- John Donne's Poetry and Early Modern Visual Culture
This book contributes to the ongoing experiment in interdisciplinary approaches to early modern studies with its assertion that scholars have yet to fully [End Page 1325] appreciate Donne's participation in and influence on various aspects of visual culture as they figure in his poetry and prose. While she does discuss portraits, miniatures, and effigies, Hurley is at pains to distinguish the more narrowly construed visual arts from visual culture as inclusive of, for example, ritual, ceremony, and civic spectacle; thus, visual culture encompasses a much wider range of political, economic, and class significations.
In five chapters that move roughly chronologically — from the connections between an early portrait and Donne's poetry of the 1590s to some of Donne's later religious poetry (for instance, "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward") and the paintings mentioned in his will — Hurley demonstrates that Donne uses aspects of early modern visual culture in the same way as "his verbal resources of word and wit, as yet another potent technical tool to be wielded in the exploration of both physical and spiritual experience" (204). Hurley asserts that Donne, because of his Catholic upbringing and his Protestant conversion, was "caught between iconophilia and iconophobia, and thus his position in late Renaissance English poetry was inevitably political" (15), but he was able both to "suppress . . . and safely recast" some of the visual sources of his poetry (27). In other words, when Donne uses it, visual culture is often a means to an end rather than a focus in and of itself, or as Hurley puts it, "instrumental rather than mimetic" (206). Even so, a drawback of the book is that there are no illustrations of the many examples of early modern visual culture that Hurley discusses. Also disconcerting is Hurley's tendency to quote only very tiny snippets of Donne's verse within her discussions of the poems. The lack of illustrations, the parsimonious quotation of Donne's own poetry, and more than half a dozen serious editorial errors are all, perhaps, an indication of the budget constraints at university presses these days. In combination, however, they work to obfuscate Hurley's presentation of an immense range of primary material and her complex arguments about this material.
Each chapter follows a similar structure: Hurley introduces contemporary documents or instances of visual culture, sometimes directly related to Donne and sometimes more obliquely relevant, and then applies her conclusions to selections of Donne's poems and sermons to show how significant visual cues and contexts in Donne's writing have often been overlooked. Examples of some of these pairings are Donne's Lothian portrait, his Satire 4, and the treasonous gesture; Inns of Court revels and the interruptive gesture in poems such as "The Flea" and "The Bait" (Hurley is less convincing here); Donne's funeral sermon on Sir William Cockayne and his "Obsequies to the Lord Harrington" as they signal Donne's rejection of civic spectacle's mirroring role in favor of "more capacious aspects of visual culture associated with the instruments of sight and insight" (131).
A brief discussion of one chapter must serve to indicate Hurley's often masterful, occasionally overdetermined, handling of a dizzying array of material. In her first chapter, she interprets Donne's Lothian portrait (republished, but welcome given the recent flurry of excitement over the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to buy the painting) and its typically Donnean gesture of crossing secular and [End Page 1326] sacred wires: "Taking advantage of the coincidence that one gesture, the crossed-arms posture, exists independently in two traditions, painting and poetry, Donne's Lothian portrait thus uses the verbal tradition of the melancholic lover to deflect the dangerous implications of its visual associations with Roman Catholic devotion" (35). Hurley is careful to distinguish several different cross-armed postures in the devotional visual tradition, and she also acknowledges that we cannot know conclusively if or how...