Introduction: “Love Sometimes Would Contemplate, Sometimes Do”

  • Michael A. Winkelman
Part of the Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance book series (CSLP)


John Donne, the monarch of wit, had the mind of a caveman. Inquisitive, self-centered, richly metaphorical, indecisive, goal-driven, with a “thirst for woman-kinde” as John Chudleigh put it in 1635— none of these traits was new (CH, 112). Rather, they were native features of the potent brain he inherited from his—and our—ancestors, the Homo sapiens of the Pleistocene epoch. Reading against the grain a half-century ago, critic William Empson declared that “the thoughts of Donne about love, so far from being over-subtle, were already real in the Stone Age.”1 Recent work in evolutionary psychology has substantiated what Empson simply asserted, and the consequential implications of this knowledge are starting to come to light. To be sure, constituent elements of Donne’s unique character were shaped by local ecological factors. The uneasy Christian faith, the frustrations wrought by his lengthy search for preferment, and the intellect honed through the constant consorting with books all resulted from the influence of his surrounding culture. In other words, Donne’s individual phenotype emerged due to myriad stimuli acting on the singular genetic potential he was endowed with at conception.


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© Michael A. Winkelman 2013

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