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date: 21 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

Studying Donne generically casts new light on issues central to his major writings and to Donne studies in general, the Introduction states. In addition to points about specific poems, the work in Part II, through attention to genre, reveals many larger, overarching issues about Donne’s work, his engagement with both the history of the genres in which he participates and the connections of his genres to historical circumstances, usefully drawing attention to the frequency with which Donne’s texts focus on patterns of historical change in other arenas—though this interest in history is as various in its forms and as volatile in its moods as two of the many texts that exemplify it, Metem and the Anniversaries.

Keywords: Donne, genre, history of the genres, historical circumstances, historical change


Studying Donne generically casts new light on issues central to his major writings and to Donne studies in general. At the same time, it is a key for unlocking the complexities of the poems and prose works per se, in so doing also drawing our attention anew to texts such as the Epigrams or Problems, whose genre has tempted us dismissively to relegate them to ‘minor’ status and hence to neglect them. In addition to points about specific poems, the essays in Part 2, through their attention to genre, reveal many larger, overarching issues about Donne's work, his engagement with both the history of the genres in which he participates and the connections of his genres to historical circumstances, usefully drawing attention to the frequency with which Donne's texts focus on patterns of historical change in other arenas—though this interest in history is as various in its forms and as volatile in its moods as two of the many texts that exemplify it, Metem and the Anniversaries. M. Thomas Hester suggests that the Epigrams are their author's ‘earliest poems, instructive examples in parvo of his poetic achievement’; similarly, in many of the poems, even or especially in so-called minor genres, we find kernels of potentialities and pressures that recur elsewhere.

Other significant questions that generic study of Donne encourages us to ask include how his responses to political authority, considered in many essays in this volume, relate to his responses to the authority of established literary conventions. Important also, of course, is how Donne responded to his Catholic heritage and to (p. 100) its religious and cultural challenges in his time. Approaching his work generically again offers useful perspectives. Gregory Kneidel points to Sat3 as a poem suggesting ‘someone who believes that Truth does exist and can be found’; but he finds also in the same lines ‘someone who embraced Renaissance scepticism, questioned doctrinaire religion, and deplored the violence it fostered’. R. V. Young's essay on the Elegies notes that ‘Donne's Catholic background inevitably created an estrangement between him and an England increasingly dependent on a unique version of Protestantism for its emerging national identity. Yet no one is more English than Donne, no one more of an ingrained Londoner’ Graham Roebuck remarks that in Pseudo-Martyr two masters of the Controversial Treatise ‘occur in interesting guises’: Desiderius Erasmus appears as the subject of unjustified attacks by the Jesuit controversialist Roberto Bellarmino; and Thomas More is invoked not as one who was ‘martyred for refusing an oath that denied papal supremacy’, but rather as one who translated Lucian and, ‘although firm in his Catholic faith, sought to “deliver the world from superstition, which was crept in under Religion” ’. Kate Narveson finds in Donne's interpretation of the literary form of the Devotion an irenic drive to avoid controversies. And Jeanne Shami demonstrates a cognate drive towards reconciliation in the way sources and readings drawn from different confessions are united in the Sermons.

If our generic organization of Donne's writings can thus revisit, though not always resolve, some of the most pressing issues about his life and work as a whole, that approach is also crucial for understanding texts within particular genres. Kneidel, mapping the ways Donne's formal verse Satires differ from and relate to other texts in that kind, both ancient and modern, explores the nature of Donne's attraction to the form. Michael W. Price and Ernest W. Sullivan II illuminate both Donne's work in the prose Paradox and the place of Biathanatos within ‘the inherent ambiguity of the genre’, expanding ‘the reach of the witty paradox into a controversial, intellectually serious, and extended analysis of the ethical, legal, and theological implications of suicide’. Young addresses problems central to Corona by tracing its author's adaptations of the sonnet, while Kirsten Stirling shows that Donne's ‘invocation of and yet distancing from the liturgical genre is typical’ of his other religious verse. Camille Wells Slights's essay shows that Donne's preoccupation with the privacy of lovers is both clarified and explicated when he approaches the wedding poem, a form in which he ‘examines this pull between the privacy of love and the collectivity of community from the other side, assuming the voice of outsider rather than lover’. And Claude J. Summers shows how Donne in his funeral poems manifests and manipulates the ‘rhetoric of grief’ in these ‘public poems’.

But the organization of Part 2 also allows—indeed encourages—its authors and readers to adopt new perspectives on questions that extend far beyond John Donne's own canon. A generic approach can illuminate broader debates about early modern literature and about the critical methodologies through which we study Donne's and other eras. This mode of organization also tightens the cohesion of Part 2 to the rest of the (p. 101) Handbook by offering new perspectives on the issues in other sections: problems of textual bibliography, cultural and biographical contexts, and many challenges in interpretation are crystallized when one addresses Donne's approaches to literary forms.

Building thus on the work of the Donne Variorum editors, some of whose contributions have been described in Part 1, Young traces the controversies surrounding whether and how the Holy Sonnets should be read as sequences of poems; in so doing he demonstrates that Donne's canon provides valuable test cases for debates about the material and other conditions of publication, about how these conditions, especially the often vexed interactions among authors, publishers, and printers, create meaning. In particular, Young uses the bibliographical evidence provided by the Variorum, evidence of the practices of both scribal and print cultures resulting in the transmission of texts in groups, to explain Donne's purposes and achievements in revising his sequences of Sonnets.

Another question that engages not only Donne scholars but also many other students of early modern culture is periodization. The old contrast of the exuberant Elizabethan age, reaching its apex in the glorious achievements of the 1590s, and the darker Jacobean era exemplified by Donne and Webster has long been discredited, but critics continue to debate alternative methods of organizing and subdividing the period. Because Donne writes both in genres mainly popular in the sixteenth century, such as sonnets and formal verse satires, and in those more characteristic of the succeeding century, notably epithalamions and religious verse, his body of work encourages us to trace the interactions and intersections among decades and styles. In this connection, Dayton Haskin observes that the seventeenth-century editorial heading ‘Songs and Sonets’, applied to Donne's love lyrics, echoed the title of ‘Tottel's Miscellany’, and that like that popular sixteenth-century anthology Donne's poems in this genre do not accord with the contrasting tradition of sixteenth-century sonnet cycles, which ‘represent an author's lyric self-expression’; belonging rather to the even older tradition of commonplace book and miscellany, Donne's discrete love poems, his first editors realized, ‘did not offer a narrative sequence but left poems as aesthetic performances to be read through here and there and in any order that a reader wished’.


Donne's approach to genre is typically self-conscious and reflexive: he draws attention to his forms, writes about them as well as writing in them. Or, to put it another way, he often distances himself from the very literary types in which he is participating, as it were introducing them with the ‘if’ constructions so characteristic (p. 102) of his work, as Hester has shown (1996b: 130). Thus, for example, his Satires and Epithalamions explicitly comment on the problems created by these literary types. Sat3 famously complains,

  • Kinde pitty chokes my spleene; brave scorn forbids
  • Those teares to issue which swell my eye-lids;
  • I must not laugh, nor weepe sinnes, and be wise,
  • Can railing then cure these worne maladies?

(ll. 1–4)

Anne Lake Prescott's essay on Donne's Menippean texts squarely faces the centuries-long issue of ‘which texts should count as “Menippean” ’ and ‘how to define the genre, if it is a genre and not a mode or tradition’. Donne and the tradition of humanist scholarship he knew defined it broadly, ‘and would also have agreed that this often very erudite genre is particularly given to laughter at pretentious erudition’. Haskin comments about Donne's performance in the Songs and Sonets that these poems ‘allow such a large admixture of cynicism about love that they continue to defeat the expectations generally associated with “love poetry” ’. And Jeffrey Johnson shows how in the Essayes Donne is ‘working within [the genre of the essay] even as he redefines the parameters of the genre’ through ‘the idiosyncratic scepticism of his exegesis’, literally offering a ‘new genre’.

Donne's predilection for writing in meta-genres (that is, genres about genres) demonstrates patterns manifest in other ways throughout the canon. We clearly see in these reflexive gestures the argumentative strain in Donne: he writes Epithalamions and writes about and against the act of writing them. As we have already implied, the habit in question also participates in its author's curious and very typical blend of immediacy and distance, his tendency to be insider and outsider at once, or to move rapidly between those two positions, often recalling his predilection for including observer figures in texts such as Ecst and Eclog.

Another characteristic of Donne's genres is his extraordinarily eclectic approach to his literary sources. Witness, for example, the range of literary and theological traditions whose influence on the Sermons is traced in Jeanne Shami's essay. That eclecticism often encompasses extensive interaction with classical models of the genre. Donne approaches such sources aware that, as Claudio Guillén observes, ‘a genre is … an invitation to the actual writing of a work’ (72), and Donne of course responds to such invitations with his characteristic delight in innovation. It is tempting but ultimately dangerous to contrast Donne's innovative approach to genres with the putative conventionality of other poets of his time. Poets ranging from the major figures in whom one might anticipate innovation, such as Sidney, to lesser-known writers such as Barnabe Barnes regularly approach genres innovatively. But, bearing that caveat in mind, we can still identify the shapes Donne's innovations assumed, precisely because they are so numerous, as witnessed by the nineteen essays of Part 2, describing Donne's unparalleled range of kind.

(p. 103) Arguably the most intriguing characteristic, even the signature characteristic, of Donne's prosody is his heterometrical couplets, and they can help us encapsulate his generic innovations as well. Such couplets consist of two lines linked by a rhyme and often linked syntactically as well; but they are distinguished by their rhythm, often because one is considerably longer than the other (‘Why dost thou thus / Through windowes and through curtaines call on us?’ (SunRis ll. 2–3). Similarly, Donne's generic innovations link together what is alike in some ways and very different in others—his approach to a generic convention and other approaches; or his work and that of one of his predecessors in the genre; or, more significantly, his sympathetic approach at one point in the text and his more critical approach at another—and the effect in both cases is to startle and unsettle the observer.

Equally telling is how frequently Donne plays genres or their fragments against each other within the same text. Margaret Maurer's essay on the Verse Letters demonstrates that these texts mediate between lyric poetry and occasional writings like sermons and reminds us that the Letters often assume the form of sonnets; Slights's essay explores how and why Donne includes a pastoral prologue in Eclog; and similarly, Hester shows that Donne mixes various modes of epigrammatic writing. In combining literary types in these ways Donne often creates a kind of dialogue, which sometimes, but by no means invariably, becomes argumentative, between and among genres. And this is, indeed, only one of many senses in which his involvement with genre is dialogic. That involvement typically sets up implicit conversations with earlier writers, with alternative possibilities for the genre, with opposing genres.

The dog that did not bark in the night, as Sherlock Holmes observes, can tell us more than her noisier kennel-mates. It is revealing that a figure who clearly did not suffer fools gladly writes relatively few poems that parody their genre, and that even in those cases the extent of the parody is debatable because it often seems juxtaposed with some sympathy for the literary type in question. For example, the key to evaluating the degree of mockery in Metem or in Storm and Calm; or deciding whether Bait is more attracted to its model than it appears at some points to be; or discerning whether EpLin is wholly or even largely parodic—the key is the stance of the poet as an insider on the verge of becoming an outsider or as an outsider with one foot inside the door. Quite simply, these stances are more congenial to Donne and more intriguing to his readers than bald parody. Indeed, dialogue—even or especially a conversation where one speaker is superior—is more attractive to him than simply dismissing the alternative voice through parody.

In fact, given the range of genres in which Donne writes, his decision not to engage in others is revealing. Many long-standing assumptions about this singularly urban and urbane poet are confirmed by the apparent absence of pastoral, one of the most popular genres in his era. At the same time, elements of pastoral do surface occasionally, notably in Eclog and especially in Bait. These poems remind us yet again that Donne is intrigued with, even preoccupied with, segments of his literary heritage that on some levels are not appealing to him. Witness above all the role of (p. 104) the sonnet in his oeuvre (a topic germane to essays by Haskin, Maurer, and Young), and the related though separable question of his involvement with Petrarchism, of whose discursive practice the sonnet is often the outward and visible sign.

Critics have long debated whether Petrarchism is a mode with which Donne briefly flirted early in his career, before turning determinedly to anti-Petrarchism; or whether significant Petrarchan elements survive throughout. However one resolves that argument in terms of the readings of individual poems, two generalizations do emerge. On the one hand, the lack of conventional love sonnets clearly demonstrates the iconoclasm with which Donne is often and not inappropriately associated; on the other hand, the recuperation of the sonnet form in his Verse Letters, noted in Maurer's essay, and the presence of Petrarchan elements in many other texts demonstrate the openness to a range of generic forms stressed throughout this introduction. The dialogic propensities identified above may further help us to address these conundra about Petrarchism and its favourite genre, the sonnet. As Young remarks, Donne's use of the sonnet to express and explore spiritual turmoil ‘could only take poetic form in the matrix of Donne's wide reading and immersion in the literary culture of the late Renaissance. He was conversant with the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry and the sacred parody of these conventions in both native English and continental forms, in the work of such figures as Clément Marot, St John of the Cross, William Alabaster, and Robert Southwell’. Donne, that is, establishes continuing and multivocal dialogues between and among Petrarchan possibilities and rebuttals of them.

In that, as in so many other respects, John Donne talks through, about, and with generic possibilities. As John Frow observes, genre is ‘a form of symbolic action’ that ‘makes things happen by actively shaping the way we understand the world’ (2). Indeed, one reason genre interests Donne so much is his intent to shape the world through the symbolic action of language. Studying how and why he writes generically can help shape the way we ourselves see John Donne's worlds.