Sighs and Tears: Biological Costly Signals and Donne’s “Whining Poëtry”

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


Sighs and tears permeate John Donne’s poetry, as well they should. Crying in particular functions as a “costly signal” in biological terms: a blatant, physiologically demanding, involuntary show of hurt feelings. “Teares dimme mine eyes,” laments Donne’s Sappho (56); they are “fruits of much griefe” in “A Valediction of weeping” (7). The theory of costly signalling, related to the “handicap principle,” was developed not too long ago by Israeli zoologists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi. As the Zahavis explain: “In order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly.”1 Initially their idea was denigrated, but it has since been accepted, and it has proven extraordinarily helpful for making sense of both animal and human behavior. Wasteful conspicuous consumption among upper-class Americans, something noted a century ago by sociologist Thorstein Veblen, exemplifies this handicap principle in action. Like gazelles jumping in place or “stotting” rather than running away when wolves appear, it indicates fitness by flaunting excess resources.


Costly Signal Cognitive Approach Premium Skill Batesian Mimicry Handicap Principle 
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  1. 1.
    Amotz Zahavi and Avishag Zahavi, The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle, trans. Naama Zahavi-Ely and Melvin Patrick Ely (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), xiv. The concept was originally formulated around 1975. See also Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, ed. Paul Ekman, 3rd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a synoptic overview of the subject, see Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York and London: Norton, 1999).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Troilus and Criseyde (II.1023–27), in The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).Google Scholar
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    In a 1623 sermon on the penitential Psalm 6, Donne expounds upon God’s capacity to hear and respond to the “embassage” of our tears, legatio lacrymarum (Sermons, VI.i, 47–49). Donne made a verse translation, “The Lamentations of Jeremy,” ca. 1617–18, which was set to music by Thomas Ford, while his elegy “On the untimely Death of the incomparable Prince Henry” appeared in Joshua Sylvester, ed., Lachrymae Lachrymarum (1613).Google Scholar
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    Marjory Lange, Telling Tears in the English Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 58. See also pp. 173–204 on Donne’s religious writings. Along those lines demarcated by Lange, Humbert Humbert, the self-consciously literary narrator of Lolita, refers to his own “hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed.” Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 52.Google Scholar
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    It is possible Donne had heard of “lachryma Christi,” a strong sweet red wine of southern Italy, or a “lachrymatory,” a vial filled with mourners’ tears found in tombs. Cf. Mirabella’s bottle of contrite tears in The Faerie Queene, VI.viii.24, in Edmund Spenser, Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1912).Google Scholar
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    Quotations of Tudor sonnets will be from Richard Sylvester, ed., English Sixteenth-Century Verse: An Anthology (New York and London: Norton, 1984). I have modernized Wyatt’s spelling. The following concordances were consulted: Homer Carroll Combs and Zay Rusk Sullens, eds., A Concordance to the English Poems of John Donne (Chicago: Packard & Co., 1940); Herbert Donow, ed., A Concordance to the Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975); Herbert Donow, ed., A Concordance to the Sonnet Sequences of Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Spenser (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press / London and Amsterdam: Feffer & Simons, 1969); Charles Grosvenor Osgood, ed., A Concordance to the Poems of Edmund Spenser (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963); and Marvin Spevack, ed., The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
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    The relationship of creativity to scholarly melancholy also bears keeping in mind. See Douglas Trevor, The Poetics of Melancholy in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and primary and secondary works cited therein.Google Scholar
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    Gavin Alexander, ed., Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (London: Penguin, 2004), 49.Google Scholar
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    William Wordsworth, “Scorn Not the Sonnet” (2–3), in John Hollander, ed., Sonnets (New York: Knopf, 2001), p. 250.Google Scholar
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    Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Penguin, 1997). The quoted sonnet is 164 in the standard numbering (the title is probably nonauthorial). See also Lisa Rabin, “Sor Juana’s Petrarchan Poetics,” in Approaches to Teaching the Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ed. Emilie Bergmann and Stacey Schlau (New York: MLA, 2007), 170–77. Her colonial Mexican milieu also saw the appearance of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), a ghost story about a mother crying for her lost children (sometimes identified as La Malinche).Google Scholar
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    Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 380–81. His point regarding the aesthetic benefits of difficult rhyme and meter is anticipated by sonneteer Samuel Daniel’s Defence of Rhyme (1603). N.b. Miller’s most recent book utilizes signalling theory to criticize contemporary consumerism. It is a brilliant example of how evolutionary psychology can illuminate real-world issues, and deserves a wide readership. Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (New York: Viking, 2009). His wife has the Shakespearean name Rosalind Arden.Google Scholar
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    William Empson, “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” in John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Helen Gardner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 52–60. See also Barbara Estrin, “Small Change: Defections from Petrarchan and Spenserian Poetics,” in New Casebooks: John Donne, ed. Andrew Mousley (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 81–103.Google Scholar

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© Michael A. Winkelman 2013

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