Works of Mercy: Literature, Compassion, and Devotion in Early Modern England
“Works of Mercy: Literature, Compassion, and Devotion in Early Modern England,” argues for the crucial role of literature in shaping, expanding, and contesting the limits of compassion in early seventeenth century England. Reading Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Herbert’s The Temple—texts which hold affliction at their very core—alongside contemporary prayer books, sermons, and devotional manuals, I show how compassion occupies a vital and under-explored space at the nexus of early modern understandings of body, religion, and community. Saturated in the visceral vocabulary of roiling bowels and melting hearts, early modern compassion—literally “to suffer with”—is the means through which literary and devotional writers work through questions of how to respond to human suffering, and to whose suffering one should respond. Literary explorations of compassion, I argue, are thus uniquely situated as spaces in which vital questions of belonging and relationship can be articulated outside of the emerging discourse of nationhood and across the fraught divides of confessional identity. Taking seriously both the bodily and spiritual rhetoric of compassion, I show how shared practices and communal rituals surrounding the experience of human suffering are reimagined through literary texts that work to both theorize compassion, and to arouse compassion within their readers. In so doing, these early modern attempts to write compassion are always attempts to work compassion: to reduce the self to make room for the suffering of the other, to acknowledge affliction as the common tissue of humanity.
Each chapter takes up a different author, genre, and work of mercy to demonstrate how these writers approach the ethical work their texts can do, in the reader and in the world. The introduction, “Writing Compassion in Early Modern England,” explores the vocabulary of early modern compassion, which relies on vividly visceral terms of roiling bowels and melting hearts, and which connects implicitly with the topos of the Christian community imagined as the mystical body of Christ. Chapter 1, “Executing Mercy: Measure for Measure and the Impossibility of Compassion,” focuses on the most critically ignored characters in the play—Mistress Overdone, Pompey, Kate Keepdown—and on the play’s little-discussed obsession with the traditional merciful work of visiting prisoners, to argue that Shakespeare appropriates familiar cultural touchstones of compassionate action to explore how compassionate identification is both stirred and stymied through dramatic form. Chapter 2, “Curing Mercy: John Donne’s Pedagogy of Compassion,” takes up questions of the edificatory value of suffering by reading Donne’s paradoxical treatment of affliction as compassion in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) and in two closely contemporary sermons. Suffused with the language of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Visitation of the Sick,” I argue that Donne’s text implicitly argues against a theology of suffering (articulated in the early modern ars moriendi tradition) which attempts to convert worldly pain into spiritual joy, and to understand the suffering of others as beneficial to the self. Chapter 3, “Consuming Mercy: George Herbert and the Poetics of Compassion” reads devotional lyrics from The Temple (1633) alongside the pastoral manual A Priest to the Temple (pub. 1652) to argue that Herbert’s poetry—and specifically his frequent deployment of clusters of related images surrounding food, hunger, and thinness—becomes a site of compassionate engagement which demands that we understand these bodily references as always both literal (referring to the corporeal body) and metaphorical (referring to the corporate and mystical Body of Christ). The Coda, “Considering Compassion,” reflects on the nature of compassion as shared suffering, and as worthy work.
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