BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 2003)
 
Peter DeSa Wiggins, Donne, Castiglione, and the Poetry of Courtliness.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. 
174 pp. ISBN 025333814X. 

 

Reviewed by Joan E. Hartman
College of Staten Island, City University of New York

The staple of Peter DeSa Wiggins's study of Donne and Castiglione is a series of close readings of Donne's poetry: all five satires and selected elegies and songs and sonnets.  Wiggins is particularly adept at characterizing the poems' absent presences, that is, their imputed addressees.  He takes a formalist approach that allows, as he puts it, "the poem as a courtly exchange governed by cultural codes to emerge from close reading" (120).  He derives the cultural codes that he uses from Castiglione's The Courtier.  At times they emerge from and at times they intrude forcibly on his readings, which he does not claim are innocent. 

The codes, four in number, give titles to each of his chapters: "The Satirical Art of the Disabused," "Aesthetic Play," "Sprezzatura or Transcendence," and "Discerning Insincerity."  I paraphrase them as follows; they are not simple.  The courtier, like some of Donne's personas, his speaking selves, looks at life steadily, apprehends both the real and the ideal; the poet includes both the real and the ideal in some of his poems.  The courtier engages in the provocative playfulness exemplified by the participants in the four nights of gamesome conversation at the court of Urbino memorialized by Castiglione; the poet recreates it.  The courtier disguises his efforts with the nonchalance of sprezzatura; so does the poet.  And, in courts filled with dissimulation and self-serving, the courtier manages to distinguish the real from the feigned and to present himself as sincere, authentic, truth-telling; so do some of Donne's personas and Donne himself.  The codes are of course intertwined, but Wiggins disperses the poems of Donne he reads among them according to the predominance of one or the other code and the usefulness of particular poems in illustrating it.  Concluding, he shows the codes' interaction through a reading of "A Valediction: of the Booke."

While it's possible to argue with details of Wiggins's readings of poems, by and large the codes enable readings that are engaging and engaged.  But Wiggins claims that the codes are more than an exegetical heuristic.  What are they, then?  He formulates and reformulates his answer to this question.

Certainly Donne knew or knew of The Courtier.  Probably he knew it, for his reference to it in Satire 5 is both generally incisive and quite specific.  His parenthesis (in the quotation below) goes to a central issue of The Courtier, while the sentence in which the parenthesis is embedded disagrees with a point Castiglione makes in Book 2. 

 He [i.e., Castiglione] which did lay
 Rules to make Courtiers, (hee being understood
 May make good Courtiers, but who Courtiers good?)
 Frees from the sting of jests all who'in extreme
 Are wrech'd or wicked: of these two a theame
 Charity and liberty give me.  (ll. 2-7)

The parenthesis, according to Wiggins, points to the dilemma that Castiglione helped Donne resolve: the moral ambiguities of serving at court.  In the statement proper, Donne the satirist claims license from charity and liberty to mock the wretched or the wicked.

Wiggins claims of the codes, most generally, that The Courtier defined courtiership for Donne and his age: Donne was "influenced by the social codes contained in The Courtier" (146) while "the social practices of the Elizabethans were codified in texts like The Courtier" (2).  If this were the extent of his claim, it would be both unexceptional and unexceptionable.  But he goes so far as to claim that The Courtier determined, even overdetermined Donne's poems by supplying him with the langue that made his parole, that is, his poems, possible.  Most often he makes indeterminate claims that fall between cultural coincidence and linguistic enabling: Donne, he would have it, “rearticulates” the codes of courtliness that Castiglione articulated as well as the contradictions they embody and their resolution.  Chief among these contradictions is the paradox that appears in Donne's parenthesis cited above: "hee [i.e., Castiglione] being understood / May make good Courtiers, but who Courtiers good?"  Castiglione, Wiggins argues, resolved the contradiction between the good courtier, good in the sense of adept, and the good moral courtier through the clarity and comprehensiveness of his vision.  Donne found that Castiglione spoke to his condition and so he rearticulated in his poetry Castiglione's codes and their resolution of contradictions.  He also rearticulated--or was indebted to or was influenced by--the drama of Castiglione's courtly debates.

I remain unconvinced by both these arguments, taking the second first: Wiggins's argument that Donne's lyrics, which are indeed dramatic and often dialogic, are indebted to the dialogues of The Courtier.  I locate Donne's poetry in the development of the lyric in the English Renaissance: he, like Wyatt and then Sidney and Spenser and Shakespeare before him, made anew praise and persuasion by making them even more dramatic than his English predecessors, particularly Sidney.  Like these English Petrarchans, he pushed and stretched the paradigm and, because he ranks among the best of them, he succeeded brilliantly.  But the lyric was dramatic before him.  Lyric speakers characterize not only themselves but also those they address.  Their poems lead us to believe that we know Wyatt's John Poins, Spenser's Elizabeth Boyle, Shakespeare's young man and dark lady, and, to a lesser extent, Astrophil's Stella as well as Donne's addressees, named in the verse epistles, unnamed in the songs and sonnets.

We also know other characters Donne addressed, characters whom Wiggins calls adversarii, as in "The Canonization," with its stern dramatic imperative to a critic: "For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love!"  But Sidney preceded Donne with numerous adversarii: critical friends, personifications, even Stella's pet sparrow: "Good brother Philip, I have borne you long" (Astrophil and Stella 83).  To cite some examples: "Alas have I not paine enough my friend" (10); "Your words my friend (right healthfull caustiks) blame" (21); or "Vertue alas, now let me take some rest" (4); and "Reason, in faith thou art well serv'd, that still" (10).  Possibilities for imputed drama and imputed dialogue were present in lyric poetry from Petrarch on, and Donne's English predecessors and contemporaries exploited them without recourse to Castiglione.   Wiggins vividly elucidates them in Donne; it's his positing their origin in the courtly debates at Urbino that seems unnecessary.

Equally problematic for me is Wiggins's first argument, that Donne rearticulated in his poetry Castiglione's codes and their resolution of contradictions.  Wiggins develops this argument primarily in his introduction, in his discussion of the satires, and in his conclusion, though it seeps into readings of other poems.  He proposes to "answer," in effect, the revisionary criticism of John Carey, Jonathan Goldberg, and Arthur Marotti.  They present what Wiggins calls a "conformist Donne" who used poetry "to crash the establishment" (1).  He wants readers to see a more complex and subtle poet who could maintain a hold on the ideal without prettying up or ignoring the real, who could use poetry as an instrument of advancement without selling out to the establishment.  (Who ever thought Donne prettied up reality?  His images of fleshly decay and moral dissimulation are much too powerful.)  Donne, Wiggins argues, takes large, balanced views; Castiglione showed him how.  (At times, Wiggins's evidence amounts to little more than showing Donne including some of each, that is, some of the ideal alongside some of the real, without working out relations between them.)

But Castiglione, like Donne, has not been immune to the hermeneutics of suspicion.  Donne himself deployed them when, in the lines from Satire 5 quoted above, he opposed the adept courtier to the good courtier.  Castiglione surveys topics common to Renaissance educational treatises such as Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince and Elyot's Book of the Governor, but with a difference: Erasmus and Elyot would have the prince educated in virtue while Castiglione would have him pleased.  George Bull, Castiglione's latest translator, writes in his introduction: "As a handbook for gentlemen, The Courtier conceals the most shameless opportunism under the cloak of a tiresome refinement; as a memoir of life at the court of Urbino, it touches up history to the point of distortion" (17).  He offers a stern reminder that the participants in the fourth night of the dialogues at Urbino probably did not listen to Pietro Bembo rhapsodize his way up the Platonic ladder only to discover, when they threw open the windows, that dawn had come and the birds were singing.  Castiglione's prose, as he reads it, is a gloss on the realities of despotic power. 

Wiggins goes no further with revisionary criticism of Castiglione than Thomas Greene's "Il Cortigiano and the Choice of a Game," which he respectfully cites in order to put to the side.  Greene describes the impasses the courtiers reach when the ideal and the real are juxtaposed: they fall silent or laugh nervously, refusing or lacking the power to demystify despotic power.  Wiggins calls their laughter the laughter of the disabused, the title of his chapter on Donne's satires.  He leans heavily on Satire 5, usually the most neglected, to find the ideal that will balance Donne's satirical portraits of courtiers.  He finds it in Donne's incarnation of Sir Thomas Egerton, the man to whom Satire 5 is addressed.  Egerton is the "good," that is, the moral courtier.  He was also, of course, Donne's employer and his entrance into public life, at least until Donne secretly married his niece; Donne, for example, was elected member of parliament for Brackley, a borough controlled by Egerton, in 1601.  According to Wiggins, Donne, by including Egerton, follows Castiglione by balancing suspicion with idealization.  My own hermeneutics of suspicion comes into play here.  I take issue with Wiggins's decision to resolve the debate over the instabilities of Donne's poetry by recourse to what he takes to be the stable ground of Castiglione's prose.  For me, debates over both Donne and Castiglione are ongoing.

 

Works Cited

Bull, George.  Introduction.  The Book of the Courtier.  By Baldassar      Castiglione.  New York: Penguin Putnam, 1967.
Carey, John.  John Donne: Life, Mind and Art.  London: Faber and Faber,      1981.
Goldberg, Jonathan.  James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson,      Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries.  Baltimore: Johns      Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Greene, Thomas M.  "Il Cortigiano and the Choice of a Game." Castiglione:      The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture.  Ed. Robert W. Hanning      and David Rosand.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Marotti, Arthur F.  John Donne: Coterie Poet.  Madison: University of      Wisconsin Press, 1986.

 


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