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Lyric Autobiography: John Donne's Holy Sonnets*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Frederick J. Ruf
Georgetown University


In her admirable study of autobiography, Janet Varner Gunn argued that the religious significance of the form “lies not in its literary function but in its anthropology,” that is, in its role in articulating and creating human experience. She also stated that much literary discussion of autobiography serves to conceal its “strangeness” and “unruly behavior.”

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1933

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1 Gunn, Janet Varner, Autobiography: Toward a Poetic of Experience (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982) 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Ibid., 11.

3 James, William, The Principles of Psychology (ed. Burkhardt, Frederick H., Bowers, Fredson, and Skrupskelis, Ignas K.; The Works of William James; 3 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981) 1. 277Google Scholar.

4 Gunn, Autobiography, 11; Roy Pascal made the distinctions that I cite between genuine and false autobiography in his influential work, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) 120Google ScholarPubMed.

5 As James Olney (Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972] 5)Google Scholar has said, “A theology, a philosophy, a physics or a metaphysics- properly seen, these are all autobiography recorded in other characters and other symbols.”

6 See Ruf, Frederick J., “Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: Extravagantly Mixed Genres and the Construction of a ‘Harmonized Chaos,’“ Soundings 75 (1992) 537–53Google Scholar.

7 Gunn, Autobiography, 119–20; see also 34–35.

8 Ibid., 35; see also 35–44.

9 See Ruf, Frederick J., The Creation of Chaos: William James and the Stylistic Making of a Disorderly World (New York: SUNY Press, 1991) 7075Google Scholar.

10 In fact, Jerome Bruner has investigated “how we go about constructing and representing the rich and messy domain of human interaction,” attributing such construction and representation to narrative; he used this form as the sole alternative to the “logico-scientific.” See Bruner, Jerome, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991) 121CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a critique of the loose use of narrative see Frederick J. Ruf, “The Consequences of Genre: Narrative, Lyric, and Dramatic Intelligibility,” JAAR (forthcoming).

11 Regarding nonnarrative autobiography, see Ruf, “Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: Extravagantly Mixed Genres.”

12 Another way to look at my project is in terms of Mary Gerhart's call for scholars to “become more flexible in the use of different genres.” See Gerhart, Mary, “A Proposal for Genre-Shock,” The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 17 (1988) 55Google Scholar.

13 Since many genres are heard and not only read, it is inaccurate to refer to readers alone. To avoid the cumbersome locution of “readers and auditors,” however, I shall use the term “readers”; please assume that I mean both readers and auditors.

14 In fact, it is useful to distinguish more than these three, since all genres are imaginative and all involve a particular speaking voice, even such expository genres as argument, advice, announcement, request, evaluation, aphorism, and explanation. For an analysis involving many of these kinds of discourse, as well as narrative and lyric, see Ruf, “Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: Extravagantly Mixed Genres.”

15 The Epic of Gilgamesh (ed. and trans. Sandars, N. K.; New York: Penguin, 1960) 61Google Scholar.

16 I am taking third-person narration as most representative of narrative. First-person narrators seem to me to be blends of the narrative and the lyrical, while second-person narrators seem closer to the dramatic. This bias toward third-person narration is similar to the view articulated by Adrian Marino, “A Definition of Literary Genres,” in Strelka, Joseph P., ed., Theories of Literary Genre (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1978) 44Google Scholar.

17 Mclntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (2d ed.; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Hauerwas, Stanley, Truthfulness and Tragedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977)Google Scholar; Thiemann, Ronald, Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

18 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode” (lines 21–24), in Selected Poetry and Prose of Coleridge (ed. Stauffer, Donald A.; New York: Random House, 1951) 78Google Scholar.

19 In order to keep the voices of each genre distinctive, I am inclined to consider all intimate self-exposures, as in a Shakespearean soliloquy, as lyrical asides.

20 I am claiming no ontological warrant for these distinctions, nor even an empirical one, for these divisions do not correspond with historical genres which are more particular (the drawing room comedy, the epithalamion, the Bildungsroman, and so forth). I am using these types for heuristic purposes, because I believe that they help us to see more clearly the actual works that we encounter, and, in particular, to understand their religious consequences. There are certainly many actual works that will not conform to the genres as I describe them here. Nevertheless, we can perhaps better understand the twentieth-century unreliable narrator, for example, in contrast with the more magisterial one of the nineteenth, by seeing the blending of lyric or dramatic characteristics into modern narrators. My study of genre is similar to that of Mary Gerhart (“Generic Competence in Biblical Hermeneutics,” Semeia 43 [1988] 34) in examining the “productive function” of genre in the sense that “genres can be said to produce, as well as to identify meanings.” My study is different in that it has far less to do with the historical and empirical nature of genres (detective fiction, the Bildungsroman, a letter notifying of a debt, and so forth). See also Gerhart, Mary, “Generic Studies: Their Renewed Importance in Religious and Literary Interpretation,” JAAR 45 (1977) 309–25Google Scholar.

21 Bald, Robert Cecil, John Donne: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970) 235Google Scholar.

22 Pascal, Design and Truth, 5.

23 Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) 265Google Scholar. See her entire discussion, both of what she calls “Protestant poetics” and of Donne's particular place in that paradigm (pp. 3–27, 253–82).

24 Ibid., 4. It should be noted that there was no conflict between Anglicans and Calvinists on these theological matters. As McAdoo, Henry R. (The Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century [London: Black, 1965] 5Google Scholar; quoted in Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 13) stated, “Calvinism… was in the ascendant in England until the middle of the [seventeenth] century. The disagreement between Anglican and Puritan began with questions of church order and not of teaching, and it has been said that there was hardly one of the Elizabethan bishops who was not a Calvinist.”

25 Unless otherwise noted, all references to Donne's Holy Sonnets are taken from Grierson, Herbert J. C., ed., Donne: Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) 293302Google Scholar.

26 The original sequence of these poems or the sequence in which Donne intended them to be read is a matter of great dispute. I present them here in the order presented by Grierson, an order with which Lewalski concurs. See Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 264.

27 John Donne, “Holy Sonnet I,” in Grierson, Donne: Poetical Works, 293.

28 Bunyan, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (ed. Sharrock, Roger; Oxford: Clarendon, 1962) 45Google Scholar.

29 See Genette, Gerard, Figures of Literary Discourse (trans. Alan Sheridan; New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 141Google Scholar.

30 T. S. Eliot distinguishes narrative from lyric on the basis of the heard and the overheard.

31 Bunyan, Grace Abounding, 101.

32 Pascal, Design and Truth, 18.

33 Ibid., 9.

34 If the narrative does present his or her “inside,” I would suggest that it is a particularly lyric narrator.

35 It is here that Paul Ricoeur's conflation of narrative and drama makes sense, although, as I have indicated, I believe it is valuable to keep the two genres distinct. See Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative (3 vols.; trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) 1. 3637Google Scholar.

36 I would claim that mixtures such as the lyric with the narrative are very common. See Ruf, “Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: Extravagantly Mixed Genres”; Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse, 127–43.

37 Both Pascal (Design and Truth, 15–18) and Olney (Metaphors of Self, 38–45) insisted that the “better” autobiography is not static. Pascal pointed out that the “oscillations” and “aberrant meanings” of a life must be given. Olney presented a wonderful evocation of the discontinuities of the self and argued for the superiority of autobiographies (such as those of Carl Jung, Michel de Montaigne, and T. S. Eliot) that present change and development. I would argue that such autobiographies are mixtures of the narrative with lyric, which would seem to be a likely (and fertile) cross-pollination when narrative is spoken in the first-person. Nonetheless, such works are still narratives and are sharply distinct from lyrics.

38 Vision seems strongly associated with narrative, while hearing is associated with lyric. We see both, of course, when we read, and we translate that activity into hearing (“In her poem Dickenson is saying that…”), but narrators seem to have seen their lives, while poets only speak. What Walter Ong has to say of the intimacy of sound may be relevant; see The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967) 111–75Google Scholar.

39 Pascal, Design and Truth, 12.

40 Borges (Dreamtigers [trans. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland; New York: Dutton, 1970] 90) makes an analogous suggestion about maps: “The colleges of cartographers set up a map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point.”

41 Gunn, Autobiography, 47.

42 See ibid., 29–54.

43 It is not a matter of choosing between narrative and lyric depth, for, in my conception, the multiplicity of genres creates richness, not competition.

44 Strand, Mark, “Introduction,” in idem, ed., The Best American Poetry, 1991 (New York: Collier, 1991) xivGoogle Scholar.

45 The “realism” of narrative is, then, tied to its familiarity. As Nelson Goodman (Languages of Art: An Approach to the Theory of Symbols [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976] 36) has noted, “Just here, I think, lies the touchstone of realism: not in quality of information but in how easily it issues. And this depends upon how stereotyped the mode of representation is, upon how commonplace the labels and their uses have become.”

46 John Donne, “Holy Sonnet IV” (lines 1–2), in Grierson, Donne: Poetical Works, 294.

47 Wordsworth, William, “Preface,” in idem, Lyrical Ballads (ed. Mason, Michael; New York: Longman, 1992) 59Google Scholar.

48 Strand, “Introduction,” xv.

49 Johnson, W. R., The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 11Google Scholar.

50 Thiemann, Revelation and Theology, 86.

51 Gunn, “Autobiography,” 38. Literally everyone who writes on narrative points out its sequentiality.

52 Eliot, T. S., “The Dry Salvages” (lines 206–8), in idem, The Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1971) 44Google Scholar.

53 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature (Boston: Beacon, 1989) 13Google ScholarPubMed.

54 Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 265.

55 It would be a mistake, I believe, to subordinate the moment to the sequence. For some purposes, sequence is more important; for example, if we wish to consider the whole life (or the whole afternoon) of which this is a part; for an individual in the momentary mood, however, the sequence of which the mood is a part may be wholly unimportant. Serge Meitinger (“Between ‘Plot’ and ‘Metaphor’: Ricoeur's Poetics Applied on the Specificity of the Poem,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 14 [1988] 161–78) presented a view of lyric time in an article that attempted to correct Ricoeur's preferencing of narrative time. He felt that Ricoeur “seems to reduce the ‘reconfiguration’ of the time of the human action to a single model of ‘temporal synthesis of the heterogeneous’“which equates narrative time with human time (p. 166). Meitinger argued that lyric “maintain[s] a single line of vision-less a ‘story’ which unfolds according to the ineluctable order of a before and after than the integrality of a kind of present, both living and absolute, worked by the lacinating and contradictory impulsions of the ‘now’“(p. 168).

56 There may seem to be a contradiction between the statement that Donne's “self fills nearly the entire stage” in his sonnets and my claim that genres construct the self. The answer is that such construction is a continuing process, so that, presumably, Donne had already come to view his self in rather lyric terms (through both poetry and many other cultural forces), and then his sonnets become a medium for the construction of other lyric selves.

57 See especially Ruf, “Coleridge's Biographia Lileraria: Extravagantly Mixed Genres.”