Epistolary Copulation in John Donne's Verse Letters
This article explores John Donne's sense of intimacy in the verse letters, arguing that the virtual space of the verse epistle becomes a site for spiritual union between writer and addressee. By turning to the archive of verse epistles before Donne, and exploring them alongside Donne's writing on epistolarity, this article highlights how an intense belief in spiritual copulation shapes his unique intervention in the history of the European verse epistle, an often-neglected genre in critical discourse.
In quibus inter absentes imago refulget praesentiae, et colluctio scripta separatos copulat.—Saint Ambrose1
Writing to Thomas Woodward, John Donne exploits the verse epistle form to offer an intensified model of intimacy. He orders his letter to "Plead for me,'and so by thine and my labour, / I'am thy Creator, thou my Saviour," ultimately asserting: "Live I or die, by you my love is sent, / And you are my pawnes, or else my Testament."2 The opening lines—"Hast thee harsh verse, as fast as thy lame measure / Will give thee leave, to him, my pain and pleasure"—show how Donne combines one thread of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition with a performance of epistolary intimacy rarely seen in the European verse letter.3 The dichotomy of creator/savior highlights both the intense stakes placed on Donne's poetic output, which were undoubtedly amplified by the conventions of the poetics of compliment, while also drawing on trinitarian language that suggests Donne is consubstantial with his creation, offering, in either a "pawnes," a pledge, or a "Testament," a legal or sacred bond with the addressee. Writing to Thomas Woodward's older brother Rowland Woodward, Donne engages in an even more intimate address. The poem begins: [End Page 67]
Zealously my Muse doth salute all thee,Enquiring of that mystique triniteeWhereof thou'and all to whom heavens do infuseLike fyer, are made; thy body, mind, and Muse.4
Donne's muse, conveyed through the letter, seeks the complete trinity of Rowland Woodward's existence. In the poem's conclusion, Donne pictures a complete union of addressee and epistolary writer: "Our Minds part not, joyne then thy Muse with myne, / For myne is barren thus devorc'd from thyne."5 Rather than seek the typical Petrarchan favor of a token of Roland Woodward's greatness, Donne wishes to be entirely bound with him intellectually and spiritually, believing himself to be nothing without this ecstatic intellectual union. As a verse letter, this represents a fascinating intervention in a form whose most notable practitioners included Horace, Ovid, Clément Marot, and, concurrent with Donne's verse letters, the work of Thomas Lodge. Indeed, as Margaret Maurer writes, "Donne's practice of the Verse Letter is arguably peculiar to him."6
This essay links Donne's belief in the sacred nature of the epistle with the ecstatic depictions of intimacy in his verse letters. Donne believed, as many critics have shown, in the intense power of letter writing. Yet critics, with some exceptions, can risk undervaluing just how intensely spiritual Donne believed the process of letter writing to be.7 Just as his lyrics often push his poetic subjectivity to the gates of divinity, his epistolary strategies demand an ecstatic link in friendship—a union in which writer and addressee are combined in the space of the verse epistle. While there have been important studies of intimacy in humanist prose letters, vernacular verse epistles were far less commonly written in early modern Europe and have been far less studied.8 Donne began writing verse epistles at the same time as Lodge, who claimed to be the first to introduce the form into English in his 1595 collection, A Fig for Momus. Donne's epistles draw upon the legacy of compliment, satire, and exilic longing. But his ecstatic linking of two people within the space of the letter itself is a compelling intervention in the history of the European verse epistle.9
Donne believed epistolarity to be a key part of the textual legacy of Christianity and, therefore, capable of forming spiritual unions. "The greatest part of the new-Testament, if wee number the peeces, is Epistles," Donne notes in "A Sermon Preached at White Hall, April 19, 1618."10 Yet, far from sorting and counting genres, Donne sees epistolary energy throughout the New Testament: [End Page 68]
They erre not much, that call the whole new-Testament Epistle: For, even the Godspells are Evangelia, good Messages, and that's proper to an Epistle, and the booke of the Acts of the Apostles is superscrib'd, by Saint Luke, to one Person, to Theophilus, and that's proper to an Epistle; and so is the last booke, the booke of Revelation, to the severall Churches; and the rest there is no question. An epistle is collucutio scripta, saies Saint Ambrose, Though it be written far off, and sent, yet it is a Conference, and separatos copulat, says hee; by this meanes wee overcome distances, we deceive absences, and wee are together even then when wee are asunder: And therefore, in this kinde of conveying spirituall comfort to their friends, have the ancient Fathers been more exercised then in any other form, almost all of them have written Epistles.11
Donne's fascination with the ability of the epistle to copulate—bring together—separate beings informs his work in the verse epistles. His early descriptions of the sacred aspects of epistolary writing seem to transcend simply the epistle's ability to move across distances in order to offer a vision of the letter in which the immanence of the letter writer's mind absorbs the addressee.
Donne's verse letters, written in three distinct phases, reflect different occupational and personal stages of the writer's life and career. In many of the verse letters to men, written while he was at the Inns of Court from 1591 to 1594, the traces of the development of a poet, a gentleman, and a would-be courtier are all present. Also present is the poetic voice of a young man obsessed with the love of his male companions. Yet, homoerotic love, though not outside the realm of the possible in Donne's life and poetry of this period, does not get us much further into the verse letters which emerge, as Rebecca Ann Bach has shown, from a culture that valued man-on-man relations as a primary mode of expression.12 Donne's work is simply not easily mapped onto convention. "Donne's early verse letters seem different from any models he might have had … in the degree to which they emphasize his dependence on correspondence as a source of inspiration," Maurer argues.13 Somewhere caught between poem and letter, but not fully either one, Maurer observes "a notable intensity of expression" in the letters while noting that "appreciating his achievement in [the verse letter] requires some theorizing about the genre itself and Donne's engagement with it."14 This article hopes to offer some of that theorizing in the following pages by [End Page 69] turning to two archives: Donne's epistolary theory, as expressed in his prose writings, and the slim archive of verse epistles from Horace to Lodge that established the parameters of the form in the 1590s and after.
Donne creates the addressee in the act of writing and, in so doing, challenges the finitude and boundaries of the self. His lines do not just make the absent addressee present, but create a coeval space in which both letter writer and addressee can coexist. Donne's self expands to include others, to invent others, and in the space of his verse letters to men, goes beyond the satirical, complimentary, or moralizing verses seen in Ovid, Marot, and others in the verse letter tradition. Donne produces an epistolary poetic mode in which ecstasy becomes a poetic vision, projection, and delirium, and the boundaries of Donne's body and self expand to subsume the addressee.15 By facing the act of writing poetic epistles, his poems expand to include the world, the universe, and the beloved addressee.
This expansion in Donne's poetry separates his work from the scant available models of the form, which reflect either exile or compliment. In a famous letter to Henry Goodyere, included in the 1633 Poems, Donne highlights how much he longs to be conveyed in toto to his addressee: "I send not my Letters as tribute, nor interest, nor recompence, nor for commerce, nor as testimonialls of my love, nor provokers of yours, nor to justifie my custome of writing, nor for a vent and utterance of my meditations … Only I am sure that I desire that you might have in your hands letters of mine of all kindes, as conveyances and deliverers of mee to you, whether you accept me as a friend, or as a patient, or as a penitent, or as a Bedesman, for I decline no jurisdiction, nor refuse any tenure."16 Donne's desire in sending letters, whether including or neglecting any of the conventional reasons letters were sent in Renaissance England, is simply to arrive and be handed over to the possession of another person. Though this conveyance would seem to depend on addressing the gap between writer and addressee, Donne is suspicious that such gaps between male friends exist. Writing to Goodyere in another letter to H. G. included in the 1633 Poems, Donne claims that
Nature hath made al bodies like, by mingling and kneading up the same elements in every one. And amōngst mēn, the other nature, custõe, hath made every mind like some other. We are patternes or copies, we inform, or imitate. [End Page 70] But as he hath not presētly attain'd to write a good hand, which hath equaled one excellent master in his A, another in his B, much lesse hee which hath sought all the excellent masters, and employed all his time to exceede in one letter, because not so much an excellency of any nor every one, as an evennesse and proportion, and respect to one another gives the perfection; So is no man vertuous by particular example.17
Though Donne's lyric poems leave some readers struck by his self-involvement or pride, this passage reveals how much Donne thought about connecting with others in order to strive toward greater virtue. Particular examples become insignificant in the networks of virtuous exchange that make all bodies somewhat in common, reflecting patterns and acts of informing and imitating. In this sense, Donne's assertion to Christopher Brooke "Thou which art I, ('tis nothing to be soe)" takes on new importance for the spatial and ontological project within Donne's verse letters.18 Donne writes to Goodyere in the closing of a letter, "Sir, if I were any thing, my love to you might multiply it, and dignifie it: But infinite nothings are but one such: Yet since even Chymeraes have some name, and titles, I am also Yours."19 As an "infinite nothing[ ]," Donne is able to highlight his ontology as inconsequential yet expansive, not worthy of praise, yet infinitely present.
The prose letters in the 1633 volume of Donne's poetry help map out the spatial dynamics of Donne's epistolary imagination, in which Donne, the writer, and his addressee are unified in their triangulated status with God. He writes to Goodyere: "Sir, It should be no interruption to your pleasures to heare mee often say that I love you, and that you are as much my meditation as my selfe: I often compare not you and mee, but the Spheare in which your resolutions are, and my wheele; both I hope concentrique to God: for me thinkes the new Astronomie is thus applyable well, that wee which are a little earth should rather move towards God, then that hee which is fulfilling, and can come no whither, should move towards us. To your life full of variety, nothing is old, nor new to mine."20 They are both spheres moving in the same direction and, "concentrique to God," maintaining separate bodies, but in a separation made moot by a particular intimate directionality and purpose. The two figures are linked by their relationship to a divinity that erases the distance between them in their love. This play of micro and macro, widely seen in Donne's lyrics, has the effect here of arguing that in divine meditation the space between [End Page 71] Donne's writer and addressee becomes insignificant to the point where they are both "concentrique" to God, sharing the same center in the divine, the same purpose.
Donne performs this ecstatic work in the act of writing, before the letter is even sent: "I make account that this writing of letters, when it is with any seriousness, is a kind of extasie, and a departure and secession and suspension of the soul, wch doth then cõmunicate it self to two bodies: And as I would every day provide for my souls last convoy, though I know not when I shall die, and perchance I shall never die; so for these extasies in letters, I oftentimes deliver my self over in writing when I know not when those letters shall be sent to you, and many times they never are, for I have a little satisfaction in seeing a letter written to you upon my table, though I meet no opportunity of sending it."21 This sense that the self is delivered, even as the paper conveying it does not move past his own house, reveals one of Donne's great interventions in the history of epistolary thinking, which, especially in Donne's letters in verse, help to show an intervention in the understanding of the technology of epistolary writing. For Donne, the space of the epistle, in which the self is conveyed, is also where the addressee and the cosmos are created in an act of bold representation. It is in this sense that a poet so famous for his ego can still, in these poems of compliment, expand his self through negation. They make Donne everywhere by arguing that in the act of writing, he is not a particular, but rather, a universal voice.
In forging this sort of epistolary persona, Donne breaks from some of the core conventions of Renaissance letter writing. The desire to produce a fantasy of face-to-face address across a significant distance is at the heart of conventional Renaissance epistolary theory. As the 1568 epistolary guide The Enimie of Idlenesse promises:
For why? by letter well we may communicate our heart Vnto our frende, though distance farre have us removd apart. By Letter we may absence make even presence for to be, And talke with him as face to face, together we did see.22 [End Page 72]
This text, translated from a French source by Jean de la Moyne, offers English readers a theory of epistolary discourse that is bound to a desire for education and moral rectitude. Within this mindset, letter writing is seen as a tool that can be used to avoid idleness and boredom while also reaching out to an absent friend; as such, the epistolary mode allows for intimacy and moral rectitude.23 Just as the presence of a virtuous friend can be an antidote to idleness and its pitfalls, so too can epistolary exchange with such a friend.
Donne, however, departs from these conventional theories of Renaissance epistolary. As Gary Schneider notes, "when physical separation occurred, the letter was employed in lieu of face-to-face communication but carried with it attendant affective and epistemological anxieties, those regarding reliability, authenticity, and expressive capacity; letters therefore rhetorically allied physicality and orality with the written text in order to attempt to assure communicative efficacy."24 It is clear, then, that viewing the letter as a stand-in, even if a problematic or unreliable stand-in, for communication, can still dominate the way we view epistolary discourse. Yet, in contrast to Schneider's assertion that physical distance between writer and addressee is an essential raison d'être of Renaissance letter writing, Donne does not see this distance as necessarily problematic. He rejects geographic distance as a significant boundary within the work of the epistle.25
In this sense, Donne rejects some of the major features of the ancient verse epistle. When in Ovid's Heroides, one of the most popular examples of the verse epistle for Renaissance readers, Penelope opens her letter and cries out, "Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe; / nil mihi rescribas attinet: ipse veni! (These words your Penelope sends to you, O Ulysses, slow of return that you are; writing back is pointless: come yourself!)," her words highlight the major conventional desire of epistolary writing: to make those absent present.26 Yet the inadequacy of this solution emerges in the second line. The cry of "ipse veni!" underscores the inadequacy of the letter as a means of conveyance between the two. Only Ulysses's body is enough, only his return will satisfy her. Yet the act of writing the letter itself allows her to speak to a person who could otherwise not hear her. Indeed Ulysses hears her, not so much in the delivery of the letter itself, but in the mere act of writing, in giving voice to her suffering and longing in a medium that includes a textual simulacrum of her husband. Similarly, in a text certainly familiar to Donne as the basis for his "Sapho to Philaenis," Sappho's letter to Phaon in The Heroides [End Page 73] sees Sappho cry out: "Tu mihi cura, Phaon; te somnia nostra reducunt— / somnia formoso candidiora die (You, Phaon, are my care; you, my dreams bring back to me—dreams brighter than the beauteous day)."27 Dreams, not the letter, unite the lovers. The letter is at best, for Ovid's Sappho, a consolation prize. After urging Phaon to come to her, she concedes:
sive iuvat longe fugisse Pelasgida Sappho—non tamen invenies, cur ego digna fugi—hoc saltem miserae crudelis epistula dicat,ut mihi Leucadiae fata petantur aquae!
(But if your pleasure be to fly afar from Pelasgian Sappho—and yet you will find no cause for flying from me—ah, at least let a cruel letter tell me this in my misery,that I may seek my fate in the Leucadian wave!)28
Letters, for Ovid, are the next best option when face-to-face contact is unavailable: a consolation prize that will never be as good as either the beloved coming in person, or the beloved being present in dreams.
Ovid's epistolary writing seduces writers to believe that the page on which he writes is already an agent representing their wills and desire. The letter is a literary appendage that adopts the guise of its writer, as in the opening of Ovid's Tristia:
Parve—nec invideo—sine me, liber, ibis in urbemet mihi, quo domino non licet ire tuo!vade, sed incultus, qualem decet exulis esse;infelix habitum temporis huius habe.
(Little book, you will go without me—and I grudge it not—to the city, whither alas your master is not allowed to go! Go, but go unadorned, as becomes the book of an exile; in your misfortune wear the garb that befits these days of mine.)
And later: "vade, liber, verbisque meis loca grata saluta: / contingam certe quo licet illa pede (Go, my book, and in my name greet the loved places: I will tread them at least with what foot I may)."29 Epistles in the Tristia afford a fantasy of access, of mitigating the horrors of distance and exile, and, of course, of accessing beloved, [End Page 74] now inaccessible, places. The letter is defined, in other words, not by the destiny of its arrival but, truly, by the imagined fantasy of its arrival projected onto the page by the writer in the moment of writing. Ovid's letters express desire, longing, and the will to expand the self beyond the boundaries of its physical limitations and coordinates.
In Horace's Epistles, another major model in the Renaissance for the verse letter, a moral authority and a confident and communicative tone supersede desire and longing. For instance, we find in Horace's letter to Aristius Fusgus:
Urbis amatorem Fuscum salvere iubemusruris amatores. hac in re scilicet unamultum dissimiles, at cetera paene gemellifraternis animis (quidquid negat alter, et alter)adnuimus pariter vetuli notique columbi.Tu nidum servas; ego laudo ruris amoenirivos et musco circumlita saxa nemusque.
(To Fuscus, lover of the city, I, a lover of the country, send greetings. In this one point, to be sure, we differ much, but being in all else much like twins with the hearts of brothers—if one says "no," the other says "no" too—we nod a common assent like a couple of old familiar doves. You keep the nest; I praise the lovely country's brooks its grove and moss-grown rocks.)30
Horace's confidence works at once to highlight the distance between the writer and the addressee while also, in the argument of the lines themselves, to dissolve the distance by highlighting their overwhelming similarity in other matters. Yet, in the end, their roles are spatial if not overtly geographic. Fuscus is the fixed, nest-keeping city dweller while Horace swings outward into the country. The link between true friendship, distance, and the poetic confounding of intermediate space helps to solidify the moral authority and confidence often exhibited in Horace's verse epistles.
The more modern legacy that was available to Donne and other would-be writers of the verse epistle featured, in France, Marot's "Epistres" in L'Adolescence Clémentine (1532), and, in England, Lodge's A Fig for Momus (1595). Yvonne LeBlanc finds that Marot's major innovation in the verse letter form, rooted in his channeling the poetry of François Villon, was "the personalizing [End Page 75] of its content and the oral quality of its discourse," and concludes that "Marot abandoned, in large part, the abstract imagery and complex rhyme patterns of the Rhétoriqueurs for a more direct and familiar style."31 Yet, this appreciation of vernacular quality against a perceived stodgy tradition may undervalue Marot's preservation of the link between friendship, connection, and subjective knowing that is present in his letters as they seem to address the tradition of Ovid and Horace, as well as Petrarch's treatment of friendship in the Familiares. For instance, in "Epistre faicte pour le Capitaine Raisin, audict seigneur de la Rocque," Marot highlights the linked role of friendship and writing:
En mon vivant, je ne te feiz savoirChoses de moy, dont tu deusses avoirEnnuy ou dueil: mais pour l'heure presente,Trescher seigneur, il faut que ton cueur sentePar amitié et par ceste escriptureUng peu d'ennuy de ma male aventure.
(In my life, I will not have you knowthings about me for which you must havevexation or bereavement: but for the present hour,very dear Lord, it is necessary that your heart feelsby friendship and by these writingsa little vexation from my bad affairs.)32
Marot believes that friendship and the epistle will work together to convey across the space between writer and addressee a clear sense of what has happened and its emotional significance. Friendship, then, is itself a force reshaping distances and making individual experiences transferrable, not through the basic communicative powers of the epistle but through the epistle's activation in friendship.
This intensity and sophistication of the epistolary tradition, then, may have been what Donne was trying to revive and intensify. Yet, Donne's path was not shared by another English writer who also turned to the rarely used form. When Lodge published some verse epistles in A Fig for Momus, he remarked in the introduction that his epistles were "in that kind, wherein no Englishman of our time hath publiquely written, which if they please, may draw on more, if displease, haue their priuiledge by authoritie."33 Lodge's efforts were probably published after Donne [End Page 76] had been writing verse letters for some years and so they reveal a completely different approach to the verse epistle tradition. Singsong couplets unroll assertive quasi-satirical, even semidetached utterances in Lodge's epistles:
Bolton, amidst thy many other theamesThou dost desire me to discourse of dreames:Of which, that I could gather, reade, or find,I here set downe to satisfie thy mind.34
One finds even more comic and authoritative lines in "To His Mistres A. L. Epistle. 6":
Your seruant brought a letter seal'd with starch,Which by my soule (sweet mistres) when I op'teAnd read your motion farre from that I hop'te,Beleeue me (had not troubles tir'd me quite)Might be enough, to make me laugh outright:You pray me to aduise, and tell you whatWill take away your pursines and fat,You pray me without any let, or pause,To write of both the remedie, and cause.35
Here, the communicative powers of the epistle are highlighted to the exclusion of any clear Neo-Platonic exchange between writer and addressee. Lodge is very much in the service of his interlocutors but his satirical, expert tones highlight the difference in both knowledge and need that separates the two. Lodge is a student of the satirical tradition of the verse epistle as seen in Horace. His verse epistles, written in the same era as those by Donne, possess none of the frantic intimacy or spiritual ecstasy of Donne's verse epistles.
In contrast, Donne's verse letters create a space in which the interdependence of the self—especially the poetic self—with another self, entity, or place comes to define the act of composing lyric poetry and, as so many critics have noted in sometimes less than laudatory ways, this space serves as a training ground for the poet in the early years of his career. Donne pushes to make the personal communal, the local global, and the single multiple. This may be the heart of the famed egotism of Donne's work, yet it does not expand the horizon of the self to aggrandize the self but rather to offer a worldview in which interconnectedness is [End Page 77] the driving principle. In one verse letter to Henry Wotton, Donne would seem to be arguing exactly for the communicative use of letters to overcome physical distance:
Sir, more then kisses, letters mingle Soules;For, thus friends absent speake. This ease controulesThe tediousnesse of my life: But for theseI could ideate nothing, which could please,But I should wither in one day, and passeTo'a bottle'of Hay, that am a locke of Grasse.36
Here, as Ramie Targoff has argued, we see epistolary discourse as connected to the extension and preservation of life.37 Yet Targoff's reading of the verse letters as seeking to "sustain his mortal life for as long as possible" while "possessing the potential for a certain kind of afterlife" downplays the metaphysical nature of a union in which Donne does not seek his own preservation but only a preservation that exists within the ecstatic linking of writer and addressee.38
Targoff argues that Donne "understood his letters as 'mutual communicating' and depended upon his friends to 'inanimate' and re-inanimate them" and that "there was little chance of the letters' surviving in the fullest sense … once his circle of friends was gone." Targoff therefore believes that the afterlife of these letters would be "partial and incomplete."39 Such a reading privileges the biographical and social dimensions of epistolary discourse. Other verse epistle writers conform to Targoff's vision: such letters lose something beyond the context of friendship and compliment. Yet, given the persistence with which the verse epistles were copied in the Westmoreland manuscript, one of the most important surviving manuscripts of Donne's poetry and published nearly forty years after some of them were written, it is clear that their afterlives were never tied solely, in Donne's mind or the mind of his readers, to the addressee. Rather than "inanimate," Donne, in the tradition of "The Extasie," interinanimates the souls of writer and addressee in a manner "concentrique" to the divine. The stakes are higher, the success is more stunning, and the poems are more resonant as a result.
For example, by the end of the above letter, Donne is able to combine himself with Wotton. He begins with echoes of the poetry of compliment only to close on an insistence of further connection: [End Page 78]
But, Sir, I'advise not you, I rather doeSay o'er those lessons, which I learn'd of you:Whom, free from German schismes, and lightnesseOf France, and faire Italies faithlesnesse,Having from these suck'd all they had of worth,And brought home that faith, which you carried forth,I thoroughly love. But if my selfe I'have wonneTo know my rules, I have, and you have Donne.40
Donne rejects the role of advisor and presents himself as one who loves Wotton. Donne focuses on Wotton's ability to remain a stable subject, a Protestant able to go out to the Catholic Continent, and come back having learned the best from them, while keeping his faith intact. Yet the stability of Wotton's subject ends up combined with Donne: "But if my self I'have wonne / To know my rules, I have, and you have Donne." Donne ends the poem by asserting that if he has learned these lessons, such as "Be then thine owne home, and in thy self dwell," then so has Wotton.41 In combining the closing of the poem with the act of Wotton's learning, Donne's name becomes the sign of their shared growth. Their creative and intellectual processes are fused in the space of the poem.
Donne believes that by effacing himself and the uniqueness or specialness of his personhood, he can dissolve and travel into the subjectivity of his addressee, forming a union that is not corporeal, nor completely contained within the material mode of the letters themselves, but in the interpersonal and spatial fantasy they stage. In a letter to Thomas Woodward, the addressee for which Donne reserves some of his most amorous and intense lines, Donne degrades himself in the praise of his addressee:
Men say, and truly, that they better beWhich be envy'd then pittied: therefore I,Because I wish thee best, doe thee envie:O wouldst thou, by like reason, pitty mee!But care not for mee: I, that ever wasIn Natures, and in Fortunes gifts, (alas, Before thy grace got in the Muses Schoole) A monster and a begger, am now a foole.42
When Donne sees himself as a "monster," a "begger," and a "foole" in relation to "Natures" and "Fortunes gifts," he presents to Woodward [End Page 79] a version of himself that has in luck, beauty, and talent been perhaps passed over. But his status as a "begger" hints at the ambition Donne is sure to convey. The envy/pity dichotomy fails to accurately contain their relationship: Donne envies Woodward but does not believe that he should care for Donne in any way. This failure in Donne's vision of their relationship reveals a halted attempt to contain his affection for his interlocutor in a submissive but still contented role. One does not have to go as far as the sadomasochistic erotics of humiliation to argue that for Donne there is intense pleasure in effacing or undermining the eminence and importance of his poetic persona in these letters. Yet in undermining his poetic persona, his pleasure does not only come from diminishing his own importance, but also in opening up space in which to combine his persona with that of the addressee.
This is a particular kind of friendship in which the difference between friends dissolves in an intense act of communication. Ben Saunders has provided the most compelling recent reading of Donne's sense of friendship, arguing that modern readers and critics find themselves in unfamiliar territory in considering Renaissance male friendship: "I think the poems do bespeak a special affect: the affect of 'friendship.' But friendship during the Renaissance is a less familiar concept than we have perhaps hitherto realized, with implications that reach beyond our own generally more limited sense of the term; it is an idealized bond of considerable social complexity, imbricated in the literary, educative, religious, and erotic discourses of the Renaissance, with potentially significant interpretive consequences for each of those discourses."43 Saunders believes that within the friendships out of which the letters emerge, there is a protected discursive space, one that remains ultimately free from the intrusions of political and theological ramifications. The verse letters engage in a reverie that attempts to fuse the subjectivity of the poetic author with the addressee and with the world. The spatial and interpersonal fantasies found in Donne's poetry are not only linked with but also essential to Donne's poetic project in the letters. Yet Donne's verse letters do not produce a protected space from politics and theology. They deal too often with the risks of love or the hastiness and dangers of war to be a space of protective friendship. Friendship, in Donne's sense, is never satisfied in anything less than full combination and immanence. Donne does not protect his verse letters from theology; rather, he translates the epistolary intimacy of the New Testament to form, as seen above, a testament [End Page 80] between the addressee and himself that links their subjectivities in a spiritual ecstasy.
When Donne writes to a friend who is also a poet, he attempts to dissolve into the poetic act itself, linking writer and addressee. Donne sees each letter as building a communal archive that will shape the history and identity of writer and addressee. Yet, he does so in a way quite different from that which he employs in his heteronormative amatory verses. In "Valediction to His Booke," he urges posterity to
Study our manuscripts, those Myriades Of letters, which have past twixt thee and mee, Thence write our Annals, and in them will beeTo all whom loves subliming fire invades, Rule and example found.44
Donne imagines the letters between him and his lover as forming the basis for a history that will be useful to lovers, an overtly textual image reflective of similar semiotic metaphors found in "The Extasie" and "The Canonization."45 Yet, in Donne's verse letters to men, his role in posterity is greatly diminished. He is a source of ignition, longing, and energy contained in the act of writing and the not yet delivered promises of the page itself. The confidence he displays in the Songs and Sonnets, the noted wit and ego, are purposefully diminished to highlight the subjective transference the verse letters make possible.
In a verse letter to Samuel Brooke, a future chaplain to Prince Henry, James I, and Charles I, Donne obsesses over the changing distances between Brooke and himself:
O thou which search out the secret partsOf th'India, or rather ParadiseOf knowledge, hast with courage and adviseLately launch'd into the vast Sea of Arts,Disdaine not in thy constant travailingTo doe as other Voyagers, and makeSome turnes into lesse Creekes, and wisely takeFresh water at the Heliconian spring;I sing not, Siren-like, to tempt; for IAm harsh; nor as those Scismatiques with you,Which draw all wits of good hope to their crew; [End Page 81] But seeing in you bright sparkes of Poëtry,I, though I brought no fuell, had desireWith these Articulate blasts to blow the fire.46
Donne casts Samuel Brooke as an explorer setting out into the sea of arts and imagines himself not in motion but on the coastal sidelines of the journey seducing him, like an ineloquent Siren luring him in for poetic enhancement. Yet, Donne is careful to not label himself as the fuel, as the material that brings Brooke's poetic spark to flame. Rather, Donne intentionally chooses an image in which he himself is able to traverse the distance between them and become invisibly linked with, and dissolved into, his poetic project. As the blast of articulate air that blows Samuel Brooke's fire to make it grow, Donne's contribution and the results are invisible; his responsibility is also invisible, yet he becomes entirely linked to the poetic act. He has conquered the space between Brooke and himself.
In a verse letter to Rowland Woodward, Donne is able to paradoxically assert the independence of the self while ending on a note that highlights the reciprocity and linked nature of the self created in the poem:
Seeke wee then our selves in our selves; for asMen force the Sunne with much more force to passe,By gathering his beames with a christall glasse;
So wee, if wee into our selves will turne,Blowing our sparkes of vertue, may outburneThe straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.47
These lines, which highlight the self's need to concentrate its virtue so as to let the heart burn bright, eventually give way to an image of combination and interdependence:
You know, Physitians, when they would infuseInto any'oyle, the Soule of Simples, usePlaces, where they may lie still warme, to chuse.
So workes retirednesse in us; To romeGiddily, and bee every where, but at home,Such freedome doth a banishment become.48 [End Page 82]
As Donne pleads for stillness in the midst of constant roaming, travel is associated with moral weakness, damaging to the self. Yet, though this message to stay home and work on yourself may seem to highlight the spiritual value of distance and isolation, the poem insists on collective imagery as it highlights the combination of "Simples" and oil as the collective and combinatory language continues:
Wee are but farmers of our selves, yet may,If we can stocke our selves, and thrive, uplayMuch, much deare treasure for the great rent day.
Manure thy self then, to thy self be'approved,And with vaine outward things be no more mov'd,But to know, that I love thee'and would be lov'd.49
Finally, the poem lands at togetherness. The comic image of manuring one's self plays on the interdependence of interiority and exteriority and speaks to the necessary reabsorption of what one purges. Nonetheless, the collective and universal is always in the background, as suggested by the phrase "Wee are but farmers of ourselves." The ending line highlights that the geographic immensity of the problematic beginning of the poem, where the subjects are too busy wandering to properly work on themselves, is reduced down to a local, simple moment of emotional unity and reciprocity: "I love thee'and would be lov'd." As in many of Donne's verse letters, the combinatory language across the intermediate space of writer and addressee is not equal to a reciprocation of feelings. Donne is calling the shots, venting his desires, and pressing himself into the subjectivity of his addressees.
When Donne, in the narrative verse letters "The Storme" and "The Calme," revisits the question of how a letter may enable his poetic subjectivity to enter into a fantasy of spatial control and staging, the intimacy between writer and addressee is not diminished, even as it is explored more economically to allow greater room for Donne's narrative—and the poetic spaces and virtual experiences it produces—to dominate the poem. The very beginning of "The Storme" highlights a combinatory vocabulary applied across geographic distance:
Thou which are I, ('tis nothing to be soe)Thou which art still thy self, by these shalt know [End Page 83] Part of our passage; And, a hand, or eyeBy Hilliard drawne, is worth an history,By a worse painter made; and (without pride)When by thy judgment they are dignifi'd,My lines are such: 'Tis the preheminenceOf friendship onely to'impute excellence.50
Donne presents himself as nothing and therefore available to be subsumed by the subjectivity of Christopher Brooke, his addressee. As in Marot's letter before it, this verse epistle tries to make its addressee feel the consequences of its male adventure and, similarly to Marot's work, the lines are made excellent by a combination of friendship and writing. Yet the reduction to nothing of Donne's persona, which tempts readers to discard it as mere false modesty, presents a desired longing not only to convey his experience to Christopher Brooke, but also to dissolve himself into Brooke's experiences and subjectivity, forming a combination that is paradoxically not a combination, but like the burst of air that ignites the fire in the poem to Samuel Brooke. He longs to be an invisible enhancement to another subjectivity, another creative force.
After meditating on the horrors of the storm, Donne ends the poem by highlighting the blurred boundaries between different subjects and objects caught within it:
All things are one, and that one none can be,Since all formes, uniforme deformityDoth cover, so that wee, except God sayAnother Fiat, shall have no more day.So violent, yet long these furies bee,That though thine absence sterve me, 'I wish not thee.51
Here, at the end of the poem, the reader at last gains some context regarding the poem's beginning. Donne is nothing, not only because of his desire to become a part of Christopher Brooke, but also because of the "uniforme deformity" that has negated the individuality of all things caught in the storm. Yet, the local troubles become part of a cosmic problem if we take the bait and briefly read Donne's conceit literally: differentiating light has been banished and with it the visible awareness of boundaries between subjects such that everything is one thing but that one thing is nothing. As Donne refers to the act of being himself as nothing, [End Page 84] he asserts his negated immanence. He is everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. He is, also, connected deeply to Christopher Brooke, though he cannot bring himself to wish for him to be there. In the fantasy of the poem, there is no need for Brooke to arrive: he is already there, in the poem's global darkness.
The calm that comes in the following poem, presumably what the sailors caught in the storm were myopically hoping for, offers a continued meditation on the nothingness and immanence of Donne's combinatory vision. As the storm made everything one, the calm makes everything separate, and yet still there is the opportunity to come together in an undifferentiated manner:
We can nor left friends, nor sought foes recover,But meteorlike, save that wee move not, hover.Onely the Calenture together drawesDeare friends, which meet dead in great fishes jawes:And on the hatches as on Altars lyesEach one, his owne Priest, and owne Sacrifice.Who live, that miracle do multiplyWhere walkers in hot Ovens, doe not dye.52
The men trapped in the calm are presented with two choices, both of which draw their subjectivities into a collective immanence. They either are fooled by the Calenture and drawn to dissolve into a communal meeting, "dead in great fishes jawes," or they become individual altars on the hatches, individual and suffering and yet part of a communal ritual as individual churches calling upward to the same God. Once again, the poem dissolves the subjects into nothing, into a communal force with cosmic and universal implications as the poem's closing reveals:
What are wee then? How little more alasIs man now, then before he was? he wasNothing; for us, wee are for nothing fit;Chance, or our selves still disproportion it.Wee have no will, no power, no sense; I lye,I should not then thus feele this miserie.53
This poem then, explores the nothingness that comes from the uselessness of its subjects' position. As man was nothing before God created him, so now is he nothing by being fit for nothing, by having no use and no ability. Yet, in the end, what reminds [End Page 85] Donne of the ongoing existence of his subjectivity is his misery, the felt suffering that, at the beginning of "The Storme," he longed to relay to Christopher Brooke in a manner that dissolved his self into that of his addressee. In the universal and expanded space of Donne's poetic vision, the feeling of suffering is at once the truest individual sensation and also that thing which must not just be handed to a friend or interlocutor, but planted within them in a way that reduces the self to nothing.
As Donne intervenes in the history of the verse epistle, he expands the parameters of the epistle's reach—not only across intermediate space, but also within and beyond it, turning the space between writer and addressee into fundamentally the only space that matters. Though this strategy will follow Donne throughout his career in adapted forms—"The Extasie" and "The Sunne Rising" show similar spatial fantasies—the later verse letters to women reveal a significant shift in the epistolary intimacy that Donne's earlier verse letters show so strongly.54 For instance, he writes in the later verse epistles to the Countess of Huntingdon:
So I, but your Recorder am in this,Or mouth, and Speaker of the universe,A ministeriall Notary, for 'tisNot I, but you and fame that make this verse;
I was your prophet in your younger dayes,And now your Chaplaine, God in you to praise.55
We see Donne adapting his earlier strategies in the epistles to male friends to fit a new mission for his female patrons. In the verse letters to female patrons, there is no yearning for copulation in the sense Saint Ambrose discusses. Donne's verses to the Countess of Bedford and the Countess of Huntingdon are bound by rules of patronage and decorum that make the ecstasies of his earlier verse letters inappropriate. In the poem above, Donne signals toward dissolution of the self—"Not I, but you and fame that make this verse"—but ultimately produces a history of his relationship with the Countess of Huntingdon that preserves the distance between them. A prophet does not dissolve into the God he sees, and a chaplain praises a God he does not become. Yet in the early verse letters, as we have seen, Donne establishes a fantasy in his letters to men in which virtuous friendship between friends and schoolmates becomes the basis for a new and [End Page 86] combined immanent subjectivity, where within the pages of the epistle's space, the addressee and the writer become bound together in the same cosmos, a cosmos so vast it makes the distance between them virtually, and poetically, nonexistent.
Timothy Duffy is a Renaissance scholar specializing in the history of the Petrarchan lyric and the philosophy of space. He is completing an edited collection titled "Space, Place, and Genre in the European Renaissance: Epic Geographies" and a monograph titled "Anti-Worldly Geographies: Lyric Space in the European Renaissance."
1. Saint Ambrose, "Epistola XLVII," in Sancti Ambrosii, Opera Omnia, 4 vols. (Paris: Gauthier Brothers, 1836), 4:352. This passage is translated by John Donne in "A Sermon Preached at White Hall, April 19, 1618": "An epistle is colluctio scripta [a written discourse], saies Saint Ambrose, Though it be written far off, and sent, yet it is a Conference, and separatos copulat [joins separate persons]" (The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. [Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1953], 1:285–300, 285). The sense of "copulation" used in the title of this essay reflects the now-obsolete denotation that was in wide circulation in Donne's time, and is reflected in Ambrose's Latin and Donne's preservation of the word in his allusion: "The action of coupling or linking two things together, or condition of being coupled; connection, union" (OED, 2d edn., s.v. "copulation," 1).
2. Donne, "To Mr T. W. ('Hast thee harsh verse')," in John Donne: The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, ed. W. Milgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 60–1, lines 5–6 and 13–4.
3. Donne, "To Mr T. W. ('Hast thee harsh verse')," lines 1–2.
4. Donne, "To Mr R. W. ('Zealously my Muse')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, p. 62, lines 1–4.
5. Donne, "To Mr R. W. ('Zealously my Muse')," lines 11–2.
6. Margaret Maurer, "The Verse Letter," in The Oxford Handbook of John Donne, ed. Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), pp. 206–17, 207. She continues: "He seems to have resorted to it more often than other early modern English writers; at least, an unusually large number of his productions in this genre have survived" (p. 207).
7. Theresa M. DiPasquale, however, does offer a theological reading of Donne's epistolary discourse: "Donne stresses that, for him, letters to and from friends are not only welcome respites from the weariness of everyday existence, but necessary means of maintaining life and virtue" (Literature and Sacrament: The Sacred and the Secular in John Donne [Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1999], p. 193).
8. For a discussion of the Renaissance humanist prose letter and, in particular, for a treatment of humanist intimacy in the tradition of the Renaissance prose letter, particularly in Erasmus, Petrarch, and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, see Kathy Eden's seminal work, The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012). Important critical treatments of Donne's verse epistles include Maurer, "The Verse Letter"; Maurer, "John Donne's Verse Letters," MLQ 37, 3 (September 1976): 234–59; and R. C. Bald, "Donne's Early Verse Letters," HLQ 15, 3 (May 1952): 283–9. For a compelling response to Bald, see Ben Saunders, Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), p. 218n4. For editorial comments, see Milgate, "Commentary," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 114–280. On intimacy in Donne, see George Klawitter, "Verse Letters to T. W. from John Donne: 'By You My Love is Sent,'" Journal of Homosexuality 23, 1–2 (1992): 85–102; Saunders; and Ramie Targoff, John Donne, Body and Soul (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008). For a theological reading of Donne's intimacy, see DiPasquale, pp. 188–201.
9. Maurer gives an account of the Continental debates surrounding the verse letter in "The Verse Letter." Noting that Joachim Du Bellay disapproved of the epistle form as found in Clément Marot, Maurer goes on to offer a summary of defenders of the epistle:
In the next year a reply to Du Bellay's treatise, Barthélemy Aneau's Le Quintil horacien (1550), disputes this, defending Marot's practice. Thereafter, however, at least in published theory, neoclassicism wins out. Jacques Peletier du Mans (1555) proposes Horace as the best model and rhymed couplets as the most suitable form, noting that the epistle is closely related to elegy (Ovidian) and to satire (Horatian). To Julius Caesar Scaliger (1561), the epistle is a species of elegiac poetry. To Antonio Minturno (1564), it is a kind of satire, as it is also to Giovanni Viperano (1579), who distinguishes between Horace's satires and his epistles by saying that Horace addressed satires to persons at hand and epistles to persons absent. To Pierre Laudun d'Aigaliers (1597), elegy and epistle are closely related.(p. 208)
10. Donne, "A Sermon Preached at White Hall," p. 285.
11. Donne, "A Sermon Preached at White Hall," p. 285.
12. Rebecca Ann Bach asserts: "Donne's poetry and prose reveal him as a man living within an ideological system opposed to all the major tenets of what would become heterosexuality—a system wedded to the principles that women are naturally inferior to men and, therefore, naturally more sexually desirous (and unfaithful): that a man's relationship with God is primary, that his relationships with men are secondary, and that any sexual engagement with women runs a distant third" ("(Re)placing John Donne in the History of Sexuality," ELH 72, 1 [Spring 2005]: 259–89, 203).
13. Maurer, "The Verse Letter," p. 211.
14. Maurer, "The Verse Letter," pp. 211 and 207.
15. In this case, I mean delirium in the sense used by Gordon Teskey, who distinguishes delirium from hallucination because the poet finds himself within the context of his vision. See Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 4–5.
16. Donne, "To Sir H. G.," in Poems (London: M[iles] F[lesher], 1633), pp. 353–5, 353; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 7045.
17. Donne, "To Sir H. G.," in Poems, pp. 356–8, 356.
18. Donne, "The Storme," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 55–7, line 1.
19. Donne, "To Sir H. G.," in Poems, pp. 359–61, 361.
20. Donne, "To Sr H. G.," in Poems, pp. 364–6, 364.
21. Donne, "To My Honoured Friend S T. Lucey," in Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651) (Delmar NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977), pp. 11–9, 11.
22. William Fulwood, The Enimie of Idlenesse Teaching the Maner and Style How to Endite, Compose, and Write All Sorts of Epistles and Letters: As Well by Answer, as Otherwise (London: Henry Bynneman, 1568), A3r; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 11476.
23. As Fulwood writes in the preface to the reader: "Amongst which I heere offer vnto thine eyes this treatise, called The Enimie of Idleness: which I haue so entitled, for that as well when vrgent affaires require, as also at vacant tymes when leisure permitteth the, (for the auoiding of Idleness, the capital enimie to all exercise and vertue) thou mayest occupie and practise thy self therin, taking pen in hand, and gratifieng thy frende with some conceite or other: whereby thou shalt both purchase friendship, increase in knowledge and also driue away drowsy dumps and fond fansies from thy heauy head" (A5v–6r).
24. Gary Schneider, The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England: 1500–1700 (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2005), p. 132.
25. Schneider highlights some epistolary anxieties: "The memorial is an instance of the early modern unification of oral and written modes, a method of moderating what I perceive as a sense of anxiety manifest in the early modern epistolary condition … The root of the anxiety resides primarily in the dialectic between physical presence and physical absence, between the body in a face-to-face interaction and the disembodied epistle that only represents that body and self at a distance in time and space … Physical distance between sender and recipient, in fact, must define the raison d'être of letter writing" (p. 28).
26. Ovid, The Heroides, in Heroides; Amores, trans. Grant Showerman, rev. G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 1–311, 10–1.
27. Ovid, The Heroides, pp. 188–9.
28. Ovid, The Heroides, pp. 196–7.
29. Ovid, Tristia, in Tristia; Ex Ponto, trans. Arthur Leslie Wheeler, rev. Goold, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 1–263, lines 1–4 and 15–6.
30. Horace, Epistles, in Satires. Epistles. The Art of Poetry, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926), pp. 248–441, 314–5, I.ix.1–7.
31. Yvonne LeBlanc, Va Lettre Va: The French Verse Epistle (1400–1550) (Birmingham AL: Summa Publications, 1995), p. 158.
32. Marot, "Epistre faicte pour le Capitaine Raisin, audict seigneur de la Rocque," in Œuvres completes I, ed. François Rigolot (Paris: Flammarion, 2007), pp. 101–3, 101, lines 1–6. Translation is my own.
33. Thomas Lodge, "To the Gentlemen Readers Whatsoever," in A Fig for Momus (London: T. Orwin, 1595), A3r–4r, A3v–4r; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 16658.
34. Lodge, "To Master W. Bolton. Epistle. 2," in A Fig for Momus, E4r–F2v, E4r.
35. Lodge, "To His Mistres A. L. Epistle. 6," in A Fig for Momus, G2v–H1r, G2v.
36. Donne, "To Sir Henry Wotton ('Sir, more then kisses')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 71–3, lines 1–6.
37. Targoff writes: "Donne understands his writing of letters as a means to sustain his mortal life for as long as possible. But he also regards his verse epistles as possessing the potential for a certain kind of afterlife" (p. 47).
38. Targoff, p.48.
39. Targoff, p. 48. Targoff continues: "And because he wanted to convey his mortal body as well as his immortal spirit, he knew that their afterlife would be at best partial and incomplete."
40. Donne, "To Sir Henry Wotton ('Sir, more then kisses')," lines 63–70.
41. Donne, "To Sir Henry Wotton ('Sir, more then kisses')," line 47.
42. Donne, "To Mr T. W. ('All haile sweet Poët')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 59–60, lines 9–16.
43. Saunders, p. 75.
44. Donne, "Valediction to His Booke," in Poems, pp. 219–21, 219.
45. Donne, "The Extasie," in Poems, pp. 277–80; and Donne, "The Canonization," in Poems, pp. 202–4.
46. Donne, "To Mr S. B. ('O thou which to search')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 66–7, lines 1–14.
47. Donne, "To Mr Rowland Woodward ('Like one who'in her third widdowhood')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 69–70, lines 19–24.
48. Donne, "To Mr Rowland Woodward ('Like one who'in her third widdowhood')," lines 25–30.
49. Donne, "To Mr Rowland Woodward ('Like one who'in her third widdowhood')," lines 31–6.
50. Donne, "The Storme," lines 1–8.
51. Donne, "The Storme," lines 69–74.
52. Donne, "The Calme," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 57–9, lines 21–8.
53. Donne, "The Calme," lines 51–6.
54. Donne, "The Extasie"; and Donne, "The Sunne Rising," in Poems, pp. 169–200.
55. Donne, "To the Countesse of Huntingdon ('Man to Gods image')," in The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, pp. 85–8, lines 65–70.