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Spenser, Donne, and the metaphysical sublime

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.

in Spenser and Donne
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Overhearing Spenser in Donne

This chapter reconsiders the conventional literary-historical relationship between Spenser and Donne – the technical and political conservative on the one hand and the innovative radical on the other – through the lens of form. Specifically, the chapter seeks to overhear Spenser’s influence on the verse forms and satirical strategies of Donne, at once suggesting a less conflictual relationship between their bodies of work, while underlining the experimental aspects of Spenser’s poetry. It begins with a series of intertexts around Metempsychosis, which cumulatively suggest the sustained nature of Donne’s engagement with Spenser. It then makes a detailed comparison between the stanzaic syntax of Metempsychosis and that of The Faerie Queene to clarify the difficult kinship between the two poems on the stanzaic level. The problematizing of the ‘rough’ Donne / ‘smooth’ Spenser binary is the focus of the final section too, which explores the interrelationship between the two as satirists through close comparison of Satire IV with Mother Hubberds Tale.

in Spenser and Donne
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Figures of comparison and repetition in Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie and Donne’s Anniversaries

This chapter compares figures of thought that compare, and figures of speech that repeat, in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabilitie and Donne’s Anniversaries. Subtly employing similitudo and syncrisis, Spenser and Donne negotiate differences and similarities between things and ideas, even as they test the limits of comparative judgement. Both poets explore the ‘decay’ and ‘mutabilitie’ of the world and both ingeniously try to redeem it. Both invidiously compare physics with metaphysics, scientia with sapientia; Spenser’s glimpse of eternal stasis resembles Donne’s ephemeral ‘ecstasee’. Though diverging wildly in form and content, both sets of poems are thoroughly Pauline-Augustinian. Still, Spenser’s ‘darke conceit’ promotes a mimetic, scopic regime, while Donne’s anamorphotic conceits confound the same. Alternatively, this chapter also traces how figures of speech involving semantic repetition and permutation, such as ploce and traductio, variously express the poets' impossible thirst for identity, stability, unity, and the absolute. Further, by reconfiguring literary traditions and readerly expectations with such repetition and comparison, these thinking poets prefigure the critic's comparatio.

in Spenser and Donne
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Spenser, Donne, and the philosophic poem

This chapter argues for intellectual continuities and generic connections between Spenser’s Fowre Hymnes and Donne’s Anniversaries as poems that engage deeply with the late sixteenth-century revival of cosmology and natural philosophy. It shows how both poets are concerned with fundamental questions that emerge from reorientations in the analogy of microcosm to macrocosm and how they programmatically draw together poetry and philosophy in their work. Tracing specific textual analogies between the poems’ respective rhetorical structures and revealing their use of the contemporary genres of the hymn and the ‘philosophic poem’, the chapter suggests that the cosmos matters to Spenser and Donne not only as a philosophic framework, moral guide, or visible sign of a divine plan but also as a foundational aesthetic value.

in Spenser and Donne

The works of Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce feature suggestive references to Spenser and Donne which are eclectic and programmatic in equal measure. The essays of Eliot and Yeats evidence a determination to re-evaluate and appropriate early modern authors, amongst them Spenser and Donne. Eliot is partly responsible for the rediscovery of and newly established appreciation for metaphysical poetry, especially Donne, while Yeats and Joyce share an uneasy relationship to Spenser as an Irish colonialist forebear, whom they feel compelled to confront. However, a tension exists between the artistic use made of Spenser and Donne by Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce. The complex intertextual allusions to Spenser and Donne embedded in their works indicate the various ways in which they repurpose them to befit a modernist aesthetic and intermesh them with the symbolic patterns of their texts. Additionally, contradictory accounts of the lines of division between the medieval, the Renaissance and the modern are put forward by Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce that often diverge from the view that Spenser and Donne are proponents of sharply opposed poetic practices. In modernist writing, Spenser and Donne are held to be as much part of a literary continuum as to represent clashing styles and imaginaries.

in Spenser and Donne
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Spenser, Donne, and the trouble of periodization

The introductory chapter reviews the existing critical literature on Spenser and Donne, including the literary-historical conventions that have created the gap in scholarship on the two poets. Although the traditional view of Spenser and Donne as opposites is not entirely unjustified, it has unnecessarily foreclosed enquiry into the relation between their poetics and thinking. The fault lies mainly with the conventions of periodization that place Spenser and Donne on opposite sides of a divide, which in itself is symptomatic of a broader teleological view of the ‘Renaissance’, or ‘early modern’ period. This chapter gives an overview of the essays in the collection, recognizing the multiplicity of approaches and points of entry into this new area of research and outlining the narrative of the volume as a whole. It argues, above all, for a relational view of Spenser and Donne and for the potentially far-reaching implications of this relation in understanding the literary culture of the Renaissance.

in Spenser and Donne
The poetics of the Epithalamia

In his Epithalamion Spenser twice invokes figures from classical antiquity, Maia and Alcmene, who bore children for Jove. Neither of these two women was a willing lover: one was taken while asleep in a cave, the other was tricked into thinking Jove was her own husband. Invoking two figures whose sexual consummation with Jove was unwilled, Spenser makes matters even more complicated by suggesting that Jove has already lain with his bride, Elizabeth. This essay places Spenser’s Epithalamion in the context of these ancient myths and of the classical tradition of the marriage hymn, and argues that the focus of Spenser’s poem is procreation rather than pleasure. This shift in emphasis is the central legacy of Spenser’s poem for Donne, whose ‘Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn’ dispenses with any pretence of the bride’s pleasure. While Spenser’s mythological allusions only hint at the bride’s involuntary role as sacrifice, the telos of the marriage ritual, Donne’s parodic ‘Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn’ brings the barely concealed sexual violence graphically into focus.

in Spenser and Donne

Two figures in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Astraea in the first book and Pythagoras in the last, mark the troubled foundations of Ovid’s cosmos. In their separate ways and with varying degrees of explicitness, these figures make their presence felt in the three poems discussed in this chapter: Edmund Spenser’s Prosopopoeia Or Mother Hubberds Tale, John Donne’s Metempsychosis, and that portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene known as The Cantos of Mutabilitie. Each of these poems is deeply concerned with questions of moral and physical decay, the instability of species, the subversion of hierarchy, the transmission of poetic form, and poetic reputation. In each, the shadows of Ovid’s Astraea and Pythagoras undermine the dream of ordered progression and suggest a root cause for moral decline.

in Spenser and Donne
Aspects of Ramist rhetoric

This chapter attempts to read Donne’s poetry and the sermon Deaths Duell from a rhetorical perspective indicating how the contemporary fashionable rhetoric of Peter Ramus has a penetrating influence in conceptualization as well as execution of the literary works of Donne. The chapter breaks new ground in asserting that the same may also be said to be true with respect to Spenser. It attempts to make a selective analysis of The Faerie Queene to indicate that Spenser in the invention of his image-arguments takes the help of binary concept-clusters in opposition to each other as practised in the Ramist pairing of dichotomous thoughts. The chapter asserts that Spenser’s principal debts to Ramist logic are in the preferential use of place-logic in invention of images and wide use of oppositional arguments like contrary, comparison, contradiction and relation. The use of logical arguments in Spenser goes hand in hand with that of rhetorical figures promoting the harmonious conjunction of sense, sound, and persuasion.

in Spenser and Donne
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Thinking poets

The names Edmund Spenser and John Donne are typically associated with different ages in English poetry, the former with the sixteenth century and the Elizabethan Golden Age, the latter with the ‘metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century. This collection of essays, part of The Manchester Spenser series, brings together leading Spenser and Donne scholars to challenge this dichotomous view and to engage critically with both poets, not only at the sites of direct allusion, imitation, or parody but also in terms of common preoccupations and continuities of thought, informed by the literary and historical contexts of the politically and intellectually turbulent turn of the century. Juxtaposing these two poets, so apparently unlike one another, for comparison rather than contrast changes our understanding of each poet individually and moves towards a more holistic, relational view of their poetics.