Transfiguring the Ineffable: Mysticism and Conversion in Seventeenth-Century England
Woods, Chance Brandon
This dissertation argues that specific seventeenth-century writers appropriated the discourses of both conversion and mysticism as a strategy for self-differentiation and poetic production. Focusing on four principal figures, including Henry More (1614-1687), Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), Sir Tobie Matthew (1577-1655), and John Milton (1608-1674), the project examines how forms of conversion and mystical experience were utilized to address far-reaching cultural concerns about personal identity, revelation, and experiences of the divine. I argue that amidst a century of national anxieties about prominent magistrates changing confessional allegiance, these four poets explored the porousness of cultural and intellectual boundaries through innovative verse. Thus, far from denoting a transition from one singular identity to another, I demonstrate that conversion and mysticism could call into question fixed identity altogether and facilitate instead a liminal yet ineffable form of existence that was nonetheless intellectually fecund. Building on the scholarship of historians, literary specialists, and philosophers of religion, I develop insights first produced by the recent academic “turn to religion” to emphasize how significant the seventeenth century was in pioneering unique forms of religious expression.