Cloud of Unknowing

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Of unknown authorship, the Cloud of Unknowing is generally considered the greatest spiritual classic to issue from the mystical movement of the 14th century in England. It is a treatise on the contemplative life written for the instruction of a disciple who has already passed through the preparatory stages of discursive prayer and now finds himself in a state of deprivation and darkness, "as it were a cloud of unknowing." The Cloud is evidently the work of a priest and theologian at home in both patristic thought and contemporary controversy and speculation. The anonymous author stresses the primacy of the will (as the faculty for loving) over intellect in the work of contemplation: "By love He may be gotten and holden; but by thought neither." He synthesizes with masterly skill traditional doctrine (especially of the Dionysian and Victorine line) and argues with the closely reasoned thought characteristic of Thomistic theology. His skill in working scriptural language and images into the very texture of his prose is a feature of his markedly original and forceful prose style. Manuscript evidence assigns the Cloud to the late 14th century and to an East Midland dialect.

Bibliography: p. hodgson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling (Early English Text Society, 218, London 1944); ed., Deonise hid Diuinite and Other Treatises (Early English Text Society, 231, London 1955); "Walter Hilton and 'The Cloud of Unknowing': A Problem of Authorship Reconsidered," Modern Language Review 50 (1955) 395406. j. mccann, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (London 1952). e. underhill, ed., A Book of Contemplation, the Which Is Called The Cloud of Unknowing (London 1946). d. knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961). c. pepler, The English Religious Heritage (St. Louis 1958). j. p. h. clark, "The Cloud of Unknowing," in An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe (Albany, N.Y. 1984) 273291. k. emery, jr., "The Cloud of Unknowing and Mystica Theologia," in The Spirituality of Western Christendom, II, (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1984) 4670. r. w. englert, "Of Another Mind: Ludic Imagery and Spiritual Doctrine in the Cloud of Unknowing," Studia Mystica 8 No. 1 (1985) 312. m. j. will, "Dionysian Neoplatonism and the Theology of the Cloud Author," Downside Review 110 (1992) 98109 [Pt. 1] 184194 [Pt.2]. n. k. pokorn, "The Language and Discourse of The Cloud of Unknowing," Literature and Theology 11 (1997) 408421.

[m. e. eaton/eds.]