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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