Arthur F. Marotti has produced the first systematic study of John Donne's poetry as coterie literature, offering fresh interpretations of the poems in their biographical and sociohistorical contexts. It will be of interest and value to students and scholars of English Renaissance literature, to critics interested in the application of revisionist history to literary study, and to those concerned with the processes by which literature became institutionalized in the early modern period.
Donne treated poetry as an avocation, restricting his verse to carefully chosed readers: friends, acquaintances, patrons, and the woman he later married. This study employs socio-historical and psychoanalytic methods to examine this poetry as work designed for readers to respond in knowledgeable ways to a complex interplay of literary text and social context. Marotti argues that it is necessary to relate literary language to the languages of social, economic, and political transactions and to define the social and ideological affiliations of literary genres and modes.
After setting Donne's practice in the framework of the sixteenth-century systems of manuscript literary transmission, Marotti treats the verse chronologically and according to audience, paying particular attention to the rhetorical enactment of the author's relationships to peers and superiors through the conflicting styles of egalitarian assertion, social iconoclasm, and deferential politeness. Marotti relates the poetry to Donne's contemporary prose, discussing the author's choice of various literary forms in the context of his sociopolitical life as well in terms of the shift from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule, the latter change resulting in a realignment of genres within the culture's literary system. He reads Donne's formal satires, humanist verse letters, erotic elegies, and commentary epistles aware of the social coordinates of those particular genres, and defines the markedly different circumstances to which Donne's libertine, courtly, satiric, sentimental, complimentary, and religious lyrics individually belonged. Marotti deals also with Donne's inventive mixing of genres in both shorter and longer poems.
Marotti's groundbreaking work offers new models of historical interpretation of Donne's poetry, complementing previous formalist, intellectual-historical, and literary-historical readings. It particularly highlights the importance of attending to the socioliterary conditions of literature designed for manuscript transmission rather than for publication, work that includes, for example, much of the lyric poetry of Renaissance England.