restricted access Holy Ambition: Rhetoric, Courtship, and Devotion in the Sermons of John Donne (review)
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Reviewed by
Brent Nelson. Holy Ambition: Rhetoric, Courtship, and Devotion in the Sermons of John Donne Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. xiv, 306. US $38.00

The juxtaposition of terms in the title (a phrase beloved by Donne) 'transforms our notions of both holiness and ambition,' writes Brent Nelson in a defining statement near the midpoint of his highly detailed rhetorical study of Donne's sermons. This simple noun phrase (a 'discordant conjunction') is a bridging term that extends the divine to the human and draws the human towards the divine, and, we are told, it reflects Donne's concern for courtship and hierarchy, which are fundamental to the rhetorical construction and development of his sermons.

Nelson's densely written study considers the rhetorical occasions in which Donne applies his homiletic skill. We are carefully led towards an understanding of how any given sermon achieves its purpose. That end may be clarified by exploring 'courtship,' a universal force tending towards our discovery of authority and completeness. Donne is thus courting his auditory through the inevitable and forward unfolding of his sermons. In order to develop his argument, Nelson appeals to the rhetorical theories of Kenneth Burke, frequently citing his work and analogizing his ideas with the management of Donne's sermons. Nelson believes that Burke's understanding of 'the rhetoric of courtship' is very similar to Donne's own purpose and function in his sermons, and provides a significant means for illuminating them. Nelson's thesis is complex and unusual – perhaps unique. Although persistently developed, that thesis remains elusive; and for some readers, the Burkian underpinning of the book may seem tendentious and unhelpful.

Donne, like most early modern preachers, was adapting classical epideictic oratory to his own homiletic purpose. The five stages in the construction of an oration, which Donne of course followed, were inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio et actio, with the opening exordium and the closing peroratio. Nelson particularly investigates 'Donne and Courtship as a topic of Inventio,' and 'Courtship and the Dispositio of Form' in the opening chapters and first half of his book, situating his study within Burke's theoretical paradigms, while setting the other oratorical stages to one side. They are not nearly, he supposes, so well or so easily discussed – yet I think we can infer much about Donne's presentation of his sermons from the written compositions that we have (one need only read them aloud). [End Page 409]

The second half of Holy Ambition provides careful textual analysis of three sermons – a chapter devoted to each one, with detailed application of the theoretical principles previously elucidated. Nelson studies Donne's first extant sermon, of 30 April 1615 (on Isaiah 52:3, 'Ye have sold your selves for nought, and ye shall be redeemed without money'), which reveals especially well his inventio, his finding and amplifying available material. The final chapters take up one of Donne's favourite themes: death – for Donne a state that provides an abundance of rhetorical material suitable for many occasions. Donne visits death as 'a courtship topos, as a means of evoking conditions of "estrangement" that can be used to move his audience toward identification with God.' Accordingly, Nelson examines the Easter Sermon of 1619 (on Psalm 89:48, 'What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death?'); and finally he explores the rhetorical treatment of death-as-courtship in 'Deaths Duell,' Donne's last sermon (on Psalm 68:20, 'And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death, i.e. from death'). Nelson writes persuasively in this final and climactic chapter of his book; he shows Donne's devotional ambitions for his auditory well, and 'the purifying effect of bringing [their] motives in line with a proper courtship.'

This is a difficult, sometimes repetitive book, scrupulously documented and tediously allusive (no critic of Donne's prose remains unnamed). But Nelson certainly repays close attention, for he is approaching Donne in a way less common than from the usual cultural, political, or theological standpoints. His serious and thoughtful work is one of the first of its kind: a deeply engaged textual and rhetorical study of the sermons...