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Siobhán Collins, Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis (Ashgate, 2013)

Siobhán Collins, Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN 978-1-4094-0635-8, 212 pp. £49.50.

Reviewed by Alan James Hogarth


[1] The critical reception of John Donne’s Metempsychosis has, historically, been rather negative. From Ben Jonson’s claim that the poem’s final purpose was never realised, to Herbert Grierson’s damning assessment of the work as exhibiting a ‘vein of sheer ugliness’ (156), responses have ranged from the confused to the disparaging. Part of the reason why the poem has met with such negativity can be attributed to its generic instability, seeming to be both epic in its use of Spenserian stanza and thematic ambition, yet satirical in its fondness for the grotesque. By judging the poem according to standards to which it doesn’t seem to conform, previous criticism on Metempsychosis has succeeded in obscuring the qualities which make the poem what it is – a site of textual and philosophical negotiation. Siobhán Collins’ book provides an antidote to this fractured critical heritage and suggests that both the form and the intellectual basis of Metempsychosis are, necessarily, concerned with change and process as defining features of self-knowledge. Donne’s purpose, Collins argues, is to ‘interrogate notions of selfhood’ (138) by charting the human being’s complex physical and metaphysical participation in the created universe.

[2] Pythagoras’ doctrine of Metempsychosis posits that the soul migrates from one body to another following its host’s death, and this idea forms the governing conceit of the poem. Over 52 stanzas the soul is embodied by twelve hosts and ‘is increasingly subject to bodily passions as it moves through a hierarchical scale of earthly being’ (2), beginning with the apple in the Garden of Eden and ending in the female human form of Eve’s daughter, Themech. An important and recurring observation of Collins’ study is that the physical bodies inhabited by the wandering soul are essentially permeable and that the boundaries between earthly and spiritual things are considered by Donne to be fluid. In this respect, the book builds upon recent critical work on Donne’s theological conviction that the soul cannot be privileged above the body, nor the body above the soul. Collins makes this fluidity or tendency towards transformation, in the poem and in nature, the organising principle of the book’s seven chapters. So, for example, Chapter 3, entitled, ‘Separation: Genesis and the Fall’, addresses the poem’s ambivalent attitude towards gender in the originating story of creation, and Chapter 5, ‘Liminality: Plant/Human’, engages with the continuity of earthly matter, the qualities of the ‘vegetative soul’ shared by human, animal and plant, embodied in the poem’s repeated image of the mandrake.

[3] A particular strength of the book lies in Collins’ detailed close readings which tease out the multivalent meanings of Donne’s imagery, an imagery rooted in theology, moral philosophy, contemporary science, alchemy and classical medicine. Because the poem was written in 1601, at a time of new developments in natural philosophy and religion, Donne’s sources, Collins suggests, are understandably eclectic and reflect the heterogeneity of knowledge in this period. Her reading of the mandrake episode, for example, taps into the plant’s rich symbolic history as medicinal, an emblem of sexuality, ‘an image of Adam’ (88), according to Origen, and, in the poem, a type of Christ. Donne also describes his anthropomorphic mandrake as having hair, a detail which Collins links to Galen’s observations on the similarities between plant roots as they emerge from the ground and human hair as it grows from the skin. With such a close emphasis upon the constitution of different bodies, Collins maintains that nowhere in Metempsychosis does Donne suggest transcendence of the physical.

[4] Transformation and process belong, not only to the poem’s themes, but also to its form. Donne’s riddling and seemingly unfulfilled promise that the soul’s final inhabitant, a well-known contemporary figure, will be revealed by the poem’s end, has contributed to the prevailing assumption that Metempsychosis is a poetic fragment, lacking closure. But a significant claim of the book is that the form of the poem is indeed complete in its mirroring of the historical human condition which is, by nature, always evolving. ‘The possibility of future regeneration’ Collins argues, ‘informs the deliberate lack of closure … and reflects both the poet’s aesthetic and his sense of self and time as unavoidably being in media res, unfinished, always in process’ (35). Throughout the book, Collins demonstrates convincingly the extent to which the poem is loaded with a sense of potentiality. Indeed, the text’s Latin dedication, ‘Infinitati Sacrum’, glossed by the Variorum editors as ‘consecrated to infinity’ (29), is taken as early evidence of the poem’s unity of design. This dedication, Collins suggests, draws from ‘Aristotle’s notion of infinity as imperfection, as something that is not fully realised in the actual physical world’ and thus hints at ‘Metempsychosis’s narrative of seemingly endless transmigrations’ (31). The first two Chapters of the book seek to resolve the twin conundrums of the poem’s generic eccentricity and incompleteness which have so troubled previous critics. Reader participation, the book concludes, is the key to understanding the text, which encourages moments of self-analysis. Accordingly, by the poem’s end, readers, ‘instead of discovering another particular historic individual embodying the soul in the final stanza, are called upon to reflect on their own inherited corrupt identity, which the previous fifty-one stanzas have detailed’ (78).

[5] Although largely concerned with formal analysis and the poem’s philosophical resonances, the book also makes space for biographical links and political context. Donne’s troubled religious convictions during this period are, therefore, aligned with the poem’s frequent ‘alterations of perspective’ (77), whilst his ‘vivid and grotesque images of the devoured and devouring body throughout the poem’, are taken as satirical barbs against the ‘Catholic doctrine of real presence’ (110) in the Eucharist. Previous critics have suggested that allusions to Essex, Bacon and Cecil are embedded in the poem’s references to the Whale, Elephant and Mouse, but, for Collins, Donne does not allow ‘the particular to overwrite the universal’ (120). Instead, he focuses on the general political follies of the Elizabethan age, embodied by ‘appetitive desire’ (137) and negative individualism.

[6] For readers, not immediately familiar with Metempsychosis, the book, helpfully, supplies two appendices; one deals with the poem’s textual history in manuscript and print and the other with critical interpretations. Since the subject matter of the book requires some familiarity with religious and scientific discourses, these appendices are particularly useful for getting to grips with the textual and critical history of the poem itself. This, in turn, affords readers the space to engage more fully with the ideas at the heart of the book. In its rehabilitation, unification and scholarly reading of Metempsychosis, Bodies, Politics and Transformations, is a significant contribution to Donne studies. In its wide reaching exploration of self-hood, embodiment and textuality, it will also be of interest to historians of early modern medicine, natural philosophy and the material history of the book.

University of Strathclyde, June 2013

Andrew McRae, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Andrew McRae, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 260pp.; 9 b/w ills. Hbk. £50 ($90) ISBN-978-0-521-44837-6

Reviewed by Alan James Hogarth

[1]  Renaissance travel writing, the imaginative process of recording foreign experiences and encounters with the unknown, has, over the years, amassed an extensive corpus of critical studies. The textual products of travel, itineraries, diaries and maps have been variously examined as artefacts which defined borders, helped consolidate ideas of the nation, and gave expression to European identities, shaped against the difference of alien cultures. But the question of domestic travel, the materiality of mobility within England, and its implications for the development of a national consciousness, has, until now, remained relatively unexplored. Andrew McRae’s wide-ranging book fills a gap in the critical exegesis of early modern mobility, and asks the question: how did people experience and conceptualise the everyday business of domestic travel? Where voyages overseas and tours of Europe were coterminous with Renaissance conceptions of the acquisition of knowledge, domestic travel, although essential for internal trade, was treated with a great deal of suspicion. We need only consider the restrictive sixteenth- and seventeenth-century laws on vagrancy, or the Elizabethan Poor Laws, to catch a glimpse of how ‘placelessness’ constituted a threat to the social order. Literature and Domestic Travel, therefore, sets out to recover the meanings of mobility in a society which was ideologically committed to ‘values of place’ (8).Tensions between the mobile and the stationary are, therefore, central to the book, which at its heart is about socio-political negotiations of space, the physical and theoretical struggle of the conservative, propertied and ‘placed’ against the progress of the mobile subject. Divided thematically into two parts, entitled ‘Routes’ and ‘Travellers’, McRae traces these tensions as they converge over the ‘structures’ (15) of travel, the rivers and roads of the nation, and the ‘cultural modes’ of mobility, progresses, tourism and traffic (16). This structure allows the reader to navigate through the text, linking the networks of communication with the people who travelled them. As the title suggests, works of literature, including river poems, plays and pamphlets, comprise much of the raw material of McRae’s analysis, and indeed, some of the most insightful and interesting moments occur in his readings and re-evaluations of literary texts. Although this type of cultural history has frequently been the subject of criticism, the book’s reliance on a wide range of literature as important indicators of historical development remains one of its strengths.

[2]  A case in point is the chapter on rivers, in which McRae probes the topographical anxieties inherent in the country house poem, a genre which epitomises the ideals of property and placement. His readings of ‘To Penshurst’ and Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ point to the ways in which each poem’s commitment to place simultaneously reveals the forces of change which the form sought to undermine. Jonson’s attention to the river Medway, which ran through the Penshurst estate and was marked as a potential site for common navigational development, is, therefore, slight: it is dismissed as nothing more than ‘an unreliable supplier of food’ (56), whilst static ponds are celebrated as bodies of water, easily claimed as property. With Marvell, the ‘fantasy’ of isolation perpetuated through country house poems is subject to a greater interrogation (60). His image of the controlled flooding of the river Denton on the Fairfax estate, McRae argues, signifies ‘the collapse of all distinction between land and water’(60), the force of the river suggesting a ‘wider disorder’, which reminds the lord and his estate of the economic and social world outwith Appleton House. Such new perspectives on the genre enliven the debate on the functions of country house poems, re-locating them within the context of spatial contestation.

[3]  Elsewhere, the book has a lot in common with Patricia Fumerton’s Unsettled: the Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago University Press, 2006). Fumerton’s identification of the mobile labouring poor, existing in an ‘emergent economy characterised by mobility’, informs McRae’s discussion of ‘commoners on the roads’ (11). In looking at contemporary efforts to categorise the mobile population as rogues and vagabonds, pointless in their lack of a fixed moral point of origin, McRae identifies the spatial knowledge of the travelling poor as the source of this popular antagonism. Roads, for travelling subjects, are economic lines of communication, the knowledge of which ensures their survival. Free from surveillance, they become unclassifiable and, as a consequence, the multitude of travelling ‘types’, pedlars, tinkers and chapmen, are grouped together as vagrants. Tracing this specialised knowledge of the traveller, McRae utilises disparate sources, including Rogue pamphlets and John Ogilvy’s road maps, to great effect, charting the emergence of a new appreciation of circulation as the key to fresh understandings of the nation along economic lines.

[4]  Almost everywhere in the book, it is the industrious commoner who realises the potentiality of travel networks. The water-poet John Taylor, who, as the author acknowledges, threatens ‘on occasion’ to ‘take over’ the book, is held up as the embodiment of this new awareness (211). Taylor’s domestic travel pamphlets, composed as accounts of his own adventures, are, for McRae, central ‘to his construction of authorship and selfhood’ (219). But it is Taylor’s novel approach to travel and authorship as inseparable concepts, conceived in terms of labour, which McRae singles out as the defining feature of his literary output. Taylor’s journeys, McRae observes, were undertaken as a process of exchange, subsidised by a number of sponsors, who upon his return would be presented with a pamphlet, valued as a tangible record of his journey. His writings were not abstracted to mathematical, cartographic representations of space, but were rather concerned with the physical processes and personal experiences of mobility. They were designed to demonstrate that, in spite of certain difficulties, England was ‘essentially open to the traveller’ (230). In his conception of Taylor’s works as ‘arguments in favour of the free circulation of people and goods’, McRae succeeds in re-positioning this minor literary figure at the centre of economic re-imaginings of internal travel (232).

[5]  The book’s segments on tourism, journey poems and progresses touch upon the idea of leisure as a motivation for domestic travel. However, more attention could have been devoted to London, as a space of increasing circulation and mobility, popular amongst the upper classes as a location in which to spend, socialise and be seen. The demographic shift from the country to the city in the seventeenth century alone would be enough to suggest exceptional levels of traffic, and an examination of the forms that this mobility took could reward further study. But this remains a minor oversight in a book which does so much to recapture the early modern experience of domestic travel. Engaging with chorography, cartography and the theorisation of space, together with travel writing, pamphlets and imaginative literature, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England is a valuable contribution to a neglected area of research and will be of interest to geographers as well as literary and cultural historians.

University of Strathclyde, April 2010