Janet E. Halley, Voice and Sign in Seventeenth-Century English Literature: Studies in Donne, Vaughan, Browne and Milton (1980) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles) (on file with the University of California at Los Angeles).
Abstract: The works of John Donne, Henry Vaughan, Sir Thomas Browne and John Milton are informed by linguistic and poetic ideas embedded within them, ideas that can best be related to specific Neoplatonic conceptions of significance. Consistently, Neoplatonic thought holds that the form of a hieroglyphic statement corresponds to a precise consciousness or mental experience. The poem can thus be freed from any simple biographical relation to the poet, and established instead as an episode in a persona's linguistic behavior, the gestural manifestation of a precise epistemological and ontological situation. Linguistic or formal failure dramatizes the relationship between God and man just as precisely as incarnational metaphor. This divestiture of biographical readings redefines the Jack Donne/Dr. Donne dichotomy as a literary or mythic self-presentation, and argues the unity of Donne's oeuvre. The Songs and Sonnets operate through an erotic vocabulary and an incarnational poetics best understood by reference to the theological and linguistic ideas of the Family of Love, and Donne's devotional works establish a conversion-centered personal history, based primarily on the protestant hagiography of the preacher's life: in both halves of his career Donne seeks a fusion of speaker, speech and divine truth. Linguistic failure and personal annihilation, required for conversion to the perfect "speech" of divine union, give ironic form to "A Litanie" and numerous other poems, the Essayes in Divinity and the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Experience itself is the central theme of Vaughan's Silex Scintillans, just as the possibility of an individual life taking on divine form is central to Donne's oeuvre. The Cambridge Platonists show how an antilinguistic stance can result from a primary emphasis on direct experience of God as the only valid divine pedagogy: Vaughan's language, which does not attempt to express divine union, is characterized by semantic, syntactic and formal mutations bespeaking a material cosmos and a devotional consciousness in motion back to a single ultimate source. The dynamics of reading involve us, too, in a process of ascent. Browne designed Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as a progress towards the real character as John Amos Comenius and the English universal-language projectors conceived it. In the first treatise ignorance generates formal disorder, while the second attempts to locate all knowledge in a preliminary encyclopedic order visually available in nature and in the treatise itself as the quincunx. As in Mannerist challenges to Neoplatonic ideal aesthetics, distortions of the quincunxial ideal result from confrontations with empirical observation, expressed here in an imperfect taxonomic fit of general and specific, abstract with concrete. Browne's attempts to render a still life image in language paradoxically exercise this central issue. While Browne works towards a real character understood as a concrete sign encompassing perfect knowledge of the cosmos, Milton's Samson Agonistes finally rejects both language and image. Mystagogic Neoplatonism, which finds suprarational truth only by transcending discourse and confronting the one in dark silence, provides a useful parallel to Milton's final poem, in which redeemed action can be attained and understood only by a direct sensuous participation in God. As Samson tells Harapha, "The way to know were not to see but taste." Samson's linguistic performance throughout the play, and his final withdrawal from the stage, repudiate both literary and visual exemplum as adequate doctrine and leave the poem opaque to those readers who cannot participate directly in divine truth. Its presentation as a closet drama, then, amounts to a direct formal challenge.