Ronald Corthell. Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: The Subject of Donne. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. 227 pp. ISBN 0-8143-2675-5.
Gary Kuchar
McMaster University

Kuchar, Gary. "Review of Ronald Corthell, Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 15.1-7<URL:

  1. Ronald Corthell's study of Donne's poetry, like Joel Fineman's analysis of Shakespeare's sonnets and more recently Marshall Grossman's work on early modern poetic narrative, explores how renaissance literature informs current debates on subjectivity. Unlike Fineman and Grossman, however, Corthell focuses less on historical origins than on the continuing effects which Donne's work has for readers and teachers of Donne. Indeed, Corthell examines the way that new historicist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and formalist studies have produced competing versions of Donne; at the same time he examines the extent to which Donne's poetry anticipates and challenges the manner in which each of these approaches understands the "subject of Donne." For Corthell, the subject of Donne includes the "speaking subject of Donne's texts, the reading subject, and the academic subject." Carefully holding the relations between these subjects together throughout his analysis, Corthell examines the "historically variable subjectivity effects of reading Donne's poems." He explores, that is, the complex ways in which Donne's poetry informs the ongoing debate regarding the place of power, gender, desire and representation in the constitution of the early modern subject. By situating Donne's poetry in its early modern contexts as well as in relation to contemporary theory, Corthell considers Donne's poems as sites of "subjectification," as scenes, that is, which perform more or less equivocal resolutions to some of the central ideological conflicts of Donne's age. The result is an important challenge to the new historicist tendency to efface the literary dimensions of early modern poetry. Expanding the parameters of literary history to include the reception of Donne's texts, Corthell offers a rewarding analysis of how the literary or figurative dimensions of the subject, and of Donne's subject in particular, can succeed in resisting ideological containment by foregrounding the necessarily ambivalent nature of subjectification as it occurs in relation to desire and fantasy.

  2. Corthell begins his examination of the equivocal nature of subjectification in Donne's work by drawing together previously unforeseen affinities between Lacanian theories of desire and interpellation, particularly as they appear in the work of Slavoj Zizek, with Eagleton's theories regarding the relationship between literature and ideology. Emphasizing the similarities in these otherwise competing theoretical positions, Corthell proposes to focus on the dynamics of resistance and contradiction visible in the various subject-positions constructed by Donne's work. Chapter 1 achieves this through an examination of the way in which Donne's verse satires anticipate the rhetoric and the theoretical concerns of current modes of new historicism. Corthell situates Donne's satires within their coterie context. He takes up Arthur Marotti's influential work on Donne as a coterie poet in order to challenge Marotti's assumptions of a "stable and coherent" relationship between the poems' speakers and the social codes through which Donne addresses his coterie audience. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Corthell demonstrates the extent to which Donne criticism, in this case Marotti's important work, tends to "recuperate" or resolve the ambiguities which the poems produce: "When Donne's intentions seem unclear, Marotti saves a coherent Donne by seeing deliberate manipulation of the coterie reader." Indeed, rather than "regarding the satires and other writings as reflections of Donne's lifestyle and the views of the coterie, [Corthell treats] . . . them as productions of a coterie or community." Subsequently, Corthell reverses the relationship between Donne and new historicism in order to demonstrate the extent to which Donne's satires, particularly satires 3 and 4, produce subversive as well as conservative visions of the relationship between self and culture. Focussing on Donne's engagement with issues of authority in satire 3, Corthell argues that Donne aims to resolve the contradictions inherent in the position of the Elizabethan satirist by constructing a "private" space in which "public" issues might be dissolved. Corthell thus constructs an historical relationship between Donne's attempt to resolve his oscillation between a newly constructed "private space" and an inherited public position, with new historicism's concerns regarding power and self in the period. Corthell concludes that Donne constructs a "recusant subject of satire," a subject, that is, whose equivocalness is both a response to and a production of the discontinuous discursive formations available to the Elizabethan satirist. Corthell demonstrates the extent to which Donne's satires resemble the dissembling rhetoric of recusants such as Robert Southwell, a rhetoric which foregrounds the discursive or arbitrary nature of (illegitimate) authority in ways that prefigure the forms and themes of new historicist scholarship.

  3. Chapter 2, "Donne's 'Disparitie': Inversion, Ideology, and the Subject of Love," considers the role of paradox, irony, and inversion in the Songs and Sonnets. Specifically, Corthell examines how the ambiguities surrounding issues of gender in the period, particularly as articulated by Thomas Laqueur, function in the coterie context of homosocial exchange as, at least ostensibly, "powerful incentives to . . . stabilize gender." As in the previous chapter though, Corthell considers the extent to which the Songs and Sonnets are not only instances of cultural production, but are representations of cultural production. In this way, he again emphasizes the possibility of reading the sonnets not simply as conservative attempts to "stabilize gender" but as an ideological practice which produces "a feeling of discomfort that could be available for either revolutionary or reactionary projects." Corthell first demonstrates how Donne's love poems enable a variety of interventionist positions through a reading of the demystifying features of "The Indifferent." He argues that the "conflict in the poem is not between a subject of Petrarchism and the 'naturalism' of the speaker, but rather, between equally conventional treatments of love and women." The poem, moreover, appears to disclose "some of the secrets of sexual relations only to conceal them again in irony and paradox." Yet, Corthell pushes the poem's opposition between Petrarchanism and Ovidianism in order to emphasize the extent to which "the defensive ironies of Donne's indifferent seem to some degree provoked by the fear that in constantly loving a woman he may become a woman." To this extent, Donne's use of irony and paradox do not completely conceal the contradictions regarding gender for which they appear to be designed. Similarly, Corthell reads "Confined Love," "To his Mistres Going to Bed," "Sapho to Philaenis," and most importantly "Air and Angels" as complex instances of the ideological construction of gender. In his analysis of "Air and Angels" Corthell intriguingly suggests that Donne's "improvisation on Neoplatonic themes" is, in part, an attempt to construct "love in terms of gender difference." In so far as "Air and Angels" seeks to understand sexual difference, a reading which challenges most ideological critiques of Donne's sonnets -- although one closely related to Marshall Grossman's recent analysis of the poem -- it inscribes the impossibility of articulating difference within the culture's dominantly phallocentric vocabulary . To this extent, "Air and Angels," like the other sonnets Corthell discusses, insinuates a mode of subjectivity that seeks to transgress the ideological norms upon which the poem itself is based. By emphasizing the "disparitie" in Donne's work, and in the traditions which he writes, Corthell seeks to foreground the ideological contradictions which the poems are designed to resolve. In this respect, Corthell provides a convincingly complex picture of the social and ideological contexts regarding gender and male desire which "Air and Angels" interrogates while reproducing.

  4. In chapter 3, "Mutual Love and Literary Ideology," Corthell considers Donne's impact on the modern creation of "poetic authority" through the "reinvention of love" in secular love poems such as "The Canonization." The first section supplements "Marotti's reading of the coterie system with other stories of love and power in the period." The emphasis here is on how Donne's love poetry becomes an apology of verse itself. Again, Corthell examines the gendered nature of Donne's "masculine rhetoric." Moreover, he offers a sustained analysis of Donne's engagement with protestant ideas of mutuality. According to Corthell, Donne creates "an aesthetics of marriage" rather than reproducing the protestant "heroics of marriage": "'The Canonization' plots a movement of desire from erotic rupture and death toward recuperation and rebirth in a textual practice. It moves from a rhetorical 'Apology of Love' to an aesthetic 'Apology for Poetry.'" Corthell sees this "aestheticizing move" as a "complex attempt to manage conflicts between public and private domains." The contradiction, in Donne's poem, between the centrality of love on the one hand, and its dependence on a marginal literary discourse on the other, reproduces, Corthell argues, "the instability of relations between public and private life in the period." This equivocal solution to the ideological problems facing Donne, which Corthell so ably articulates, has clearly had a lasting impact on the constitution of a modern literary ideology which, in turn, informs our conceptions of erotic experience. The second and last part of the chapter continues the examination of the masculinized subject position assumed and created by Donne's construction of a decidedly literary version of erotic relations. Here again, Corthell seeks out a "disturbing" and transgressive dimension in Donne's representation of woman. In the case of "The Canonization" though, Corthell has to push his interpretation quite hard in order to suggest that the seventeenth-century woman reader might locate this transgressive dimension in ideas of "correspondencie." In this poem, Corthell locates an intriguing but not entirely convincing subversive quality in the contradiction between Donne's construction of the micro/macro relation in terms of "actives and passives" and the "new [protestant] notion of mutuality as a correspondence of active with active." Through Donne's "play with androgyny" in the love poems, Corthell locates those moments where Donne appears to consider "the possibility of an autonomous woman with a sexual history of her own." The most convincing and important element of Corthell's reading of Donne's construction of woman is his analysis of how the poems represent and reproduce the failures necessary to interpellation: "The other [as woman] cannot be entirely assimilated" into the masculine vocabulary which Donne struggles within and against.

  5. Donne's construction of "the idea of woman" comes into even clearer focus in Corthell's analysis of "The Anniversaries" in Chapter 4. Given "The Anniversaries'" explicit concern with constituting "the idea of woman" it yields particularly well to Corthell's analysis of "subjectification" and the effects this process has had on the history of Donne criticism. He interrogates the desire(s) behind intention and interpretation which the poem represents and produces in its readers. Corthell attends, that is, "to the urgency of the desire to identity the famous 'shee' of the poem; it balances the recent new historicist critique of representation against a psychoanalytic notion of identification in order to argue for the importance of desire in the process of producing and interpreting the Anniversaries." Corthell's extensive knowledge of Joseph Hall leads to a particularly illuminating discussion of the way Hall's preface ambiguously situates "The Anniversaries" within a patronage system that Hall, like Donne, knew well. The strongest moments in the chapter, however, come when Corthell brings out the "melancholic" and "narcissistic" dynamics at work in the cultural production of "the idea of woman." Indeed, Corthell's psychoanalytic reflections on the importance of loss in "The Anniversaries" are so striking one wonders why it is, with the possible exception of Grossman's recent work, the only psychoanalytic reading of the poem to date. Corthell aptly argues that "The Anniversaries . . . recover narcissistic loss by constructing the woman as a powerful Other capable of securing for the speaker and reader a position of wholeness and self-knowledge." In a particularly fine juxtaposition, Corthell shows how the "idea of woman" functions in "The Anniversaries" as what Kristeva calls, in relation to Christianity's virginal fantasy, "the permanent lining" or "maternal receptacle" which secures and perhaps even grounds the paternal and creative function of the word. This analysis of the cultural and therapeutic work performed by "The Anniversaries" is a superb example of the often underestimated interpretive power of psychoanalytic approaches to early modern literature.

  6. The psychoanalytic features of Corthell's concern with the place of desire in the ideological work performed by Donne's poems are fully realized in the final chapter which focuses on Donne's Holy Sonnets, most importantly "Batter My Heart." The chapter opens with a consideration of Donne's place in the early modern constitution of "inwardness." Developing the discussion of "poetic authority" in chapter 3 and the discussion of recusancy in chapter 1, Corthell considers "how the reading of the Holy Sonnets produces the subject of devotion as a secular literary form of subjectivity and its discontents." This separation of sacred content from secular form in the critical history of Donne's work is related to the production "of inwardness out of ideological conflict" in the writings of Elizabethan Catholics. The political writings of Robert Southwell, as well as those of some of his protestant rivals, serve as contexts for Donne's construction of an inner life. This leads into Corthell's most convincing argument, first with "If Poysonous mineralls" and then "Batter My Heart," regarding the transgressive possibilities of Donne's work. In both cases, Corthell demonstrates the way that Donne's poems present the sort of subversive potential derived from overly literal performances of ideological norms for which Zizek has brilliantly argued. This part of the discussion returns briefly to Joseph Hall as Corthell considers the cultural work performed by devotion and meditation, a question which the extensive scholarship on seventeenth-century devotional writing has yet to fully address. Although Corthell's analysis of the "ideology of devotion" is illuminating, one might have hoped for some discussion of discourses of "regeneration" and the "inner light" tradition which seem to inform "Batter My Heart." Nonetheless, having established a discursive and theoretical context for the poem, Corthell offers a fascinating reading of "Batter My Heart" as the representation/production of a theological incoherence which is symptomatic of a subject split between God (theorized as the Lacanian Other) and desire. Placing the poem alongside recent critiques of Freud's essay on masochism, Corthell examines the complex forms of identification at work in the sonnet, the most interesting of which is the suggestion that Donne prefigures a form of "feminine masochism" heralded by recent theorists as possessing more or less powerful subversive potential. Although the reading is clearly a controversial one, Corthell weaves a fascinating relationship between Donne's poetry and recent theories on issues of identification and desire that are clearly relevant to this and many other early modern texts.

  7. Despite the book's unusually sophisticated engagement with theory; and its complex approach to the question of literature's relationship with history, its prose is highly accessible and lucid throughout. If there is a weakness to the book it is perhaps its tendency to leave threads hanging for longer than some readers may feel comfortable; but this is understandable given Corthell's broad conception of "the subject of Donne." Moreover, even if readers resist Corthell's ingenuity for finding a transgressive Donne alongside the Donne we may be more familiar with, the book is unquestionably rewarding for its often extraordinary and consistently fair engagement with Donne criticism, its illuminating close readings of the poems, and its highly adept approach to theories of desire and ideology.

    Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).