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Katrin Ettenhuber, Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation
by Raymond-Jean Frontain

Ettenhuber, Katrin. Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. xii + 267 pp. ISBN: 978-0199609109. $110.00 cloth.

John Donne’s place in the history of ideas has only recently begun to be systematically explored. True, some early seminal studies of Donne—such as Mary Paton Ramsay’s Les Doctrines médiévales chez Donne (1924), Charles Monroe Coffin’s John Donne and the New Philosophy (1937), and Michael Francis Moloney’s John Donne, His Flight from Mediaevalism (1965)—attempted to situate him in the development of European intellectual history. But after Cleanth Brooks took the title of his influential The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) from Donne’s “The Canonization,” Donne’s poems quickly became the particular challenge to those who believed that a text’s organic unity was more significant than the context it shared with other cultural artifacts dating from the same period. Ironically, even when New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, Alan Tate, and Brooks emphasized the intellectual force of Donne’s poetry, they were actually more concerned with the poet’s sensibility and looked to elaborate upon T. S. Eliot’s claim that Donne “felt [his] thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” Scholars influenced by the New Critics produced valuable research on such topics as the history of the compass conceit in “A Valediction forbidding Mourning” or the theory of planetary motion referred to in the opening conceit of “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” but these efforts were more in the service of explicating texts than assessing Donne’s engagement with intellectual traditions.

It is doubly appropriate, then, that the inequity suggested by this paradox is being remedied by the editors of the Oxford University Press edition of Donne’s Sermons, the first volume of which appeared in 2014 and a second volume this year, for the New Critics had demonstrated little or no interest in Donne the sermon-writer. Apart from the Oxford edition’s fresh contextualiztion of Donne’s sermon texts—grouping them by the pulpit from which Donne delivered them, and so in terms of the audience that the preacher addressed—the greatest general contribution to Renaissance studies that this edition seems poised to make occurs in the generous introductions and endnotes documenting who and what Donne read and responded to, in demonstrating what editions of books were available to him, and in mapping along which lines of mediation important pieces of information were transmitted to him.

The ancillary fruits of the Sermons editors’ labor are manifest in Katrin Ettenhuber’s book on Donne and Augustine. Ettenhuber is on the advisory board of the Sermons project, and has been scrutinizing Donne’s citation practices so closely that she is able to offer the first intensive study of Donne’s reading and note-taking practices. As she spells out in her introduction,

Donne returned to Augustine’s texts throughout his career with almost obsessive frequency: there are more than a thousand acknowledged references to Augustine in the prose works composed between 1607 [the probable date of the composition of Biathanatos] and 1631 [the year of Donne’s death], and Donne clocks up citations from sixty-one different Augustinian texts. In the sermons alone, Augustine outstrips any other non-scriptural source by, on average, three to one; of the 160 extant sermons, only five do not mention Augustine at all. (3)

And she offers an anatomy of Donne’s intertextual transactions with Augustine (which reads a little like Polonius’s hair-splitting list of dramatic genres): “the merging of references from different texts; the misremembered reference; the suppressed reference; the submerged reference; the disowned reference; the partially rewritten reference; the oblique reference; the recycled reference; the distorted reference, or the reference creatively transformed” (5). In Ettenhuber’s narrative, Augustine emerges as the whetstone to which Donne most often resorted in order to sharpen his thought and, barring only the Bible itself, the single most provocative “emergent occasion” for Donne’s mature spirituality.

After two initial chapters that survey the history and politics of Renaissance editions of Augustine, that analyze Roman Catholic versus Protestant philosophies of quotation, and that consider the ways in which Augustine was mediated through such compendia as scripture commentaries, church histories, excerpt collections, and influential intermediary writers like Aquinas and Gratian, Ettenhuber embarks on five “case studies” of “the richness and complexity of [Donne’s] patristic manoeuvres” (82). Chapter Three demonstrates how Donne “discovers the beginnings of a new vocation” as a clergyman and “finds his Augustinian voice” (106) through the exercise of scriptural meditation in the Essayes in Divinity—an exercise, Ettenhuber argues, that is not only modeled upon the extended interpretation of the Book of Genesis in Augustine’s Confessions, but that replicates at a critical juncture Augustine’s “humble boldnesse” (Donne’s phrase) that allowed the Father to get past a “moment of hermeneutic doubt and despair” (124):

Donne summons Augustine’s presence at a point of acute spiritual crisis, hoping that his voice will ‘giue strength to the fainting cause’. To resurrect the Confessions is to breathe new life into Donne’s interpretive project. He calls upon Augustine not just as a patristic authority but as a spiritual mediator, a tutelary presence whose faith can revive his own. (125) 

In one of the best readings of Essayes now available, Ettenhuber demonstrates the extent to which “Augustine’s paradoxical dynamic of exaltation and humiliation” (131)—that is, a process that Donne terms an “ascending humility”—is at the heart of Donne’s devotional enterprise. This is an insight regarding rhetorical stance and voice that might profitably be extended to the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions as well.

In Chapter Four Ettenhuber measures, conversely, the extent to which Donne must go in Biathanatos—including the deliberate misquotation of Augustine—to negotiate Augustine’s authority when the Father has come down squarely on the opposite side of the debate concerning the legitimacy of suicide than Donne himself takes. Shrewdly, Donne presses into service Augustine’s own philosophy of interpretation which holds that one does not err as long as one proceeds with charity, rather than maliciousness, in one’s heart. This is an extraordinary claim to make in a polemical work like Biathanatos in which the author is not only examining the ethics of casuistry but determined to win a contentious debate:

Biathanatos self-consciously questions the ethics of charitable intent; in the process, it also examines the epistemological basis on which the categories of conscience and discreet judgment are founded. The result of Donne’s deliberations is neither scepticism nor relativism, but the definitional isolation of a fraught moral category—charity—which would be re-deployed and re-complicated in a variety of polemical and political contexts throughout his career. (160)

Donne’s engagement by the Augustinian theology of charity continues in his Lincoln’s Inn sermons, which Ettenhuber takes up in Chapter Five. Ettenhuber’s argument is at its densest here, as she analyzes the rhetorical skill with which Donne adopts Augustine’s formulations on charity for an audience of lawyers sensitive to the nuances of the legal discourse of equity:

In the Lincoln’s Inn sermons, Augustinian charity is no longer a caricature of casuistical thought, but it remains imbricated in a complex discourse of conscience and moral intent. Charity is politicized through its parallels with equitable interpretation, but it also serves a pastoral function in that it helps Donne discover edifying readings of his scripture text. The modes of Augustinian recourse have also been re-configured: the importance of figurative reading is attributed to Augustine but actually mediated through Luther, and the double-love command which sustains the interpretive framework of the entire sermon only emerges through allusion and analogy. Yet despite this circuitous approach to Augustine’s thought, the moral, political, and spiritual ramifications of charity could not be more crucial.  (182)

The political dimensions of Donne’s Augustinianism are more fully on display in Chapter Six, in which Ettenhuber analyzes how Donne drew upon “the prospect of heavenly peace with God adumbrated at the end of the Confessions” (189) to fashion from the pulpit a “discourse of religio-political charity, peace, and moderation” (188) in the wake of Charles’s controversial dissolution of Parliament in 1629.

There is a delicious irony to the fact that Ettenhuber’s final chapter—“‘The evidence of things not seen’: Donne, Augustine, and the Beatific Vision”—demonstrates that Donne’s reliance upon Augustine in order to imagine the Last Things depended on an apocryphal letter from Augustine to Cyril in which the former reports a visit to him by the spirit of Jerome following the latter’s death. In her introductory chapter, Ettenhuber underlines the importance of textual scholarship to the reformers’ enterprise, but in this final chapter it becomes clear how eager Donne was to find support in Augustine for Donne’s own strong belief that one must take the afterlife on faith and not seek assurance regarding matters that are not given to humans to know. Donne’s reliance upon this apocryphal text mirrors the need of earlier writers—witness John Foxe and Edmund Spenser—to believe Chaucer the author of the spurious Plowman’s Tale in order to bring their predecessor securely within the Protestant camp.[1] Well might one hope to follow the stream back to the source (as Donne writes in “Holy Sonnet: Since she whom I loved”), but in the hope to confirm one’s intuitive longing one might still easily mistake a shallow rivulet for the clear and forceful stream itself.

For this reader Ettenhuber’s greatest achievement is the way in which she silently—and no doubt unintentionally—undercuts Harold Bloom’s oftentimes perverse theory of the anxiety of influence, which holds that “strong poets make … [poetic] history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”(5).[2] Ironically, Bloom’s theory effectively illuminates the operations of seventeenth century religious polemics inasmuch as Catholic and Protestant writers willfully misinterpreted one another while attempting to appropriate the authority of both the Bible and the Fathers in the advancement of a particular theological and/or social agenda. But Ettenhuber demonstrates that Donne approached Augustine not with anxiety but with great affection; rather than promote his own authority at the expense of Augustine’s, he affiliates himself through reading and writing with a beloved thinker and devotional personality. In Ettenhuber’s analysis, this is most clear in the ways in which Augustine’s emphasis on charity resonated in Donne like one viol sounding sympathetically as another is played nearby.

I am disappointed only that Ettenhuber sidesteps the issue of the extent to which Donne attempted to fashion himself as an English, ambivalently Protestant, Augustine. While this issue is technically beyond the reach of her stated intention to examine Donne’s reading practices, her extraordinary demonstration of Donne’s engagement with Augustine raises a question that the reader of her book is compelled to ask: To what extent did Donne hope that he would be perceived as the New Augustine by the readers of his polemical works and by the auditors of his sermons?

Raymond-Jean Frontain
University of Central Arkansas

[1] John N. King, Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 21.

[2] The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford UP, 1973).



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Cite as:

Raymond-Jean Frontain, "Katrin Ettenhuber, Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation," Spenser Review 45.2.38 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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