Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Joan Faust


Donne on Love

Sometimes the End Just Doesn't Justify the Means

Geologically speaking, The American Heritage Dictionary defines fault as “A break in the continuity of a rock formation, caused by a shifting or dislodging of the earth's crust, in which adjacent surfaces are differentially displaced parallel to the plane of fracture.” Metaphorically speaking, then, we can define a “fault line in the field” as an issue or event that demarcates two irreconcilable planes of thought, or the line along which these adjacent surfaces of opinion are “differentially displaced.” In seventeenth-century literary studies, John Donne's perplexing and often contradictory stances toward carnal love have certainly elicited disagreements and controversies. But is the issue a fault line in the field or simply a surface demarcation of a deeper fault line?

True, Donne's attitude toward physical love has possibly generated more commentary than any other aspect of his work. Perhaps epitomized by the C. S. Lewis—Joan Bennett debate in the late 1930s on Donne's qualities as a love poet, the question of the sincerity, opportunism, Petrarchism, cynicism, physicality, and spirituality of the poet's works continues to fill volumes. Lewis, deeming Donne's poetry “overrated” in the twentieth century, denigrates the physical bluntness of Donne's love poetry. He argues that, at its lowest, Donne's love poetry is “pornographic, ” arousing the appetite it describes in its attempt “to affect not only the imagination but the nervous system of the reader” as well; at its highest, the love poetry is even “nastier” since it often draws “distinctions between spirit and flesh to the detriment of the latter” but then explains “why flesh is, after all, to be used.” Bennett defends Donne as one of the “great love poets” of the seventeenth century not because he paints “the charms of his mistress” but because he “analyzes the experience of being in love, ” experiences that include “almost everything a man can feel about a

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