Throughout his life, John Donne was well acquainted with the consequences of desire. He wanted a courtly career badly enough to renounce the Catholicism of his childhood. Later, he wanted a woman badly enough to gamble that career for her sake; he lost, but found a new calling in the Anglican Church. There he pursued philosophical and theological questions with an intensity to match his former social ambitions, and was not above addressing God Himself in tones of "immoderate desire." Death became his ultimate object of passionate attention; and ever since that final consummation, critics have argued over the nature and import of Donne's desires, while simultaneously (if not always self-consciously) revealing a great deal about their own.
Saunders explores this dialectic of desire, re-evaluating both Donne's poetry and the complex responses it has inspired, from his earliest readers to his recent professional critics. In the process, Saunders considers an extraordinary range of topics, including the technology of the book, prosodic theory, the problem of misogyny, the history of sexuality, and even the purpose of criticism itself; remarkably, he does so while keeping Donne's poetry in focus at all times.
Witty, erudite, theoretically engaged, but intensely readable, this study takes into account recent developments in the fields of historicism, feminism, queer theory, and postmodern psychoanalysis, while offering dazzling close readings of many of Donne's most famous poems.
In fluid and witty prose that grabs the reader like a great whodunit, Desiring Donne shows that Donne scholarship has from its beginning revealed more about the interpreters' attitudes toward erotic love than they have about the poems. A series of compelling readings of poems then demonstrates that the desires articulated in Donne's poetry are at the level of our most complex contemporary thinking on desire. This is work of major ambition and attainment; Saunders casts as much new light on the contemporary literary critical enterprise as he does on Donne.
Ben Saunders is an intelligent critic who writes with an absorbing clarity; because he has something important to say he willingly embraces what Stanley Fish calls "the risk of intelligibility." The result is the best book on John Donne in a long time. Because he also engages important issues of interpretive desire, this book goes beyond Donne; Saunders is in a tradition which uses the early modern to "read" the modern as well as vice versa. So Desiring Donne should be brought to the attention of all those engaged in the fascinating, culturally central (so always contested) activity of interpretation.
Saunders asks how and even whether human desire is opposed to "powerful thoughts," and he traces this question in a vigorously argued metacrictical study of the reception of John Donne's poetry. This approach has an immediate advantage: Donne in some measure has always resembled his critics--his intelligent readers--because his poetry marks a high point in a famed but difficult art. His lyrics, both secular and sacred, as well as desultory verse epistles and extended Anniversaries, weave metaphysical argument with intense expressions of physical sensation and sexual drive. Though by no means the earliest or latest of such "metaphysical" poetry, his love poems are the most extreme instance of this interpretive catachresis. The idea of desire-as-interpretation (and its converse) is thus inherently interesting and historically plausible. To introduce his approach, Saunders reverses the usual presumption. We usually suppose that thought is "shaped by disavowed impulses of the flesh," whereas he would invert this hierarchy, asking "to what degree those primal impulses themselves are already forms of thought, already interpretations."
Saunders is first of all an excellent close reader, but he is also an admirably lucid thinker and an enviably vigorous writer. Always engaging if occasionally exasperating, this is the edgy, exhilarating book that Donne, with all of his outrageous brilliance, deserves.
[An] intelligent, often illuminating... reading of Donne's poetry... Readers... will admire the nimbleness of Saunders' critical footwork in this book and (this is key) will benefit from several excellent readings of poems by and associated with Donne. The chapter on gender in Donne merits special commendation--and the attention of any student of this greatest of lyric poets.
- 260 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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