Artes poeticae
Spenser, Donne, and the metaphysical sublime
in Spenser and Donne
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This chapter examines the relation between Donne and Spenser by considering their principles of poetic art. Specifically, the chapter compares how the two poets use poetics to think, arguing that Donne qualifies as a counter-Spenserian poet. This argument revises the critical mainstream, which sees Donne and Spenser as radically different kinds of poets. Yet, by witnessing Donne's engagement with Spenser’s poetics, the chapter discovers Donne to be that uncanny author who breaks apart the conventional binaries: he is an amateur with laureate ambitions; an Ovidian poet who attempts Virgilian genres; a manuscript poet who seeks out print; a coterie poet who addresses a national audience. Yet, the chapter goes a step further, using one of Donne’s own key terms: the ‘sublime’. In a volume featuring ‘thinking poets’, the sublime affords an unusual perspective on these two major authors of the English Renaissance – in part, because the sublime connects to such counter-cognitive vectors as language, space, and emotion; and in part because the sublime is a principle of poetic art that represents the unthinkable. Donne's achievement is to render the famed Spenserian ‘golden’ sublime metaphysical. The Donnean metaphysical sublime constitutes an important innovation in the history of English poetics.

Spenser and Donne

Thinking poets

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