on the Cross. An introductory discussion of language and prayer is followed by reflections linking poetry with religious experience and theology, especially apophatic, and questioning the ability of language to reach out beyond itself. The central section foregrounds the motif of the suffering flesh, while the final section, including essays on seventeenth-century English metaphysical poetry and several of the great poets of the twentieth century, is devoted to the sounds and rhythms which give a poem its own kind of «body».
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In the chapter of her Book of Silence entitled “Silence and the Gods”, Sara Maitland evokes her reassuring experience of solitude and silence on the Isle of Skye, and in the context of this recollection ponders why “Western society increasingly sees silence as an absence, and a dangerous absence at that” (117). The answer she provides, inspired by her correspondence with Janet Batsleer, encourages us to connect this anxiety with the Baroque horror vacui, which resulted in a restless desire, evident in seventeenth-century visual arts, to fill every empty space with familiar, recognisable shapes and figures, in order that the viewer should not be reminded of the ominous realm of death with which the uncanny void was identified. In one of his best known poems, Andrew Marvell described this realm, presumably not without a touch of bitter irony, as “Deserts of vast Eternity” (Gardner 251). Maitland recalls a fragment of the letter in which her friend referred to the beginning of the Biblical narrative of Creation (“In the beginning God said, God spoke”) and in contrast with that life-engendering speech of God, defined silence as “a space of non-being, from which all our yearning is to escape” (117). This type of silence is forbiddingly material: it weighs down on us, threatening to crush our fragile existence, formed, as Shakespeare has it in The Tempest, of “such stuff as dreams are made on”. This seems the reason, Batsleer concluded, why “all silence is waiting to be broken” (in Maitland...

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