Julian of Norwich’s texts have been described variously as autobiography, a work of theology, of mysticism, and of devotional instruction. They were written in response to a series of visions she had on what she thought was her death bed when she was 30. The text exists in two forms: a Short Text that was probably written soon after her experience, and a Long Text that she wrote, expanded, and revised some time later.
The texts and Julian herself have proven consistently engaging and inspiring to poets of various traditions in the 20th and 21st Century. Kathleen Jamie, Lisa Samuels, Frances Presley and Densie Levertov have all written poems inspired by Julian and her works. WB Yeats carried a pocket edition of Julian’s works to a performance of a play in 1901 and referred to it in a letter of praise to the production’s actress:
I happened to have in my pocket ‘The Revelation of Divine Love,’ by the Lady Julian, an old mystical book; my hand strayed to it all unconsciously. There was no essential difference between that work and your acting; both were full of fine distinction, of delicate logic, of that life where passion and thought are one.
TS Eliot also used Julian’s famous phrase in the final section of his Four Quartets:
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
The appropriation is one of sensibility, the phrase chiming with Eliot’s broader themes of Christian mysticism and thought within the poem. Julian was for Eliot a symbol of a vital connection between art and mysticism.
Eliot, like many others in the early 20th Century, discovered Julian when he read Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. Underhill, in this study of Christian mysticism, argues that Julian of Norwich ‘might well be the poet of the Trinity’. For Underhill, Julian connects mystical writers with poetry insofar as the experience of the mystic is ineffable and can only find expression in heightened, poetic forms. Her study connects early Christian mystics to Wordsworth, Blake and Whitman – though that connecting thread is merely the content of the works included, a mystical experienceshe finds in all their writings. Julian’s writing technique and style goes largely ignored. In fact, when Julian’s writings are praised by Underhill, it is in terms of their being produced by a woman who was ‘least lettered and most inspired’, a woman who was ‘simple and deeply human.’
It’s worth pointing out that in many 20th Century editions and readings we come across these same key ideas about Julian – the simple sincerity of her statements is praised, while a perceived lack of finesse in her work is forgiven. Grace Warrack’s introduction to a 1901 edition set the trend:
She utters, by few and adequate words, a thought that in its quietness convinces of truth. Of a little child it has been said: ‘He thought great thoughts simply,’ and Julian’s deepness of insight and simplicity of speech are like the Child’s.
This doesn’t describe the works that I have read, neither in terms of style or content. Denise Baker notes, with regards to Eliot, that his use of Julian’s text has brought her literary recognition, but also simplified the message of her texts. Instead she emphasises Julian’s resemblance to Chaucer, Gower, Langland and the Pearl poet in terms of the text’s comprehensiveness, complexity and in use of recursive structure. She sees Julian as a writer who does not favour one technique over the other. Julian brings whatever techniques she can to bear on trying to comprehend and communicate her unique experience.
When I first read her texts, my response was to call it poetry, but even now I am unsure what I mean exactly by that. It may be more accurate to say that I’ve simply come to consider the designation of ‘poet’ as one of the many aspects of Julian’s writing identity. But my conviction on this front has deepened through subsequent readings and investigation into her texts.
Elizabeth Jennings did make a claim for Julian of Norwich as a poet and included her in a study of the connections between mystical experience and poetry. Jennings, conscious of the predominance of prose writers included in her survey, such as St Augustine, Teresa of Avila and Simone Weil, defines these writings variously as a form of prose poem, heightened prose or poetic prose.
This corresponds more closely to my reading of Julian’s works. But again, where does the power of the text truly reside and how does she create this power? For me it is in the unsettled and questioning nature of her language, oscillating between conviction and doubt. Julian openly struggled with her experiences. Both the Long Text and Short Text version of Showing of Love are ultimately concerned with the meaning of the visions to Julian. But meaning is interrogated and examined rather than simply being accepted. Her attempt to explore and explain this exploration puts language under pressure. She moves from a position of designating the visions as madness to a re-evaluation of her experiences – and in so doing begins the process of bringing a non-rational, mystical experience into the realm of language. The Short Text does this in linear way. It uses a first-person narrative to describe the visions and the beginnings of an attempt to understand their deeper meaning. The Long Text is the product of twenty or more years of further meditation on this meaning, producing a text that combines narration with analysis of the visions. Time is expanded and contracted, a one-day experience is fractured, commented upon and revisited. There is tension between the plot, as it were, of the visions, and their meditated-upon meaning and theological significance. Vision is re-visioned. Time is folded back on itself.
The syntax and rhythm of the writing slows down and speeds up at different points in the text, and aided by punctuation it reverses, revises, clarifies and confuses; if read aloud it can literally leave you breathless. Cross reference, close analysis of the visions and speculative theological discourse are all employed at different points. The result is a text with an unsettled, many-angled and hybrid quality to it. The text can have the power of liturgy, but without the dogmatic approach of a sermon, while still retaining the sermoniser’s ability to unsettle one’s beliefs. As a work, it seems bound by its historical context, and simultaneously out-of-time in its direct focus on the present-ness of the visions to Julian. The syntax questions as it uncovers, by the differing or uncertain emphasis placed in the sentence or clause. To the modern eye its punctuation can seem irregular or disruptive and this adds a further layer to the reading experience and one’s encounter with the text.
It is difficult to read. It never turns the reader away, but it certainly doesn’t hand over its meaning as one might stereotypically assume from the sound bites usually culled from the text – ‘All shall be well’ ‘Love was his meaning’. The whole syntactical flow and rhythm of Julian’s texts are one large question into the content of the visions and her experience of receiving them.
It is this current and flow of Julian’s texts that make them so compelling.
It is an intensely personal, questioning and uneasy journey into experience through written language. Her strategies, along with the physical history of the manuscripts themselves, remind me of translator-scholar-poet Anne Carson, and the recursive and fragmentary autobiographical texts of Lyn Hejinian, writers whose own practises are as difficult to pin down as Julian’s own. This is how I would like readers to begin looking at Julian: more than simply an inspiration, but as a writer whose works can be read as a form of poetry in their own right.
Baker, Denise N. (1994) Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Brooker, Jewel Spears (2009) ‘The Fire and the Rose: Theodicy in Eliot and Julian of Norwich’ in Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, Salih, Sarah & Baker, Denise N. (eds) New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Cuda, Anthony (2009) ‘WB Yeats and a Certain Mystic’in Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, Salih, Sarah & Baker, Denise N. (eds) New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Eliot, T.S. (2002) Collected Poems: 1909-1962, London: Faber and Faber
Jennings, Elizabeth (1996) Every Changing Shape: Mystical Experience and the Making of Poems. Manchester: Carcanet
Law, Sarah (2011) ‘In a Hazelnut: Julian of Norwich in Contemporary Women’s Poetry” in Literature and Theology, Volume 25, Issue 1, March 2011
Underhill, Elizabeth (1911) Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, [e-book] Grand Rapids: CCEL. Available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/mysticism.pdf
Warrack, Grace (ed) (1901) Revelations of Divine Love, London: Methuen