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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.

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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
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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
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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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

This chapter focuses on the two poets’ varied responses to Continental events and writers, whether in the past or in early modern times. Spenser and Donne knew the Continent well, but the former almost certainly at second hand, in part through Italian and French literature and in part through hearing of its wars – ones in which Elizabeth reluctantly played a role. Donne spent time there and came to know a number of European writers. Both poets were intimately aware of ancient Roman literature, but neither ignored what was across the English Channel, contemporary or recent. Each, for example, knew some poetry by Pierre de Ronsard, but responded to him in different ways. In comparing the two poets’ overall methods of appropriating Continental literature, the chapter focuses on one ancient author, Ovid, and on one geographical feature, the hill.

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
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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
Spenser’s Busirane and Donne’s ‘A Valediction of my name, in the window’

John Donne and Edmund Spenser each fashion distinct and powerfully recognizable signature styles over the course of their careers. Both poets engage self-reflexively with early modern ideas about how style, what George Puttenham called mentis character, is sedimented into language. This chapter examines how physiognomical or allegorical depiction instantiates literary characters in moments of graphic inscription and erotic violence. Thomas Overbury furnishes an illuminating definition of character that lies at the interface between incised mark and the representation of a person. He describes how children learned to form the alphabet by tracing letters in incised grooves, a training that left a lingering, emotional memory. This analysis centres on how the discourses of erotic love can both establish authorial identity and undo conceptions of individually bounded subjectivity through a secret graphic system of character.

in Spenser and Donne