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Returning to John Donne


Achsah Guibbory


Farnham: Ashgate, 2015

Hardcover. ix+268 p. ISBN 978-1409468783. £65


Reviewed by Daniel Starza Smith

King’s College London



As editor of the 2006 Cambridge Companion to John Donne, author of the Donne entry in the Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvell (2012), and a past president of the John Donne Society (1996–1997), Achsah Guibbory can without hesitation be identified as one of the most influential voices in Donne studies today, with an admirable record of reaching scholarly, student, and generalist audiences. Despite a lifetime working on this pre-eminent seventeenth-century poet and preacher, though, she has never published a monograph on him. ‘A book would need a thesis,’ Guibbory explains in her introduction to this volume, ‘and I never had one’ [1]. A book with a coherent rationale, however – in this case a retrospective review of a career’s cogitation on one subject – can be forgiven for forgoing a unifying argument.

Returning to John Donne brings together Guibbory’s critical thoughts on Donne since 1983 in a number of essays, mostly old, a few new, all driven by a desire to fuse close reading with an informed understanding of historical context. It thus performs a useful service to scholarship, and readers will appreciate the opportunity to watch a critic ‘returning’ to an author whose difficult works demand repeat readings. Perhaps Guibbory’s method can also be understood as a ‘re-turning’, in the sense of whittling – spinning ideas and examining them from every side, again and again until a new vision emerges, delicately imprinted with the turner’s probing touch.

The essay collection offers not only a history of the changes in Donne studies in this period, but in some ways an intellectual autobiography of Guibbory herself. Returning to John Donne collects ten previously printed articles or book chapters, and adds three written especially for the volume. The book is divided into three parts: ‘Time and History’ (two essays), ‘Love’ (six essays), and ‘Religion’ (four essays). The new chapters include an introductory essay on the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, entitled ‘Figuring Things Out’ [Chapter 1; 9 pages], one on the darker side of Donne’s erotic verse [Chapter 9; 4½ pages], and a more substantial third on Donne and toleration [Chapter 13; 33 pages]. Modern Donne scholarship largely resists a simply bifurcated Donne – the lover-turned-divine, Jack Donne vs Dr Donne – and one wonders whether there could have been a more proactive way to embody this in the book’s division (for the most part) into ‘Love’ and ‘Religion’. On the other hand, these are the topics on which students most commonly seek critical guidance; those in search of more nuanced distinctions can read The Oxford Handbook of John Donne (edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, 2011) – to which Guibbory, naturally, is a key contributor.

To return to Returning to: Part 1 groups two essays under the heading of ‘Time and History’. The first, written around 1980 (and taken from Guibbory’s 1986 monograph The Map of Time) is a study of classical and Christian traditions, and the unease they caused Renaissance humanists when placed in tandem. Guibbory merges these themes with a sharp awareness of the history of historical thinking, in order to explore the notion of decay, a recurring theme in Donne’s writing. The essay with which it is paired, ‘A Sense of the Future’, examines the disparity between Donne’s apparent belief the world may be approaching its end days and the fact he wrote poems for a strongly imagined future audience. Guibbory puts Donne’s works into dialogue not only with contemporaries including Jonson, Herrick, and Milton, but with classical predecessors such as Ovid and Horace.

Part 2 is the longest section of the book, grouping six essays on love in Donne’s writing. It reflects Guibbory’s concerns through the 1990s, not to mention the concerns of her students, who struggled to reconcile Donne’s transcendent visions of love with his regularly misogynistic statements about women’s bodies, minds, and morals. ‘ “Oh let me not serve so” : The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies’, combines political study of the elegies with a sensitive understanding of ‘interpersonal relations between men and women’ [60]. Guibbory argues that the misogyny directed to imagined individual women in these poems, ‘with their emphasis on masculine control … and the speaker’s struggle for dominance’, expresses the poet’s masculine ‘discomfort with “serving” in Elizabethan England’ [60]. As the Donne Variorum has shown since the article’s original publication, the elegies constituted some of Donne’s most popular verse in his own lifetime: Guibbory’s article remains an essential reference point for any future study into contemporary preferences for the elegies over the now-favoured Songs and Sonets.

Guibbory naturally devotes considerable space to these more popular poems too, showing how they occupy a different emotional universe to the bitter elegies and celebrate ‘the experience of love as particular, sacramental, transcendent … the experience that gives meaning to life’ [60]. Whereas the Songs and Sonets had often been read in relation to the Petrarchan, Ovidian, and courtly traditions on which they draw and depart, Guibbory sought to understand them with reference to Donne’s devotional thinking and Biblical reading. The resulting essay brings Donne together with Milton, two authors who are – rather curiously – infrequently paired in critical writing. ‘Donne, Milton, and Holy Sex’, first published in Milton Studies in 1995, remains both unusual and useful in this respect, using the Holy Sonnets and Book IV of Paradise Lost to explore ‘spiritual value in the private space of erotic love, outside religious institutions, and for reasons particular to [these authors’] different circumstances’ [61].

Indeed, one unstated thesis in Returning to Donne is that critics should compare Donne and Milton more often: Milton receives thirty index entries, George Herbert five, and Ben Jonson just three. ‘Where Milton takes on the problem of human history’, Guibbory surmises, ‘Donne attends to the personal, even in his most public sermons’ [5]. (The final essay, ‘Donne and Toleration’, completes this tacit project by juxtaposing Donne, both a Catholic and a Protestant, and Milton, the radical Protestant, with Spinoza, excommunicated by his Jewish community on suspicion of Christianity.)

Chapter 7 compares Donne’s poem ‘The Relique’ with the biblical Song of Songs, and demonstrates how Rabbinical thinking can illuminate Donne’s dissociation of sex with sin, or at least depart from traditional Christian associations of the two. Christian tradition seems to offer no precedent for the kind of celebratory vision Donne offers of sex; yet the Song of Songs can be read literally in just this way, rejoicing in sensuality and celebrating the participation of the body as well as the soul in the act of human love. This was a pioneering critical move; first published in her monograph, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth-Century England (2010), the essay can be read alongside pertinent recent studies of Donne’s Hebraism such as Chanita Goodblatt’s 2010 The Christian Hebraism of John Donne, or the work of Alison Knight.

Guibbory then considers the poet’s relationship with his wife Anne, née More, in a more speculative article. Chapter 8, ‘Fear of “loving More”’, proves a fascinating contrast to its predecessor since, by focusing on four poems which may have been written immediately after Anne’s death in 1617 (‘Since she whom I loved’, ‘A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’, ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, ‘A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day’), it shows Donne in a much more traditional Christian frame of mind, minimising the power of human love and emphasising the redemptive qualities of divine mercy.

‘I doubt I am alone in thinking that Donne’s poetry remains the principal reason he has survived’, Guibbory admits [2]: yet one insistent turn witnessed here has been towards the spiritual, as explored in the four essays making up Part 3. This shift is not simply ‘an effect of age’ [3], the author insists, but was prompted by her study of religious conflict leading up to the English Civil War. Returning to Donne after this work (see Ceremony and Community, Cambridge: University Press, 1998), she argues for ‘a strikingly anti-Calvinist Donne’ who stresses ‘the expansiveness of God’s mercy’ [171] – not an Arminian, exactly, but a sympathiser to the Arminian cause. She stands by this claim despite the criticism it has drawn from scholars such as David Colclough and Jeanne Shami since its publication. Chapter 11, ‘Donne’s Religious Poetry and the Trauma of Grace’, examines not only post-Reformation anxiety of choice between two ‘true’ churches, but the distancing effect Calvinism has on an individual’s relationship with God. Chapter 12, ‘Donne and Apostasy’, engages with the debate about Donne’s motives in taking orders: this is now a rather worn question, but it is important to note Guibbory’s strong early response to Carey’s influential claims that Donne was an ambitious time-server.

Some chapters end with a short list of subsequently published scholarship on the same topic, and each section of the book is preceded by an introduction in which a reflective Guibbory considers whether she would have come to the same conclusions or used the same approaches today. She notes, for example, missing authors or historical figures whose presence might have made her arguments clearer; she worries that she may have ‘romanticised’ Donne at points in her career [63], or that her younger self wrote sentences that were ‘not … tough-minded enough’ [63]; she takes the opportunity to add new essays to fill gaps in her thinking (e.g. Chapter 9 on the theme of disappointment and disillusion). Many an early-career scholar, paralysed by the fear of ‘getting it wrong’, will appreciate the self-critical candour of such an eminent figure. One striking virtue of a collection such as Guibbory’s is the reminder that our writing enters a dialogue not only with other scholars, but with past and future iterations of ourselves. They may not always agree with each other.

Finally, one of the book’s most attractive features is the subtle presence of the classroom discussions which have, to various degrees, prompted the author’s thoughts. Guibbory approvingly quotes one student’s description of Donne’s ‘witty, exuberant, sassy, intelligent, exciting, melancholy, otherworldly, conniving and convincing’ writings [4]. The shared enthusiasm for Donne – and frustration with him – is palpable.


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