Perfect Chastity: Celibacy and Virgin Marriage in Tractarian Poetry

Duc Dau, University of Notre Dame Australia


In Lyra Apostolica (1836), a collection of devotional verse by a group of founding and early Tractarians, the poem "Awe" ends thus:

And so albeit His woe is our release, Thought of that woe aye dims our earthly peace; The Life is hidden in a Fount of Blood!-- And this is tidings good, But in the Angel's reckoning, and to those Who Angel-wise have chose And kept, like Paul, a virgin course, content To go where Jesus went; But for the many laden with the spot And earthly taint of sin, 'tis written, 'Touch Me not.' (ll. 9-18)

The composer of the poem was John Henry Newman, the main contributor to the volume. He holds that there are two discrete groups: the virgins and the non-virgins. The first is composed of the "Angel-wise," the chaste ones who have "kept, like Paul, a virgin course." The second is comprised of "the many," the ones who have been smeared with "the spot / And earthly taint of sin." Sinners, according to the poem, are denied the atoning blood of Christ. They are instead met with the words, "'Touch Me not,'" the phrase which the resurrected Christ had once uttered to Mary Magdalen. "Awe" therefore concludes with an account of the unbridgeable difference -- and distance -- between Christ and the sinner. The incapacity of "the many"...