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In the May 8 edition of the Times Literary Supplement , Lucy Beckett has some serious issues with Miri Rubin’s new book, Mother of God: A history of the Virgin Mary . The review—which I couldn’t find online, sorry—begins:

Sister and mother and diviner love,
And of the sisterhood of the living dead
Most near, most clear, and of the clearest bloom . . .

These lines open one of the elegiac poems morning the loss of Christian belief in Wallace Stevens’s collection, Harmonium , published in 1923. The figure of Mary is somewhere behind these lines, and more than thirty years later Stevens, old and never less than thoughtful, became a Christian again. But this poem is called “To the One of Fictive Music,” as if the poet could make or sustain the life of such a figure, real or unreal. Or not.

Miri Rubin’s extensively researched book, laden with a multitude of examples of Marian painting, sculpture, artifacts of other kinds, writing and music through all the Christian centuries, frequently raise the questions suggested by Steven’s poem, but never articulates, let alone answers, them. Rubin writes often of “the making of Mary,” by men, monks in particular, or by nuns, liturgists, painters and composers, but it is never clear whether or not her subject is the huge variety of images and emphases through which Christian history has presented a figure of legend and imagination, or Mary herself, mother of Jesus, mother of the Second Person of the Trinity, mother, to orthodox Christians, of God. She may think the distinction no longer worth making, but even that is impossible to tell from her writing (which is without any glimmer of the warmth of Stevens’s lines, or any hint of Mary’s connection with the communion of saints).

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