Illustration by Yann Kebi

When English professor Achsah Guibbory first encountered poems by the 17th-century poet John Donne in graduate school, she was struck by—among other things—their subject matter. “They were about sex!” she says. “I didn’t really think that people in the early 17th century wrote poems that had to do with sex.” To boot, they were funny, clever, challenging, and direct. “When you read them you felt like he was speaking directly to you.”


We’re sitting in Guibbory’s office on a cloudy March morning, and after I ask her to share a favorite Donne poem from that time in her life, she rushes to her desk, seizes a volume, and begins to recite “The Good Morrow”: “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then? / But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?” Those lines alone support her points; they’re rich with erotic jokes. “Country” puns on the female anatomy, and “sucked”—which, she tells me, would have appeared in print with a long “s” that resembled an “f”—refers to another forbidden word. 


Guibbory has been at Barnard since 2004, when she came from the University of Illinois, and has served as an Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English. Her students have loved Donne for many of the same reasons she fell for him: for being a “bad boy,” she writes in her new book, Returning to John Donne (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015) and for his “double-entendres, his boldness, his wit.” 


On multiple occasions, students’ ideas have influenced Guibbory’s thinking on the poet. Many Donne readers highlight his disdain for women, and with good reason. (Of Eve, he wrote: “One woman at one blow, then kill’d us all, / And singly, one by one, they kill us now.”) But one student argued that, in some misogynistic poems, “a deeper dynamic was at play,” Guibbory recalls. 


Her insight helped Guibbory realize that, in certain poems that seem to punish women, “he’s not really talking about women and sex but about the church—it’s not misogynist, it’s really anti-religious authority.” The church is often identified as a woman in the New Testament and the relationship between humans and God is described as a marriage in both the Old and New Testaments. His wish to avoid committing to a woman, she explains, mirrors his wish to avoid committing to a church that insists on religious conformity—a dangerous position in Donne’s time, and one more safely communicated through analogy than through direct statement. “As long as I’ve done this,” Guibbory says, “I still have students who think new thoughts. There’s this great back-and-forth, and it’s so exciting to me.”


Religion provides a thread through Guibbory’s courses, which extend well beyond Donne’s terrain. In her junior English colloquiums—required English-major courses focusing on Renaissance and Enlightenment writers—she emphasizes religious identity, conflict, and toleration. Her Milton class places the writer of Paradise Lost within the contexts of his time and place, showing how his political and religious concerns intersected with his literary ones. For next fall, she plans a senior seminar that explores the treatment of sexuality, sin, and spirituality within a range of authors—from Donne and Milton to Professor Mary Gordon ’71. 


Milton’s devotional poetry first inspired Guibbory’s scholarly interest in Christianity. Later research prompted her to bring Judaism into the mix: she discovered that certain Protestants disapproved of ritual and ceremony because they saw it as a continuation of Catholicism and—to her surprise—Judaism. She then began to explore how 17th-century English Christians understood the relationship between their religion and its Jewish antecedents. Such concerns anchor much of her work, including Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2010). Other publications include Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge University Press, 2006).


Religion is also key to her new book; Returning to John Donne supplements her most important published essays on Donne with new ones. The pieces are linked, she wrote, by “an overarching concern to define what is distinctive and original about [Donne] while locating his writings within various historical and cultural contexts: early modern thinking about time and history; religious attitudes toward sexuality; the politics of Elizabethan England; religious conflicts within the Church.” The new essays explore Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions—a prose work written during a serious illness—as well as the “dark side of Donne’s love poetry” and the writer’s role in the history of religious tolerance. 


That role, the essay argues, has long gone underrecognized, partly because of the unusual arc of Donne’s religious life. Donne was born Catholic in Protestant England, and he and his family faced intense persecution. In his Satyre III (which, like much of his work, went unprinted during his lifetime), Donne argued for “radical liberty of conscience,” protesting such persecution, arguing in favor of the separation of church and state, and doubting that “true religion can be found in any existing church.” 


Then, for unknown reasons, Donne took orders for the priesthood with the Church of England in 1615, and became the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1621. Now an emblem of the inseparability of church and state, he urged conformity on his flock. But in analyzing Donne, Guibbory finds that “toleration has more shapes than one.” Unlike many at the time, Donne came to embrace the idea of a merciful, inclusive God, and also “sought to embody those qualities himself in his approach to salvation in his sermons, trying to build bridges rather than shore up boundaries that divide.” In his writing, he hinted—radically—that even Catholics and Jews could be saved. He was most intolerant of those who, he wrote, “think none pure at all, that are not pure our way.” 


Donne’s role in the history of toleration hasn’t been recognized, Guibbory suggests, because of his proclamations in favor of conformity and his move toward a seeming conservatism. “It looks like he goes from writing sexy poetry to being the dean of St. Paul’s,” she says. The traditional understanding of the history of tolerance is also to blame: it’s generally seen as a later development among the radical Protestants who suffered under the thumb of the Church of England—such as fellow poet John Milton—rather than among Church adherents like Donne. 


Pondering such matters, Guibbory says, helps her approach similar ones in today’s world—such as the question, among Orthodox Jews in Israel, of who counts as Jewish. “We understand a lot more about where we are now when we look at the past,” she says. “What’s going on now casts light on how we read the texts.” In her classes, she relates current events to older works: as the Charlie Hebdo events unfurled in France, for instance, her English colloquium happened to be reading about the French Revolution and the enshrinement of liberté, égalité, fraternité—“but who counts as brothers?” she asked. “We could bring up that question then.”


The very acts of inquiring and seeking connections mirror principles of Donne’s work. When we read his poetry or prose, Guibbory writes, “We watch him thinking, questioning, trying to understand and represent experience, or at least his reaction to experience (whether actual or imagined, it does not matter). Donne is always trying to figure things out.” And he entices us to figure him out: to analyze his metaphors, to follow his arguments, to ponder his conclusions. “The result,” Guibbory writes, “is the feeling that we are discovering truths even as he is. And this is what makes Donne so much fun to teach in a classroom, why he always seems new, why I keep returning to Donne.”

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