Evelyn Underhill: Recovering Mysticism, Remembering Jacopone

By Dana Greene

In 1919 Evelyn Underhill, well-known author of “Mysticism” and many other books on this subject, published a biography of Jacopone da Todi, a thirteenth century Franciscan mystic and poet, one of the earliest to write in the vernacular and probably the author of the famous Stabat Mater Dolorosa. 2019 marks the centennial of Underhill’s publication the first and until 1980 the only biography in English of this important literary personality. Born into a noble family as Jacopo dei Benedetti he studied law and married. On the tragic death of his wife he left his profession and became a wandering ascetic and penitent. His strange behavior won him a name of derision, Jacopone. He ultimately entered the Franciscans as a lay brother who allied himself with that group within the Order who argued for greater poverty and penance. His criticism of Pope Boniface VIII lead to his imprisonment and excommunication until a few years prior to his death. During his life of suffering he wrote some one hundred laudi.

Underhill wrote the Jacopone biography in the years after World War I, probably during 1918. It is important to note that it was precisely during the time that she later cryptically mentions that she “went to pieces.” As a very private woman, Underhill gives no further indication of the nature of her psychological anxiety. What is known is that this period from about 1918 through 1921 is a vocational turning point for her. Previously she functioned principally as a scholar of mysticism, but beginning in 1921 she becomes increasingly oriented toward both living attuned to the spirit and helping others to do likewise. In about 1920 she reconnected with the Anglican tradition into which she had been baptize, and in 1921 she made her first retreat at the Anglican retreat house in Pleshey. She also began regular interaction with a spiritual director, in this case the leading Catholic theologian Baron Friedrich von Hugel. Evidence of Underhill’s vocational reorientation is already evident in a series of lectures she gave in 1921 at Manchester College, Oxford. In their published form, “The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today,” she suggests the need to nurture the spiritual life among her contemporaries. By 1924 she offered her own retreat at Pleshey, and subsequently every year for the next decade she gave several retreats at various English retreat houses. She was the first woman to give a retreat to Anglican clergy in 1925, and the first one to give a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral in 1927.

The three years between 1918 and 1921 were an axial period for Underhill. Although she never divulges why she undertook the Jacopone biography, I think it is possible to piece together an answer. There were a number of practical reasons which made her effort possible. Underhill was already familiar with Jacopone having included brief references to him in her big book on mysticism and she was increasingly interested in the Franciscan tradition having written on Angela of Foligno as early as 1912. She was also attracted to the genre of poetry having  published two books of her own poems (not very good poetry I might add). She had friends who could help her as well. J. A. Herbert, Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, had introduced her to the Umbrian manuscripts housed in the Museum’s collections, and in 1910 Dr. Giovanni Ferri, who had published a partial edition of Jacopone’s poems in Italian, agreed to look over the English translation of the poems done by Mrs. Theodore Beck. Dr. Edmund Gardner, who had written on Jacopone in 1914, agreed to offer his advice too. Underhill already had a publisher,   J. M. Dent, who had published six of her previous volumes, including one on Ruysbroeck which Mrs. Beck had provided translations from the Flemish. Finally Underhill had previously used the format of a translated mystic text preceded by a long biographical introduction. J. M. Dent agreed to use that same format to illuminate the work of Jacopone. I suspect that  the joy for Underhill was that this research and writing would re-immerse her in the Italy she loved. Earlier in her life she had visited many of the towns and cities of Italy, including Todi, and had fallen in love with their art, architecture and religious rituals. As she said, some people have to go to Italy, a place which is “medicinal” to the soul.

One could suspect that there might have been other reasons she was drawn to Jacopone. In the period during the war she supported the national war effort which dragged on with great brutality and cost many lives including that of a nephew. Her dearest friend Ethel Ross Barker died an untimely death, and Underhill was living outside any religious community. She described herself as a “white-hot Neo-Platonist.” The world affirming incarnational tradition of the Franciscans offered an alternative to her abstractionism. Furthermore Jacopone embodied her understanding of the mystic life, one not of visions and voices but overflowing with the joy of being loved by God.

Everything seemed to be in place for Underhill to bring the contribution of this second generation Franciscan to light. In her preface to the biography Underhill writes that the volume should be of interest to those attracted to mysticism, poetry, and the Franciscan tradition. In describing Jacopone she reveals her own admiration for him. As a lawyer, a man of the world, a poet, a reformer, a politician, and contemplative friar, she claims he is a vigorous human with ardent feelings, a keen intellect, and although unstable and eccentric, grounded by love and wonder. For her, Jacopone not only embodied the Franciscan ideals of poverty,  penitence and joy, but he reconciled these three disparate responses to God’s love.

Although Underhill described Jacopone as a libertine, penitent and ecstatic, she conceived of him above all as a gifted, natural poet who transmitted his experience through vernacular poetic form. As such he stood in the tradition of mediator, one who conveyed to others the joy of the spiritual world. Jacopone, like Underhill herself, was one who stood between the overwhelming love of God, that “vision splendid,” and those who were open to receive it. They both were artists of the infinite life.