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Metaphysical Wit from Shakespeare to Donne

  • James P. Bednarz
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Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)

Abstract

In 1921, Herbert Grierson refused to include a single work by Shakespeare in his ground-breaking anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donneto Butler, apparently assuming that Shakespeare did not lend himself to this genealogy. But in 1957, Helen Gardner disregarded Grierson’s precedent by adding a single Shakespeare lyric ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ to her collection The Metaphysical Poets as a proto-metaphysical verse that approximated, although imperfectly, to key features of John Donne’s style and thought. Yet even though Gardner acknowledged affinities between Shakespeare’s and Donne’s poetics strong enough to number Shakespeare among the metaphysicals, she also implied that he never achieved Donne’s level of sophistication in the new style.

Keywords

Seventeenth Century Private World Lyric Poetry Turtle Dove Divine Essence 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), 23.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Colin Burrow (ed.), Metaphysical Poetry (London: Penguin, 2006), xxiv.Google Scholar
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    Peter Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 203.Google Scholar
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    Quoted from Izaak Walton, Lives of Donne and Herbert, ed. S. C. Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 37.Google Scholar
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    See J. B. Leishman, The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne (New York Harper and Row, 1966), 16–20;Google Scholar
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    For evidence that Jaggard’s transcription of 144 was inordinately corrupt and not Shakespeare’s early draft as some contend, see James P. Bednarz, ‘Canonizing Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim, England’s Helicon and the Question of Authenticity’, Shakespeare Survey 60 (2007): 255, nl5.Google Scholar
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    Grierson, The Poems of John Donne, 1: 391–2. All quotations from Donne’s poetry are from this edition. For a reading of how Donne sought to resolve this dilemma, see Edward W. Tayler, Donne’s Idea of a Woman: Structure and Meaning in The Anniversaries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Margaret Healey, Shakespeare, Alchemy, and the Creative Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 205–8, distorts Shakespeare’s poem by reading his Trinitarian paradoxes as alchemical, but is more successful with Marston.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Stanton J. Linden, Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 176, suspects that Donne was attempting to ‘sexually differentiate bodies joined as in the alchemical conjunction of opposites’. Donne’s union, analogous to alchemical refinement, annihilates difference. The phoenix is the ‘abler soul’ of ‘interanimation’ celebrated in ‘The Exstasie’ (lines 41–4). Linden sees Donne’s poem as indicating that ‘everything that accounted for their separate identities — the eagle and the dove — must be eradicated: “two-ness” must be replaced by “one-ness”‘ (179). Paracelsus identifies ‘the chemical Phoenix’ as the culmination of his process, although he describes it being carried away by a ‘Flying Eagle’, without a dove in sight.Google Scholar
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    William of Ockham states that ‘Deus est ens perfectissimum’ in Sententiarum, Opera Philosophica et Theologica, ed. S. Brown, 10 vols (New York: St Bonaventure, 1970), 3: 390, and Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Contra Gentiles concurs that God is ‘primum ens; ergo est perfectissimum’. (Summa Contra Gentiles, 5 vols, trans. Anton C. Pegis et. al. [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977], 1: 28). The concept would subsequently find a central place in western philosophy from Descartes’ Meditations to Heidegger’s Being and Truth. See also Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1936), 41–2.Google Scholar
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  42. 43.
    Theodore Redpath, in The Songs and Sonets of John Donne (London: Taylor & Francis, 1967), 19, notes that these birds sometimes represent ‘the predatory and meek’, as in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (1.117), Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (5.6.114) and George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ (line 23). But this sounds too severe for the context, and the more benign alternative of ‘strength and gentleness’ is proffered by John Louis Lepage, ‘Eagles and Doves in Donne and Du Bartas: “The Canonization”‘, Notes and Queries 30 (1983): 427–8. Brian Vickers, ‘Donne’s Eagle and Dove’, Notes and Queries 32 (1985): 59–60, suggests the ‘active and contemplative lives’. John Manning, ‘The Eagle and the Dove: Chapman and Donne’s “The Canonization”‘, Notes and Queries 32 (1986): 34–48, sees its origin in Ovids Banquet of Sense (1595), where Corynna’s song relates how ‘Joves Bird, ceas’d by Cypris Dove’, proves ‘prophanness, holy’ and ‘wisdom, folly’. Rosalie Colie, in Paradoxia Epidemica (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 131, concludes that the eagle and dove combine ‘sacred and profane’ associations in a union — producing a phoenix — that is only possible ‘in poetry’.Google Scholar
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    Donald. L. Guss, ‘Donne’s Conceit and Petrarchan Wit’, PMLA 78 (1963): 312. Horst Meiler, TES, 22 April 1965: 320, cites an Italian edition of Petrarch’s work with a representation of an urn with portraits of Petrarch and Laura surmounted by a phoenix. Ignoto also combines images of urn and phoenix.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. John Sparrow (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1923), 23.Google Scholar
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    Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica, 132. See also Albert C. Labriola, ‘“The Canonization”: Its Theological Context and Its Religious Imagery’, The Huntington Library Quarterly 36 (1973): 327–39, for a treatment of its Trinitarian ‘pattern’, ‘playful daring’ and ‘breezy blasphemy’ (327).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See J. Huizinga, ‘Religious Sensibility and Religious Imagination’, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1949), 190–214. Scepticism about the phoenix’s miraculous existence would nevertheless cause Theophilus to leave it out of his transcription of Clement’s analogues.Google Scholar
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    Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne and Their Contemporaries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 46.Google Scholar
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    R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 147.Google Scholar
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    Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 11.Google Scholar
  61. 72.
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    Arthur R Marotti, John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 157.Google Scholar
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    See Barbara Everett, ‘Set Upon a Golden Bough to Sing: Shakespeare’s Debt to Sidney in “The Phoenix and Turtle”’, TLS, 16 February 2001: 13–15, and George Williamson, ‘The Convention of The Extasie’, Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. William R. Keast (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 106–17.Google Scholar
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  66. Richard E. Barbieri, ‘John Donne and Richard II: An Influence’, Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 57–62, however, suggests that Shakespeare’s ‘brittle’ mirror imagery (4.1.287–91) is reflected in Donne’s eighth Devotion. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    A. J. Smith (ed.), John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Penguin, 1971), 361, n23. Pinka, The Dialogue of One, 130, agrees that Donne ‘congratulates himself in part for finding a cleverer solution to the riddle than writers and emblematists before him’.Google Scholar
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    Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 109–10. Perhaps one of the reasons that ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ is currently neglected is its lingering association with New Criticism.Google Scholar
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    Murray Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 235.Google Scholar
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© James P. Bednarz 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James P. Bednarz
    • 1
  1. 1.Long Island UniversityUSA

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