Inferring the dramatic in Donne: A metacritical study (2002)
AuthorsWatkins, David Ralstonshow all
This study argues that those features perceived to be strikingly "dramatic" about certain lyric poems by John Donne are generally inferred on the part of the reader or critical commentator. With recourse to principles of modern linguistics, specifically the field of pragmatics, it becomes clear that inferential potential is subtly guided or implied by the poet, much as a skilled dramatist divulges information regarding setting, character, and situation indirectly through dialogue alone. Similarly, there is no narrative content as such in Donne's dramatic lyrics; his speakers are not "telling" the reader what is happening in the poems. Rather the dramatic action unfolds in the very utterance, lending the poems the immediacy of live theatrical performance. Some poems possess the qualities of soliloquy and depict a single speaker on the poetic mind-stage. More often, though, the poems in question have a dramatis personae comprising the speaker, addressee, and various third parties to the dramatic situation. The text, like a script, often creates a space for listener response or implied dialogue with the result that the reader senses that there is more than one speaker involved, as in a play. The role of the reader is also sometimes implied by the text, creating an additional dynamic node, that of the poetic audience, whose presence is felt as that of a kind of spectator, overhearer, or eavesdropper. It is the way in which the reader, moreover, is required to play an active, creative part, to fill in the gaps of what is only implied in the text itself, that makes Donne's most memorable poems seem especially dramatic. This dialogic play between reader and poet lends the poems a plastic or fluid quality while at the same time activating the texts with forceful dynamics making them seem self-contained, autonomous, and play-like. The first part of the thesis is a metacritical appraisal of why, when, and how it has been inferred that Donne is particularly deserving of the epithet "dramatic". It will be seen that the literature reviewed is too heterogeneous to provide a single overarching theory of the dramatic in Donne. The second part explores the many nuances of the theatrum mundi topos and the principles of "metadrama", both of which, it is proposed, inform, often implicitly, much of Donne's work. The third and final part examines the ways in which Donne's dramatic economy utilises pragmatic elements such as implicature and deixis through a series of close readings.