John Donne's Performances: Sermons, Poems, Letters and Devotions

February 10, 2011

John Donne was no stranger to personal theatrics. As an 18-year-old law student at the Inns of Court - where he was known as "a great frequenter of plays and ladies" - he commissioned a portrait of himself as the young rake about town, complete with raffish moustache, earring and sword, and bearing the motto "How much shall I be chang'd, before I am chang'd".

By the time he sat for his final likeness, perched on an urn and wrapped in a shroud for his funeral monument, the author of The Flea had transformed himself into the Dean of St Paul's, but other things remained unchanged. Donne still had an impeccable eye for the grand gesture, scotching rumours of his death by appearing in the court pulpit with "a dying face", to preach (in the words of his first biographer) "his own Funeral sermon".

As the title promises, Margret Fetzer's book enriches our understanding of Donne's performances, but it does so by rigorously eschewing attention to biography. Rather than "speculate on his personal convictions" or even analyse "conceptual content", she proposes to focus on the performative resources of language itself, "how what is said is articulated".

The advantage of this approach is that it allows Fetzer to range widely across a number of genres, and it is refreshing to see work not only on Donne's love lyrics and religious poetry, but also on his sermons, letters and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (a meditative account of the near-fatal illness he suffered in 1623).

There is also significant merit in Fetzer's critique of recent Donne scholarship; after three decades of excellent work on Donne's political and doctrinal preoccupations, her historically informed and theoretically nuanced scrutiny of rhetorical and linguistic strategies is extremely welcome.

John Donne's Performances is a wide-ranging and rewarding study, but at times it can fall victim to its own ambitions. Fetzer never really attempts a definition of the term "performance", and her discussion often seems to suggest that every act of literary personation is also an instance of performative display. It is true that the outdoor preaching venue at Paul's Cross functioned much like a theatrical space, but I wondered how exactly this related to the hyperbolical posturing of Donne's lovers (who gleefully tell the sun to mind its own business), or the devotional rituals of his religious writing.

I would also question Fetzer's assumption that any analysis of Donne's beliefs is necessarily a form of critical diagnosis, an attempt "unambiguously to establish his religious affiliation". The most interesting readings of Donne are not concerned with pinning down his doctrinal convictions - mainstream Calvinist with a dash of free will, say - but instead explore the ways in which his writings problematise the issue of confessional identity and try out various spiritual guises in order to negotiate the complex religious landscape of post-Reformation England.

Donne never forgot about the symbolic importance of literary role play. In correspondence with his friends, he shaped the reception of his own canon by inventing a whole range of authorial selves: his whimsical defence of suicide, Biathanatos, was presented as the textual offspring of "Jack Donne", while more edifying productions of later years (those that managed to sidestep, at any rate, the tricky subject of mortal sin) were composed by the sober cleric, "Doctor Donne".

In the face of such artful manipulation, Fetzer is right to distrust her subject's self-presentation, but I'm not entirely sure that divorcing Donne the person(s) from his literary personae is the solution to the problem. Every performance has its own distinctive agenda; by separating linguistic display from the ideas that inform it, Fetzer captures some important versions of Donne, but others elude her grasp.

John Donne's Performances: Sermons, Poems, Letters and Devotions

By Margret Fetzer. Manchester University Press. 320pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719083440. Published 4 January 2011

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