Writing Technologies

Selfhood and technologies of textual production: the matter of John Donne’s poetics

Siobhán Collins


Donne and Jonson record in their verse how poetry would circulate widely in a scribal community, bringing fame to its author. In ‘The Triple Fool’ Donne recounts his double folly: one, he falls in love with a woman, and two, he writes about it in ‘whining poetry’ (line 3).15 Yet, his rhetorical question, ‘where’s the wiseman, that would not be I, / If she would not deny?’ confidently asserts, advertises, and intertwines his specifically masculine textual and sexual talents (lines 4-5). The poet attempts catharsis through art; he ‘tames’ and ‘fetters’ emotion within his verse, yet ironically that verse, ‘by delighting many, frees again / Grief, which verse did restrain’ (lines 11-16). The poet’s lack of control over his readership determines that ‘two fools, do so grow three’ (line 21).

In contrast, Jonson desires renown through the wide circulation of his poetry. Such fame is the subject matter of his verse addressed to Sir Kenelm Digby, in which Jonson glories in the thought of how his lines may be read ‘at the Treasurers bord’, and dreams of ‘what copies shall be had, What transcripts begg’d’ (lines. 3-6).16 Jonson, later in his life, sent his poetry to press thereby increasing his audience while advertising himself as an established author of his collected Works. Donne feared not for the survival of his poems, but that a much wider audience than he could control would read his poetry. While print publication, as I will show, was pertinent to his concerns on occasion, Donne never did publish a volume of his poetry due to his apprehension of ‘some incongruities in the resolution’: ‘I know what I shall suffer from many interpretations’.17 Donne recognises that to change his main mode of textual production from manuscript to print would transform also his audience, and thus the reception of his poems.

It is because Donne was so self-consciously an author, so hopeful of communication yet so discriminating about his readers, so concerned with the aesthetics and ethics of verse, that he engaged so deeply with how materiality signifies, choosing in the main to transmit his verse in manuscript. The concept of individual authorship, associated with the printed book and its illusion of linearity and closure, is a relative one in the early modern period. Although Foucault points to the seventeenth century as the time when ‘[t]he coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constituted the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas’, within the still vibrant manuscript culture the circumstances under which copies were produced, the personal bodily sweat and expense involved in physically transcribing (and altering, consciously or unconsciously) a text, not only result in ‘some confusion’ between the role of the author and that of the reader, but link bodies together in a shared act of textual interplay that questions boundaries between the individual and the social body, between flesh and the page.18 The evidence of ‘part-shared language’ that marks the style of manuscript texts testifies to the communal and open nature of their production.19 The early modern manuscript system was far less author-centered, or interested in fixity, than print culture.20 It involved ‘different material conditions of writing and reading’, different attitudes towards ownership and materiality, which did not allow for an absolute distinction between writer and audience.21 The very physical and intimate nature of transmission in a manuscript culture, for Donne, not only acknowledges the bodily and contingent nature of language, but also connects the author and reader in an act of physical performance that transports to the spiritual, which the technology of print miscarries: ‘What the printing-presses bring to birth with inky travail, we take as it comes; but what is written out by hand is in greater reverence’.22 Print’s ability to ‘produce almost flawless replicas of a given text over and over again’ not only threatens the book’s symbolic value as a revered object, but also the intimacy between body and book, which, as we will see, is so important to Donne’s poetics.23

Donne plays ingeniously with the analogy between body and book throughout his work.24 His notion of the body as a book differs in essence to the postmodern idea of the body inscribed with and constructed by social discourses. For Donne, the body as text not only illustrates by resemblance the whole of nature, but is also inscribed with God’s sacred text. He describes man as a ‘plentifull Library’, and the heart as a book of instruction presented by God.25 The open heart is a symbol for religious purity, and figures prominently in Renaissance poetics as a metaphor for interior writing, suggesting transparency and equating textuality with both corporeality and an interior subjectivity.26 The line between body and book is blurred; they are imagined as both metaphorically and literally linked in this period. The image of the heart features prominently in Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, as symbol of both his bodily desire and the transparent purity of his textual voice: ‘know that I, in pure simplicity, / Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart, / Love only reading unto me this art’.27 However, for Donne, man’s subjectivity is conflicted: torn between contingent earthly desires on the one hand, and a priori ‘testimonies of the conscience’, which are ‘imprinted’ in the memory (contained in the heart) on the other.28 The philosophical significance Donne awards to memory is, paradoxically, both orthodox and radical. While Plato and St. Augustine placed a great deal of importance on memory as a rational faculty of the soul that transcends our material being, Donne emphasises how memory is also dependent on the body. For Donne, memory is both ‘the art of salvation’ in that it can return the reader to a consideration of their creation in the image of God, and at the same time it is a repository for remembrance of our lustful sins, which feed bodily desire.29 Donne views the body as a book wherein can be read the epic narrative of Christian history: from the Creation, through the Fall, to the Redemption and, finally, the Resurrection. The body is the Alpha and Omega of God, for ‘his first, and last work is the body of man’.30 Donne’s view of the heart as ‘imprinted’ with God’s image and text is underpinned by his notion of man as microcosm. Donne insists on theologically minded correspondences despite his awareness of, and concern with, the new sciences’ increasing separation of the physical body from the soul. The title of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) suggests that at this historic moment there is not yet the sharp division between the mental and the physical, the body and the text, the psychological and the physiological that characterized the duality of Enlightenment ontology.31 At the same time, however, the divisions and subdivisions within Burton’s vast text provide ‘a textual example of [the] delight in particularization’ that characterized this period’s ‘culture of dissection’.32 This tension between unity and division, as we will see, characterizes also Donne’s work.

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15. The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967). All further quotations from Donne’s poetry are taken from this edition.

16. ‘An Epigram to my Muse, the Lady Digby, on her Husband, Sir Kenelm Digby’, Ben Jonson, ed. C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, vol. 8 (Oxford, 1925-52). p. 263.

17. John Donne, Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (London, 1651) pp. 196-7.

18. Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson, 2000), pp. 174-187 (p. 174); H.R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 16; See also Harold Love, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

19. Marotti, Coterie Poet, p. 13.

20. Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 135; see also Margaret Downs-Gamble, ‘New Pleasures Prove: Evidence of Dialectical Disputatio in Early Modern Manuscript Culture’, Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 2.1-33 http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/downdonn.html [accessed 12 May 2005].

21. Margaret Exell, Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 11.

22. H.W. Garrod, ‘The Latin Poem Addressed by Donne to Dr. Andrews’, pp. 38-42.

23. Rhodes and Sawday, ‘Paperworlds’, p. 4.

24. See Elaine Scarry, ‘Donne: “But Yet the Body is his Booke’’’, in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons ed. Elaine Scarry (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 70-106.

25. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. and intro. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, vol. 9 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 237.

26. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1976). See also Eric Jager, ‘The Book of the Heart: Reading and Writing the Medieval Subject’, Speculum 71 (1996), pp. 1-26.

27. Sir Philip Sidney, “Sonnet 28”, Astrophil and Stella, in The Oxford Authors: Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 164, lines 12-14.

28. Donne, Sermons IX. p. 237.

29. See Noralyn Masselink, ‘Donne’s Epistemology and the Appeal to Memory’, John Donne Journal 8.1 (1989): 57-88.

30. Donne, Sermons, VIII. p. 97; see also Felecia Wright McDuffie, ‘To Our Bodies Turn We Then’: Body as Word and Sacrament in the Works of John Donne (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. iv-xii.

31. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. and intro. Holbrook Jackson, new intro. William H. Gass (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2001).

32. Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 3, p. 135.