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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 149-174

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Donne's Body

Nancy Selleck

Donne scholarship has often grappled with his urgent fixation on the body--his habit of expressing even abstract or spiritual ideas in physiological terms. In sermons, for instance, Donne speaks of the soul as having blood and bones, of the "bowells" of the spirit, and of sin as a whole organic bodily system. He also explicitly contends that soul and body are one, and that "all that the soule does, it does in, and with, and by the body." 1 Accounting for this striking materialism in a variety of ways, many critics nevertheless agree that Donne's preoccupation with the body is a form of self-absorption or "egotism." 2 They read his emphatic physicality as a powerful assertion of self, motivated by a great desire for control. John Carey, for instance, sees the aim of Donne's physical imagery as a self-assertive "intensity"--an effort to make "his inner self . . . sound concentrated and vehement." 3 Similarly, Elaine Scarry argues that Donne is after the materiality of language ("its capacity to mime, and perhaps eventually acquire, the actual weight of what it describes"), because he wants to carry "language into the body" and thereby make that body "volitional" and "noncontingent." 4 Again, the idea is that Donne's focus on the body is all about self-will, power, autonomy. 5

But such arguments ignore the fact that the body Donne invokes--explicitly and knowledgeably--is a humoral body. 6 As such, it is often at odds with the model of individual selfhood implied in these discussions. While it prevailed, humoralism offered a radically different model of physical selfhood than we are accustomed to--particularly, a different sense of the relationship between the body and the external world. Highly permeable and [End Page 149] thus subject to--even composed of--its environment, the humoral body suggests a material embeddedness of self and surround. To talk about this body, then, is not simply to talk about self--at least not the more self-contained, independent self that modern conceptions of the body suggest. In fact, with his constant focus on disease and digestion, Donne likes to evoke a sense of selfhood that is never securely bounded. It has the same structure, I suggest, as the Bakhtinian grotesque--a structure that enmeshes and incorporates the self with the body and the body with the rest of the world. Thus, Donne's humoralism makes his physical imagery not the means of self-involvement or self-assertion, but a way of representing the self's connection and even subjection to other bodies and minds.

Donne's conscious engagement with the paradigms and practices of humoral medicine is part of a wider ethical debate over changing conventions of selfhood in his time. The language of humors figures prominently in that debate, and this essay looks at some of that discourse in order to suggest how varied and contested such ideas were. But my main focus here is on its persistent presence in Donne's texts, which render some vivid analyses of what humoral selfhood could mean. 7 Explored in detail, Donne's humoral imagery not only challenges the widespread view of his own "individualism," but also complicates recent critical discussions of Renaissance selfhood in general.

The Humoral Paradigm

Many Renaissance writers recognize profound implications for selfhood in humoral physiology. Thomas Browne, for instance, writes that "we are what we all abhorre, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not in an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this masse of flesh that wee behold, came in at our mouths; this frame wee looke upon, hath beene upon our trenchers; In brief, we have devoured our selves, and yet doe live and remayne our selves." 8 What Browne rehearses here in deliberately paradoxical terms is the basic humoral understanding of the body as ever newly made up of its physical context, which it takes in and converts to itself. The humors (blood...


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