Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic Dictionary




The Blessed Virgin theme in world literature. She has inspired the literary culture of all nations, not excepting the Oriental and Islamic, but perhaps with more accent in the Latin countries and France, and no less prominently in England and America.

It was said of Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) that he was a good servant of Mary and that in her honor he "wrote full many a line." Taking all his writings together-twenty-nine "lesser works," Troilus and Cressida, and the twenty-three Canterbury Tales--we find about five hundred lines that are explicitly Marian poetry, omitting incidental allusions to the Virgin. Almost half are in The Prioress's Tale alone. His poem A.B.C. (dated about 1366), where each stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet, is a collection of epithets that have survived to modern times, e.g., "But mercy, Lady, at the great assize/When we shall come before the High Justice," or "Fleeing I flee for succour to thy tent/Me for to hyde from tempest ful of drede."

Among the English poets, Richard Crashaw, Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; and among essayists, John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc have left a deep Marian impress. Many of the poems have been put into song, as Crashaw's Gloriosa Domina (O Glorious Lady), which begins, "Hail, most high, most humble one/Above the world; below thy Son," and ends, "O boundless hospitality/The Feast of all things feeds on thee." Newman's essay in reply to Edward Pusey is a classic exposition of sober piety, in which he confesses that certain "devotional manifestations in honor of our Lady had been my great crux." They may be fully explained and defended, he said, but sentiment and taste do not run with logic.

Writers in every tradition have described the ennobling influence of faith in Mary's dignity on the life and literature of Western thought. The first of all sentiments which they believe distinguishes an advanced civilization is that of reverence for womanhood. By this norm the honor and respect paid to Mary as the ideal of her sex have done more to elevate the status of women than any other postulate of the Christian religion. And in this sense devotion to the Madonna has ruled the highest arts and purest thoughts of creative genius for over a thousand years.

John Ruskin was persuaded that "the worship of the Madonna has been one of the noblest and most vital graces, and has never been otherwise than productive of true holiness of life and purity of character."

Wordsworth in England and Longfellow in the United States have left memorials of this inspiration. The Virgin of Wordsworth is addressed as "Woman, above all women glorified/Our tainted nature's solitary boast." In Longfellow's Christus, if Christianity gave us nothing more than "this example of all womanhood," this would be enough to prove it higher than all other religions of humankind.