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date: 05 December 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction summarizes the contents of Part IV of this book. The purpose of Part IV is to survey major critical debates affecting the reception of Donne from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. To do this the analysis in this part asks a number of questions, such as: Do Donne’s writings express his apostasy, misogyny, political absolutism, and his desperate ambition? Are his writings harsh, obscure, witty, and unrhythmical? Are there two Donnes? And should Donne’s writings even been published?

Keywords: critical debates, apostasy, misogyny, political absolutism, ambition, critical work

The purpose of Part 4 is to survey, for students and Donne scholars, major critical debates affecting the reception of Donne from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. To direct these discussions the editors chose seven questions:

  • Do Donne's writings express his apostasy?

  • Do Donne's writings express his misogyny?

  • Do Donne's writings express his political absolutism?

  • Are Donne's writings harsh, obscure (or merely witty), and unrhythmical?

  • Do Donne's writings express his desperate ambition?

  • Do Donne's writings reveal two Donnes?

  • Are Donne's writings in part or in whole so dangerous (in one way or another) that, as Donne himself and particular critics in every generation have thought, they should never have been published?

All these legitimate critical questions about Donne's writings were foreseen and raised by Donne himself; they have continued—indeed are continuing—to provoke debate in succeeding generations. As they are conceived, these questions do not represent mere straw men or myths that modern readers have accepted or rejected. One way or another, they underlie a good deal of valuable criticism—from Donne's time to our own—and the editors foresaw that articulation of them in seven essays would allow complex, multifaceted response and redefinitions of the problems of interpretation they raise. All seven essays, then, are prisms refracting much the same materials in seven different ways; they cast up focused accounts of Donne's life and writings, panoramas each seen from a different angle. The goal here has been both (p. 662) to give a historical overview of Donne's reception and to pose the central questions anew without necessarily resolving them.

Part 4 is generally intended to present various conjectures and refutations, not to establish a consensus about Donne by refuting influential points of view the editors or authors consider erroneous. First, Achsah Guibbory's ‘Donne and apostasy’ provides equable review of what has been perhaps the most contentious of all perennial disputes in Donne studies. In Donne's world, and in our own, such matters could (and still can) end lives or glorify deaths; from our vantage-point today, as Guibbory observes (quoting the historian Michael C. Questier), we can see that in Donne's time ‘ “flux in religion was the norm rather than the exception” ’. She finds generally in Donne's writings ‘an emphasis on seeking, on process, and a corresponding suspicion of rigidity and divisive dogma’. Donne's writings question ‘the rigid assumptions that might lie behind such terms as “apostate” or even “convert” ’.

Theresa M. DiPasquale's ‘Donne, women, and the spectre of misogyny’ notes that, while Donne's misogyny has been ‘an enduring focus of critical inquiry in Donne studies’, there is ‘no single proof-text’ to indicate ‘whether Donne revered women, reviled them, or judged them on a case-by-case basis, as he did—sometimes quite harshly—persons of the male sex’. Quoting John R. Roberts, she deprecates a frequent tendency: ‘Too often, what critics most desire is to make Donne's works “lie down quietly on…prefabricated Procrustean beds” ’, whereas ‘the challenge is to resist that desire in favour of attentive response to the range of different tones and perspectives Donne can employ’.

A partial exception to the rule not to refute erroneous views is Debora Shuger's ‘Donne's absolutism’, which, after characterizing much previous critical work as in some degree based on a misunderstanding, sets forth a pioneering discussion of Donne and political theory, informed by wide-ranging and detailed study of technical particulars and putting our apprehension of Donne's politics on a new footing.

Albert C. Labriola's ‘Style, wit, prosody in the poetry of John Donne’ poses large questions to organize the history of controversy over these topics: ‘What is the relationship between art and experience in Donne's works? When is the author also the speaker in a poem? Or when is the author distanced from the speaker, who becomes a character in his own right? How may a composition be artful and finely wrought, both structurally and verbally, but still convey the semblance of spontaneity? May a poem be “sweet” if it is not metrically rhythmic or melodious? How may irregular prosody still be poetic?’ To such questions Labriola's answers emerge through a focused history of decline in esteem for Donne's prosody and wit, leading eventually to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Donne revival.

Looking at shifting ‘social and cultural connotations of ambition’ since the seventeenth century, Hugh Adlington directly asks the question ‘Do Donne's writings express his desperate ambition?’ in order to determine where ‘this widely held notion of Donne's restless ambition’ comes from. His analytic survey of received opinions concludes with innovative discussion of Donne's opinions on the topic, a (p. 663) ‘valuable source of evidence’ that has been paid ‘little or no attention’, although Donne's own attitudes can help us to develop ‘one possible response to the oft-made but rarely answered call for increased historical contextualization of Donne's life and writing’.

Judith Scherer Herz, in ‘ “By parting have joyn’d here”: the story of the two (or more) Donnes’, identifies among salient and various critical contributions concerning this issue those of Izaak Walton, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edmund Gosse, and John Carey, all best understood in relation to Donne's own ‘doublings’ of his personality in poetry and prose. Herz concludes that in these Donne in different ways joins the company of Walt Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Schumann, and Bob Dylan.

Rounding out Part 4, with the last word in the Handbook, Lynne Magnusson's ‘Danger and discourse’ amplifies perhaps the least-appreciated ground tone in and between the lines of Donne's poetry and prose, as well as in critical studies of them. Magnusson explores Donne's own thoughts about ‘the dangers associated not only with linguistic interaction but also with the circulation of written texts’; and she emphasizes how Donne's ‘early lessons in communication related to his positioning within the Catholic minority at a time when persecution aimed at enforcing uniformity in religion and eradicating Catholicism in England’. She shows that these large and momentous social contexts determined Donne's habitual practices in communication, including a sense of danger that ‘inflects his imaginative writing’.

Together, these seven essays provide for twenty-first-century Donne studies what the entire Handbook aims at: both summaries of achievement in major areas of scholarship and directions for further work.