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Achsah Guibbory, Returning to John Donne
by Raymond-Jean Frontain

Guibbory, Achsah. Returning to John Donne. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. ix + 268 pp. ISBN: 978-1409468783. $109.95 cloth.                                                      

The past thirty-five years have encompassed the second wave of the “Donne Revolution,” the first wave of which was inaugurated in 1912 by the publication of the magisterial edition of Donne’s poems by Sir Herbert J. C. Grierson, which in turn inspired T. S. Eliot’s seminal essays on Donne, heavily influenced mid-twentieth century English-language poetry, and supported well into the 1970s the New Critics’ commitment to close reading. The second wave, in progress since roughly 1980, has witnessed the founding of both the John Donne Society and the John Donne Journal, as well as the progress of the proposed ten-volume Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne,[1] the proposed twelve-volume re-editing of Donne’s sermons,[2] and the University of Saskatchewan’s Digital Edition of the Complete Prose Works (which is mounting a more complex textual apparatus for each prose work than any print edition could hope to supply). Under these circumstances, to say that Achsah Guibbory has proven one of the two or three most consistently insightful and influential Donne scholars of the past thirty years is to say a great deal.

This volume collects ten of Guibbory’s essays on Donne published between 1986 and 2011. Guibbory has not altered her essays apart from revising documentation formats to ensure consistency of citation practice throughout the volume, and from noting within brackets where Variorum readings of Donne’s poems differ from the editions of the poems that she originally employed. Rather, an addendum to each essay directs the reader to scholarship on that chapter’s topic which appeared following—and, more often than not, partly in response to—Guibbory’s own. The essays have been organized into three categories (“Time and History,” “Love,” and “Religion”), while a preface provided for each section explains the impetus for Guibbory’s exploring these particular portions of Donne’s canon in, respectively, the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Three new essays written specifically for this volume are included as well.

The single greatest—and, especially in the earliest essays, the most unusual—characteristic of Guibbory’s approach to Donne is its comprehensiveness. For, whereas Milton’s canon has traditionally been treated as being of a piece, Donne’s has not. In part, this is the nature of the beast that Donne critics must struggle to keep in view. There are of course significant shifts in emphasis in Milton’s writing occasioned by his response to emerging historical events, but for the most part his canon is remarkably consistent thematically. Like Jane Austen’s work, Milton’s evinces a gradual refinement of an early, nonetheless perfectly clear vision (nearly all of Milton’s basic themes and poetic operations are present in his first important poem, the Nativity Ode) until it reaches its most simple yet profound articulation in a final work—in Austen’s case, Persuasion; in Milton’s Paradise Regained.

Donne, conversely, is more like Shakespeare in that he constantly revisits conclusions reached in prior works and rigorously tests those conclusions by pushing them one step further. Shakespeare’s and Donne’s willingness to build on constantly shifting ground—as well as the unusually broad range of their respective canons—caused earlier critics to move in more carefully regulated steps through their work than has ever been the case with Milton. Thus, much as earlier generations of Shakespeare critics wanted to group plays as early comedies, mature comedies, problem comedies, and romances—or as Roman plays, English chronicle plays, and English histories—the mid-twentieth century Donne criticism that Guibbory inherited was most comfortable dealing with Donne in segments. Rather than looking at Donne’s canon in its entirety, critics tended to explore the works according to the genres he employed: the satires, the love elegies, the Songs and Sonets, the epithalamia, the Holy Sonnets, the hymns, the verse epistles, the obsequies and epicedes, the problems and paradoxes, the polemical prose, the devotional prose, the sermons, and so on—that is, following the distinctions set by the various editions published largely by Oxford University Press under the influence of Dame Helen Gardner. And if the New Critics, following Cleanth Brooks, tended to enshrine Donne the lyric poet and rarely looked at Donne’s prose, then the New Historicists have concentrated far more heavily upon the sermons and the polemical writings, in the process nearly marginalizing the once-extraordinarily popular love lyrics and Holy Sonnets.

Contrary to the general impulse that was still driving Donne criticism in the mid-1980s, Guibbory’s first essay on Donne—which originally appeared as a chapter in her book, The Map of Time: Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Ideas of Pattern in History (1986)—moves effortlessly among nearly all of Donne’s genres as she maps the evolution of his thought about decay and makes important distinctions between him and Bacon. Establishing the pattern of what will prove to be her approach to Donne for the next twenty-five years, Guibbory concentrates on how

Donne, with his rage for order, epitomizes our nature as meaning-seeking beings—even if the meaning we find sometimes is that there is no stable order. [… ] Though Donne repeatedly asserts there is an actual, discoverable order created by God, he also seems very modern in flaunting the fact that, in metaphor-making, he is actually creating (not simply perceiving) order in experience. (4-5)

Guibbory’s engagement with Donne’s work is characterized by three particular strengths that she brings to the reading process. First, there is the keen eye with which she recognizes continuities within Donne’s seemingly disparate output. As she observes in her essay on how Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions model the operations of his figure-making imagination, Donne’s “analysis of his bodily sickness [in Devotions], his validation of the ceremonial Church of England [in the sermons], his celebration of consummated sexual love as sacramental [in the Songs and Sonets]—all are grounded in his sense that the body has spiritual significance, that spiritual insight comes through the bodily experience, rightly analyzed and understood” (14). Similarly, while noting Donne’s divergence from strict Calvinism in his sermons, Guibbory observes that

For Donne, works are to faith as body is to spirit: “Practice is the Incarnation of Faith, Faith is incorporated and manifested in a body, by works” ([Sermons] VI, 102). Donne’s theological position here is the religious counterpart of his philosophy in “Aire and Angels,” where “Love” must “take a body” (l. 10), or “The Extasie,” where the body is the “booke” where we can see love “reveal’d” (ll. 72, 70)—a philosophy of love that itself is grounded in the incarnational sacramentalism of Catholicism. (192)

Emphasizing the fundamentally syncretistic nature of Donne’s imagination, Guibbory maps in her essays on the love poetry the path that Donne’s mind took as it negotiated the Scylla and Charybdis of Paul’s revulsion at all human sexuality and the erotic spirituality canonized in the biblical Song of Songs, concluding that “transcendence of the physical world and mortality is accomplished not by denial of the body but through its fulfillment”—that, ultimately, “transcendent, spiritual love is also sexual, indeed, that lovers transcend the physical through embracing the body” (79).

Likewise, in her essays tracing the development of Donne’s salvation theology, she demonstrates how his early Calvinist fears eventually morphed into a richly generous Arminianism in his later years as a preacher. Donne’s Arminianism allowed him to reconcile his later Church of England identity with his Roman Catholic upbringing and adult social network, and recognition of his evolution in this regard allows Guibbory to challenge John Carey’s influential argument concerning Donne’s supposed apostasy. Guibbory’s previously unpublished essay on “Donne, Milton, Spinoza and Toleration” proves a fitting capstone to the volume in this regard inasmuch as it summarizes how Donne’s “desire for unity” and corresponding “dislike of divisions” (255) drove him to construct a Christianity in which “love—charity—is the work one must do to have a peaceful death.” For Donne “love is transformative. This sense of the importance of love, and its power, recalls Songs and Sonets such as ‘The Canonization,’ but it is the dominant chord of Donne’s later sermons, and one that binds him to Spinoza” (258).

But even as she emphasizes Donne’s syncretistic impulses in love and religion, Guibbory recognizes and is willing to accept contradictions in Donne’s thought, this proves the second great strength of her approach. Consistently emphasizing Donne’s reliance “on seeking, on process” in the pursuit of truth (70), Guibbory acknowledges the paradox that “in the poetry as a whole, an obvious delight with the exercise of reason, wit, and wordplay is crossed by a profound distrust of reason” (70). For much the same reason, she concludes, “there is a basic, unresolved tension between Donne’s own literary stance as an innovator and the dislike of innovations that is very much a part of his obsession with universal decay” (27). Likewise, she recognizes that while “Donne’s writing Ovidian love elegies that mock courtly love suggests a critical, even oppositional, attitude toward the court,” the poet was “pulled by contrary impulses since by circulating these elegies in manuscript he was adopting the practice of aristocratic courtiers who disdained to publish their poetry” (75).

The greatest contradiction in Donne’s thought that Guibbory isolates has to do with his waffling between the profane and the sacred nature of sexual love: “With their analogies between sexual love and religious experience, Donne’s poems suggest the holiness of human love and imply that erotic desire is the only means we have for apprehending our relation with God. But his poetry also registers a disturbing, contrary sense that human sexual love is actually ‘profane,’ that it conflicts or competes with love of God” (143). Following a stellar reading of the conflicts crystallized by the sonnet on the death of his wife, “Since she whom I lovd,” Guibbory concludes that

Anne’s death intensified Donne’s uncertainty about whether faith in love would save him, because the body that before had seemed so necessary for the sacrament of love, for assurance that human and divine love are interconnected, was no longer present. For Donne, who seems to have always needed physical assurance of God’s love—as the end of “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and the holy sonnet on his wife’s death make abundantly clear—the absence of the body of Anne, like the absence of the body of Christ in the Sacrament, threatened to make God inscrutable. (162)

I do not know another Donne critic who has proven as sensitive to the various ways in which Donne’s struggle to achieve wholeness/holiness both succeeded and failed. Guibbory’s recognition of Donne’s sometimes ambivalent view of love offers an intelligent challenge to the life narrative of Donne proposed by Izaak Walton and revised by Sir Edmund Gosse that juxtaposes the rake “Jack Sonne” with the divine “Dr. Donne.”

The third great strength that Guibbory brings to bear on Donne is her interest in the history of the Hebrew Bible and in Renaissance Jewish thought. Chanita Goodblatt has recently demonstrated the ways in which Donne functioned as a “Christian Hebraist,” and Guibbory sees models for Donne’s erotic spirituality in the biblical Song of Songs and in Jewish theologians like Leone Ebreo. (She expresses regret at not having drawn more heavily on Ebreo when writing about Donne’s love poems in the 1990s [62], but curiously still seems not to be aware of T. Anthony Perry’s 1980 book, Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebreo to John Donne,[3] which preceded her in this regard and on which she might fruitfully have built.) Her final essay on Donne and the history of toleration provocatively contrasts him with Milton while usefully linking him—surprisingly—with Spinoza, opening a discussion that Donne scholarship should be eager to continue.

As welcome as this collection is, it is impossible not to wish that Guibbory had avoided an obvious pitfall in collecting one’s unrevised essays: the threat that the book’s parts appear to be more valuable than the book’s argument as a whole. The first section seems a perfunctory division in that the two essays grouped here do not demonstrate that “Time and History” has the same weight as a category in Donne’s imagination as “Love” and “Religion” clearly do; nor do these two essays complement and extend each other as well as those in the other two sections do. This section resembles that inevitable panel on a conference program in which the organizer has grouped under some too-general-to-be-useful session title those stray papers that, while valuable, do not fit any of the other sessions’ rubrics. It might have been more effective to simply group these two essays with the Introduction as a prologue to Guibbory’s study of Donne’s two signature issues.

In a related manner, but more problematically, the general introduction and the prefaces composed for each of the three sections prove the least rewarding portions of Guibbory’s book. Guibbory’s Donne-like syncretistic intelligence displayed in the essays themselves is betrayed by the “and then I wrote …” approach that she takes towards her published scholarship in these prefaces. For example, in explaining why, after having been engaged so powerfully and profitably by Donne’s love poems in the 1990s, she began writing about Donne and religion, Guibbory says that “for some time I had realized that I needed to understand Christianity better, given the fact that all the seventeenth-century writers I taught were Christians, steeped in the Bible, affected by and often engaged in the conflicts and controversies over religion that fractured early modern England and Europe” (171). The need to understand the history of Christianity in order better to understand the seventeenth century religious lyric seems so obvious as to be disingenuous coming from a major scholar at the peak of her career looking back over the ground she’s spent three decades tilling.

Similarly, the general introduction and prefaces betray a lack of curiosity about why her foci changed. For example, she notes that “where my earlier book chapter has traced Donne’s abiding obsession with time and mortality, my Cambridge Companion essay now emphasized contradiction, paradox, instability, and uncertainty, as I analyzed Donne’s exploration of the contradictions at the heart of human experience and desire” (59). Yet she offers no indication as to what caused this important shift in interest. It is impossible not to wish that Guibbory had provided an analysis of how the critical landscape changed in the course of her productive and influential career, especially when the worker ants below would be keen to see that landscape from her high vantage point and across nearly thirty years. This lack of objectivity is out of keeping with the extraordinary insight that she brings to bear on Donne’s texts themselves. Possibly the result of her natural modesty (she seems genuinely surprised to note the influence had by her 1990 essay on the politics of Donne’s love elegies), Guibbory proves a much better reader of Donne than she is of herself.

Donne’s Latin verse epistle to George Herbert records his surprising recognition that his conversion is not a break with the past, as he’d initially thought, but a continuation of that past in a way he had not initially perceived. I wonder that Guibbory has not likewise found that her writing on Donne across thirty years, although easily grouped under three topics, was a movement towards some all-encompassing recognition. “All, all of a piece throughout; / Thy Chase had a Beast in View,” Dryden writes at the close of The Secular Masque. Guibbory’s concluding essay on Donne and Spinoza seems to bring her beast clearly in view, her progress through Donne’s writing and thought having followed the parabola of Donne’s own intellectual migration—although the reader will not infer this from the book’s general introduction and prefaces.

Perhaps Guibbory’s return to Donne is not complete. She has not done, there must be more.

Raymond-Jean Frontain
University of Central Arkansas

[1] The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, ed. Gary A. Stringer, 4 Vols. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995-2005).

[2] The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne: Sermons preached at the Court of Charles I, ed. David Colclough, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013).

[3] (University: U of Alabama P: 1980). 


  • Luke Robert 11 months ago

    Achsah Guibbory's collection of essays on John Donne serves as a testament to her remarkable scholarship and profound insights into the works of this influential poet. Over the past three decades, Guibbory has consistently proven herself as one of the foremost Donne scholars, contributing significantly to the understanding and appreciation of his poetry. This volume presents a comprehensive selection of Guibbory's essays, showcasing her expertise across various themes such as "Time and History," "Love," and "Religion." By organizing the essays in this manner, readers can trace the evolution of Guibbory's exploration of Donne's canon throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, providing valuable context to her analysis. The inclusion of addenda and references to subsequent scholarship demonstrates Guibbory's ongoing influence and the scholarly discourse she has inspired. It highlights the impact of her work on the field, stimulating further research and discussions surrounding Donne's poetry. For those interested in delving into the rich literary tradition of tragedies, particularly Dr. Faustus collection serves as an excellent companion. Her rigorous analysis and deep understanding of Renaissance literature make her insights invaluable when discussing the tragic elements of Faustus' downfall and the moral dilemmas he faces.

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Cite as:

Raymond-Jean Frontain, "Achsah Guibbory, Returning to John Donne," Spenser Review 45.1.8 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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