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  • Sighs and Tears:Biological Signals and John Donne's "Whining Poetry"
  • Michael A. Winkelman

Phebe: Good shepherd, tell this youth what 'tis to love. Silvius: It is to be all made of sighs and tears . . .

—Shakespeare, As You Like It (5.2.83–84)


Sighs and tears permeate John Donne's poetry, as well they should. Crying in particular functions as a costly signal in biological terms: a blatant, physiologically-demanding, involuntary indicator of hurt feelings. "Tears dim mine eyes," laments Donne's Sappho ("Sappho to Philaenis," l. 56); they are "Fruits of much grief" in "A Valediction of Weeping" (l. 7).1 The theory of costly signaling, related to the handicap principle, was developed fairly recently by Israeli zoologists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi. As the Zahavis explain: "in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly."2 Initially their idea was resisted, but it has since become widely accepted and it has proven very helpful in making sense of both animal and human behavior. Wasteful conspicuous consumption among upper-class Americans, as noted a century ago by sociologist Thorstein Veblen, exemplifies this handicap principle in action. Like gazelles jumping in place or stotting rather than running away when wolves appear, it indicates fitness by flaunting excess resources.

Shedding tears when feeling sad is an evolved human adaptation that broadcasts unhappiness. The wailing of infants demands attention, and crying does something similar for grown-ups: among other things, it tests the commitment of hearers to appease the distressed. For instance, in Chaucer's tragic medieval romance Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus advises [End Page 329] Troilus to provoke a suitable reaction from Criseyde by embellishing his billet-doux: "Towchyng thi lettre . . . Biblotte it with thi teris ek a lite" (touching thy letter . . . Be-blot it with thy tears a little).3 Early modern authors also knew their importance. In the words of Robert Herrick, "tears are tongues," while Claudius suspects that "There's matter in these sighs, these profound heaves" (Hamlet, 4.1.1).4

As a case in point, Donne was overwhelmed by the death of his dear wife Anne in 1617. As his contemporaneous biographer Izaak Walton reported: "his very soul was elemented of nothing but sadness; now, grief took so full a possession of his heart, as to leave no place for joy."5 Donne even hoped to be literally entombed with her soon: "as the grave is become her house, so I would hasten to make it mine also; that we two might there make our beds together in the dark" (Walton, p. 51). His miserable mood was revealed in his initial sermon after her demise:

His first motion from his house was to preach, where his beloved wife lay buried (in St. Clement's Church, near Temple-Bar, London) and his text was a part of the Prophet Jeremiah's Lamentation: "Lo, I am the man that have seen affliction."

And indeed, his very words and looks testified him to be truly such a man; and they, with the addition of his sighs and tears expressed in his Sermon, did so work upon the affections of his hearers as melted and molded them into a companionable sadness; and so they left the Congregation.

(Walton, p. 52)

Listeners responded in kind to his honest confessions, a textbook illustration of the empathy generated by crying. (A related issue—how and why literature affects audiences so strongly—is currently generating some very interesting work from New Humanists investigating the question from an evolutionary perspective.)

These qualities make sighs and tears fundamental to love poetry. In other words, writers deploy them because they reflect universal states of mind, rather than originating as some arbitrary, socially-constructed literary device. The copious opening sonnet of Petrarch's magnificent Rime sparse codifies the theme:6

You who can hear in scattered rhymes the soundof all that sighing which once fed my heartin my first youthful error, when in partI was a person of a different kind—my changing manner as I weep and reason, [End Page 330] between vain aspirations and vain grief,leads everyone who has known...


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