Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebreo to John Donne

By T. Anthony Perry | Go to book overview

Introduction

Our nature is meteoric, we respect (because we partake so) both earth and heaven; for as our bodies glorified shall be capable of spiritual joy, so our souls demerged into those bodies are allowed to take earthly pleasure. Our soul is not sent hither, only to go back again: we have some errand to do here.

JOHN DONNE

This study attempts to document a philosophy of love that found its major philosophical expression in Leone Ebreo Dialoghi d'amore ( 1535) and its most impressive poetic statement in John Donne "The Ecstasy." It may thus be viewed as an analysis either of the proximate European background of what Herbert Grierson called Donne's "new philosophy of love" or of the development of Leone's erotic philosophy among selected Renaissance authors. Each chapter offers a critical reaction to an important author or work of literature and, as such, may be read in isolation from the rest of the book. The roughly chronological ordering of the essays is a convenience of presentation and need imply neither a continuous argument nor a chain of historical influence from one work to another. Yet the cumulative effect of these essays will reveal the recurrence of major themes and preoccupations that become expressive, each in its own mode and context, of a new idea of love. Conversely, awareness of the larger tradition should, in every case, advance the understanding of the individual works.

The existence of such a tradition has hardly been acknowledged by literary studies. The most notable essay linking Donne to Leone Ebreo, Helen Gardner's study of "The Ecstasy,"1 has been largely ignored by historical scholars, who continue to deal with Platonic sources that preceded Leone, with little interest in either Leone himself or that crucial period between the Dialoghi and "The Ecstasy." As a result, there has been no major modification of A. J. Smith's view that in "The Ecstasy" Donne has the distinction of putting forward "these apparently incompatible attitudes [physical and spiritual love] together for the first time in poetry." 2 Some reasons for this critical neglect are real and must be met. On the one hand, the Dialoghi themselves may be blamed: for their enormous learning and subtle dialectic, their protean but difficult synthesis of traditional philosophies into what may be called a Judaeo-Platonism. But a deeper reason lies in the distrust gener-

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