Ramie Targoff renews John Donne for our time

Professor of English and American literature breathes fresh life into the master of metaphysical poetry

Ramie Targoff

He’s radical, rakish and romantic, obsessively questioning himself, neurotically worrying about God, even while celebrating a healthy sexual appetite. No wonder college students love him. In so many elemental ways he mirrors their youthful occupations as he relentlessly explores the relationship between body and soul in some of the most memorable lyric poetry in the English language.

So it is hardly surprising that the 17th century metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne is alive and well on YouTube, where you can watch madcap performances and heartfelt recitations of his love poetry, replete with stick-figure drawings illustrating one of his most famous poems, “The Flea,” and multiple interpretations of another favorite, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

A modern voice and medieval obsessions
Ironically, Donne’s literary persona seems, to our modern sensibility, sympathetically tortured and humble on the one hand, and refreshingly irreverent on the other. Add eroticism and a healthy take on love (no poetics of romantic longing or sadness, or puritanical self-regard in this poet), and you’ve got a Renaissance poet with a modern voice and medieval obsessions.

So says Professor of English and American Literature Ramie Targoff, an expert on Renaissance literature and the relationship between literature and religion, and the author of the new book, "John Donne: Body and Soul" (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

She explains Donne’s popularity among undergraduates this way: “Students always respond to Donne with passion and interest; the reason for this, I think, is that he asks a lot of questions for which he has no answers. This is not someone who has a private line to God’s ear or represents himself as a voice of authority. Students can relate to that.”

Her own introduction to Donne took place when she was a seventh grader growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, just north of Manhattan. Her assignment was to memorize a poem; she chose perhaps Donne’s best-known sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud.”

“There I was, this Jewish New York girl memorizing a poem by a Protestant man about death; how bizarre that of all the poems in the world, I chose a holy sonnet by Donne,” muses Targoff, adding, in retrospect, that she had the poem all wrong.

Donne to the proverbial desert island
With a growing interest in religion (she spent the summer before college in a devout Muslim household in Indonesia), she entered Yale in 1985, intending to major in religious studies. But in a Renaissance poetry class with a professor “who made a lot of English professors out of his students,” she became captivated by Donne, whose intertwining of religion and poetry created an irresistible intellectual gravitational field.

“I have always felt drawn by the energy and the passion of Donne’s voice; I really can’t think of another poet about whom I feel so strongly,” she says, grabbing her thoroughly dog-eared freshman volume of Donne off the bookshelf just to underscore the point. Donne, Targoff confides, would accompany her to the proverbial desert island, not Spenser, Milton, or even the Bard.

Nevertheless, in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, she studied Shakespeare, perhaps not least because her then-future husband, Stephen Greenblatt, is a leading Shakespeare scholar. Returning to Yale after graduate school, she taught the same Renaissance poetry course she had taken as a freshman.

“I had a tremendous reconnection with Donne,” she says. She also wrote her first book, "Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England" (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which explores the relationship between prayer and poetry in the century following the Protestant Reformation.

The nature of the soul
With her new book, Targoff has secured her place as a leading Donne scholar. In fewer than 200 pages, she persuasively argues that Donne’s writing “is fueled by a set of metaphysical questions…that coalesce most persistently around the nature of the soul and its relation to the body.” She asserts that this issue—“the body and soul’s union, and Donne’s preoccupation with its inevitable rupture”—has escaped substantive literary scrutiny for centuries.

“I’d say that other literary critics have generally been so dazzled or so irritated by Donne’s intensity as a poet that they’ve had a hard time seeing him as anything but a deeply romantic figure or else a shallow showoff,” says Jeffrey Knapp, a colleague and English professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “But Ramie isn’t intimidated by brilliance. She thinks that the best way to appreciate Donne is to try to understand him, and her book proves that she’s right.”

Love through purely bodily mechanics
Setting the record straight in the wake of much unsatisfying, even hostile, criticism, proved unnerving at first, precisely because she approached her subject without a strong compass pointing her in any particular direction. Instead, she spent her maternity leave from Yale in 2001 at Harvard’s Houghton Library just reading all of the first editions of Donne’s writing.

“I found it kind of scary, as a scholar, because I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for,” she says.

A year and a half and mountains of notes later, Targoff found her central interest crystallized in a single poem, “The Extasie” (see below). In it, two lovers lie on a river bank fruitlessly trying to “consummate their love through purely bodily mechanics,” writes Targoff. Union remains elusive because their souls have taken off.

“The question Donne asks in this poem is how can we become one?” says Targoff. Even when their souls forge into an “abler soule,” they realize that something vital is still missing, that they’re still hapless lovers stranded on the wrong side of consummation. “If bodies without souls cannot achieve union in love, neither can souls stripped of their bodies,” writes Targoff.

“So the point is, you can’t be together just in body—or just in soul—Donne believes you need both body and soul to become one,” she explains.

Of course, Donne’s metaphysical obsession with body and soul (or mind—Donne used the terms interchangeably) is today largely a scientific issue. “If you think about how biologically driven all of our accounts of character have become, you realize that people don’t really believe anymore, as Descartes did, that the body can be separated from the mind,” says Targoff.

Cutting to the quick
Which may help make her approach to Donne even more meaningful to contemporary readers.

“Ramie Targoff cuts to the quick of Donne scholarship, renewing and freshening this great poet for our time,” notes Harvard professor Elisa New. “She does so by asking the essential questions about Donne in a new way—in a way learned, elegant, stylish, and entirely her own.”

“When I read Donne, I really connect to him—I am honestly moved, and so are my students,” says Targoff. “He’s so quirky, so surprising, and so modern, but at the same time he’s worried about what will happen when his body turns to dust and mingles with the remains of whatever corpse lies next to him,” she notes sympathetically.

Says New, “Ramie’s verve and scrupulous scholarship, her profound sensitivity both to the poet’s voice and to his historic moment, make her Donne the Donne of our generation.”

"The Extasie"

WHERE, like a pillow on a bed,
A Pregnant banke swel’d up, to rest
The violets reclining head,
Sat we two, one anothers best.
Our hands were fi rmely cimented
With a fast balme, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred
Our eyes, upon one double string;
So to’entergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the meanes to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
As ‘twixt two equall Armies, Fate
Suspends uncertaine victorie,
Our soules, (which to advance their state,
Were gone out,) hung ‘twixt her, and mee.
And whil’st our soules negotiate there,
Wee like sepulchrall statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And wee said nothing, all the day.
If any, so by love refi n’d,
That he soules language understood,
And by good love were growen all minde,
Within convenient distance stood,
He (though he knew not which soule spake,
Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take,
And part farre purer then he came.
This Extasie doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love,
Wee see by this, it was not sexe,
Wee see, we saw not what did move:
But as all severall soules containe
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, these mixt soules, doth mixe againe,
And makes both one, each this and that.
A single violet transplant,
The strength, the colour, and the size,
(All which before was poore, and scant,)
Redoubles still, and multiplies.
When love, with one another so
Interinanimates two soules,
That abler soule, which thence doth fl ow,
Defects of lonelinesse controules.
Wee then, who are this new soule, know,
Of what we are compos’d, and made,
For, th’Atomies of which we grow,
Are soules, whom no change can invade.
But O alas, so long, so farre
Our bodies why doe wee forbeare?
They are ours, though they are not wee, Wee are
The intelligences, they the spheare.
We owe them thankes, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at fi rst convay,
Yeelded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are drosse to us, but allay.
On man heavens infl uence workes not so,
But that it fi rst imprints the ayre,
Soe soule into the soule may fl ow,
Though it to body fi rst repaire.
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like soules as it can,
Because such fi ngers need to knit
That subtile knot, which makes us man:
So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turne wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal’d may looke;
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke.
And if some lover, such as wee,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still marke us, he shall see
Small change, when we’are to bodies gone.
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