Wednesday, May 14, 2008



Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures
ISSN: 1946-1992

In this first volume of Appositions, you will find:

* 16 Articles
* 4 Book Reviews

Our nineteen authors represent 5 countries (Canada, Cyprus, Ireland, the UK & the US) and, within the US, 7 states (CA, CO, IL, NJ, NM, TX & WI).

These articles first appeared as conference papers for the first-ever, fully electronic conference in the field of Renaissance & early modern literary and cultural studies. That event took place in February, 2008 on the Appositions site, where you may find a program by scrolling-down the TOC and clicking on the triangle for January. If you would like to see a copy of the CFP for that event, click here:

Essays from the conference have been reviewed once more by the Editorial Board, expanded, revised and/or edited again, then collected into this volume.

If our electronic platform may seem relatively modest (considering what might be possible these days in the digital realm), our content, we hope, will strike you as first-rate material. In our opinion, we have assembled a diversified and robust gathering of articles and reviews in Volume One of Appositions that all strike a vital balance between traditional and innovative concerns in the field. The content speaks/reads for itself, but, of course, we also hope to hear from our readers. You may post your questions and comments via the “post a comment” link at the bottom of each document page.

We hope you enjoy your visit, and that you’ll share Appositions with your colleagues, friends, and students.

The Editors

24 / 17 / 16 + 4 = proposals submitted / papers presented / articles + reviews published


APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures


Meltzer, Sharon B. “Genre, Culture, and the Moment of The Merchant,” Rpt. Shakespearean Criticism 132 (2010).

* * * ARTICLES * * *

Stella Achilleos: "Anacreontic Sociability"

Stella Achilleos
University of Nicosia

The Anacreontic and the Growth of Sociability in Early Modern England

1> The early modern period witnessed the production of a great number of English translations and imitations of the Anacreontea—an ancient Greek lyric corpus of verses devoted to the pleasures of love and wine that survived under the name of Anacreon and was first published by Henricus Stephanus in 1554.
[1] While the publication of this collection had an immediate impact on French poets (especially on Pierre de Ronsard and Rémy Belleau), the vogue for anacreontic texts in England started in the seventeenth century. Appropriated by Ben Jonson in various places—like Why I Write not of Love or in A Celebration of Charis[2]—the anacreontic was further taken up by various Cavalier poets of the mid-seventeenth century. Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Stanley and Charles Cotton produced a number of translations and imitations of the genre. Mainly reproduced in the first instance within circles of such classically-educated individuals who could read the original text or a Latin translation, the anacreontic subsequently followed a process of broader dissemination as it was gradually more widely reproduced in the vernacular. So by the end of the eighteenth century the anacreontic had emerged as an English genre in its own right that came to provide a very recognizable—and considerably popular—form of symposiastic verse.

2> Though in recent years we have witnessed increasing scholarly interest in the original collection, the phenomenon of the popularity of this genre in early modern England has received little critical attention.
[3] Yet the reception of the Anacreontea in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England points to an intriguing cultural narrative that deserves more careful consideration, as the genre appears to have been intricately interwoven with a broader set of social and cultural uses. As I have argued elsewhere, the appropriation of the genre provides the identifier for a tradition of refined male sociability that may, in the first instance, be associated with a culture of tavern-clubbing developed in the seventeenth century by Ben Jonson and his ‘sons’.[4] Taking a brief look at the formative moments of that culture, my purpose here will be to concentrate on how that was subsequently developed and redefined in the eighteenth century—when one finds the formation of the Anacreontic Society of London and various other convivial social clubs that took their special identity by the anacreontic associations.

3> The social implications of the anacreontic are suggested by the original ancient Greek corpus. Preserved in the tenth-century Palatine Anthology under the title Anacreon of Teos’s Symposiastic Hemiambics, the poems in the collection were probably composed to provide entertainment on various symposiastic occasions. Like the Roman ‘convivium’, the ‘symposio’ held a significant role in the social life of ancient Greece: attended almost exclusively by men, it presented an occasion not simply for convivial drinking, but also for social intercourse, conversation, and frequently for literary composition.
[5] Though to some readers of the Anacreontea, Anacreon’s voice may sound like the solipsistic voice of an old man who utters perpetual exhortations to a dream world of pleasure that no one else seems to share, the texts in fact contain a number of references to elements of communal drinking. Anacreontea 42 and 50, for instance, express the old speaker’s wish to share his symposiastic space with young male companions who will make him forget the restrictions imposed upon him by senility. More importantly, the anacreontic symposium involves the careful attendance to a set of ritual activities that suggest the need to maintain a sense of order and temperance. Various exhortations to wine-bearers to mix wine and water in the due proportions, for example, point to the wish to preserve an equilibrium and thus to construct a refined symposiastic space where excessive drinking is not allowed to interfere with the cheerful and companionate spirit of the occasion.[6]

4> This concept of refined sociability was taken up by various poets who translated or imitated the Anacreontea in seventeenth-century England—especially, as I have mentioned, by Ben Jonson and his ‘sons’ who often evoked the anacreontic model in their descriptions of genial symposiastic scenes. In Hesperides, for instance, Robert Herrick frequently looks back to Anacreon to draw a space of conviviality that is at once indulgent and controlled. Besides numerous translations and close imitations of the Anacreontea, Herrick’s collection contains various texts that appropriate more loosely the concept of the anacreontic symposium. Further, the model of Anacreon is often blended in Hesperides with that of Horace—whose Odes famously celebrate moderation—to yield a space of carefree, yet mild, merry-making. In An Ode to Sir Clipsebie Crew, for example, Herrick calls upon “Anacreon / To grace the frantick Thyrse” (8-9) and then asks for:

". . . Horace to be read,
Which sung, or seyd,
A Goblet, to the brim,
Of Lyrick Wine, both swell’d and crown’d,
A Round,
We quaffe to him." (13-18)

5> The concept of refined conviviality evoked in such descriptions is in fact associated by Herrick with the jovial drinking sessions held by Ben Jonson and his ‘sons’ at various London taverns in the 1620s and 1630s. In An Ode for Him, Herrick nostalgically looks back to those “Lyrick Feasts” shared by the older poet and his young followers:

"Ah Ben!
Say how, or when
Shall we thy Guests
Meet at those Lyrick Feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the triple Tunne?
Where we such clusters had,
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each Verse of thine
Out-did the meate, out-did the frolick wine." (1-10)

6> The lines here are reminiscent of the figure of Anacreon in Anacreontea 53 who wants to drink and dance among youths and to “go mad gracefully” (14). At the same time, the image of the boon companions going “nobly wild” rather than “mad” reminds us of Jonson’s Leges Convivales, his “Sociable Rules for the Apollo”—the room in the Devil and St Dustan tavern near Temple Bar, where Jonson and his ‘sons’ often met. Jonson’s code describes an intimate group of male companions who indulge in a polite kind of merry-making. The code in many ways suggests the exclusive nature of this group: besides being written in Latin, it also contains certain rules that invite those who are learned to join in, while fools and ignorant men are asked to stay away. The rules, further, recommend moderation in drinking and merry-making, so as to safeguard the meetings against riotous behavior.
[7] As Alexander Brome’s translation of rules eleven to thirteen suggests, gatherings are defined as refined occasions for polite conversation; thus boon companions are prompted to “let [their] only emulation be / Not drinking much, but talking wittily” (13-14) and to “stir up / Each other with a moderate chirping cup” (15-16).

7> A number of convivial verses by the ‘sons of Ben’ that reproduce images of such an exclusive and urbane kind of tavern-clubbing were probably composed within the context of the Apollo in the 1620s and 1630s. It may be argued, for instance, that a number of Herrick’s anacreontics date back to that period. These, however, were presented—together with various other verses—in a definitive act of publication in Hesperides in 1648. At about that time, the anacreontic acquired distinct political resonances as it was mainly reproduced within circles of royalist poets. Besides Robert Herrick, Alexander Brome, Richard Lovelace, Charles Cotton, John Cleveland, Abraham Cowley, and Thomas Stanley produced translations and imitations of the Anacreontea, redefining the anacreontic symposium as a space for royalist bonding and camaraderie.

8> Primarily reproduced in the first half of the seventeenth century within such choice groups of learned or sophisticated figures, the anacreontic provided a rather elite discourse marked out by education and class. Subsequently though the genre followed a process of broader dissemination, during which the boundaries between the elite and the popular were constantly renegotiated. As the anacreontic started to become more widely reproduced in the vernacular, it was channeled to various new audiences further down the social scale or to readers who did not necessarily have knowledge of the original collection. Anacreontic texts appeared in various sorts of printed material that contributed to this wide dissemination of the genre—from broadsides to song-books and periodical publications, like the Gentleman’s Magazine.
[8] A look into eighteenth-century materials further reveals an abundance of texts called ‘anacreontics’ that do not so strictly adhere to the original corpus. Attesting to the emergence of the anacreontic as an English genre in its own right, the term ‘anacreontic’ during this period comes to describe more broadly a kind of light and carefree literary composition, loosely appropriating the anacreontic subject matter.

9> Quite importantly, this process of broader dissemination reveals a whole new range of social and cultural uses of the genre, pointing at the same time to the development of new forms of public sociability in England. The most telling examples of how the tradition of refined sociability associated with the anacreontic in the seventeenth century was subsequently developed and redefined are provided by the formation in the eighteenth century of a number of social and musical societies that were named after Anacreon. The period notably witnessed the founding of an Anacreontic Society in London (that functioned from 1766 to 1793) and homonymous institutions in various other urban centers across the country. An Anacreontic Society, for instance, was formed in Birmingham in 1793, while another one was active in Norwich from about 1795. Evidence further points to the existence of such societies in Ireland. The Anacreontic Society of Dublin in fact preceded and outlasted that of London as it was active from about 1740 to 1865.
[9] Another homonymous organization was also established in Belfast in 1814.

10> Though evidence may be scarce, details about the memberships and activities of these societies may be gleaned from diaries, letters, newspapers and other extant records of the period. Still largely unexplored, their music collections also offer a wealth of primary sources that can shed further light on these institutions. The majority of materials available to us today though concern the Anacreontic Society of London. While my discussion here will concentrate on this institution, its example I believe is more broadly suggestive. As I would like to argue, the formation of this society provides a useful insight into the growth of male sociability in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Further, its appropriation of the anacreontic points to how the genre intriguingly continued to provide an idiom of civility and to identify an urbane set of discourses, though perhaps not quite so select or exclusive as the tradition of male tavern-clubbing established by Jonson and his ‘sons’ in the seventeenth century.

11> A letter published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1780 (under the title History of the Anacreontic Society) provides one of our main sources of information about this social gentlemen’s club that thrived in London in the second half of the eighteenth century. Apparently, the society had by 1780 come to enjoy considerable popularity and public acclaim, as the author’s opening remark to the editor of the magazine—“Mr. Urban”—indicates:

"I will not pay you so ill a compliment to suppose you have never heard of the Anacreontic Society. I therefore flatter myself the following account of its institution and progress will not be unacceptable to you or your polite readers."

12> Defined throughout its development as a male institution, the society held its meetings in establishments traditionally frequented by a male clientele:

"[B]egot and christened by a Mr. S – th about the year 1766, at a genteel public-house, [the Anacreontic Society] was nursed at the Feathers and Half-moon Taverns in Cheapside, and received a great part of its establishment at the London Coffee-house."

13> When the numerous applications for membership (a sign no doubt of the growing popularity of the society) required its expansion to more spacious premises, the club was again housed in a public drinking house, the Crown and Anchor in the Strand.
[11] By the eighteenth century, social drinking at pubs, taverns and inns had been established as an exclusive practice that was nearly always confined to men.[12] The small number of women who appeared in this male public sphere would usually be as workers or prostitutes. Coffeehouses, that made their first appearance in the second half of the seventeenth century, also became a primarily male space where men could meet to socialize, read a variety of materials provided by the coffee-sellers and discuss topics of general interest.[13] The Anacreontic Society was reportedly dissolved in 1793, when ladies were admitted to view the proceedings of one of its meetings—to the detriment of many of its members.

14> Despite its exclusiveness in terms of sex, the Anacreontic Society drew members from a variety of social backgrounds. Though membership would carry the payment of a subscription fee (three guineas for existing member and three and a half for new ones), that would probably still allow individuals from a wide range of social groups to apply. The membership of the Anacreontic Society, we are told, consisted of “Peers, Commoners, Aldermen, Gentlemen, Proctors, Actors, and Polite Tradesmen.” In effect, besides members of the nobility and high-ranking officials, the society would also attract individuals from a wide range of groups further down the social scale—from merchants, to professional men and artisans. The educational level of this mixed group would probably be equally diverse. Some of them might have been classically educated and able to recognize and appreciate the significance of the appropriation of the Anacreontea, while others—who had a more basic educational background—would not have the same appreciation of the various ways in which the anacreontic was appropriated by the society.

15> The common denominator of all these individuals who sought to become members of the Anacreontic Society would probably be their pursuit of social status and refinement. In many ways, this marks broader social and financial developments in eighteenth-century England. It has often been suggested that the growth of industry and commerce during this period brought about the financial prosperity of an increasing part of the population of the country, that extended well beyond the traditional landed aristocracy and gentry. This resulted in what has been called the “commercialization of leisure”.
[14] Ever-growing numbers of individuals were now able to buy products that were not restricted to their basic needs.[15] As Thomas Woodman has noted, this new consumerism involved a growing interest in politeness and social emulation.[16] One of the most significant manifestations of this consumerist society was an explosion in the demand for fashionable cultural products and forms of sociability that enabled individuals to display themselves and pursue social status.[17]

16> The Anacreontic Society of London was notably one of a great number of clubs and societies established during this period to supply for this booming demand for high-status leisure. Peter Clark’s study of British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800 serves to demonstrate how a wide range of such institutions transformed the social life of big urban centers to become a distinctive feature of eighteenth-century England.
[18] While certain societies might have remained small and intimate, a great number of clubs grew into large, formalized institutions with a fixed schedule of meetings and an elaborately prepared set of entertainments, often based on ceremonial arrangements that provided an element of ritual and highlighted the formality of the meetings. The History of the Anacreontic Society refers to a fixed and well-regulated set of activities—mainly musical—that were divided in three distinct sections (a formal concert, a dinner and after-dinner entertainments that would include the singing of catches and glees), each held in dedicated rooms. Further, prestigious clubs would often attract eminent musicians—from England and the Continent—who would be invited to give concerts or simply to attend meetings.[19] Franz Joseph Haydn’s attendance of one of the meetings as honorary guest of the Anacreontic Society of London in 1791 probably provided the highlight of the season, attesting to the high profile of the club at the time.

17> In effect, the establishment of the Anacreontic Society of London finds its place in a much broader framework of developments that marked the growth of public sociability in eighteenth-century England. At the same time though, this society—just as its homonymous organizations in other urban centers—appears to have had a very distinctive social identity that is marked by its multifarious associations with Anacreon and the anacreontic model. The naming of the club after the Greek lyric poet who sang of love and wine makes broader claims to a space of civilization represented by the classical world. More specifically though, it suggests the reappropriation of the concept of the anacreontic symposium as a discourse of civil and refined sociability. Besides the name of the club, its special identity is further suggested by its constitutional song, The Anacreontic Song, or, as it became more widely known, To Anacreon in Heaven. Written by Ralph Tomlison, once president of the club, the song would be “chorused by the whole company” to “open the mirth of the evening”. This would enhance the element of ritual in the proceedings of each meeting, providing a ceremonious act of solidarity and group pledging to the society’s “patron”. The song further suggests a conscious act of public fashioning, as it tells a myth that humorously accounts for the special identity of the society. It begins with “a few sons of Harmony” (2) calling upon “the jolly old Grecian” (4) as their presiding figure and asking him to grace them with his patronage and inspiration:

"To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of Harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arriv’d from the jolly old Grecian
“Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;
And besides, I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.” (1-8)

18> Anacreon’s reply figuratively suggests an initiation ritual whereby those “few sons of Harmony”—thereafter called “sons of Anacreon”—are introduced to the pleasures of the anacreontic symposium. The lines that follow unfold a hilarious story, whereby the gods of Olympus decide—“in transport of joy” (13)—to desert heaven and fly down to earth to join the “sons of Anacreon”. This angers Jove who is concerned that “if these mortals are suffer’d their schemes to pursue, / The devil a Goddess will stay above stairs” (11-12), and threatens to strike the “sons” with his thunder. His wrath is appeased though by Apollo—the patron god of poetry and music—who takes the society under his protection:

"Apollo got up, and cried, “prithee, ne’er quarrel,
Good King of the Gods, with my vot’ries below,
Your thunder is useless,” then shewing his laurel,
Cried, “Sic evitabile fulmen, you know.
Then over each head my laurel I’ll spread,
So my sons from your crackers no mischief shall dread,
Whilst snug in their club-room they jovially twine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.” (25-32)

19> Having received the blessing of Apollo’s laurel, the club is thus metaphorically marked as a space, not simply for urbane conviviality, but also for literary and musical production.

20> Indeed the Anacreontic Society appears to have been prolific, as it generated a large volume of convivial songs. Many of these probably escaped the immediate context of the Anacreontic Society and followed miscellaneous lines of broader dissemination that proliferated their social uses. The Anacreontic Song, for instance, enjoyed considerable popularity and was often printed as a broadside. Its tune by John Stafford Smith soon became well known and was used to set up various other songs in England. Amazingly enough, the traces of this popular song can even be found up until the present day as it traveled all the way to America, where, with the addition of new words in the early years of the nineteenth century, it provided the setting for the ‘Star-spangled Banner’, the piece we all know today as the National Anthem of the United States.

21> Various other songs also were reproduced in a variety of printed materials—such as song-books and, most often, broadsides—that enabled their transmission to new audiences. In quite a few of these editions, the songs are advertised for their novelty, but also for the social context within which they were produced—an element that reflects what had apparently become common practice among printers and booksellers during this period, as the association of the printed text with the fashionable social context of clubs like the Anacreontic Society would probably increase the marketability of the edition. Thus a title like Brave boys let us live . . . A new drinking song, as sung at the Anacreontic Society (published in broadside, possibly in 1790) provides a typical example of how songs would be advertised at a time when the popularity of the Anacreontic Society seems to have been at its peak point.

22> One soon realizes that the example of the Anacreontic Society serves to highlight part of a much bigger picture that concerns the broader dissemination of the anacreontic in the eighteenth century. A closer look reveals that during this process an even greater set of social uses was applied to the genre, some of which might extend beyond all-male groups to involve the participation of heterosexual audiences. Evidence suggests that a number of anacreontic verses were put to music and used in various social functions and leisure activities that accommodated both men and women—such as private and public concerts at theatres, gardens and other venues. These provided alternative types of sociability that grew in parallel to the tradition of male clubbing to form an integral part of the commercialized culture of leisure discussed earlier on. Volumes like The Muses Banquet (published in 1792) bring together a number convivial songs about love and wine, in the manner of the anacreontic, with an indication that those were sung at a variety of social venues—ranging, as the full title of the edition suggests, from all-male societies like the Anacreontic Society and the Beef Steak Club to theatres and “other Convivial and Polite Assemblies in Town” that would accommodate both sexes. A number of these texts possibly found common use, circulating freely amongst different types of venues.

23> Gradually the term ‘anacreontic’ was also used in various other forms of public entertainments that involved both male and female participation, like the opera and ballet. These developments originated in the Continent as French and Italian musicians in the eighteenth century composed a number of ‘anacreontic’ ballets and operas—works that were often based on fictional stories about the life of Anacreon, Cupid narratives or other amatory themes. Jean Philippe Rameau’s Les Surprises de l’Amour (or The Surprises of Love), for instance, had a one-act ballet entitled Anacréon attached to it when the work was mounted at the Opera in Paris in 1757. By the end of the eighteenth century, ‘anacreontic’ ballet-operas became a distinctive genre that included works like Tout Cède à l’Amour (or Love Conquers All), produced by Eugène Hus in 1781, and Le Bonheur est d’Aimer (or Happiness is Being in Love), produced by Jean Bercher in 1785.

24> Such entertainments were enjoyed by English men and women who traveled to the Continent. Some, however, were also performed in England as the trend soon took hold of English audiences as well. Luigi Cherubini’s opera Anacréon, ou l’Amour Fugitif (composed about 1800), for example, enjoyed considerable popularity in England, where it ran through several editions—its overture, in particular, which would probably be performed on many occasions as an individual piece. The list also includes various other ‘anacreontic’ ballets that were imported in England. For instance, Narcise et les Giroces. The last . . . Anacreontic Ballet by Sigr. Rossi . . . was arranged for the pianoforte and the harp by an English composer, Henry Rowley Bishop, while Cesare Bossi’s Paphos Assiégé par les Scythes. A Grand Anacreontic Ballet was printed in England and performed (about 1800) at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket.

25> As it appears, during this period the anacreontic found its broadest applications as it came to be associated with a wide range of social uses that grew in parallel to the male culture of clubbing described above. All in all, the genre seems to warrant a more comprehensive examination as it appears to yield surprising insights into the development of various forms of public sociability in early modern England, making broader suggestions about the complex relationship between literary texts and cultural contexts.


[1] Modern scholarship has proved that the Anacreontea were written by a number of poets during a span of about six hundred years, from the late Hellenistic to the Byzantine period. Here ‘Anacreon’ is referred to as the author of the corpus for the sake of economy.

[2] In these texts, Jonson plays mischievously with the anacreontic themes of love and old age. Why I Write not of Love, for instance, offers a playful beginning to The Forest that provides an ironic version of those little Cupid narratives in the Anacreontea.

[3] This renewed scholarly interest in the Anacreontea was marked by the publication of M. L. West’s new Teubner edition of the Carmina Anacreontea in 1984, D. A. Campbell’s Loeb edition in 1988—that also made the corpus readily available in English—and by Patricia Rosenmeyer’s The Poetics of Imitation, a thought-provoking book-length study of the original collection. The publication of John O’Brien’s Anacreon Redivivus further points to an increasing scholarly interest in the French translations and imitations of the Anacreontea produced by the poets of the Pléiade—especially by Pierre de Ronsard and Rémy Belleau—in the mid-sixteenth century. However, we have not so far seen any attempt for a sustained consideration of the transmission of this genre in England.

[4] A more comprehensive discussion of the appropriation of the anacreontic by Jonson and his ‘sons’ may be found in my chapter “The Anacreontea and a Tradition of Refined Male Sociability” in A Pleasing Sinne.

[5] Works like Plato’s Symposion and Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae suggest a relaxed and friendly atmosphere where the symposium provides the background for elaborate philosophical discussions on a variety of issues.

[6] See, for instance, Anacreontea 47 (10-12) and Anacreontea 38 (11-12).

[7] In contrast to the ideal set of values projected in his Leges Convivales of course, Jonson was reputed to be a heavy drinker. That is suggested, for instance, in the Conversations with Drummond, or in the notes of John Aubrey and Archdeacon Plume, reproduced by Herford and Simpson in their edition of Jonson’s works (178-88).

[8] Anacreon is one of the most widely represented classical authors in the Gentleman’s Magazine, its volumes containing numerous anacreontic texts.

[9] Catherine Ferris’s article in Brio provides a useful study of the collection of the Anacreontic Society of Dublin—held in the library of the Royal Irish Academy of Music—that serves to shed light on the music scene in Dublin during the period. However, there has so far been no attempt to provide a comprehensive examination of all the ‘anacreontic’ societies formed in the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth century or to establish the possible inter-connections among these organizations.

[10] Unless otherwise stated, quotations that follow here are drawn from this document.

[11] According to the author of this letter, following its move to the Crown and Anchor, the club was allowed to expand considerably and to increase its membership, initially from twenty-five to forty members and gradually to eighty. Existing members were also allowed to invite a friend to the meetings, though as the membership grew this was limited to alternate nights.

[12] For an insightful discussion of the development of the English alehouse see Clark, The English Alehouse.

[13] See Laurence E. Klein’s discussion in “Coffeehouse Civility”.

[14] See, for instance, The Birth of a Consumer Society.

[15] See, N. McKendrick, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England” in The Birth of a Consumer Society, pp.9-33.

[16] As Woodman comments, “considerable concern was expressed in the period about these symptoms of what one writer called the ‘Genteel Mania’ and ‘imitating every station above our own’” (19-20).

[17] Big urban centers in particular experienced what has been called by historians an “Urban Renaissance”, a transformation in their public life that included the provision of various kinds of high-status leisure. See Borsay’s The English Urban Renaissance.

[18] Clark’s study follows the history of the development of clubs from their early stages in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the eighteenth century, when they became formalized institutions. As Clark points out, besides being almost exclusively based in big urban centers, the majority of these societies attracted a male membership. Female societies represented a tiny fragment of this primarily male public sphere (198-204).

[19] As pointed out in the History of the Anacreontic Society, the concert offered in the first section of its entertainments “consist[ed] of the best performers … in London,” who were honorary members of the society.

[20] This piece of evidence is probably only part of the bigger picture that contains the transmission of the song to America. Though these threads fall outside the scope of the current paper, I suspect that the anacreontic melody acquired political connotations and was used to set up a number of patriotic folk songs in America, especially during the period of the American civil war.

[21] For a discussion of ‘anacreontic’ ballets in eighteenth-century France, see Judith Chazin-Bennahum’s “Wine, Women and Song.”

Works Cited

Achilleos, Stella. “The Anacreontea and a Tradition of Refined Male Sociability.” A Pleasing Sinne. Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-Century England. Ed. Adam Smyth. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004. 21-35.

Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral Lyric from Olympus to Alcman. Ed. with English trans. by D. A. Campbell, Loeb Classical Library: Greek Lyric, II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: Heinemann, 1988.

Ben Jonson. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52.

Bishop, Henry Rowley. Narcisse et les Giroces. The last . . . Anacreontic Ballet by Sigr. Rossi . . . Composed and Arranged for the Pianoforte or Harp. London, [1806].

Borsay, Peter. The English Urban Renaissance. Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Bossi, Cesare. Paphos Assiégé par les Scythes. A Grand Anacreontic Ballet, as Performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Composed and Arranged for the Piano-forte by C. Bossi. London: Rt. Birchall, [1800].

Brave boys let us live. Lets cheerfully live till we dye. A new drinking song, as sung at the Anacreontic Society. [London]: J. Fentum, [1790].

Carmina Anacreontea. Ed. Martin L. West. Leipzig: Teubner, 1984.

Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. “Wine, Women and Song. Anacreon’s Triple Threat to French Eighteenth-Century Ballet.” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 5.1 (1987): 55-64.

Cherubini, Luigi. Anacréon, ou l’Amour Fugitif. Opéra Ballet en Deux Acts . . . Paris: Luigi Cherubini, [1803].

Clark, Peter. British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800. The Origins of an Associational World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

---. The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830. London and New York: Longman, 1983.

Ferris, Catherine. “The Music Collections of the Anacreontic Society and the Sons of Handel Society and Music Making in Dublin c1740-1865.” Brio 43.1 (2006): 21-33.

Herrick, Robert. The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. Ed. L. C. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

“History of the Anacreontic Society.” Gentleman’s Magazine 50 (1780): 224.

Klein, Lawrence E. “Coffeehouse Civility, 1660-1714: An Aspect of Post-Courtly Culture in England.” Huntington Library Quarterly 59 (1997): 31-51.

McKendrick, N., J. Brewer and J. H. Plumb, eds. The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. London: Europa, 1982.

O’Brien, John. Anacreon Redivivus. A Study of Anacreontic Translation in Mid-Sixteenth-Century France. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Rameau, Jean Philippe. Les Surprises de l’Amour. Anacréon. Ballet en un Acte Détaché des Surprises de l’Amour. Paris: Daumont, [1757].

Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. The Poetics of Imitation. Anacreon and the Anacreontic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

The Muses Banquet, or Vocal Repository, for the Year 1792. Being the Newest and Most Modern Collection of Songs, Duets, Trios, &c. Lately Sung at the Anacreontic Society, Theatres Royal, Vauxhaul, Sadler’s Wells, Dibdin’s Sans Souci, Beef Steak Club, Astley’s, Circus, and at other Convivial and Polite Assemblies in Town. To which is added a Variety of Toasts and Sentiments. London: W. Cavill, 1792.

Woodman, Thomas. Politeness and Poetry in the Age of Pope. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989.

Stella Achilleos is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Nicosia. A graduate of the University of Reading (Ph.D. 2002), she has worked extensively on the social, cultural and political uses of the Anacreontea in early modern England. Currently her work also concentrates on the exploration of colonial space in Ben Jonson’s dramatic texts.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

Brian Bates: "Parodic Sonnets"

Brian Bates
University of Denver

Wordsworth, Milton, and Parodic Sonnets

1> Milton’s choices of sonnet form and subject matter have long been identified as the impetus for Wordsworth’s turn to the sonnet in 1802. Particularly Wordsworth’s sonnet “London, 1802,” which begins, “MILTON! Thou should’st be living at this hour,” holds Milton up as an icon of liberty, virtue, and English tradition. However, the high sincerity that has defined most criticism about Milton’s influence on Wordsworth’s sonnets overlooks several of the reasons why Wordsworth turned to Milton as he attempted to define his poetic vocation for English readers. Wordsworth not only admired Milton’s singular voice of liberty and the muscular turns that he employed to break the typical volta of the Italian sonnet; he recognized that Milton’s sonnets often defined themselves by the sheer number of voices conjoined within them.

2> Wordsworth also grasped how and why Milton welcomed humor and self-parody into his sonnets. Specifically, Milton’s twin sonnets 11 and 12 showed Wordsworth how to echo back and intertwine his own voice with the voices of contemporary critics and detractors. In his sonnet “On the Detraction which followed the Publication of a Certain Poem” (1820), Wordsworth parodies the language, subject matter, and form of Milton’s twin sonnets in order to engage contemporary reviewers and the reading public in a historical, self-reflexive, and ironic inquiry into what defines the form and nature of England’s literary tradition. This sonnet demonstrates Wordsworth’s understanding that, in order to engender a sustainable cultural place for his poetry, he must re-locate and re-appropriate his own poetic discourse in relation to those very cultural forces that seek to dismantle the collective power of his works.

3> Wordsworth’s 1820 sonnet was written in response to savage reviews and several parodies of his poem “Peter Bell” (1819). This sonnet underscores the value of his poetic labor by measuring that labor against the pledges of his contemporaries, and it reveals Wordsworth’s complex engagement with the review culture and the reading public as well as his definition of what constitutes literature. Furthermore, the sonnet demonstrates his acute awareness of the conventions of parody and the shaping power of paratexts. The sonnet begins with an epigraph that directs Wordsworth’s readers to: “See Milton’s Sonnet, beginning, ‘A Book was writ of late called ‘Tetrachordon.’” Instead of merely answering his detractors with a prose attack (as in the “Essay Supplementary to the Preface”) or even another ballad like “Peter Bell,” Wordsworth responded with a complex double-edged satire in a parodic sonnet that directs his readers’ attention backward to Milton’s sonnet 12—itself a complex satiric response to detractors of Milton’s Tetrachordon. Wordsworth draws upon a Milton sonnet that was distinctly representative of and officiously embedded in a complex intertextual and public controversy about the legality and ethics of divorce.

4> Wordsworth further situates his own public response to contemporary reviewers and parodists within the discourse of Milton’s response to his critics and within the literary tradition of the sonnet. If J.H. Reynolds had satirically lambasted Wordsworth in his mock “Peter Bell” for writing in “that pure unlaboured style, which can only be met with among labourers” (“Peter Bell” 174), Wordsworth responded by explicitly naming a fellow laborer (Milton) and by writing in a self-consciously intricate form (the sonnet). Wordsworth’s epigraph enjoins his contemporary readers to read Wordsworth’s response to them within the context of Milton’s battles with his critics.

5> In order for readers to acquire the competence to read Wordsworth’s poem, the epigraph suggests, they must go back to Milton’s sonnet and grapple with the complex relationship that Milton describes between writer, text, and critics. Wordsworth might have chosen to refer his readers to Milton’s twelfth sonnet for several reasons. First, Milton’s sonnet responds to readers who misunderstood Tetrachordon and his divorce tracts as well as readers who neglected to read Tetrachordon. Consequently, it deals explicitly with the reception history of his works. Second, in the sonnet, Milton satirizes the responses of contemporaries who happen across Tetrachordon in the marketplace of St. Paul’s: “Cries the stall-reader, bless us! what a word on/ A title page is this!” (5-6). These stall readers cannot grasp the meaning of Milton’s Greek title (even though they mimic the sound of it, “what a word on”) and they complain, “Why is it harder Sirs then Gordon,/ Colkitto, or Macdonnel, or Galasp” (8-9). An explicit commentary on learning in his age, these lines begin to suggest why Milton’s readers were so bewildered by his Greek title. However, the fact that these stall readers mimic the title by mocking it implies that his work has gained a degree of currency among such readers.

6> Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” also experienced a degree of currency and even popularity as a function of his detractors. His “Peter Bell” sold more copies than any of his previous books of poetry, largely due to the popularity of Reynolds’ parody, written only with the knowledge of Wordsworth’s title. Although the meaning of his title is misrepresented and even misunderstood in such a context, Reynolds’ parody also brought Wordsworth’s name and work to a new level of public attention. Somewhat ironically, Wordsworth too seems to have invited such attention to his title with his epigraph to “Peter Bell”: “‘What’s in a Name? Brutus will start a Spirit as soon as Caesar!’” Widely commented on and ridiculed, Wordsworth’s epigraph directly calls attention to his title. The Lake poet’s reference back to Milton’s sonnet also suggests that Wordsworth’s contemporaries have not grasped the meaning of the title “Peter Bell” any more than Milton’s contemporaries could grasp his Greek title. Wordsworth’s epigraph to his sonnet implies that his critics have misread or overlooked the central importance of his character’s name for the trajectory of the story and that character’s reformation. Instead of merely denigrating attacks on “Peter Bell” from “a harpy brood” (7), Wordsworth enables his sonnet, through Milton’s sonnet 12, to comment indirectly on readers and learning in his own age. Wordsworth suggests that his critics, like Milton’s critics, cannot understand his title and, therefore, cannot understand his work. Furthermore, what Wordsworth chooses not to say, Milton says for him.

7> In “Resembling Unlikeness: A Reading of Milton’s Tetrachordon Sonnet,” Patrick Cook argues that although sonnet 12 satirizes a lack in contemporary learning, the speaker also implicates himself in the age that he critiques, with the repeated use of “our” in “Those rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek” (10) and “ours” in “Thy age, like ours, O Soul of Sir John Cheek,/ Hated not Learning worse then Toad or Asp” (12-13): Cook maintains, “The apparently unlike stall-readers are in fact most resembling—resembling both Milton and the earlier age he praises in both the poem and [Tetrachordon]” (123). Although the sonnet foregrounds the differences between poet and readers, it also collapses that difference in the sestet with the use of “our.” Furthermore, in relation to line 10, Cook even asserts, “Just as spelling the title brings the vulgar closer to Milton, so do considering, imitating, indeed even quoting the vulgar bring Milton closer to them” (124).

8> In his sonnet, Wordsworth also seems to quote “the vulgar” that seemingly have misunderstood and mocked his “Peter Bell.” He refers to Robin Hood and Rob Roy—references perhaps to Reynolds’ sonnets about Robin Hood as well as to Wordsworth’s own poems and comments about the works of Sir Walter Scott. He also places his “Peter Bell” in line with Robert Burns’s Tam O’Shanter. Wordsworth mimics contemporary complaints against his work, echoes his own complaints against contemporaries, and brings their voices together in the octave of his sonnet. Furthermore, Wordsworth imitates and quotes Milton’s speaker and, thereby, brings himself and his poem closer to the tone of Milton’s poem. Against “A book was writt of late call’d Tetrachordon,/ And wov’n close both matter, form, and stile,” Wordsworth writes, “A BOOK came forth of late, called PETER BELL;/ Not negligent the style;--the matter?—good.” Wordsworth too, these lines suggest, can imitate parodically another’s work as well as any parodist can imitate him. Wordsworth can speak the language of his detractors as well as imitate the language of Milton.

9> Curiously, though, Wordsworth’s rendition of the second Miltonic line only deals with style and matter—Wordsworth has left out how the form is “wov’n close.” The dashes elide this point, but what Wordsworth seemingly has passed over here is, in fact, what his sonnet asks that his readers weave together. This elision might be explained by Wordsworth’s reference to Milton’s title Tetrachordon. The title—suggestive of four disparate musical strings tuned together—which Milton metaphorically applies to his weaving together of four pieces of scripture, underlines Milton’s attempt to bring into accord his age’s views about marriage and divorce. For Wordsworth’s readers, such weaving also necessitates their recognizing not only how Wordsworth’s sonnet responds directly to Milton’s sonnet 12, but also how it positions itself in relation to Milton’s sonnet 11, sonnet 12’s twin poem.

10> Wordsworth’s sonnet alludes to two aspects of Milton’s sonnet 11. First, in the last two lines of the octave of Wordsworth’s sonnet, he writes that his detractors, “Waxed wroth, and with foul claws, a harpy brood/ On Bard and Hero clamorously fell.” Wordsworth evokes the Dionysian elements of Milton’s sonnet 11. The speaker in Milton’s sonnet, who prompts his contemporaries toward liberty with the argument of his twin treatises Tetrachordon and Colasterion, finds himself beset with “a barbarous noise” of detractors, attempting to tear him apart. While Wordsworth follows Milton’s depiction of a ravenous community of critics, the Lake poet chooses a different figuration of his detractors. Instead of Milton’s lecherous detractors, “Owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs,” Wordsworth describes a “harpy brood” that attacks both “Bard and Hero.” Milton equates himself with the persecuted Latona who gave birth to Apollo and Diana, twin gods suggesting his twin treatises while Wordsworth describes his critics as a “harpy brood,” thereby characterizing them as half-predator bird and half-woman.

11> With such a comparative image, Wordsworth implies that he, as a “Bard,” is in a position like Phineus from an episode in the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo and cursed for using this gift by Zeus, Phineus was beset, every time he attempted to eat, by harpies that defiled his food, leaving it so foul that no mortal would eat it. Like Milton’s self-portrayal in sonnet 11 of a poet who attempts to provide truth and liberty, Wordsworth fashions himself as a seer, capable of prophesying truth that leads to liberty. Wordsworth places his readers in a position to recognize, by way of Milton’s sonnet 11, that he, like Milton, also prophesies the truth. The image also takes on an economic significance. Beset by harpies that befoul his reputation and his poetic characters, and consequently his poems, his depiction suggests not only that these critics plague his career, but also that parodists and critics render his works unfit for public consumption because they tamper with them before they can be consumed. Or, the image might even imply that these critics tamper with the economics of his poetry, ruining his capital gains from the sale of his works. These harpies stand in the way of the poet reaping the benefits of prophesying the truth. Ironically, however, in the case of “Peter Bell,” Wordsworth has come to rely on this harpy brood for catalyzing sales of his work. To remain in the public eye, he needs the very “harpy brood” that defiles his work.

12> The second overt allusion to Milton’s sonnet occurs when Wordsworth describes his hero Peter Bell as a “Rover.” Besides using the proper name “Rover,” Wordsworth echoes the word “roav” both from his own “Peter Bell” and from Milton’s sonnet 11: “But from that mark how farr they roav, we see/ For all this wast of wealth and loss of blood” (13-14). Milton chastises critics who “still revolt when Truth would set them free” (10), and chooses “License” instead of “liberty,” by, as John Shawcross points out, likening “the people who think they aim at liberty by means of Civil War to wasteful archers whose arrows (rovers) miss their mark and merely wound their prey.” Like Milton, Wordsworth suggests that his detractors also have missed the mark with their criticisms of the poet and his characters. Correspondingly, his octave begins, “Heed not, wild Rover once through heath and glen,/ Who mad’st the better life thy choice.” At the volta in his sonnet, Wordsworth turns to address his “Hero” Peter Bell directly and shifts the setting of the sonnet from the overtly public responses of his critics to the private world of the poem “Peter Bell.” He urges his hero to ignore this brood of harpies and focuses instead on where Peter Bell has gone or will go.

13> Curiously, the syntax of line 8 renders the word “once” a bit ambiguous. The word seems to imply that Peter Bell has already passed one time through heath and glen; however, it also suggests a process, meaning that once he makes it through the heath, he should “Heed not” this harpy brood. As a Rover, who has wandered and been once through an experience that has transformed him entirely from a rogue to a more virtuous man, and as a character, who continues to grow as a portion of Wordsworth’s larger poetic oeuvre, Peter Bell offers a model for Wordsworth’s readers—a model of progressive learning that is only undercut by listening solely to Wordsworth’s detractors. Wordsworth’s Rover functions as a corrective surrogate to the roving license of Wordsworth’s readers who denigrate the type of moral and hermeneutic liberty that Wordsworth ascribes to this character’s conversion and suggests might be available through his poetic works. Although Wordsworth creates a distinction between his detractors (in the octave) and his own private world of poetry (in the sestet), his sestet also suggests the manner in which readers can become a part of this world, by following a path, like Peter Bell, through the heath and glen of his poems.

14> The combination of Milton’s sonnets twelve and eleven offers readers a dual perspective that both sympathizes with and rejects contemporary readers. Attentive readers might also recognize that Wordsworth’s epigraph not only has drawn them back to Milton’s response to critics; it has drawn them toward the very middle of Milton’s sonnet sequence of twenty-three poems, thereby inviting them to look both backwards and forwards. For Wordsworth—an avid reader of Milton’s sonnets and a poet acutely concerned with the arrangement of his poems—referring readers to the middle of Milton’s sonnet sequence is no accident. Wordsworth asks his readers to consider the placement of both Milton sonnets that he alludes to in the context of all 23 sonnets, which trace Milton’s youthful follies and ambitions, his political involvement, and his subsequent blindness. Beyond prompting attentive readers to consider the relationship between Milton’s sonnet and his series of sonnets, Wordsworth also suggests that his sonnet and the “Miscellaneous Sonnets” that it appears within in 1820 are connected to the same tradition. Wordsworth does not single out his sonnet-response to detractors of “Peter Bell” as a singular work. Instead, he organizes his response within the larger context of his nationalistic “Miscellaneous Sonnets,” an ever-growing and evolving category that he first created as a portion of his 1807 Poems. “On the detraction” is a part of a group of sonnets, which are, in turn, a portion of Wordsworth’s larger poetic oeuvre.

15> For Wordsworth the sonnet form operates as a metaphor for his entire poetic works. Wordsworth even conceived of modeling his epic The Prelude on the Petrarchan sonnet. In answering his detractors with a sonnet—embedded within other sonnets, which further are embedded within the Miltonic tradition of sonneteering— Wordsworth demonstrates that the sonnet’s “scanty plot of ground” functions as an appropriate genre for engaging criticism and forging national identity. Wordsworth also suggests that the sonnet provides a fit space to record—by looking backward on and projecting forward—the collective labor of diverse communities of readers as they respond to the various parts of his ever-expanding poetic project.

Works Cited

Cook, Patrick. “Resembling Unlikeness: A Reading of Milton’s Tetrachordon Sonnet.” Milton Quarterly 26.4 (1992): 121-129.

Milton, John. The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

Reynolds, J.H. “Peter Bell: A Lyrical Ballad.” Romantic Parodies, 1797-1831. Eds. Kent, David and Ewen, D.R. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1992.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. III. Ed. E. De Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Brian Bates is an Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences Lecturer at the University of Denver. He specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture, and has published articles about Wordsworth’s collections of poetry, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, and Keats’s re-envisioning of Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” He also has an article focused on Wordsworth’s Regency parodists forthcoming in Studies in Romanticism.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

Siobhan Collins: "Riddling Wonders"

Siobhán Collins
University College Cork

Riddling Wonders: Gold Coins and the Phoenix in Donne’s Genre-Defying Verse

1> Hybrid genres inform Donne’s work. Within his satires, “brave scorn” at the lewdness and superficial sophistication of the Elizabethan court and the plague-ridden London streets is juxtaposed with “kinde pity”, which “chokes” the poet’s “spleen”.
[1] His amorous elegies are yet deeply satirical and biting in their references to contemporary economic, political and spiritual disintegration: “The Bracelet” depicts the influx of debased foreign coins (“fallen angels”) in England as a metaphor for the physical and spiritual disease and rot which both threatens and is already present in the speaker. Donne’s religious verse is vexed with “contraries”; sexual and sadomasochistic language inflects his address to God to batter his heart and to “ravish” him. His lyric love poems employ religious imagery to position the male lover as both a christ-like martyr and as the serpent of temptation, mortality and change; idealized lovers enact the “phoenix riddle” by dying and rising the same, and proving “mysterious” by their all-consuming sexual love. Donne’s genre-defying poetic corpus presents at large a notion of identity and of sexuality that is unstable and rooted in conflict, and thus the poet self-consciously departs from the Renaissance ideal of fixed literary kinds with their own essential traits.

2> Donne associates heterosexual love with both the biblical Fall into corrupting time and with an ideal union that symbolises regeneration. This creates much tension and conflict in his poetry. The poet is conscious of this conflict and manipulates kinds in order to give it expression. Donne’s poetry defies strict genre definition in order to put forward a concept of selfhood, sexuality and history that is formulated in part by a concern with mutability and that is deeply influenced by his own sense of self, place and time in early modern England. Genre plays a metaphoric role in the Renaissance through its ability to represent or act as an acronym for a person’s “whole culture”; at the same time, as Fowler points out, Renaissance poets had the ability to employ “genre metaphors in allusions of great economy”.
[2] The interrelation between aesthetic form and history informs my argument, which will focus on Donne’s Metempsychosis and his “Farewell to Love”, and engages also with the scholarship that surrounds his poems. Metempsychosis and “Farewell to Love” are often considered to be the most profane, grotesque and, in terms of genre, problematic of Donne’s canon. I will argue that these two enigmatic and seemingly cynical poems allude, riddlingly, to a notion of correspondence and union that the poet believed to exist prior to the biblical Fall into degenerating time, and that this relation and tension between the spiritual and the profane, the transcendent and the historical, can be seen through close attention to the poems’ circular form and golden (coin and phoenix) imagery.

3> Three dominating early modern conceptions of historical time include: the linear view of history as decay; the idea of history as cyclical and regenerative; and the idea of history as progress, also linear in shape.
[3] For Donne, history begins with the Fall into time. Frederick A. Ruf avers that Donne’s generic voice is subject “to the confusion of forces both within (despair, helplessness, false grief) and without (God)”.[4] The religious significance of genre resides in its ability to articulate and create experience. Achsah Guibbory states that for Donne “love [sometimes] counters the fragmenting, and degenerative course of history”, but is beset with ambiguities (85). Christopher Ricks, in contrast, does not see any indeterminate tension in Donne’s poems but argues forcefully that their “ends” repudiate their “own deepest apprehendings”. In the final lines, he claims, Donne’s poems “imagine hating their own flesh”, and that this “revulsion” is evident in the poet’s sensitivity to “sex as suicidal” in Metempsychosis. [5] “Farewell to Love”, which for Guibbory illustrates Donne’s “suspicion that man’s love for women participates in, or even accelerates, decay” (87), is described by Ricks as the most extreme poetic instance of how “postcoital sadness” is by Donne “grimly seized” (33).[6] Reading Donne’s poems in a linear way, Ricks fails to appreciate the complexity of Donne’s use of circular and golden imagery, and his merging of the riddle sub-genre with a variety of poetic forms. Contra Ricks, I contend that there is a lack of closure in Donne’s poems, which is not only crucial to an appreciation of the linguistic play of his poetic wit, with all its ambiguities and tensions, but also to an understanding of Donne’s sense of self and time as unavoidably being in medias res, unfinished, always in process.

4> I shall consider the form and spatial imagery of Metempsychosis and “Farewell to Love” in relation to what Ricks erroneously describes as the “only one interesting critical statement by Donne about the art of poetry” (46):

"[I]n all Metrical compositions, of which kinde the book of Psalms is, the force of the whole piece, is for the most part left to the shutting up; the whole frame of the Poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is it that makes it currant."

5> To Ricks this statement is unambiguous: “the stamp of Donne’s conviction is firmly upon the last clause”, and “the impression of the stamp is the authoritative termination of any ‘unstable processes’” (47) in the poem.
[8] However, Donne’s statement, while it does place an emphasis on the ending of a poem, is, like his poems themselves, much more complex than Ricks admits. It has not, to my knowledge, been previously observed that Donne’s comparison of the body of a poem to “a piece of gold”, and the final lines of a poem to “the impression of a stamp”, likens the whole poem to a circular golden coin, which is “currant”, that is, “belonging to the present time” (OED), circulating, or in progress, rather than terminated by authority as Ricks suggests. Gold coins were traditionally stamped with either a biblical image or an image of the monarch that symbolically reflected the purity and intrinsic value of their material. Donne’s statement on “metrical compositions” of a “kinde” with the “book of psalms” is underpinned by the theological significance inherent in medieval monetary thought, whereby sign and thing coincide. However, in Donne’s time, the adding of “vile soder” to the base metal of coins meant that their intrinsic value could no longer be relied upon; the debased coin became a symbol for Donne of both original sin—the “fault” whereby change and conflict became an inherent part of the composite self—and the further degeneration of the period (“The Bracelet”).[9] Donne’s use of the circulating coin as symbol has numerous conflicting connotations, aesthetic, economic, political, religious and corporeal, which are employed evocatively by Donne in his genre-defying poetic corpus.[10]

6> In keeping with the conventions of the riddle genre, Metempsychosis explicitly challenges the reader to discover the identity of the wandering soul’s final embodiment: the epistle states that the poem will narrate the soul’s bodily adventures from her beginning in paradise in that “apple which Eve eate, to this time when shee is hee, whose life you shall finde in the end of this booke” (34). The soul’s progressively degenerative exploits as it travels through “most shapes” (plant, animal and human) and “all times” (3) is represented synecdochically through increasingly debased and adulterated metals: “What the gold Chaldee,’ or silver Persian saw, / Greeke brasse, or Roman iron, is in this one” (7-8). The poet understood this decline as most pronounced in the increasing conflict between body and soul, word and thing, due to religious, political and scientific controversies, and as reflected in the steady debasement of coinage since the time of Henry VIII.
[11] In the opening sentence of the epistle to Metempsychosis the poet impresses his own face as stamp onto the poem, “Others at the Porches and entries of their Buildings set their Arms; I, my picture”. Donne draws attention to his own mixed and fallen nature by associating his picture with the adulterated coin that symbolizes the degenerative movement of the soul.[12] This link between Donne’s composite nature and the soul’s grotesque bodily exploits is even more apparent when we consider that the words “mettle” and “metal” had yet to be distinguished in this period.[13] The poet’s “picture” epitomizes the self as an image of the world. The self as composite of mortal body and eternal soul is hinted at in the title page and opening stanzas of the poem, which further confuse generic expectations by calling the reader’s attention to the two other kinds of genre that inform this poem: epic and satire.[14] Metempsychosis supports a particular notion of history that demands a particular form of representation, a restructuring of ‘kind’ to represent the changing world and self. The mixing of genre is the poem’s strength.

7> The aesthetic paradox that the end begins (theorized in Derrida’s notion of the law of genre) informs Donne’s fusing of kinds in Metempsychosis.
[15] The idea that every end marks a new beginning is suggested in Donne’s use of the Pythagorean myth, which allows the soul, following the death of one bodily host, to inform another; in his governing image of the circular and circulating coin for his poem; and in his use of numerology—the poem comprises of fifty-two stanzas and twelve episodes—to suggest a complete cycle of time. The idea of every end as a new beginning also underpins Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque whereby the world is understood in terms of the processes and excesses of the universal body. As I have discussed elsewhere, Bakhtin’s open-ended and ambivalent motif of “pregnant death” as a “two-bodied image” representative of cyclical time, decay and renewal pervades Donne’s Metempsychosis, and reflects the ambiguous and paradoxical relationship between life and death, death and life.[16]

8> Donne offers Metempsychosis to the reader as a riddle. His mixing of genres in Metempsychosis interconnects with his mixing of genders as key to the enigmatic identity of the soul’s last bodily host: “shee is hee, whose life you shall finde in the end of this booke”. The indeterminacy present in Donne’s mixing of gender, along with his riddling allusion to the end at the very beginning of his book, deliberately challenges and confuses the reader. Riddling is associated with the limits of knowledge and the rhetorical attempt to overcome those limits, and therefore also linked to desire, with its promise of fulfilment.
[17] The riddle makes vital the reader’s participation in the process of determining meaning. The promise contained in the riddle allows it to present itself as a gift, and partake in what Patricia Fumerton describes as “the ring of exchange”—or symbolic coin—that conflicted in this period with the rise of capitalism.[18] In the “ring of exchange” the end begins in “a system of ethical considerations [that] propels the gift in a process of circulation”.[19] The notion of generosity inherent in gift exchange also shares its etymological roots with genre in the Latin term genere. Genre, like the gift ethic, is not an end in itself: even the etymology of the word suggests its generative movement beyond itself. This is hinted at in Metempsychosis’s metrical form (considered to be the most distinctive element for determining literary kind in the Renaissance): the iambic pentameter, which swells to an alexandrine in the tenth and final line of each stanza, suggests the impossibility of containment, the pregnant potential of the end that also begins.

9> The etymological link between genre and gender would not be lost on Donne who considers that the natural progress of history towards degeneration can only be countered by a remembering of the correspondence and union that exists in all origins: “To know the nature of the thing, look we to the derivation, the extraction, the Origination of the word”.
[20] Metempsychosis explores the creation of the harmonious body and soul, and locates the origin of their conflict and division, in the myth of Genesis. In the beginning word and thing, body and soul, male and female were one. Metempsychosis is deeply concerned with discovering origins. Donne details not only the original embodiment of the soul in the apple in the garden of Eden, but also the “trees root” through which this apple “did draw/ Life” (123-4). The image of the root symbolizes for Donne the origin, source, and microcosm, the “contracted perfection”, and epitome of the all.[21]

10> Donne’s use of both satire and epic conventions to narrate the soul’s various bodily transformations and increasing subjection to bodily passions as it journeys through time, reflects his notion of fallen selfhood as an unfinished fusion of contrary elements forever in the process of change, with all the potential—positive and negative—that this implies. Marina Warner has suggested that narratives of metamorphosis characteristically “play a crucial part in anagnorsis, or recognition, the reversal fundamental to narrative form”.
[22] The final stanza of Metempsychosis, through its lack of closure and echo of the opening stanza’s biblical imagery, invites the reader to “wonder” at the universal nature of being in this world, and to recognize him or herself as the wandering soul’s bodily host. As we’ve seen, Donne also implicates himself, his “picture”, in his “sullen Writ” (511). The riddling union of the “shee” and “hee”, whose identity is the final stamp of Metempsychosis, and which concomitantly confers on the poem its value as coin, invites the fallen conflicted self to consider the prelapsarian harmony that existed between the body and soul, the male and the female, and to return to the golden age where sign and thing, interior and exterior, coincide. It is in this sense that Donne sets out to make his “darke heavy Poëm light, and light” (55): light as luminous gold, with its alchemical connotations of purity achieved through a process of transformation. However, the final metamorphosis necessarily remains incomplete. Conflict between the body and the soul, the “hee” and “shee”, is an inherent part of earthly, fallen existence within both the poem and the poet’s world. Metempsychosis engages the reader’s desire to find meaning; yet, the tension between the riddle and its solution is never fully resolvable, in this way the poem performs an on-going social and spiritual tension.

11> The richness of Donne’s use of gold coin as symbol of correspondence between body and soul, word and thing, poetic and sexual act, is perhaps most succinctly given form as the lovers transmute into the alchemical golden phoenix in “The Canonization”, whose endless circular dynamic of birth and death, and transformational round, gives the poem currency to transcend the King’s corrupt “stamped face”. The phoenix, associated with the sun, derives its name from the Greek word for palm tree, “phoinix”, on which the golden bird is said to build the pyre of spices that consumes its body, and from the ashes of which a new phoenix rises. In Metempsychosis, Donne alludes to the phoenix’s gathering of the spices necessary for its purification by death as it journeys from east to west: “[s]uck’st early balme, and Iland spices there” (14).
[23] A circular dynamic—from birth to death to rebirth—governs not only Donne’s more ideal love poems and religious verse but is also alluded to in his problematic and seemingly cynical and profane verse, such as Metempsychosis and “Farewell to Love”.

12> “Farewell to Love”, a lyric poem which again, like Metempsychosis, employs the riddle as sub-genre, also defies both linearity and closure. According to Pliny's and Lactantius’ account of the phoenix myth, a small worm appeared from the phoenix’s ashes that metamorphosed into a bird, and thus the phoenix was reborn.
[24] The final line in “Farewell to Love”, “If all faile, / ’Tis but applying worme-seed to the Taile (31-40)”, alludes to the notion of metamorphosis, death and rebirth. This riddling final line has been generally interpreted as a disillusioned, bawdy and “entirely effective” cynical refutation of sexual love. Ricks paraphrases Donne’s final line: “If the worst comes to the worst, I can always clap an anaphrodisiac to my penis” (35).[25] Yet, there is no evidence that worm-seed was regarded as an anaphrodisiac in Donne’s time. Neither, as we shall see, did “tail” refer exclusively to the penis. Ricks, like many other critics, relies on the incorrect glossing of “worm-seed” in editions of Donne’s poetry.[26] Ricks’ interpretation of Donne’s final line supports his argument that the ending of “Farewell to Love” constitutes “an act of revulsion”, and expresses “the shallowness of [Donne’s] final repudiatory bitterness”. However, the textual difficulties of this poem’s final lines are much more complex and interesting than Ricks allows.

13> At the end of the last stanza the burning cinders of the speaker’s sexual fire, which as the “summers Sunne”—an image of a golden round—“Growes great”, turns to ashes in the final line as “worm-seed” is applied to the “tail”. Ironically, Donne’s wit in this poem achieves its sublime heights in the seemingly mundane and bawdy “applying worme-seed to the Taile”. Gerarde’s Herball and the Grete Herball (Peter Treneris, 1526) attribute to worm-seed—its Latin name is semen sanctum—vermifugal power only. Its ability to expel worms from the body associates the plant with bodily emissions.
[27] In the context of “Farewell to Love”, Dipasquale’s reference to “worm-seed” as “male-seed” is clearly to the point, as is Ricks’ identification of “worm-seed” as the “emissions that are sex and death”.[28] However, although “worm-seed” as a pun for “male-seed” suggests a disparaging stance towards sex, this association of sex with death ultimately reinforces life: for Donne, the paradox and riddling wonder of sex is that the “little death” that follows ejaculation—“Being had, enjoying it decayes” (16)—is followed by life in the double sense of renewed desire and impregnation (“desires to raise posterity” (30). Death and resurrection stimulate Donne’s imagination. “Worm-seed” is a cruciferous plant, its four leaves arranged crosswise resembles a cross. The various connotations associated with the plant re-ignites the opening analogy between religion, death and sexual love in this poem. As both Smith and Dipasquale recognize, Donne is concerned in this poem with the nature of faith.[29] He refuses to reduce the “things unknown” to the degenerative dictates of “wise / Nature” (23/4).

14> That death involves rebirth is also hinted at in the final word “tail”, with its suggestion of the ouroboros ring. The ouroboros is “the beginning of the work in which the poisonous, moist dragon’s tail is consumed. When the dragon has completely sloughed its skin, like the snake, the supreme medicine has risen from its poison”.
[30] Employing the language of medicine and poison associated in alchemy with the ouroboros ring, Donne, in a sermon, describes the male and female, in their marital relation, as mutual “antidotes and preservatives” to each other’s otherwise poisonous sexual desire.[31] This mutuality between the sexes is also implied in the poet’s deliberately ambivalent use of “tail”: tail in its early modern semantic range refers not only to alchemical spiritual connotations of change and return, but also to both male and female sexual organs.[32] The multivalence of “tail” allows for different readings of the final line; Donne encourages the play of interpretative possibilities, refusing certainties. The final line in “Farewell to Love” is offered as a riddle, encouraging an active engagement with the ambivalent text that thus always remains in the process of being solved. Moreover, the conditional “if” in the final line precludes closure; the action of applying worm-seed is never fully completed in the body / word / world of the poem; only in the mind of the reader does the action take place.

15> Dipasquale’s reading of “Farewell to Love” comes closest to revealing Donne’s aesthetic intent when she states: “in the final lines… the speaker circles back to a version of the analogy [between religion and love] with which he began” (249). However, according to Dipasquale the speaker returns to the beginning of the poem in order to “deepen his ‘atheism’” and make “a mockery …of the quasi-divine” nature of love. Dipasquale sees the “return” in the words “if all fail”, which, she argues, “alludes to an atheist’s ‘dying hour’”. But the atheist’s dying breath calls out to God; faith is affirmed at the moment of death. Likewise, it is in the “worm-seed” (the emissions that are sex and death) that the whole alchemical process is invoked and the moment of transformation effected, whereby the speaker’s cynicism gives way to a renewed faith. Donne’s “worm-seed”, like the worm that is emitted from the phoenix’s body, effects a re-birthing of desire and life at its “dying hour”. With the concrete consummation of the final line in the word “tail” the poem becomes pregnant with potential—returning us cyclically to the opening where the speaker imaginatively, and wondrously, seeks presence in absence, the “deity in love”, and creates tension and a certain level of anxiety therein.


[1]John Donne, The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967) “Satyre III”, lines 1-2. [All further quotations from Donne’s poetry will be taken from this edition.]

[2] Rosalie L. Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre Theory in the Renaissance, ed. Barbara K. Lewalski (Berkeley: U of California P, 1973) 112; Alastair Fowler, “The Formation of Genres in the Renaissance and After,” NLH 34. 2 (Spring 2003): 185-201, 192.

[3] Achsah Guibbory, The Map of Time: Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Ideas of Pattern in History (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1986).

[4] Frederick J. Ruf, Entangled Voices: Genre and the Religious Construction of the Self (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997) 48.

[5] Christopher Ricks, “Donne after Love,” Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons, ed. Elaine Scarry (London: John Hopkins UP, 1986) 33-70, 33; 51; 34; 57.

[6] Richard Todd writes that “Farewell to Love” is “among the least anthologized, and … “least read” of Donne’s Songs and Sonets. Although Todd states that in terms of genre it belongs to the “renunciation of sexual love in favour of higher things”, which I disagree with, he recognizes that Donne’s tone, in this poem, “is extremely difficult to get a fix on”. See “‘Farewell to Love’: ‘Things’ as Artifacts, ‘thing[s]’ as Shifting Signifiers,” JDJ 18 (1999): 229-241, 229; 230; 233.

[7] Sermons VI. 41.

[8] Ricks here is attempting to dispute John Carey’s argument that Donne “retains a view of poems as unstable processes” (Life, Mind and Art, 192).

[9] See also, Shanakar Raman, “Can’t Buy me Love: Money, Gender and Colonialism in Donne’s Erotic Verse”, Criticism 43. 2 (Spring 2001): 135-268.

[10] For instance, in “Loves Progress”, Donne links the female sexual body with gold as the “soul of trade”, and maps for his coterie reader the surest anatomical journey towards the woman’s “centrique part” where “gold and fire abound”. In a verse letter to Lady Bedford, Donne appropriates the “ingenuity” yet wholesome constancy and intrinsic immutable worth of gold as a symbol for both his poem and his patron. The biblical language of the gold conceit in this verse, “no fire, nor rust can spend or waste / One dram of gold, but what was first shall last,” brings to mind the quasi-divine purity of gold as expressed in its alchemical symbol, a circle with a point in the centre—which also informs the famous compass conceit in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”.

[11] See Coburn Freer, “John Donne and the Elizabethan Economic Theory,” Criticism 38 (1996): 497-520.

[12] For a similar use of imagery that compares the imprint on a coin to impressions received by the self see Donne’s letter to Sir Henry Goodyer (Letters 101-2).

[13] Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004) 46.

[14] The general critical debate about Metempsychosis is on whether Donne intented the poem as a satire or as on epic. For opposing arguments about the poem’s genre see, for instance, Janel M. Mueller, “Donne’s Epic Venture in the Metempsychosis,” MP 70 (1972): 109-137; and Helen Gardner, “The ‘Metempsychosis’ of John Donne,” TLS, 29 (Dec. 1972): 1587-88, 1587. I argue that Donne intentionally fuses both epic and satiric elements in his poem.

[15] Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” trans. Avital Ronell, CI 7.1 (Autmn., 1980): 55-81; for a critique of Derrida’s ambivalent view of genre see Ralph Cohen, “History and Genre,” NLH 17.2 (Wintr., 1986): 203-218.

[16] Siobhán Collins, “Bodily Formations and Reading Strategies in John Donne’s Metempsychosis,” Textual Ethos Studies: or Locating Ethics, eds., Anna Fahraeus and AnnKatrin Jonsson (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005) 191-209.

[17] See Rosalie Colie, “Some Paradoxes in the Language of Things,” Reason and the Imagination: Studies in the History of Ideas, ed. J. A. Mazzeo (New York: Columbia UP; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962) 93-129, 109.

[18] This point is further developed in my article, “Selfhood and Technologies of Textual Production: the Matter of Donne’s Poetics,” Writing Technologies 2. 2 (Forthcoming, May 2008): 1-19 <>.

[19] Patricia Fumerton, “Exchanging Gifts: The Elizabethan Currency of Children and Poetry,” ELH 7.2 (1986): 241-278, 241; 245; 243; see also Barbara Sebek, “Good Turns and the Art of Merchandizing: Conceptualizing Exchange in Early Modern England,” EMC 29 May 2005 <>.

[20] Sermons III. 171.

[21] The Map of Time 85.

[22] Marina Warner, Fantastic Metamorphosis, Other Worlds (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002) 19.

[23] Lactantius refers also to the phoenix’s tasting of “honey-dew” and its gathering for its nest “the most fragrant and delightsome herbs”. See “The Phoenix,” Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed., trans. and intro. S. A. J. Bradley (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982) 284-301.

[24] Pliny, the Elder, The Historie of the World: Commonly Called, The Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1635) Folger Shakespeare Library, EEBO, UCC Boole Lib., 16 Jan 2005 <> 271.

[25] See also Elaine Perez Zickler, “‘nor in nothing, nor in things’: The Case of Love and Desire in Donne’s Songs and Sonets,” JDJ 12. 1 & 2 (1993): 17-39.

[26] John Hayward first glossed “worm-seed” as a “powerful anaphrodisiac” in his edition John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (New York: Random House, 1937) 767. Despite Marvin Morillo’s “Donne’s ‘Farewell to Love’: The Force of the Shutting Up,” Tulane Studies in Literature (1963): 33-40, which pointed out that neither the Oxford Dictionary nor the popular herbals support the notion of “worm-seed” as an anaphrodisiac (38-9), Clements’s edition of Donne’s poetry in 1966, Shawcross’s in 1967, Smith’s in 1983, and Carey’s in 1990 all continued to gloss “worm-seed” as an anaphrodisiac. See Masselink’s enlightening article “Wormseed revisited: Glossing Line Forty of Donne’s ‘Farewell to Love,” ELN (Dec., 1992): 11-15.

[27] Morillo 39; Masselink 11.

[28] Theresa M. DiPasquale, “The Things Not Seen in Donne’s ‘Farewell to Love,” JDJ 18 (1999): 243-253.

[29] A. J. Smith, “The Dismissal of Love: Or, Was Donne a Neo-Platonic Lover?” Smith, Essays in Celebration 89-131, esp. 112-21.

[30] Michael Maier, Atalanta Fugiens, Oppenheim, 1618. Cited in Alexander Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism (London: Taschen, 2005) 421.

[31] Sermons, III. 244.

[32] Hayward asserts that “the Latin word for tail is penis”, and that “[t]ail in this sense is common in Elizabethan literature” (767). However, as Masselink points out, “while ‘tail’ is used to denote the penis in Donne’s time, it is used even more commonly in reference to the female pudendum, an observation also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary” (11).

Siobhán Collins is a part-time lecturer at University College Cork, where she co-directs the Making Books, Shaping Readers project <>. She has published articles on Donne and co-authored an article with Louise Denmead on Thomas Browne. She has annotated King Lear and Hamlet for Forum Publications; and is working on an initiative which aims to make the material transmission of Donne’s corpus available as a searchable digital archive.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures