- John Donne, Body and Soul
Actually, Targoff’s book is not principally, as her title can be read to imply, a study of body concepts and soul concepts or images in Donne’s work. Rather, her book most importantly concerns the poet’s “inanimating” writing, by which she means his unique talent for composing texts that participate in the Eucharistic “experience of making the word flesh.” With an intimidating mastery of the Songs and Sonnets, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Letters, Holy Sonnets, and Sermons, she shows how these texts “isolate and then luxuriate in a particular instance of time” that reveals the poet “to be all there in body and soul.” In his Letters, Donne appears to feel that he can “overcome the problems of separation and absence that haunt him”—separation, that is, from “his spouse, his friends, his lovers, his children, his patrons,” and, we might add, his God. In his poems, however, Donne engages the dread prospect of separation between loving soul and beloved body, yet his inanimating power turns the elegiac “memorials” and “ragges of paper” of his Anniversaries into experiences of his “being fully present.” Targoff, moreover, presents the Holy Sonnets as Donne’s partaking in the operation of divine creation: the poet’s soul produces, as he says in Essayes in Divintie, “creatures, thoughts, words, and deeds agreeable” to God, by the power of divine “will and word.” The inanimating power of the divine word gives life to the poet’s words and allows his poem to become what Holy Sonnet V calls “a little world made cunningly”—a textual correspondence to the framework of God’s creation.
Targoff concludes by arguing that, during the years of his ecclesiastical career, Donne’s sermons were not mere “monologues” but a “shared activity [End Page 135] between preacher and listener,” in which attending to public prayers and homilies was expected to perform a work of inanimation, thus transmuting inert and sinful congregants into resurrected beings by virtue of “the Word preached.” Likewise, Targoff’s book is not simply a description or redescription of Donne’s performative writings; it reenacts his Eucharistic speech acts.
Yaakov Mascetti, lecturer in comparative literature at Bar-Ilan University, is completing a book on John Donne and alchemy, while beginning another on early modern English sermons.