The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Jan 1993 v92 n1 p17(20)
A History of Donne's "Canonization" from Izaak Walton to Cleanth Brooks.
Abstract: Izaak Walton's 'Life and Death of Dr. Donne' had a lengthy and substantial influence on Donne scholarship and until the late nineteenth century kept Donne's poem 'The Canonization' from being seen as a defense of his secret marriage to Ann More. Walton saw the marriage as a mistake of youthful passion and wanted to concentrate in his book on portraying Donne as a man whose life developed towards an ecclesiastical career.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois 1993
The history of reading will have to take account of the ways that texts
constrain readers as well as the ways that readers take liberties with texts.
The tension between those tendencies has existed wherever men confronted
books, and it had produced some extraordinary results, as in
Luther's reading of the Psalms, Rousseau's reading of Le Misanthrope,
and Kierkegaard's reading of the sacrifice of Isaac.(1)
A generation ago Cleanth Brooks's interpretation of john Donne's poem "The Canonization" might have been considered a reading that had produced "extraordinary results." Given recent developments in critical theory and practice, however, it seems unlikely that many people would now include it in an expanded version of Robert Darnton's list of historically decisive readings. The Well Wrought Urn, in which Brooks presented "The Canonization" as consummately crafted self-referential poetry, has come to be regarded as an established work that calls out to be exposed for the liberties it takes and the contradictions it glosses over.(2) Both new historicist and deconstructive critics have, though in different ways, called attention to what was repressed or deferred when the New Criticism that was popular in the middle decades of our century sought to constrain readers to find the grounds of organic unity in the texts that it cultivated. Yet the critiques of Brooks's project offered by Arthur Marotti and jonathan Culler also very to the abiding influence of Brooks's reading of Donne.(3) The very fact that Culler should have provided an extended discussion of "The Canonizati6n" in his book On Deconstruction evinces the enduring significance of Brooks's work. Before Brooks published the first version of his essay, "The Language of Paradox," in 1942,(4) "The Canonization" could scarcely have been considered an apt poem on which to test a theory of poetry. Forty years later, Culler, when he wished to assault a supposed mystification entailed in discovering organic unity in a verbal artifact, was able to take for granted that his readers would understand the appropriateness of deconstructing this particular Donne poem.
One extraordinary result" of Brooks's having made of "The Canonization" a paradigmatic poem for the New Criticism is that antithetical critics treat it as if it has always been considered a literary monument. Through most of the three centuries after Donne wrote it, however, the poem received little attention. That it should have taken so long for "The Canonization" to be thought significant in literary history might be regarded either as something of a curiosity or as further evidence for the doctrine that meanings are constructed, not merely found. Nonetheless, attention to the history of reading "The Canonization" through the long period between its first appearance in print in 1633 and the publication of "The Language of Paradox" in 1942 suggests that the marginal status of a poem now thought to be quintessential Donne may not have been so much an accident as it was an "extraordinary result" of another confrontation with Donne's poem by an earlier and powerfully influential reader. In large measure the history of "The Canonization" was shaped by the writer who sought to canonize Donne's life, his first biographer, Izaak Walton. My proposal is that, without ever explicitly mentioning the poem, Walton's Life and Death of Dr. Donne long served as a severe restraint on interpretation of "The Canonization" until, at the end of the nineteenth century, that same Life was suddenly seen to provide grounds for interpreting the poem in ways almost diametrically opposed to those in which it had previously been read.
Besides the fact that "The Canonization" enjoyed no particular prominence before the 1940s, a second striking feature about the history of interpreting the poem is that it was more than two and a half centuries until anyone seems to have proposed reading it in relation to details known about Donne's marriage. Walton's Life, a book that through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enjoyed much wider popularity than Donne's Poems, had claimed that writing poetry had been for Donne a youthful diversion and that "most" of his poems had been written before he was twenty. Yet Walton had also given great scope to the story of Donne's secret wedding, when he was nearly thirty, and its disastrous aftermath. By the nineteenth century various retellings of the story were appearing regularly in literary handbooks and popular literature. As interest in the poetry revived, several other lyrics by Donne were said to reflect incidents in his relationship with Ann More. It was not until the end of the century, however, that anyone proposed in print that "The Canonization" had been written as the poet's defense of his marriage.
This essay seeks to trace the history of reading "The Canonization" before the publication of "The Language of Paradox" and to account for the fact that the poem was only belatedly fitted into what might have seemed an obvious biographical context, a context from which Brooks's interpretation asked readers again to prescind. It will not be my purpose to urge any particular date of composition for "The Canonization," nor to defend the proposition that it was written in Donne's maturity. It is plausible that it was one of the poems to which Ben Jonson was referring when he said that Donne had "written all his best pieces err he was 25 years old."(5) There are good reasons for reading the poem in the context of Renaissance poems that promise immortality; and "The Canonization" may be thought to involve an elaborate and derisive hoax perpetrated on just those vulgar readers in the future who, in what "The Relique" refers to as "mis-devotion," overlook the outrageousness of the conceit whereby the lovers are "canonized" for Christ-like sexual exploits."(6) To trace the slow emergence of an explicitly biographical interpretation of the poem one need not accept the proposition that Donne wrote the poem as an attempt to justify his marriage, but one needs to take seriously the likelihood that the poem was read that way by some seventeenth-century readers, a subject to be taken up in Part II. Before launching into a survey of early interpretations, it will be useful to review both new historicist and deconstructionist attacks on the New Critical approach to the poem, the better to appreciate the sharp discontinuity that Brooks wrought in Donne studies when he brought "The Canonization" to the center of Donne's canon.
Although the Donne revival long antedated Cleanth Brooks, it is well understood that the New Criticism of which he was a leading exponent took an especially active interest in Donne, so that, as Culler's argument acknowledged, the fortunes of Donne and of the New Criticism were for a time closely wedded. The years that separate "The Language of Paradox" and On Deconstruction witnessed a prodigious and unprecedented growth in commentary on "The Canonization"; and the New Criticism contributed substantially to a realignment of pieces within the Donne canon by directing attention, above all, to the kind of poem that can be treated as Brooks read "The Canonization," as a fictional utterance in a dramatic situation.(7) In 1947, when Brooks incorporated "The Language of Paradox" as an introduction to a theory of poetry in a book that took its title from Donne's poem, he held up "The Canonization" as a paradigmatic instance of the poem that embodies and dramatizes "the doctrine which it asserts."(8) Culler proposed, however, that Brooks succeeded chiefly in displaying his own inevitable entanglement in a neverending chain of discourses. By trying to turn "The Canonization" into a literary monument, a "well wrought urn," he was responding to the poem merely as its final stanza predicts its readers will.(9) In the process, as Culler would have it, Brooks demonstrated both his presumptuousness, when he implied that his unified reading of the poem constituted a "well wrought urn" in its own right, and his naivete.
In seeking to expose the limits of New Critical theory it was no part of Culler's concern to belabor the fictional status of the discourses in which Brooks had enchained himself, or to propose putting the poem back into a historical context. From a deconstructionist point of view, Brooks had only exposed still another aspect of his naivete when, in writing a new preface for the 1968 reissue of The Well Wrought Urn, he defended his approach as a merely temporary "dismissal of biography and the study of background and sources" for the sake of condering the poem as an "independent ... structure."(10) If the New Criticism generally prescinded from exploring the biographical implications of the monuments to which it did homage, it nonetheless allowed that external evidence may sometimes also prove helpful in interpreting a poem. Moreover, the seriousness with which Brooks took the claims made by the speaker in the latter part of "The Canonization" opened up new possibilities for biographical interpreters. Whereas the Nonesuch edition of 1923 had arranged Donne's love poems to show how he expressed his "personal reflections on the nature of the emotions" and presented "The Canonization" as one of his "lighter" poems "on wooing and winning and the joy of the senses," in 1954 the poem was urged by Clay Hunt to be an autobiographical utterance of extraordinary revelatory power. Using techniques of close verbal analysis, as Brooks had, and relying on evidence available from Walton's Life of Donne, Hunt proposed that although the poem involves a reworking of the "worn conventions of Elizabethan love poetry" and looks "like the bright and flashy poems of Donne's early career," it "almost certain[ly] ... derives from the personal circumcstances, of Donne's marriage" and represents "one of the major poems of Donne's literary maturity."(11)
From the point of view of historicist criticism, there remains something to be said for Hunt's observation that the poem Invites" speculation from "a reader who knows anything about ... Donne's life." Hunt claimed that "The Canonization" seems to contain "so many references to the generally known facts about Donne's personal circumstances in the years after his marriage that Donne himself must have expected his contemporary readers to see the speaker as John Donne in propia persona and to read the poem as a commentary on his personal life."(12) It is just this sort of seventeenth-century interpretive context that Arthur Marotti has recently sought to resurrect.
Less explicitly than Culler, but unmistakably, Marotti takes "The Language of Paradox" as a point of reference for his project and seeks to defuse Brooks's argument that Donne's poems are well wrought urns. From the start of his book Marotti argues that we should see the poems not as monumental literary icons but as ephemeral works, "toys" and "trifles" on the order of, say, games and dances meant for momentary diversion. When he comes to treat "The Canonization," he draws on the sorts of demonstrations of its rhetorical achievements that close verbal analyses have made available, on a general knowledge of the facts surrounding Donne's marriage, and on his own hypothesis that Elizabethan love poetry was culturally coded simultaneously to hide and reveal the ambitiousness of its practitioners. He too presents previous readers as naive, as evidenced in their tendency to be taken in by the sentimental argument that the world is well lost for love and in their failure to understand that, far from satirizing worldly concerns, Donne was directing irony at himself, revealing for the entertainment of his coterie just what the speaker of the poem says he does not have, his longing for a place. Marotti's argument turns on our recognizing, as Hunt had observed, that the details provided by Walton about the aftermath of the marriage provide a plausible setting and on our crediting Marotti's own larger claim to have decoded a cultural language common to place-seekers. Whatever one thinks of this larger claim, it is the reliance on Walton, and on letters by Donne that were known to Walton, that is of interest from the point of view of reception-history, because through ;he period when Walton's authority as a biographer was much more highly regarded than it is today, no one seems to have inferred from the Life of Donne that the "The Canonization" belonged to the period after Donne's marriage. Biographical interpretations of "The Canonization" are the product of twentieth-century criticism, almost all of it written in the period since Walton's authority waned and intrinsic or text-centered approaches to poetry have been commonly considered to be in the ascendancy.
According to Robert Fallon, whose work for the Donne Variorum project has required him to scour every source that might contain evidence about how readers were interpreting Donne's love poetry in the period, no one writing in the seventeenth or the eighteenth century referred "The Canonization" to Donne's love for Ann More.(13) In one respect this is not particularly surprising: few people were writing interpretive comments on any of Donne's poems. While many seventeenth-century writers quoted Donne's poetry, it was rarely with a view to throwing any light on Donne's life. (14) Probably, most seventeenth-century readers did not need to be informed that love poetry was not necessarily written as a transcript of the poet's own experiences. But the fact that Abraham Cowley, in introducing his Poems in 1656, should have taken some pains to insist on this suggests that biographical interpretations were at least possible. Cowley explained that virtually all poets are obliged at some time in their career to write love poems, like "Mahumetan Monks, that are bound by their Order, once at least, in their life, to make a Pilgrimage to Meca." He went on to offer a caveat to readers, in line with a second comparison to the practices of another group whom he took to be false worshippers: "But we must not always make a judgement of their [poets'] manners from their writings of this kind; as the Romanists uncharitably do of Beza, for a few lascivious Sonnets composed by him in his youth. It is not in this sense that Poesie is said to be a kind of Painting; it is not the Picture of the Poet, but of things and persons imagined by him. He may be in his own practice and disposition a Philosopher, nay a Stoick, and yet speak sometimes with the softness of an amorous Sappho."(15) Cowley's reference to a prominent divine against whom ad hominem attacks had been made in view of "a few lascivious Sonnets composed by him in his youth" suggests an interesting point of comparison when we consider the case of Donne, who was, after all, the author of "Sapho to Philaenis" and Cowley's chief precursor as a love poet.
The relation of Donne's love poems to his "own practice and disposition" may have been an object of contention during his life; there is evidence that it became so soon after his death. The first edition of his Poems (1633) contained nine letters by Donne which seem to have been included as "examples of epistolary elegance." David Novarr has observed that they were "printed not for what they tell of Donne's life and insights, not as informal and personal revelations of the writer, [but] .. . for their art and grace." They seem to have constituted a sort of "manual of letter writing."(16) Novarr's proposal squares nearly perfectly with what Ernest Sullivan has found to be true of the great majority of quotations of Donne's poetry that appear in seventeenth-century books: that is, the documentary evidence suggests that people were reading Donne to find useful materials and accomplished examples for their own writing.(17) Yet as early as 1635 there were signs that someone feared that Donne's poems might be read biographically. The second edition of the Poems contained four personal letters by Donne, which seem to have been "chosen" on the grounds of their biographical implications, Novarr observes, "to counteract the licentiousness of some of the poems [that were] added for the first time." Whether or not (as Novarr has proposed) Izaak Walton was responsible for the inclusion of these letters, his Life and Death of Dr. John Donne, which first appeared in 1640, was altogether continuous with this little portrait of Donne." For both the new collection of personal letters and Walton's biographical narrative attempt to "emphasize not Donne's verse but the holy life of Donne the divine."(18) To this subject we will return in Part V.
In view of Novarr's observations about the likely purpose for including the new letters in 1635, Marotti's claim that Donne's coterie had read "The Canonization" in relation to his marriage seems plausible. Other letters by Donne make Marotti's case seem still stronger. In excavating the sources for Walton's Life, Novarr called attention to several letters which offer evidence that at least at times Donne himself thought of the marriage in terms akin to Walton's powerful claim that it had been the "remarkable error" of his life. In 1602, writing to Sir Thomas Egerton after his dismissal, Donne spoke of his having "died" after contracting in Egerton's household the "sickness" of his love. A decade later, Donne used the same metaphor in a letter to Goodere: "I must confesse, that I dyed ten years ago." About 1608, writing to Lord Hay, Donne referred to his marriage as "that intemperate and hastie act of mine." This letter suggests that the error was well known at court. "I have been told," Donne remarks to Hay, "that when your Lordship did me that extream favour, of presenting my name, his Majestie remembred me, by the worst part of my historie, which was my disorderlie proceedings, seaven years since, in my non-age."(19) It is possible that "The Canonization" antedated the marriage and that some of Donne's intimate friends knew that the poem had been written earlier, perhaps even before he met Ann More. But since we know that the poem existed in manuscript copies through the period of Donne's later life, it is a reasonable inference that at least a few people familiar with the circumstances surrounding Donne's loss of his position in Egerton's household saw in it the poet's personal appropriation of the theme that the world is well lost for love.
Already in the late seventeenth century there was a growing tendency to think that Walton's Life constituted Donne's surpassing monument. This is the theme of Charles Cotton's commendatory verses of 1672/3, printed in the fourth of edition of Walton's Lives (1675) and reprinted with Donne's Life well into the nineteenth century.(20) Cotton's poem enlists the sorts of eternizing conceits found in poems like "The Canonization." Yet it dismisses such poetic "Monuments of so short date" that they die "with those, whom they would celebrate" because readers are accustomed to suspect poets of lying. "History," Cotton claims, is the preferable genre in which to preserve the "memories of Vertuous men," for it is "more sacred ... and, more intire."(21)
In another gesture reminiscent of "The Canonization," Cotton presents Walton's friendship with Donne as "a pattern to mankind." He sees this friendship as Walton's surpassing credential for offering the world Donne's lasting "Monument" because, more than any "Monument" Donne had "raised unto himself," even his great works [which] can never dye," Walton used a "just scale, to take [his] vertues by." The works of Donne, Wotton, Herbert, and Hooker, though they inspired Walton to pen their lives,
show not how th' Almighties grace,
By various, and, more admirable ways,
Brought them to be the Organs of his praise.
Walton is ultimately praised for having told an "intire" version of a life that could not have been available even to Donne himself, since no narrator can narrate his own demise and Donne could not have testified to the final evidence of "Gods most powerful grace." In this way Cotton gave voice to an idea that largely dominated thinking about Donne for the next two centuries:
And, yours, and the whole Worlds beloved Donne,
When he, a long, and wild carere had run
To the Meridian of his glorious Sun:
And, being then an object of much ruth,
Led on, by vanities, error, and youth,
Was long e're he did find the way to truth;
By the same Clew, after his youthful swing,
To serve at his Gods Altar here you bring:
Where, an once-wanton-Muse, doth Anthems sing.
And, though by Gods most powerful grace alone,
His heart was setled in Religion:
Yet, 'tis by you, we know how it was done.
And know, that having crucifi'd vanities,
And fixt his hope, he clos'd up his own eyes:
And then, your Friend, a Saint and Preacher dyes.
Walton had been able to write the definitive account of Donne's youth, Cotton implies, because the ultimate meaning of all his actions could not be fixed until his death.(22) Walton's friendship had brought him to Donne's deathbed and qualified him to accomplish a task that Donne himself could not have accomplished. As a witness to Donne's holy death Walton enjoyed an ultimate providential perspective from which the course of Donne's life could be reliably evaluated.
Before beginning to consider the earliest written commentary that specifically concerns "The Canonization," which comes from a period when the authority of providential patterns was on the wane, it is worth recalling that Donne was not among the poets to be included in the series for which Samuel Johnson wrote his Lives of the Poets. Johnson quoted extensively from Donne's poetry in his Life of Cowley, but he did not take a biographical interest in these materials. In formulating his well-known charges against "metaphysical" poetry, he cited the image of the compass from "A Valediction forbidding mourning"; there is no sign that he thought Walton's claim that the poem had been written for Donne's wife in any way counted against his charge that the poetry of Cowley and Donne was insincere, a charge that was after all partly validated by what Cowley himself had proposed about the relations between love poetry and a poet's own "practice and disposition."
In considering the history of "The Canonization" in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there are three principal points to be gathered from a survey of commentary on the Songs and Sonnets: first, "The Canonization" was rarely singled out for attention; second, a few readers nonetheless thought highly of it and made comments that, if we were to combine them with one another, might be said to constitute the embryo from which a New Critical approach developed; and third, while readers began to refer other lyrics by Donne to episodes in his life, biographical interpretations of "The Canonization" emerged relatively late. Each of these points will be taken up in turn.
"The Canonization" has not always occupied a central position in the Donne canon. That Donne was omitted altogether from the best known of Victorian anthologies, Palgrave's Golden Treasury (1861, etc.), is notorious.23 Ward's English Poets (i 88o) contained, by contrast, several Donne poems, including "A Valediction forbidding mourning .... The Will," and the songs "Goe, and catche a falling starre" and "Sweetest love, I do not goe." The first edition of The Home Book of Verse, published in 1912, printed a few Donne poems as well, virtually all of them grouped in contexts that made them seem tame and conventional.(24) Quiller-Couch's 1900 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse had been more venturesome, printing "The Extasie," "The Dreame," and "The Funerall," along with a few less surprising selections. When we consider that "The Canonization" rarely appeared in anthologies before the middle of this century, there is nothing odd about the fact that in 1938 it was not included in the first edition of Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry.
Commentary on the poem before Brooks wrote "The Language of Paradox" is sparse. The editors of the forthcoming Variorum have turned up fewer than twenty comments published before 1940, none of them longer than a few sentences. This is somewhat surprising only inasmuch as several nineteenth-century readers (including Coleridge, A. B. Grosart, and George Saintsbury) regarded it as one of Donne's best poems.
The prominence that "The Canonization" enjoys today then is almost entirely a result of the attention accorded the poem since 1940. Yet it is worth noting - and this is the second point - that some of Brooks's cardinal ideas about it were already suggested by nineteenth-century readers. Saintsbury praised the tone of "heroic rapture" and defended the poem as conveying the essential Donne. Edward Dowden was the first to propose that the poem is self-referential; he took the image of the "well wrought urn" to refer to Donne's love lyrics generally.(25) It was Coleridge, however, who planted the seed which flowered in Brooks's essay. "The Language of Paradox," it may be recalled, is filled with references to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Climactically, in his defense of the organic unity of "The Canonization," Brooks cites Coleridge's "classic description" of the power of the creative imagination, which "reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order." This passage is, says Brooks "a great and illuminating statement, but it is a series of paradoxes."(26)
If Brooks served as herald of the New Critical interest in Donne, Coleridge was the chief preceptor of the nineteenth-century revival. There is no need here to retrace the various avenues of his influence, which was in any event rather long delayed.(27) What is chiefly of interest for appreciating the history of reading "The Canonization" is how little evidence there is that readers before Brooks understood what was at stake in the comment that Coleridge wrote beneath the poem in Lamb's copy of the 1669 edition: "One of my favorite Poems," he wrote, and added, "As late as lo years ago, I used to seek and find out grand lines and fine stanzas; but my delight has been far greater, since it has consisted more in tracing the leading Thought thro'out the whole. The former is too much like coveting your neighbour's Goods: in the latter you merge yourself in the Author - you become He."(28) The really telling point here, as text-centered approaches have demonstrated, is that "The Canonization" challenges readers to look for a basis of unity in it. From its opening eruption - "For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love" - this is a manifestly disruptive and destabilizing utterance that makes it difficult for readers to find an interpretive resting point. Brooks himself explicitly acknowledged his interest in the "disruptive" qualities of a poem, the way the poet works "by contradiction and qualification."(29) He was relatively optimistic about how readily what he benignly designated as "paradoxes" might be harmonized and about how easily a reader might merge with the author.(30)
A third point about interpreting "The Canonization" in the period before Brooks is that readers were slow to induct "The Canonization," by contrast with several other love lyrics by Donne, into the service of filling in details about the poet's personal life that had been passed over by Walton. The first person to present the idea that "The Canonization" was an autobiographical defense of the poet's marriage was Edmund Gosse, in his biography of 1899.31 Building on the fifty years of research that Augustus Jessopp had turned over to him, and systematically examining Donne's letters, Gosse made a more extensive examination of Donnes youth than any previous writer, including Walton. Given the nature of his project, it was predictable that Gosse should have proposed a biographical setting for the composition of "The Canonization." What is surprising is that it took so long for someone to produce an interpretation that relates the poem to "the personal circumstances of Donne's marriage." Jessopp, who carefully reexamined the period after the wedding, did not countenance the possibility that the poetry might be relevant to understanding it.(32) Erlier retellers of the story of the marriage, which was especially popular among women, also overlooked "The Canonization." In Memoirs of the Loves of the Poets, Mrs. Jameson rehearsed the story at length in the section devoted to "conjugal poetry," quoting extensively from various elegies and "A Valediction forbidding mourning," to illustrate the relationship between Donne and Ann More. Half a century later, Alice King retold the story in a way that left no room for the possibility that Donne had ever felt any need to justify his love. After the marriage, she claimed, Donne's "home life was one long floating down a sunny river."(33)
By contrast with "The Canonization," several other lyrics, including "Sweetest love...," "The Anniversarie," "The good-morrow" "A Lecture upon the Shadow," and of course "A Valediction forbidding mourning," were in the nineteenth century sometimes interpreted as referring to the relationship between Donne and his wife. Dowden, writing in 1890, proposed that "The Anniversarie" commemorates "the first annual return of the day" of Donne's meeting with Ann More, and that it was written before their marriage. J. C. M. Bellew (1868) wrote that the poem conveys the "tender utterance of a husband's love" and called it "one of the purest and grandest expressions of conjugal affection that adorn our English literature." Grosart (1873) cited Bellew with approval and compared the poem to "A Valediction forbidding mourning" on the grounds that both works commemorate Donne's wife. Charles Eliot Norton praised "The Anniversarie as one of Donne's greatest poems, which, along with "A Feaver" and "The Token," reveals the "depth and intensity of Donne's feeling for his wife."(34) Only occasionally was a love lyric said to have involved an actual woman besides Ann, as when an anonymous writer for Temple Bar in 1876 saw Donne in "The good-morrow" involved in a "stolen meeting" with a young "girl," or Gosse claimed with respect to the same poem that it provides "the perfectly contented and serene record of an illicit, and doubtless of an ephemeral, adventure."(35) Dowden, who joined others in thinking that "The Anniversarie" was a tribute to Donne's love for his wife, speculated, however, that "The good-morrow" belongs to a period shortly after their marriage. He also endorsed the view of the anonymous writer for Temple Bar in thinking that "Sweetest love, I do not goe" gains "an added interest" from the fact that it is "autobiographical."
All through the nineteenth century virtually no one seems ever to have questioned Walton's claim that "A Valediction forbidding mourning" had been written for Donne's wife. Even Gosse, eager as he was to find the secret history of Donne's sexual awakening in the love poems, on this point accepted Walton's authority without demur. The salient point about the biographical reading of Donne's love poems, however, is that by the 1870s an important precedent was set when Grosart confidently pronounced that Donne's poems prove that he had "sinned to the uttermost," that his "youth was - not in theory or imagination merely, or phrase - profligate and ~gay' in the saddest meaning of the words."(37) Curiously, Grosart specifically ruled out a biographical reading of "The Canonization." On the basis of the speaker's reference to his gray hairs and palsy, Grosart proposed that Donne must have written the poem, by way of exception, in the person of another.(38) The assumption that the poem had been written in Donne's youth was typical and pervasive, however; it derived from a highly influential passage in Walton's Life, and Gosse was the first to call it into question in print when he presented "The Canonization" as evidence of a recovery of Donne's poetic vitality after his marriage.
In the late twentieth century, mention of a biographical interpretation of "The Canonization" is likely to call up memories of the sorts of readings offered by Gosse, Hunt, and Marotti, who refer the poem to Donne's marriage. It would be wrong to suppose, however, merely on the basis that this specific historical setting was not proposed in print until the end of the nineteenth century, that biographical assumptions did not provide the boundaries within which earlier readers understood the poem. Even Coleridge, whose wide reading in seventeenth-century divinity, and in Donne's Sermons, freed him from thinking about Donne in the terms provided for others by Walton's Life, was fascinated with the man who had written the Satyres and the Songs and Sonnets. In particular he took far more seriously than Walton had the great passions of Donne's life, love and religion; and he understood that these passions are revealed in Donne's poetry, especially in the sorts of poems that Walton had sought to dismiss as having been "facetiously Composed and carelessly scattered" before Donne was twenty and which, as he claimed, Donne had so regretted that "in his penitential years ... he wish't they had been abortive, or, so short liv'd that his own eyes had witnessed their funerals."(39) Coleridge developed implications that Walton had sought to bury. He proposed that although the poet's exuberant creativity would sometimes "squander . . . golden Hecatombs on a Fetisch, on the first stick or straw met with at rising," the poems had in fact survived to be published. He, more than any other reader, seems to have appreciated that the poet's display of his "purse-proud Opulence, of innate power" was so remarkable that poems once "loosely scattered" in manuscript copies had, three times before Walton published the first edition of the Life, been turned into literary monuments in the editions of 1633, 1635, and 1639.(40)
That Coleridge had distinct conceptions of the man who wrote the Songs and Sonnets, and that he formed these conceptions with an unusual independence from Walton's ostensible interpretation of Donne's life, are further evidenced in the sentence in the marginalia that follows his praise of Donne's astonishing creative "vigour." Donne "was an orthodox Christian," Coleridge observed, "only because he could have been an Infidel more easily, & therefore willed to be a Christian: & he was a Protestant, because it enabled him to lash about to the Right & the Left - & without a motive to say better things for the Papists than they could say for themselves."(41) In short, Coleridge recognized what few writers on Donne before John Carey, who rather overreacted to a longstanding silence, were willing to acknowledge: that in Donne's time, especially in the years when (according to both Walton and Ben Jonson) Donne was writing a good deal of his poetry, there had been substantial constraints on what papists were allowed to say for themselves.(42) It was not until the era of the Oxford movement that Engiish Protestants were willing to acknowledge that such constraints had operated in Elizabethan times, and it was not until Jessopp, who had begun his research into Donne's life while he was at Oxford in the 1850s, turned over the fruits of that research to Gosse, that anyone proposed that "The Canonization" may have belonged to the poet's "literary maturity."
Recent work by Dennis Flynn has promoted a keen awareness that Walton gave very limited information about Donne's Catholic background."(43) That limitation had wide-ranging implications for the interpretation of "The Canonization" in particular, a poem" in which Donne blatantly draws on Catholic materials to forge the conceit whereby two saints are martyred for their love and subsequently invoked by worldly intercessors.(44) To be sure, the use to which Donne puts these materials, the justification of a ferociously sexual love, is highly unorthodox. But the analogy with the process by which Roman Catholic canonization took place after 1588 has been shown by John A. Clair to be thoroughgoing; and this establishes the poet's intimate famillarity with technical Catholic procedures.(45) Walton was interested in deflecting attention both from Donne's Catholicism and from his sexual nature, and in some respects his Augustinian model served these purposes quite well. By the late nineteenth century, however, the strategy finally backfired. Increasingly, readers had been referring other love lyrics by Donne to his life. In the 1890s many felt justified in inferring that, like Augustine, Donne had had sexual adventures in his youth. Many may also have been less than eager to learn, however, that Walton's hero could have "converted" as much for ambition and out of fear of persecution as he did because he saw that the claims of Protestantism were rationally superior.
While readers from Grosart to Gosse looked to the poetry to fill in one part of the biography glossed over by Walton, Jessopp was performing long years of archival research to fill in another. Gosse pursued his investigation into the lost youth with the benefit of this research and in a climate where it was beginning to be recognized that Roman Catholicism had not been for Donne merely his mother's religion. Jessopp showed that the men in Donne's family had also been recusants: that Donne's father had been a Roman Catholic; that Donne's two Heywood uncles had been Jesuits; and that, moreover, in 1593, Donne's brother Henry had died in prison after having been discovered with a Roman priest in his quarters.(46) Still, since the speaker of "The Canonization" taunts his adversaries with a conspicuously Catholic fiction, it required a certain imaginative boldness on Gosse's part to propose not only that the poem was an autobiographical utterance but that it "is marked by some of the most characteristic features of [Donne's] genius" and represents work of his maturity. Gosse observed that there was a gap between Donne's personal situation in the years after the marriage and the artistic representation of the lovers' hallowed position. But unlike Marotti after him, Gosse proposed that "The Canonization" is a "noble poem" that "affords us an index to the feelings of indignant and irritated impatience with which [Donne] regarded the obstacles set in the way of his happiness."(47)
It was Jessopp's work then that enabled Gosse to dislodge "The Canonization" from the context that Walton's Life had suggested for it. This context is broader than the remarks about the likely dates of composition for the secular poems. It extends back to the preceding paragraph in the Life and forward to include Walton's incorporation, at the end of the paragraph on how Donne regretted his youthful verses, of "An Hymne to God the Father." It was in the "Hymne," where Donne is seen at last to have repudiated his youthful sins, that Walton wanted his readers to find Donne's literary monument. Neither Walton nor his earliest readers need consciously to have supposed that the poet was punning on his wife's name ("For I have more") in this poem as well as on his own ("Thou hast not done"); in the context established by the emphatic declaration that Donne's "marriage was the remarkable error of his life" a pun that associates Donne's sins with Ann More can do its work subliminally.(48)
Walton makes his comments on Donne's carelessly scattered youthful verses and provides his quotation of the "Hymne to God the Father" in the context of his assessment of Donne's marriage, an assessment that offers a rival interpretation to that which may be found in "The Canonization." About two-thirds of the way through the Life (calculating according to the bulk of the work as it appears in the 1675 edition), Walton suddenly halts his narrative, leaving Donne to rest in his sickbed; and he stands back, as it were, before tracing the final years of sickness and solemn sermonizing, to reflect upon Donne's life as a whole. Having asked the reader "not [to] think it an impertinent digression," he provided an effective constraint on interpreting the poem in which three centuries later Brooks would find the paradigmatic evidence that "the language of poetry is the language of paradox." Donne's marriage, Walton writes, "was the remarkable error of his life; an error which though he had a wit able and very apt to maintain Paradoxes, yet, he was very far from justifying it."
Does Walton mean here that Donne tried to justify his marriage and failed, or that he did not even try? If we decide that Walton means that Donne did not try to justify his marriage, then "The Canonization," we might infer, is an innocuous trifle, as Marotti speculates when he proposes that the coterie audience would have seen that Donne was desperate and insincere. In any event, even if Walton was not referring specifically to the poem when he claimed that Donne "was very far from justifying" his marriage, the pertinent point is that the passage functions as a comment anyway, for a reader of the Life who also thinks of the poem.
If on the other hand Walton means that Donne tried unsuccessfully to justify his marriage, then he likely has "The Canonization" specifically in mind, and is asserting that he is unconvinced by its argument, which amounts to pathetic hyperbole. Such a response squares with the general interpretation of the marriage that the Life offers: from Walton's perspective the speaker of the poem could not possibly justify his love because he is by no means repentant for it. From another perspective, by contrast, it would not be difficult to see Walton as precisely the sort of person whom the speaker is addressing in the opening stanza. If we think the poem to be successful satire, then people like Walton are its likely objects. Walton, if he understood this even imperfectly, sought to defuse the satire by providing an alternate account of Donne's view of the marriage. The passage continues with a suggestion that though God may have been satisfied with Donne's repentance for his error, Walton himself was not: "though his wives Competent years, and other reasons might be justly urged to moderate severe Censures; yet, he would occasionally condemn himself for it: and doubtless it had been attended with an heavy Repentance, if God had not blest them with so mutual and cordial affections, as in the midst of their sufferings made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly then the banquets of dull and low-spirited people."
In short, Walton, who saw the marriage as conspicuously "noteworthy of remark" and "an extravagance of passion, a wandering of feeling, and a mistake," in senses that the OED provides for remarkable and error, was wrestling with his own conflicting feelings about the Donne-More relationship, courtship, and marriage. His excessive moralizing suggests that it was he who had the problem of justifying the marriage. Concerned as he was to present Donne as a man who was eventually reconciled to an ecclesiastical career and who had managed at last, after the death of his wife, to repent the extravagant follies of his youth, Walton suppressed reference to any poetry that other readers may have associated with the passionate period of courtship, just as he suppressed details about another great shaping experience of Donne's life, his religious upbringing as a Catholic. When, in the paragraph following this commentary on the marriage, Walton went on to tell of Donne's having "too loosely" scattered his youthful verses, he acknowledged the complexity of Donne's feelings and experience in order to keep the evidence of the poetry from invalidating his own interpretation of the events.
The principal reason that it did not occur to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers to interpret "The Canonization" as a defense of Donne's marriage is that Walton had preempted such an interpretive possibility. Until interest in Donne's poetry revived, the Life of Dr. Donne served to contain the passionate, wilfull, often satirical voice to be heard in many of Donne's secular poems. As Protestant hagiography it provided precisely an alternative to what may have seemed a playful or even a blasphemous celebration of profane love offered in "The Canonization" in terms borrowed from Catholic hagiography. Perhaps above all it quieted the "leading Thought" at the heart of Donne's poem, that human love can be a transfiguring grace.
Walton's was a historically decisive reading of "The Canonization" in that nearly all interpretations of the poem before Brooks were constrained by biographical assumptions that were largely derived from his Life of Dr. Donne. Moreover, in view of the fact that even the New Criticism (which sought temporarily to bracket out biographical considerations) and deconstruction (which renders all biographical accounts problematic) have not succeeded in eradicating all interest in Donne's relationship with Ann More, Walton's Life remains potentially relevant to any interpretation of "The Canonization." The irony is that, unlike Luther in his work on the Psalms, or Rousseau in his reading of Le Misanthrope, Walton had aims that necessarily precluded explicit mention of the very work that for three centuries he de facto interpreted more powerfully and influentially than any other interpreter, with the happy and ultimately liberating exception of Coleridge.
(1) Robert Darnton, "What Is the History of Books?" Daedalus, 111 (Summer, 1982), 79.
(2) Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947; rpt., London: Dennis Dobson, 1968).
(3) Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 157-65; Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca; Cornell Univ. Press,, 1982), pp. 200-205.
(4) See The Language of Poetry, ed. Allen Tate (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1942), pp. 37-61.
(5) Ben Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), I, 135.
(6) See Thomas P. Roche, "'The Canonization': Building What?" Paper presented at the Fourth Annual Conference of the John Donne Society, Gulfport, Mississippi, February, 1989; cf. Anne Ferry, All in War with Time: Love Poetry of Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Marvell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 112-25. All my citations of Donne's poems (including their titles) are from The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides (London: Dent, 1985).
(7) See John R. Roberts, "John Donne's Poetry: An Assessment of Modern Criticism," John Donne Journal, 1 (1982), 62. Cf. Jonathan Culler, "Changes in the Study of the Lyric," in Lyric Poetry beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 38-54.
(8) Brooks, Well Wrought Urn, p. 12.
(9) For a thoughtful commentary on the sort of future readers Donne seems to have imagined, see Achsah Guibbory, "A Sense of the Future: Projected Audiences of Donne and Jonson," John Donne Journal, 2 (1983), 11-21.
(10) Brooks, "Preface to the 1968 Edition," p. ix.
(11) Love Poems of John Donne with some account of his life taken from the writings in 1639 of IZAAK WALTON (Soho: Nonesuch Press, 1923), p. 89; Clay Hunt, Donne's Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954), pp. 72-73.
(12) Hunt, p. 88.
(13) I am grateful to Robert Fallon, George Klawitter, and the late Edward Sichi for making available to me the results of their work for the Donne Variorum.
(14) The most extensive compilation we have of quotations from Donne's verse in seventeenth-century books has been made by Ernest W. Sullivan, II, who has found more than seven hundred quotations. See "Who Was Reading/Writing Donne Verse in the Seventeenth Century?" John Donne Journal, 8 (1989), 1-16.
(15) Abraham Cowley, Poems (London, 1656), preface, n. p.
(16) David Novarr, The Making of Walton's Lives (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 35-36.
(17) Sullivan has called attention, for instance, to a transformation of Donne's elegy, "The Expostulation," into a prose letter, printed in The Marrow of Complements. Or, A most Methodicall and accurate forme of Instructions for all Variety of Love-Letters, Amorous Discourses, and Complementall Entertainments (London, 1653), pp. 41-42.
(18) Novarr, pp. 38, 48, 34.
(19) The passages from Donne's letters are quoted by Novarr, and are cited here from The Making of Waltons Lives, p. 5 in. Cf. Marotti, pp. 154, 168, 324.
(20) See, for instance, Devotions by John Donne, DD Dean of St Pauls with Two Sermons ... To which is Prefixed His Life By Izaak Walton (London: William Pickering, 1840), pp. xciii-xcvi.
(21) Quotations of Cotton's verses are from The Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert, Written by, Izaak Walton, 4th ed. (London, 1675), n.p. The poem appears there almost entirely in italics, and I have reversed the procedure in my quotations.
(22) For a brilliant characterization of how, in late seventeenth-century England, people often thought in terms whereby the ultimate meaning of particular episodes in life is deferred until after death, see Marshall Grossman, "Authors to the Themselves": Milton and the Revelation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), especially ch. 1.
(23) Or almost altogether, since "Present in Absence" was attributed to Donne after the 1891 edition. See Raoul Granqvist, The Reputation of John Donne 1779-1873 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1975), pp. 134-37.
(24) "A Hymne to God the Father," for instance, was surrounded by poems such as "Lost and Found" and "Sheeps and Lambs." See The Home Book of Verse American and English 158O-192O, ed. Burton Egbert Stevenson, 6th ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1925).
(25) George Saintsbury, Introduction, Poems of John Donne, ed. E. K. Chambers, 2 vols. (London: George Routledge & Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1896), 1, xxix; Edward Dowden, "The Poetry of John Donne," Fortnightly Review, n.s. 47 (1890), 806.
(26) Brooks, Well Wrought Urn, pp. 13-14.
(27) For recent reexaminations of Coleridge's reading of Donne, see three articies in the John Donne Journal, 4 (1985): John A. Hodgson, "Coleridge, Puns, and ~Donne's First Poem': The Litnbo of Rhetoric and the Conceptions of Wit" (pp. 181-200); John T. Shawcross, "Opulence and Iron Pokers: Coleridge and Donne" (pp. 201-24); and Dayton Haskin, "Reading Donne's Songs and Sonnets in the Nineteenth Century" (pp.225-52).
(28) The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 12; Marginalia II, ed. George Whalley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984),p.220.
(29) Brooks, Well Wrought Urn, p. 6.
(30) Long before Culler discussed the poem, this was pointed out by William J. Rooney, "'The Canonization' - The Language of Paradox Reconsidered," ELH, 23 (1956), 36-47; reprinted in Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne's Poetry, ed. John R. Roberts (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1975), pp. 271-78.
(31) Edmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne Dean of St. Paul's, 2 vols. (1899; rpt., Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959),I, 117-18.
(32) See Augustus Jessopp, John Donne Sometime Dean of St. Paul's A.D. 1621-1631 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, i897), especially pp. 20-28.
(33) [Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson], Memoirs of the Loves of the Poets, 2 vols. (1829; New York: Harper, 1833), II, 75-88; Alice King, "John Donne," The Argosy [London], 32 (1881), 301.
(34) See Dowden, pp. 799-800; J. C. M. Bellew, "Dr. John Donne," in Poets' Corner: A Manual for Students in English Poetry, with Biographical Sketches of the Authors (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1868), p. 194 n.; Alexander B. Grosart, "Essay on the Life and Writings of Donne," in The Complete Poems of John Donne, D.D., 2 vols., The Fuller Worthies' Library ([Printed for private circulation), 1872-73), II, xli; Charles Eliot Norton, Introduction, The Poems of John Donne, ed. James Russell Lowell (New York: Grolier Club, 1895), pp. xxix, 220.
(35) "The First of the English Satirists," Temple Bar, 47 (1876), 340-41; Gosse, I, 65.
(36) See Dowden, pp. 798-99; "First of the English Satirists," p. 341.
(37) Grosart, II, xvii. For analysis of this development, see Dayton Haskin, "New Historical Contexts for Appraising the Donne Revival from A. B. Grosart to Charles Eliot Norton," ELH, 56 (1989), 869-95.
(38) Grosart, II, 170. For further details about writers who found Donne's sexual history inscribed in his verses, see Haskin, "Reading Donne's Songs and Sonnets. "
(39) Quoted from the 4th ed. of the Lives (1675), pp. 52-53. Other references are likewise to this edition, which has been the basis for most subsequent editions.
(40) For a discussion of this passage from the marginalia, see Haskin, "Reading Donne's Songs and Sonnets," pp. 231-35.
(41) Coleridge, Collected Works: Marginalia II, 220. Although these views appear in the margin next to "The Indifferent" in Lamb's copy of Donne's Poenis (1669), Barron Field, with whom Lamb shared the volume, recognized that Coleridge's comments had a wider applicability. When he sought to persuade the Percy Society to publish Coleridge's marginalia together with the Songs and Sonets, Field elevated this comment to the status of a general introduction.
(42) See John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), chaps. 1-2.
(43) See Dennis Flynn, "Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility," ELR, 19 (1989), 305-23; and "Donne the Survivor," in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1986), pp. 15-24.
(44) For a recent study that attests to the extent of Protestant success in rooting out such practices, see Jan Ziolkowski, "Saints in Invocations and Oaths in Medieval Literature," JEGP, 87 (1988), 179-92. In relation to the issue whether "The Canonization" is to be read biographically, it is of interest that, as Ziolkowski points out, a key interpretive issue with respect to invocations was whether one needed to be familiar with the saint's vita or not.
(45) See John A. Clair, "Donne's ~The Canonization,"' PMLA, 8o (1965), 300-302.
(46) See Jessopp, pp. 4-5, 10, 13-14. Jessopp noted that he was turning over other unspecified materials to Gosse, who, unlike him, had a feel for Donne's poetry (pp. viii-ix, 18). The edition of Walton's Life of John Donne, D.D., published at London in 1852, by Henry Kent Causton, contained elaborate biographical notes on Ellis and Jasper Heywood, including notice that they became Jesuits (pp. 131-32).
(47) Gosse, I, 117-18.
(48) For a duly skeptical discussion of whether Donne himself intended a pun on "more" to confess "idolatrous love of God's creatures," see David Novarr, "Amor Vincit Omnia: Donne and the Limits of Ambiguity," MLR, 82 (1987), 286-92.