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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 81-102
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John Donne and Scholarly Melancholy
Douglas Trevor *
Donne is in a sense a psychologist.
--T. S. Eliot
Throughout his life, John Donne's prose and poetry are filled with references to, as well as accounts of, his self-understanding as a melancholic. 1 If we take his self-professed depressive tendencies as seriously as his devotional meditations, we find that the two are interlinked: Donne often describes ecstatic religious experience with the same metaphors of earthly instability and material metamorphoses he uses to catalogue his melancholic, self-destructive inclinations. Like Søren Kierkegaard, who will praise Christian belief in part because it entails great suffering, Donne is inclined to equate unhappiness with spiritual redemption.
Modern thinkers interested in depression have often commented on the circular nature of religious despair. According to Julia Kristeva, "the implicitness of love and consequently of reconciliation and forgiveness completely transforms the scope of Christian initiation by giving it an aura of glory and unwavering hope for those who believe. Christian faith appears then as an antidote to hiatus and depression, along with hiatus and depression and starting from them." 2 Donne uncovers a similar pattern in Holy Sonnet III ("O might those sighes and teares returne againe"):
To (poore) me is allow'd
No ease; for, long, yet vehement griefe hath beene
Th'effect and cause, the punishment and sinne. 3 [End Page 81]
It is perhaps not surprising to see Kristeva diagnose religious despair as a form of narcissistic depression; and we might well be tempted to characterize Donne's melancholy in such a way, particularly if we are willing to read the emotions expressed in Holy Sonnet III as self-disclosure on the part of its author. Reading Donne as a "narcissistic depress[ive]" would mean emphasizing the degree to which his melancholy seems to be perpetually re-invigorated, principally by his own self-involvement rather than by bereavement over lost objects. Depressives, Kristeva claims, "do not consider themselves wronged but afflicted with a fundamental flaw, a congenital deficiency . . . For such narcissistic depressed persons, sadness is really the sole object." 4
The recourse to modern psychoanalytic categories to come to terms with Donne's melancholy is not necessary, however; early modern English writers, notably Robert Burton and--before him--Timothy Bright, provide us with ample schemata and examples of the causes and symptoms of depression as it was understood in the period. 5 Moreover, Donne complicates the relationship he posits between melancholy and religious belief, complicates it in such a way as to transcend Kristeva's notion of what it means to be narcissistically depressed. While he is mindful that his inordinate self-interest sometimes provokes and contributes to his dejection, sadness is not Donne's "sole object." He is occupied by other matters, other concerns, even other worries: spiritual, professional, and ecclesiastical. In this piece, I argue that Donne's scholarly melancholy--grief stimulated specifically by learned endeavor--forms an integral part of his religious melancholy. Donne's self-perceived, melancholic disposition thus manifests itself both in his approach to learning as well as in his articulations of his experiences as a Christian. Bereavement, as we have already seen, is, at times, desired in the devotional realm. Donne prays at the beginning of Holy Sonnet III:
O might those sighes and teares returne againe
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourne with some fruit.
As John Calvin himself admits, despair associated with Christian doubt--in the context of Reformation theology, whether or not one could count oneself amongst the elect--is hard to avoid: "One of Satan's deadly weapons is to attack believers with doubts about whether they are among the elect, and then incite them to look for answers in the wrong way . . . There [End Page 82] is hardly anyone who does not think sometimes, 'If my salvation comes only from God's election, what proof have I of that election?' When this thought dominates...