Medieval prayer poems are a conundrum. Their structures of rhyme and meter suggest fullness and completion. Yet given their rhetorical situation as speech act, these poems convey a nagging sense of lack, as well: it is not enough to simply read the words and trace the patterns—some kind of extra interior work is required in order for these poems to fulfill their rhetorical, spiritual purpose. One has to mean it, somehow, though what that looks and feels like continues to mystify us five centuries later in prayer and poetry reading alike.
I study the prayer poems appearing in medieval devotional books, including books of hours, as an early stage in the history of poetry reading—not in terms of general literacy or access to books, but rather focusing on the reception of the poetic line as an engine of meaning making. Fifteenth-century readers had access to many poetic writings to entertain, instruct, and spiritually transform themselves. But the texts associated with the cultures of penitential devotion came with a boost of concentration: with readers’ preparations for confession, death, and eternity hanging in the balance, daily encounters with prayer poems took on a special intensity. I examine the vernacular prayer poems appearing in European books of hours to show how these poems’ presentation and reception trained readers to bear down on the relations spanning words, sounds, structures, ideas—to read poetry as if life depended on it. My project draws on multidisciplinary scholarly approaches including books of hours manuscript studies, histories of medieval devotional culture and reading, and theories of poetry reception as well as sacred speech acts.
My research on the poetic line in medieval devotional reading explores poetry readers’ scope for interpretive agency at the nexus of penitential devotion, metrical practice, and scribal reception. I study the conceptual, relation-building work of the poetic line in devotional poems copied in fifteenth-century manuscripts. These poems and their surviving manuscripts are often overlooked in long histories of poetry, but I argue that they have much to teach us about the conceptual and expressive possibilities available to medieval poets, readers, and book producers long before lyric existed as a category in English poetics. I focus on the early cultivation of audiences who read, and re-read, poetry at its most granular levels of rhyme and line as if their lives and the welfare of others depended on it. Then as now, the extent to which we treat each others’ lives and the health of our world as if they really do matter can be seen, and I believe, steered, at our smallest points of language, choice, and action in concert with larger public efforts.
After I defend my dissertation, I will spend several months examining books of hours at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, thanks to a fellowship funded by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. This research will help me begin revising my thesis into a monograph that examines the poetic line in active devotional reception.