Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lucy Razzall: “Donne’s Metempsychosis”

Lucy Razzall

Book Review

Siobhán Collins. Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis. Ashgate (Farnham, UK, 2013), 212 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0635-8. $98.96 (USD)

1> ‘The Pithagorian doctrine doth not onely carry one soule from man to man, nor man to beast, but indifferently to plants also: and therefore you must not grudge to finde the same soule in an Emperour, in a Post-horse, and in a Mucheron [Mushroom], since no unreadinesse in the soule, but an indisposition in the organs workes this’. So John Donne summarised the ancient idea of the transmigration of the soul in the Epistle to Metempsychosis, the 520-line poem in which he sings ‘the progresse of a deathlesse soule’ from the apple in the garden of Eden to the daughter of Eve, occupying twelve different hosts in all, over 52 stanzas. At the beginning of her new monograph on this poem, Siobhán Collins explains that the soul is thus ‘increasingly subject to bodily passions as it moves through a hierarchical scale of earthly being: from the body of a mandrake plant to that of various beasts to its final embodiment in embryonic human form’ (2).

2> The poem’s idiosyncratic, satirical explorations of these bodily passions are one major reason for the mixture of unfavourable critical responses it has received over the centuries, despite its author’s prefatory warning that readers ‘must not grudge’ its central conceit. One of Donne’s longest poems, it occupied the privileged position of being first in the 1633 posthumous edition of his poetical works, but it has been unusual for readers or critics to privilege it since. Collins quotes Herbert Grierson, writing in the early twentieth century, who found many of the episodes in Metempsychosis ‘pointless as well as disgusting’, and full of details that ‘seem merely and wantonly repulsive’ (155). Numerous others, from Ben Jonson onwards, have similarly found themselves repelled and confused by a poem so elusive in form and style, which emphatically defies generic classification, and frustratingly resists any sense of closure.

3> Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the critical tide has begun to turn. There is a new Variorum edition of the poem by Donald Dickson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), and Collins alerts the reader to a number of recent articles which have attended more sympathetically to the poem’s generic complexities. She rightly suggests that ‘the postmodern interest in fragmentation, process, time and transformation, as well as literary play, embodiment and material culture’ (165) has been influential in this surge of scholarly interest. Her own monograph offers a comprehensive contribution to the study of Metempsychosis, and to Donne criticism more generally. The optimistic titles she gives to the book’s Introduction and Conclusion—‘Riddles’ and ‘Wonder’ respectively—are symptomatic of her approach to the poem throughout. The puzzles of its self-conscious artifice, its investment in the violence of metamorphosis, and its dramatization of cyclical return offer Collins fruitful paths into the poem, rather than reasons to turn away from it.

4> The Introduction and Conclusion frame seven chapters. The first is a broadly methodological chapter which examines some of the material and poetic technologies of Donne’s writing, and the following six offer readings of loose sections of Metempsychosis in the light of contemporary philosophical, religious, and scientific discourses of transformation. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 tease out three particularly influential intellectual frameworks for the poem: the emphasis on fragmentariness in the poem’s prefatory materials, biblical myths of prelapsarian existence, and self-reflection and the activity of reading. The final three chapters focus on the grotesque nature of Donne’s vegetable and bestial bodies, paying particular attention to his insistence on the permeable fungibility between all organic forms through appetite, sex, violence, and death. Also included are two appendices—the first attending to the history of the manuscript and print editions of Metempsychosis, and the second to its critical reception, which students approaching the text for the first time will undoubtedly find helpful. Throughout, Collins provides detailed close-readings of Donne’s writing, setting Metempsychosis firmly in the midst of his other poetry, sacred and secular. Her literary and critical sources are eclectic (we hear historical and contemporary voices speaking about everything from alchemy and dissection to architecture, marriage, the Eucharist, and much more) but then so too, she convincingly argues, are Donne’s.

5> The longest chapter, Chapter 4, ‘Memory: Reading the Self’, is central to the book. ‘Memory is an essential element of metempsychosis’ (62), Collins writes, implicitly reminding us of Donne’s emphasis on the unique endurance of memory in the second half of his Epistle—‘How ever the bodies have dull’d her other faculties, her memory hath ever been her owne’. Collins argues that ‘Donne’s emphasis on metamorphosis and memory in his narration of the soul’s degenerative erotic adventures is a rhetorical strategy that encourages the reader to identify with the soul’s accumulative experiences, and in the process recognize the self as the final embodiment of the soul’ (62). Memory provides a key framework for understanding the microscopic and macroscopic structures of the poem. Metempsychosis is a text of perpetual motion, and its momentum is driven by both desire and memory, especially the potentially salvific remembrance of sin. Donne leaves the reader continually aware of the tension between memory’s capacity to return us to our creation in the image of God, and to alert us to our constant accumulation of lustful sins. In this respect, Collins is right to conclude that the poem is ‘remarkable for its equivocal openness’ (79). The implication of this chapter is that Metempsychosis shows us that it is often only memory which enables any form of narration to occur at all.

6> The mandrake plant, Donne’s ‘Living buried man’, is the first bodily host for the soul after the apple. Collins suggests that the mandrake particularly appealed to Donne because of its supposed origins in the sperm of a hanged man—its legendary status was already rooted in ‘sin, violence, and sexual transgression’ (82). It held plenty of appeal for other early modern writers too, and in Chapter 5, ‘Liminality: Plant/Human’, Collins offers a synthesis of some of the ancient, biblical, and medieval associations of the mandrake which are at play in Donne’s poetic depiction of it: its ‘medicinal virtues, its physical characteristics, the superstitions that surround the plant, as well as its Christian symbolism’ (88). She successfully demonstrates that the possibility of transformation embodied in the living thing that is human-like, but not human, is key to the poem. The mandrake is an especially disturbing episode in Metempsychosis, but Donne knew that this particular manifestation of the grotesque could be intimately close to the divine. It is appropriate then, that the front of the book’s dust jacket bears an illustration from a seventh-century manuscript of Dioscurides’s De Materia Medica, showing two mandrake roots. The source for this photographic reproduction is given as Wikimedia Commons, and a URL to the image is provided. It is now not unusual to find URLs as references in scholarly work, but given their relative fragility (unlike Donne’s poem, they are not necessarily ‘consecrated to infinity’), their durability is not guaranteed. This is more a reflection on the changing relationship of print to the internet than a criticism—it is a detail that was probably beyond the author’s control, and after all, perhaps it is apt for a volume about Metempsychosis to evoke, self-referentially, the transient nature of all material things.

7> The volume is published in Ashgate’s Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity series, and the discussions of Donne’s writing in relation to scientific discourses are some of its particular strengths. In Chapter 6, ‘Devoured Bodies: Birds and Fishes’, for example, Collins makes connections with Thomas Browne, who like Metempsychosis has also been the subject of increased critical enthusiasm in recent years. Browne’s interests in paradox, time, and circularity resonate with previously overlooked strains of seventeenth-century thought at play in the poem, and Collins demonstrates their importance in the reader’s experience of it. ‘How we understand Metempsychosis in the past and the present shows it to be an organic living artifice’ (165), Collins concludes. Her wide-ranging study of the poem, and the ways in which it interrogates bodies, politics, and transformations, shows that it is acceptable for the poem to seem unfinished. Above all, this is because Donne understood the self as imperfect, and in a continual process of change.

Lucy Razzall is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she is working on her first book, about containers and containment in early modern literature and material culture. She is a member of the interdisciplinary Centre for Material Texts, based at the Faculty of English, Cambridge.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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