Verse That Drawes Natures Workes, from Natures Law”; or, Prolegomenon to a Darwinian Defense of Literature

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


In 1638 young Catherine Thimelby invoked John Donne in a mash note to her fiancé Herbert Aston of Tixall, away in Spain on a diplomatic mission: “How infinite a time will it seme till I se you: ‘for lovers hours are full eternity.’ Doctor Dun sayd this, but I think it” (CH, 48).1 She was quoting line 4 of “The Legacy,” a complex meditation on parting.2 Yet in 1693, when Augustan poet laureate John Dryden penned what came for ages to be the defining criticism of Donne and his school, Mistress Thimelby’s reading was implicitly negated:

He affects the Metaphysicks, not only in his Satires, but in his Amorous Verses, where Nature only shou’d reign; and perplexes the Minds of the Fair Sex with nice Speculations of Philosophy, when he shou’d ingage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of Love. (CH, 151)

Dryden’s influence—on Samuel Johnson, for example—cannot be overstated. He popularized the term “Metaphysical” and he established the orthodoxy that Donne’s output was coldly intellectual rather than warmly emotional as proper love poetry should be.


Mirror Neuron Cognitive Approach Free Indirect Discourse Courtly Love Love Poetry 
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  1. 1.
    In the seventeenth century, the Astons of Tixall were Catholic members of the Staffordshire gentry with court connections. (References appear at the end of this note.) Several Astons and Thimelbyes, who were related by marriage, wrote poetry. In 1813 a number of their lyrics were printed by their descendant, the antiquarian Arthur Clifford, and additional pieces came to light with the rediscovery of Constance Aston Fowler’s verse miscellany, now Huntington Library MS 904. C.A.F. corresponded extensively with both her brother Herbert and future sister-in-law Catherine Thimelby (though many of their “lamenting episells” have been lost), playing the role of wannabe matchmaker à la Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s novel, and getting very close to Catherine during Herbert’s extended absence abroad, 1635–38. For example, “there was never any more passionat affectionat lovers than she and I, and that you never knew two creatures more truely and deadly in love with one another than we are” (Tixall Letters, I.109). Catherine’s nickname was Bellamour, “Good Love,” likewise the name of their house in the vicinity of Tixall, and of a character, Sir Bellamoure, who appears in Spenser’s Faerie Queene (VI.xii.3.)It is plausible that Donne met members of the family; he certainly knew of Sir Walter Aston’s illicit match with Anne Barnes in 1600, which was invalidated (there’s an account among Egerton’s papers dating from Donne’s secretaryship). They were definitely well acquainted with his writings. Editor Deborah Aldrich-Watson reports that the 1899 sale catalogue of the Tixall Library contains “a first edition (1633) of Donne’s poems and editions of some of his miscellaneous pieces” (The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler, lv). Furthermore, the second Lord Aston (Herbert’s eldest brother) was friendly enough with their neighbor Izaak Walton to have received the 1671 edition of Walton’s Lives, featuring the classic biography of Donne, in a personally inscribed copy. The ex dono reads: “Ffor my Lord Aston, IZ. WA. / Izake Walton gift to mee, June ye 14, 1671, wh. I ffor his memmory off mee acknowledge a great kindnesse. Walter Aston” (Tixall Letters, II.122). Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, often fished in the Sow River in Stafford. Some heretofore unnoticed allusions also occur. For instance, Constance recorded Catherine’s table-talk one evening: “Oh what worlds would I give I might possess you but one halfe howre to my selfe!” (Tixall Letters, I.111). Cf. “A Feaver”: “For I had rather owner bee / Of thee one houre, then all else ever” (27–28). Other probable indications of Donne’s influence include Catherine’s nocturne, echoing the Holy Sonnet “Death be not proud” (eight-line version “To Sleep” in Tixall Poetry, 294; sonnet “A discourse of a dreame” in The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler, 60); “A Glasse Ring Broken,” which owes something to “A Jeat Ring sent” (Tixall Poetry, 60); and Gertrude Aston Thimelby’s “No Love Like That of the Soul,” whose opening line, “Some froward heretickes in love ther be” (Tixall Poetry, 95–96) stems from “The Indifferent”: “Some two or three / Poore Heretiques in love there be” (23–24). Other indications of their familiarity with Donne include an unpublished poem once in the family archives, provenance unknown, “To Mr. Edward Thimelby, dissuading him from translating Donne into Italian.” Edward apparently critiqued Donne too: “Hate I so thos chymick poets’ witts” and “A relique, extacye, words baudy now, / Our fathers could for harmeles termes alow” (Tixall Poetry, 37, 42; Donne had Songs and Sonnets called “The Relique” and “The Extasie”).For further information, see the DNB sub Aston, Herbert. The primary texts are found in Arthur Clifford, ed., Tixall Poetry; with Notes and Illustrations (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown / Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1813); Arthur Clifford, ed., Tixall Letters; or the Correspondence of the Aston Family, and Their Friends, During the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown / Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1815); and The Verse Miscellany of Constance Aston Fowler: A Diplomatic Edition, ed. Deborah Aldrich-Watson, Medieval and Renaissance Text Series 210 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000). For secondary studies, see Jenijoy La Belle, “A True Love’s Knot: The Letters of Constance Fowler and the Poems of Herbert Aston,” JEGP 79 (1980): 13–31; Dennis Kay, “Poems by Sir Walter Aston, and a Date for the Donne/Goodyer Verse Epistle ‘Alternis Vicibus,’” RES n.s. vol. 37, no. 146 (1986): 198–210; and Deborah Aldrich Larson, “John Donne and the Astons,” HLQ 55 (1992): 635–41. N.b. Aldrich Larson and Aldrich-Watson are one and the same person. The writings of the Astons have also attracted peripheral interest from early modernists working in feminism and manuscript studies.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Line 4 of “The Legacy” reads “And Lovers houres be full eternity” in early printed editions, with “are” for “be” in Group III MSS. In her letter, Catherine probably misremembered what she had read, since her family owned the first edition of Donne’s Poems (1633). Cf. the discussion playing up the Metaphysical density of “The Legacy” in The Calligrapher, a contemporary novel in which Donne’s love poems furnish the intertext: “No offense, mate, but that really is absolute fucking bollocks.” Edward Docx, The Calligrapher (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 225–28.Google Scholar
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    It should be noted that there are ongoing scholarly debates within evolutionary psychology and related fields concerning emotions; I have presented what seem to me like the most reasonable current hypotheses. For further information, see, inter alia, Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Keith Oatley, Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1992); and Suzanne Nalbantian, Paul Matthews, and James McClelland, eds., The Memory Process: Neuroscientific and Humanistic Perspectives (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).Google Scholar
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    Hamlet has attracted mountains of criticism, and I have drawn from all the sources cited herein. For an overview of traditions, see William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Susanne Wofford (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1994); and David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On the tragedy from a historical perspective, see Michael A. Winkelman, Marriage Relationships in Tudor Political Drama, Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 177–84. A sample of strong scholarship includes, inter alia, Robert Watson, “Tragedy,” in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 301–51; John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Jacqueline Rose, “Hamlet—The Mona Lisa of Literature,” Critical Quarterly 28 (1986): 35–49. For emerging evocriticism, see Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Angus Fletcher, Evolving Hamlet: Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and the Ethics of Natural Selection, Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Evelyn Tribble, Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre, Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Amy Cook, Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance through Cognitive Science, Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Joseph Carroll, Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), 123–47 (building on Hazlitt and Bradley); and Mary Thomas Crane, Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). N.b. “brain(s)” appears eleven times in Hamlet, plus “brainish” once. See also Sir Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurd, hilarious, inside-out retelling of the play that likewise manages to comment on many of Hamlet’s most profound philosophical themes.Google Scholar
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    The relationship between music and poetry in Renaissance England has become a major field of study in its own right. See, inter alia, Ian Spink, English Song: Dowland to Purcell (London: Batsford, 1974); Elise Bickford Jorgens, The Well-Tun’d Word: Musical Interpretations of English Poetry, 1597–1651 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982); and Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). More recently, neuroscientific experiments on how music affects people have become a hot topic, with additional work sure to follow.Google Scholar
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    N.b. Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens, who met Donne, nicely captures his talents in his Latin verse: “Te, maxime Donni, Omnibus antefero, divine vir, optime Rhetor, / Prime Poetarum.” Quoted in R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life, ed. Wesley Milgate (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 442.Google Scholar

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© Michael A. Winkelman 2013

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  • Michael A. Winkelman

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