- John Donne: Body and Soul
The unifying preoccupation of all John Donne's writings, according to Brandeis University English professor Ramie Targoff, is his obsession with the mysterious relationship between his soul and body. As both poet and preacher, Donne urgently pursues complex, contradictory metaphysical speculations about his soul's origins, its separation from the body at his death, and its eagerly awaited reunion with his body on Doomsday. Though the Apostles' Creed has since the second century professed, "I believe in the resurrection of the body," with proof [End Page 1429] texts from both Testaments, Donne recognizes that a literal corporeal resurrection is the most difficult Christian mystery to believe, as Targoff's introduction admits, yet Donne's highly intellectual, dramatic intensity makes the conviction compelling because of that difficulty. Employing her mastery of the historical, theological, and biographical contexts for Donne's writings to heighten her sensitivity to nuance, Targoff pursues her thesis through clear close readings of both Donne's most quoted and his least-anthologized works.
Targoff carefully distinguishes Donne's conviction from prevailing Christian dualism, the idea familiar from Marvell and Montaigne that the soul is the body's unwilling prisoner, longing to be freed into eternity. Donne's belief that the soul only reluctantly leaves the body and his anxiety over their intervening separation is heterodox, she demonstrates, but not heretical. In a loose chronology of six chapters she self-consciously corrects a long critical tradition of generic isolation as she compares Donne's letters, poems, and sermons across genres according to their soul-body theme. She glosses the startling "bracelet of bright hair about the bone," for example, from "The Relic," with the first words of Donne's will. Likewise she comments that Donne's invented word valediction reflects his preoccupation with the anticipation of parting and reunion both between lovers and between his soul and body. Thus "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," which famously concludes in a homecoming circle drawn with "stiff twin compasses," begins by comparing the lovers to "virtuous men" who "whisper to their souls, to go." Similarly, in "The Second Anniversarie," according to Targoff's extraordinary reading, Donne longs for the metaphysical homecoming of the body to the soul, and the soul in question, she remarks, is not that of Donne's patron's late daughter, Elizabeth Drury, but his own. Unlike Herbert and Milton, who each assume a public voice, Donne speaks with purely private intensity, frequently writing as if on the brink of life and death.
Thoroughly familiar with the extensive critical scholarship that has emerged from the Donne Variorum project over the past two decades, Targoff is steeped in Donne's theology, and she takes him at this word, thus correcting an earlier generation of critics who dismiss Donne's metaphysics as irrelevant, incoherent, or a smokescreen for ambition and apostasy. Targoff's style is lucid and engaging. She captivates readers with dramatic questions: "Why did it matter so much to Donne that his resurrected flesh would be identical to its earthly counterpart?" (21). "What is it that distinguishes his love poetry, and why do we keep coming back to it?" (49). Happily, she provides answers, sometimes adorned with a polished summary: "Donne's poetics of love is a poetics of taking leave" (50). She is acutely sensitive to Donne's tone: "Donne wryly suggests" (100), "Donne wearily beseeches" (102). Donne's "invocations of earthly loveliness are almost unbearably poignant because they are seen under the mantle of loss" (164). Targoff imaginatively places her readers among Donne's first hearers. Her last chapter illuminates Donne's pressing soul-body preoccupation in his final sermon, preached early in Lent before the king at Whitehall. Reading his words through Donne's letters and past sermons, Walton's biography, Augustinian theology, the chapel's architecture, [End Page 1430] Donne's terminal illness, and even his funeral effigy in his winding sheet, Targoff offers a vivid scene of the frail, pale Dean invoking his hearers' tears as his hollow voice describes...