Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Donne, Spenser, and the Performative Mode of Renaissance Poetry

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Donne, Spenser, and the Performative Mode of Renaissance Poetry

Article excerpt

"For poetry makes nothing happen," W. H. Auden sadly observes in his elegy for fellow poet William Butler Yeats; "it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth" (36, 40-41). Concerned with the survival of the poem through, and literally in, its readers ("The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living," 22-23), Auden concentrates, rather, upon poetry's potential effect upon its audience. The "desert" of the modern person's heart can be reclaimed by the "healing fountain" of poetry, which "In the prison of his days / [can] Teach the free man how to praise" (64-65). Auden describes the condition of poetry in the modern world as possessing the potential to foster emotional and/or spiritual renewal in the reader, but as having no real power in or of itself. Without the reader, the poem is a static entity, its power to move people remaining dormant until activated by a reader's engagement. This is the condition of poetry in a world of print, which threatens to render language static by fixing it to the page where it waits to be purchased and consumed by the reader. In print tradition, poetry is reduced to a commodity whose power to alter emotional and spiritual states is, paradoxically, appreciated by an increasingly smaller portion of a progressively larger literate segment of the population. (1)

A radically different condition held in the Renaissance which, while fermented in part by the advent and explosion of print, was marked by the decreased circulation of oral texts and by a still-flourishing manuscript tradition. Elizabethan and Jacobean England was a world in which poetry might still aim to make something quite specific happen, such as fashion a laureate self or join, if only momentarily, in the universal harmony that held before the Fall. And the seventeenth century was the last age in which the oracular power of oral tradition might still linger in a printed English text (albeit with a rhetorical self-consciousness that threatens to undermine its authority), poets of such differing strengths as John Milton and George Wither both claiming a prophetic identity. (2) Poetry in the Renaissance allowed the writer to attempt to negotiate power both in and over the world in ways that eventually became unthinkable to Auden.

In this essay I consider John Donne's compulsive need to draw upon the magical or oracular power inherent in the oral tradition of poetic language in order to translate himself from a profane to a sacred realm--or, if one prefers to consider the matter in emotional rather than spiritual terms, from a diminished to an enlarged existence--and, thus, to "make something happen." Donne lived and wrote at that transitional moment in cultural history when print was defining itself against a flourishing manuscript culture, but while poetry still retained some of its power from oral tradition. Donne's desire to provoke a specific response from, if not actually control the behavior of, a poem's addressee is not evidence, as it is often taken to be, of a chauvinist's hubris--that is, of the outrageous determination of a university wit well trained in rhetoric, or of a Jesuit-educated casuist, to overwhelm an opponent, whether that antagonist be a much desired yet coy mistress, or an omnipotent yet seemingly inscrutable deity. Rather, it is most often the attempt of a frantic and insecure petitioner to tap the oracular power of non-print language to ensure the outcome of a salvation drama that can be either sexual or spiritual. (3) In this determination Donne appropriates as well some of the techniques of neo-Platonic poets like Edmund Spenser who, in his "Epithalamion," attempts to marshal the numbers of Time to ensure that his union with Elizabeth Boyle occurs without interruption and proves fruitful; poetry is the only means available for Spenser to use in projecting the love that he shares with his wife beyond the ravages of accident and mortality to the sacred realm of eternity.

But the primary model for the operations adopted by Donne was the "metaphorical" God of the Bible who created the world, revived inanimate flesh, and cured the sin-weakened soul through the all-powerful agency of language. …

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