Ever since their rediscovery in the 1920s, John Donne's writings have been praised for their energy, vigour and drama – yet so far, no attempt has been made to approach and systematically define these major characteristics of his work. Drawing on J. L. Austin's speech act theory, this comparative reading of Donne's poetry and prose eschews questions of personal or religious sincerity, and instead recreates an image of Donne as a man of many performances. No matter if engaged in the writing of a sermon or a piece of erotic poetry, Donne placed enormous trust in what words could do. Questions as to how saying something may actually bring about that very thing, or how playing the part of someone else affects an actor's identity, are central to his oeuvre – and moreover, highly relevant in the cultural and theological contexts of the early modern period in general. Rather than his particular political or religious allegiances, Donne's preoccupation with linguistic performativity and theatrical efficaciousness is responsible for the dialogical involvedness of his sermons, the provocations of his worldly and divine poems, the aggressive patronage seeking of his letters, and the interpersonal engagement of his Devotions. In treating both canonical and lesser-known Donne texts, this book hopes to make a significant contribution not only to Donne criticism and research into early modern culture, but, by using concepts of performance and performativity as its major theoretical backdrop, it aims to establish an interdisciplinary link with the field of performance studies.
This chapter introduces John Donne, a writer whose work has been analysed for traces of his precise religious allegiances, noting that the current study has chosen some of Donne's poems and aims to study his texts as performances, with little to no regard for the underlying ‘meanings’ found in the texts. It then studies the concept of performance and several performance theories, arguing the merits of conducting a performative analysis on texts from the early modern period. Finally, the chapter explains why John Donne – along with several of his works – was chosen to be analysed for the present study.
This chapter discusses three of Donne's sermons, which are considered as his pulpit performances. The first sermon is on the conversion of St. Paul, and the second and third are earlier sermons on the Psalms and the Epistles. The chapter shows that one of the typical features of Donne's sermons is the view of the relationship between God and the self, describes the sermon as a theatrical re-enactment of the Biblical word and studies the differences between sacrament and sermon. It also considers the question of what the primary interest of sermons is and what consequently has to be translated, concluding with a section on the theatrical structures that are inherent to Donne's sermons.
This chapter explores the ways Donne's poems use language performatively. It analyses the Promethean dimension of Donne's poems, showing that his poems imply that what is at stake is similar to the real world, while the metaphors create new ways of seeing the same world. The chapter also studies how Donne's poems create the world, the truth and the self. Concepts such as role-play, theatricality and protean performance are also discussed.
This chapter discusses the passionate connections between Donne's divine and worldly poetry. It shows that while Donne's erotic poems are more indebted to religious metaphor, his nineteen ‘Holy Sonnets’ rely more on erotic imagery. The chapter then analyses and compares Donne's religiously erotic poems with his erotically religious poetry. It determines that Donne's erotic poetry views love as a form of (artful) performance and engages in some form of histrionics of love making, also showing that role-play and theatricality are two main features of Donne's devotional and erotic writings.
This chapter identifies the shared aspects of the performances of Donne's prose letters, as well as the ways their strategies may be considered typical (of Donne), and describes his letters as remarkable, since they regard both the immediacy and frequency with which they refer to the materiality of language and of letters. This betrays a considerable awareness of modern debates on letter writing. The chapter also focuses on the ways Donne tries to gain secular favour through letters, which are filled with religious concepts.
This chapter examines Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which he wrote after he came down with an illness that nearly killed him – or so he believed – observing that there are several important points of contact between devotional and epistolary modes in this work. It shows that Devotions is mostly focused on the speaker's communion and communication with God. The chapter determines that proof of Donne's personal attitude towards the advantages of verse over prose – and vice versa – can be found in his prose letters. An analysis of Donne's use of verse as opposed to prose is included.
This chapter reviews the lessons and information presented in the previous chapters. It emphasises that a theory of performativity goes hand in hand with a certain conception of identity and language, which can have consequences for personal faith and religious discourse. The chapter then notes that the previous chapters considered Donne's prose and poetry in a performative dimension, and also determines that performativity and performance are typical not only of Donne's writing, but also of literary criticism.