The Melancholy Lover and the Melancholy Sinner: Melancholy in John Donne’s Songs and Sonets and The Holy Sonnets
The purpose of this thesis is to examine Donne’s employments of melancholy in his love poetry, Songs and Sonets, and religious poetry, The Holy Sonnets. I argue that, in terms of the Renaissance medical knowledge of melancholy, the two speakers—the male lover and the sinner—can be regarded as typical melancholy patients. In either the lover’s unhappy love encounter or the sinner’s spiritual crisis, the two speakers’ behaviors and psychological states keep glaring consistency with the symptoms of melancholy according to the current medical discussions.
Chapter Two aims at reconstructing the clinical picture of a melancholy patient that Donne and his contemporaries might be familiar with. By doing so, I hope to represent what a melancholy patient might look like at Donne’s time, which Donne is allowed to make use of in his poetic writings. To achieve this, first I explore the significant notions concerning melancholy in the ancient and Renaissance medical tradition. Then, I pay particular attention to the symptoms most melancholy patients are found to demonstrate in the heart and in the brain.
Based on the clinical picture, I contend in Chapters Three and Four that Donne draws greatly on melancholy in depicting the lover’s “love melancholy” in Songs and Sonets and the sinner’s “religious melancholy” in The Holy Sonnets. Love melancholy and religious melancholy, two remarkable species of melancholy, partake of the remarkable symptoms of melancholy, and in the Renaissance, some scholarly treatises, notably Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholy, are devoted to exploring the two types of melancholy. I juxtapose Donne’s poetry with these scholarly analyses in order to highlight the fact that in both his love poetry and religious poetry, Donne portrays the lover and the sinner as two speakers rich in expression of the characteristics and symptoms of melancholy.
Through exploring Donne’s artistic treatments of melancholy in Songs and Sonets and The Holy Sonnets, I expect to make contribution to the field of Donne’s study in two aspects. On the one hand, while dealing with Donne’s love poetry and religious poetry, most critics tend to interpret them separately. By relating them to each other in terms of melancholy, I hope to find out a common perspective to reading the two apparently irrelevant poetic texts. On the other hand, melancholy, as a prevalent disease and a vogue topic at Donne’s time, is assumed to exert its effects on the poet’s creation. In this sense, melancholy matters not only to the medical scholars in the Renaissance. With artistic refinements, poets such as Donne himself can be expected to make a more graphic and more humanistic presentation of this malady. In this thesis, paralleling Donne’s poetry with medical ideas of melancholy, I am going to accentuate the literary success Donne achieves in creating two appropriate images of melancholy speakers to match the unsatisfactory human experiences Donne intends to talk about.
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