This dissertation examines, through the categories of existential phenomenology, Donne's Songs and Sonnets an Divine Poems as their speakers' responses to unfulfilledness, voiced in several stances recurring throughout the canon. Existential phenomenology's fundamental anthropological category is "self-transcendence," the capacity of man to surpass the limitedness of any finite moment, pre-eminently through relationships. The philosophy describes two intersubjective relationships: indifference (which occurs when both parties in a relationship treat the other as a function rather than a person) and love (which occurs when both parties are engaged as fully human persons). A number of Donne's poems depict their speakers in relationships--with a woman or with God--of "indifference" or "love." Four stances seem to be assumed or reached by the speakers of such poems toward the finite condition, depending upon the kind of relationship constituting the backdrop of the poem. The first stance prevents the speaker from experiencing himself as more than an object; no indication emerges in the poem that self-transcendence in love is possible or even desirable. This stance, common in the bawdy or cynical poems, stems from a relationship of "indifference." The second stance enables the speaker to express delight in a relationship (with a woman) that appears to engage his whole self and assure genuine liberation from the burden of finitude. This stance flows from a relationship of "love." However, poems revealing this stance somehow imply or state that the "love"--as human--does not or cannot fully satisfy their speakers. The third stance is that of a speaker immensely afraid before God, experiencing his fallen mortal nature as an insurmountable obstacle that excludes the possibility of self-transcendence in a relationship with an all-holy and apparently "indifferent" God. The fourth stance, found in those poems that focus upon Christ as God Incarnate embracing the human condition in his Passion, enables the speaker to express some measure of belief that self-transcendence in a loving relationship with the infinite God is possible for him. This stance implies both a "loving" God and a radical revaluation of the human condition by the speaker because of God's love in Christ. After the poetic questions are raised in Chapter One, Chapter Two proposes the methods and principles of existential phenomenology. Chapter Three studies poems that reveal an attitude or an implied fictive relationship of "indifference," including the divine poems that show their speakers' urgent sense that God's love lies outside their grasp. Chapter Four considers first the celebrative secular love poems underlining the suggestions that the love does not allow for the utter self-transcendence aspired to; it then examines the place of Christ in several Holy Sonnets and the transvaluative effect of the Passion upon the human condition as the speaker apprehends it. The final chapter examines how the poems of the four groups suggest either a "descent" toward mere facticity or an "ascent" toward fulfilling self-transcendence. As an interpretive reading of the poetry, the essay does not propose to find in the stances a biography of Donne, who, as the poet-craftsman, is necessarily distinct from the poems' speakers, nor does it suggest that the canon as a whole represents a methodic neo-Platonic advance from the first to the fourth stance. The chronological data available about the poetry does not allow for any such hypotheses nor does the philosophical interpretation underlying this reading demand or imply them.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

CATANIA, THOMAS MICHAEL, "JOHN DONNE: THE QUARREL WITH FINITUDE" (1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8124277.