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The power and poetry of the cross

Poetry of the Passion, by J. A. W. Bennett. New York: Oxford University Press. 240 pp. $37.50 cloth; $14.50 paper. You've heard the old hymn ``I Love to Tell the Story.'' Maybe you've sung it in church or on the road. I'll bet you've also heard the pundits say, ``Now we live in a post-Christian age.''

J. A. W. Bennett's study of 12 centuries of English verse suggests otherwise. The old story still has power to charm, inspire, drive us to recognize ourselves for what we are. The essence of the story, in St. Edmund's words, involves ``the meekness of his Incarnation and the Charity of his Passion.''

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J. A. W. Bennett, late professor of medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University, has written a learned and eloquent study of what he calls ``poetry of the Passion.'' First published at the Clarendon Press at a prohibitive price, it is now available in paper.

``Poetry of the Passion'' is broad as well as specific: It begins, as the author points out, ``with a masterpiece'' in Old English in which the cross speaks, thus establishing Bennett's theme of the humanitas -- the human symbolism -- of the cross at the outset. (Texts, both Old English and a translation, are supplied at the end of the chapter. This is true for the chapter on Scots poets and makes this book particularly useful.)

Succeeding chapters cover the Middle English meditative lyric, the astonishing and difficult ``Piers Plowman,'' passion poems in Scots by William Dunbar and William Kennedy, some poems by Donne, Herbert, and Herrick, hymns by Wesley and others, and, in a passionate final chapter, the presence of the cross in modern novels and poetry. This by no means exhausts the treasures of this wonderful testimony to the power of an idea. In brief, ``Poetry of the Passion'' bears witness to the continuity of the idea of the cross in English civilization. It is written with as much grace as learning.

But Professor Bennett wrote against the tide. In his short preface, he notes that some recent theologians tell a new story about Jesus that ends with the bringing into being of ``a fuller human life.'' That version has more to do with modern politics than with the 12 centuries of hard thinking and versemaking surveyed here.

Reading Bennett, one is moved by the hardiness of the thinkers and makers, and the durability of the story. Focused as it must be on the cross, the story does not end at Golgotha. ``The lessons of the Cross are to be applied not only in penitential prayer but in daily practice,'' Bennett writes in his superb chapter on the meditative movement. And he quotes Walter Hilton: ``Don't spend all your time meditating on the Passion to the neglect of your fellow Christian. Wash Christ's feet by attending to your subjects and your tenants.''

Bennett is not concerned here with literary masterpieces, but with the language writers have used to test the doctrine of the Word made flesh and all that it entails. The language, as in ``Piers Plowman,'' can be of surpassing beauty. Here William Langland ``. . . makes all the words do double work, squeezing them, overlaying them, revolving them like a kaleidoscope.'' (A generous selection of ``Piers'' is available in the Penguin paperback ``Guide to English Literature, Vol. 1, Part 1.'') Bennett analyzes Dunbar's ``art of emotional compression'' and his telling use of common phrases. He impresses on us the medieval genius for vivid abstraction.

Later chapters deal with more accessible texts. By the end of the 19th century -- by which time ``the tenderness and tension that characterized medieval Passion poetry'' had become rare indeed -- the knees of the devout were feeble. It took a great poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to live up to the standard set by the Old English masterpiece ``The Dream of the Rood.'' But live up to it he did, as the short poem ``The Windhover'' suggests. Addressed to Christ our Lord, it begins: ``I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding. . . .''

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``Riding the cross,'' as readers of Bennett will understand with much conviction, is one of the figures of thought inspired by the central story. ``And it is not irrelevent to remark,'' he adds in words that have power to startle the sleepy reader, that Hopkins ``evidently accepted Duns Scotus's view that the Incarnation was an expression of Divine Love not contingent on the Sin of man.''

Bennett's last page speaks ``not of the theology of liberation, but of the liberation of theology -- from academic patterns and worn stereotypes and vain repetitions.'' Every page of this book is inspired by a profound love for ``the axletree/ On which heaven rides'' (Troilus and Cressida, I. iii. 66-67). That inspiration has been at work in England throughout her history. It is at work still, wherever the poetry for which Bennett's book provides an invaluable introduction, may still be read. That it will continue to be written is a virtual certainty.

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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