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Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1534

First published: Thibodaux, La.: Blue Heron Press, 1996

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): Forgiveness; holiness; humility; justice; truth; women

Overview

Born in what is now Germany in 1198, Hildegard von Bingen was tithed to the Catholic church at the age of eight. She lived in...

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First published: Thibodaux, La.: Blue Heron Press, 1996

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): Forgiveness; holiness; humility; justice; truth; women

Overview

Born in what is now Germany in 1198, Hildegard von Bingen was tithed to the Catholic church at the age of eight. She lived in abbeys as a nun for the rest of her life and rose to a position of leadership from which she wielded considerable influence within the church hierarchy. Her visionary experiences doubtless contributed to her status as a healer, preacher, writer, and teacher of younger women, who became nuns under her influence. Her life as a female leader in a male-dominated church hierarchy was predictably one of constant struggle and conflict, but also often was one of eventual success. Stella Ann Nesanovich has selected the major struggles and successes of Hildegard’s life as the basis for poetic renderings, which creatively and with artistic license bring Hildegard to life for modern readers.

The first several poems, “Prayer,” “Entry at Disibodenberg,” and “The Child Hildegard at Her Needle,” present Hildegard at or near the time of her being tithed to the Church. These are simpler than the later poems, to appropriately reflect the mind of an eight-year-old child. One depicts the child in her loneliness and self-dissatisfaction, seeing herself as a weed outside the abbey. These poems also effectively capture the child’s immaturity in her fixation on the smell of leeks on the abbot and the ugly, toothless smile of the servant and in her inability to perceive their more subtle but more substantial inner virtues. However, they also show the child’s awareness of her own flaws and need to mature into adult religiousness. In these poems, Hildegard’s struggle is with herself.

In the next poem, “The Death of Jutta and Election as Magistra,” that struggle has been won. Hildegard is now thirty-eight years old and has been elected magistra, or leader, of the abbey in which she resides. Here, the imagery is complex and sophisticated, reflecting an intelligent, persuasive leader at the height of her powers, including metaphors of the black wing of death, the rose mallow as opening life, the world as God’s tapestry visible by only a golden thread, and the deceased former magistra as a star in the firmament. Even more impressive is Hildegard’s persuasive, humble depiction of herself as the irritant in an oyster’s eye that engenders a pearl, unworthy in herself but working for invaluable ends via service to her religion. Here, Hildegard is presented as having won her first and most important struggle, to become an intelligent, persuasive, powerful leader in her religious community.

The next poems, “First Visions” and “Letter to Bernard of Clairvaux,” reflect Hildegard’s successful effort to win church approval for her visionary experiences. The same sophisticated and complicated imagery is used here, with an abundance of color references (“greening power,” “golden cloud,” “shining fire,” “Christ in blue,” “deepest crimson”) to give substance to essentially mystical experiences. Smells also figure prominently (“stench of hell,” “sweet perfume of paradise”) as does touch (“pain like blows,” “gentle touch of angels”). These appeals to the senses bring her visionary experiences into the realm of human, earthly perception.

The next poem, “The Move to Rupertsberg,” deals with Hildegard’s gaining approval to move her group of nuns to Rupertsberg and establish a new abbey in the relative wilderness. The poem presents Hildegard using her leadership abilities to attest persuasively to the overcrowding of the abbey at Disibodenberg and shows her ambition to fulfill her vision of establishing the new abbey in furtherance of the spread of her religion. The poem ends with the marvelous image of the nuns as uncaged robins in winter, marking a course for others to follow.

After these successes, the next three poems depict a turning point in Hildegard’s life: her first real, public defeat. “The Threat of Bremen” reveals that a favorite nun, Richardis, has used the assistance of her brother, a high-ranking church official, to leave Hildegard and become the leader of her own abbey. That Hildegard is distraught and feels betrayed is obvious, and by unicorn imagery Nesanovich subtly suggests that there may have been at least a subconscious, sublimated sexual element in Hildegard’s attachment to the younger nun. “The Uprooting” is an address to Richardis’s brother, pleading for the return of the younger nun. Although Hildegard overtly states her concern for Richardis’s soul, Nesanovich’s poem hints that here Hildegard’s motives are less admirably clear and consistent than in previous struggles. The next poem, “The Death of Richardis,” confirms this by revealing Richardis’s death in the midst of this power struggle and by Nesanovich having Hildegard note the importance of begging God’s pardon for all involved, including herself.

Hildegard’s struggles continue in “The Death of Volmar,” her monk secretary. This poem, which depicts the struggle to obtain approval for proper burial of Volmar, foreshadows the final struggle in Hildegard’s life. Several of the last poems, “Interdict,” “Symphonia,” and “The Strength of Air,” present Hildegard’s struggle with the aftermath of her decision to have a young man buried in the sacred ground of her abbey and her refusal to have him disinterred, based on her conviction that he confessed and reconciled himself to the Church and thus deserved the honorable burial. “Interdict” reflects the punishment she and her nuns received, a prohibition on all religious ritual and celebration, including singing and the important Eucharist. In “Symphonia,” Hildegard pleads strongly and persuasively before the prelates for the lifting of the interdiction, but to no avail. Then, in perhaps the most powerful poem, “The Strength of Air,” Hildegard persuades the archbishop of Mainz to intercede for her abbey and end the interdiction, with strongly alliterative lines like “now justice seems a juiceless maiden” and “not the noble warrior we know.” This poem also memorably ends with alliteration, in Hildegard’s admonition that pride rules the prelates. By this judicious alliteration, Nesanovich makes this poem even more effective. The last poems, “Our God Has Come to Save Us” and “Let This Green Earth,” capture Hildegard’s triumph when the interdiction is lifted but also the price she paid by her death soon thereafter.

Christian Themes

Christian themes abound in Nesanovich’s poems about Hildegard von Bingen. By far the most significant of these is Christian forgiveness, established initially in “The Child Hildegard at Her Needle.” After admitting her abhorrence of the smell of the abbot and of the toothlessness and other flaws of the servant, even at age ten Hildegard is able to perceive the wrong in fixing on people’s flaws without appreciating their virtues. The poem ends with the child praying to be forgiven for her pride, the worst sin, implicit in her criticisms of others. Also, forgiveness figures prominently in “The Death of Richardis,” in which the mature Hildegard is presented as aware that all involved in the struggle over Richardis, including herself, contributed to the younger nun’s death. Thus, Hildegard indicates that she will ask God’s forgiveness for all.

Forgiveness is also central to the final, and probably greatest, struggle of Hildegard’s life, that concerning burial of the young man on her abbey’s sacred ground, which led to the interdiction against Hildegard’s anchorage. This struggle, reflected in several of Nesanovich’s poems, derives from Hildegard’s conviction that the young may genuinely confess and repent and thus must be forgiven and honored by a proper, sacred burial. That this forgiveness was fundamental to Hildegard is obvious in her refusal to bow to pressure to disinter the young man, her endurance of the interdiction, and her powerful struggle to have it lifted. Although she is more than eighty years old, she goes in person to argue the issue before the prelates and basically gives her life for the principle of Christian forgiveness. Three aspects of the forgiveness—that it is given by a woman leader and her female followers; that it is of a young man probably like most young men, a significant sinner; and that it is against the virtually intransigent authority of male church leaders—shows the importance of the feminine in the Christian forgiveness tradition. Without this feminine element in Christianity, very likely there would not be such a tradition. Through the emotional power and skillful artistry of her poems, Nesanovich has given this Christian forgiveness principle renewed life.

Sources for Further Study

  • Gottfried and Theoderic. The Life of Hildegard of Bingen. Translated by Adelgundis Furhkotter and James McGrath. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1995. A biography of Hildegard von Bingen, as related by two monks very knowledgeable about her.
  • Hildegard of Bingen. Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. Edited by Matthew Fox. Translated by Robert Cunningham, Terry Dybdal, and Ron Miller. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1987. A diverse collection of writings by Hildegard von Bingen, including sermons, meditations, letters, and songs.
  • Hildegard of Bingen. Mystical Writings. Edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies. Translated by Robert Carver. New York: Crossroad, 1990. An extensive collection of writings by Hildegard von Bingen about her visionary or mystical experiences.
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