Visions and Revisions

Studies in Literature and Culture

by Grzegorz Czemiel (Volume editor) Justyna Galant (Volume editor) Anna Kędra-Kardela (Volume editor) Aleksandra Kędzierska (Volume editor) Marta Komsta (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 338 Pages


Collected under the theme of Visions and Revisions, the papers included in this volume examine different aspects of literature and culture of the Anglophone world. The first part gathers articles dealing with poetry of such epochs as the seventeenth century, the Victorian era and the modern times. Part two focuses on prose works representing such conventions and modes as the romance, the Gothic novel, the condition of England novel, Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction, the science fiction novel and gay fiction. Part three concerns various aspects of British and American culture, including the new media, drama and journalism, and advertising. In its diversity the volume reflects the dynamics of change in literature and culture, enabling the readers to investigate the multifaceted canon.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editors’ Preface
  • Part I – Poetry
  • “Something to act out on a stage”: Theatrum Mundi in John Donne’s Poetry
  • Alfred Tennyson’s Visions of the Otherworlds and the Vocation of the Poet
  • Ecocriticism and Romantic Ecology: Gilbert White and John Clare
  • War as Encounter: The Christmas Truce 1914
  • Trickster Discourse: The Figure of Whittrick in Edwin Morgan’s Writing
  • Art in the Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings
  • Visual Displacement and Shifts of Tone: On the Transformative Powers of Poetry in Recent Collections by Sinéad Morrissey and Zoë Skoulding
  • Words, Pictures and Windows: From Alberti to Derek Mahon
  • Part II – Prose
  • Re-Reading Great Expectations and Re-Thinking Its Genres: The Programmes of Illustration from 1860 through 1910
  • The Bakhtinian Polyphony of Voices in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White
  • The Vision of Brotherhood of Man in Charles Kingsley’s Novel Alton Locke
  • The Strange Case of Mr. Paul Ferroll, A Gentleman and Murderer: The Victorian Vision of Gentlemanliness Revised
  • The Dionysian in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts
  • “Destructive delight”: Conceptual Blending in Charles Williams’s Vision of Satanic Rituals in War in Heaven
  • Revisiting the Gothic Plot: Past-Oriented Suspense in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  • The Gothic Space Revisited
  • Re-Visioning of the Romance Convention in the Novels by Sarah Waters
  • Mother London: Peter Ackroyd’s Three Brothers
  • “Doomed Queens” in a Changing Environment: Andrew Holleran’s and Alan Hollinghurst’s Literary Visions of Gay Clubbing Communities
  • Part III – Culture
  • How It Was, How It Is: Literary Histories across the Decades
  • New Perspectives in the U.S. Space-Oriented Philosophy: Albert Harrison’s American Cosmism as a Variation of the Russian Cosmist Thought
  • Pirate Neverland: Revisioning Pirates in Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet
  • Brushed off Words: On Artists’ Writings
  • Filming the Experience of Gilead: Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale
  • “John Bull and Erin, the first a stout healthy boy and the latter his sister a very promising girl”: Figaro in London and the Depiction of Ireland in the 1830s
  • The Political Siding of Thomas Hobbes: Revision of Power in Leviathan
  • Puppies Sell: A Study of Selected Advertising Campaigns Featuring Animals
  • In the (Neo)Baroque Universe of Looped Voices: Lanford Wilson’s Fugue Spectacle in The Hot l Baltimore
  • Revising the Traditional Model of Journalism in the Context of Digital Media
  • The Dystopian Grotesque in Enki Bilal’s The Carnival of Immortals
  • Prospero Re-Imagined: The Character of Prospero in Modern Science Fiction
  • Catastrophe in Philosophy (Aristotle), Mathematics (René Thom) and Drama (Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett)

← 8 | 9 →Editors’ Preface

The papers collected in this volume show a variety of subjects, a wide range of scholarly interests and a broad spectrum of methodological approaches. Collected under the common theme of Visions and Revisions, they examine different aspects of literature and culture of the Anglophone world. The volume is divided into three parts. The first part gathers articles dealing with poetry of such diverse epochs as the seventeenth century, the Victorian era and the modern times. Part II focuses on prose works by such authors as Ch. Dickens, W. Collins, Ch. Kingsley, V. Woolf, D. Du Maurier or P. Ackroyd, S. Waters, E. Bilal, A. Hollinghurst, to mention but a few. Among the literary conventions and modes explored in the papers, one finds the romance, the Gothic novel, the condition of England novel, Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction, the science fiction novel and gay fiction. Part III focuses on various aspects of British and American culture, including the new media, drama and journalism, and advertising.

In its diversity the volume reflects the dynamics of change both in literature and culture, and in the scholarly work done in these fields, enabling the readers to investigate the multifaceted canon.← 9 | 10 →

← 12 | 13 →Agnieszka Romanowska

“Something to act out on a stage”: Theatrum Mundi in John Donne’s Poetry

In his seminal edition of Donne’s poetry Herbert Grierson wrote about “dramatic intensity” of the Elegies (1912, xlii) and, in his later comments on the love poems, observed their wide dramatic range and complexity of moods (1948, 145). J.B. Leishman appreciated Donne’s “unusual liking and capacity for what children call ‘dressing up’” and his “dramatisation of actual or imaginary experiences, situations, attitudes” (1951, 145-147). Helen Gardner, who underlined the impact of the late sixteenth-century development of dramatic writing on Donne, wrote about the Elegies and Songs and Sonnets that “they are dramatic in the sense that they are single and complete as a play is single and complete” (1965, xviii) and about the Divine Poems she contended: “This dramatic language has a magic that is unanalysable” (1952, xxxii). In her essay “The Metaphysical Poets” Gardner elaborated on the poet’s “strong dramatic imagination” and his “desire to make poems out of particular moments, made imaginatively present rather than remembered” (Keast 1962, 39-40). Patrick Cruttwell also attributed Donne’s dramatic quality to the flourishing of drama in the 1590s, while Frank J. Warnke perceived this feature of Donne’s poetry in a wider context of the age’s phenomenological scepticism:

The dramatic, indeed the theatrical, is perhaps the major constituent of the baroque imagination. […] [T]he baroque lyric is partly defined by its dramatic modus operandi; […] [f]or Donne, as for Shakespeare […] the venerable topos of the world as theater […] had an obsessive status – in life as well as in art.
(1987, 10)

While the essentially dramatic quality of John Donne’s poetry is a commonly accepted critical notion, it is worth taking a fresh look at the interpretative potential this notion offers. The approach I apply below proves fruitful in class, where attractive ways of reading poetry with students are always to be sought. But, as evidenced by Margaret Edson’s play Wit that I discuss below, theatrical reading of Donne pursued by creative writers may also render interesting results.

A fairly recent study that applies a systematic apparatus for interpreting Donne’s dramatic qualities is David Ralston Watkins’s dissertation Inferring the Dramatic in Donne: A Metacritical Study. Watkins locates his discussion in the ← 13 | 14 →context determined by the functioning of the world-stage metaphor in European early modern culture and argues that although

the metaphor of the world as a stage was a well-worn literary cliché by the time Donne was writing, […] in his work Donne both appreciates and incorporates the subtle as well as the more overt and conventional aspects of the topos, which is why it is not traceable to any obvious abundance of dramatic allusion but is, rather, part of a wider field of optical and phenomenological imagery that culminates in the concept […] of the poem-as-theatre.
(2002, 49-50)

The theatrum mundi topos, which Ernst Robert Curtius traced back to Plato’s Laws, reached mediaeval England through a combination of pagan antiquity and early Christian writers to be revived and developed by John of Salisbury in his 1159 Policraticus. Curtius related the frequent reappearance of the world-stage metaphors in Renaissance England to the popularity of Salisbury’s Statesman’s Book that had several editions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (1953, 138-144). Nowadays the best known manifestation of the topos is Jacques’s “All the world’s a stage,” but its ubiquity in Donne’s epoch can easily be demonstrated by a variety of examples that reveal metaphors pertaining to subjects like role-playing, illusion, deceit, disguise, transformation, maturation, passage of time or transitoriness of life. Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “On the Life of Man” draws an analogy between human life and comedy in very explicit terms:

What is our life? a play of passion;

Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest – that’s no jest.
(Abrams 1979, 983)

Equally overt comparisons are used in “De Morte,” a poem attributed to Raleigh, in which the vehicle of the metaphor is a five-act tragedy and people, having entered on stage from the tiring-room of their mothers’ wombs, act out their lives from the first cry (the prologue) to death (the epilogue). Another case is Thomas Heywood’s An Apology for Actors (1612), prefixed with a poem the final section of which reads:

← 14 | 15 →If then the world a Theater present,
As by the roundness it appears most fit,
He that denies then Theaters should be,
He may as well deny a world to me.
(Heywood 1841, 13)

There are also numerous examples outside poetry, like the pictorial biography of a sixteenth-century soldier and diplomat, Henry Unton, now to be seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The picture’s aim is commemorative, not satirical, but the emphasis on subsequent stages of life brings to mind Shakespeare’s passage from As You Like It because “the ten ages of Henry Unton are as evocative to the eye as Jaques’s ‘seven ages of man’ are to the ear” (Bate and Thornton 2012, 50). Another case in point, this time pertaining to the life of the whole nation, is the early seventeenth-century book of maps, John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, one of the world’s cartographic treasures printed in 1611. The title itself expresses a theatrical sense of British history, while the title page depicts an ancient Briton at the centre of a stage-like structure (called Britannia), flanked by four other “characters”: a Roman, a Saxon, a Dane, and a Norman (Bate and Thornton 2012, 213). The frequency of the world-stage metaphor in early modern culture “was a manifestation of the people’s awareness of their own theatricality and of their profound conviction and feeling that the world is a stage, life is a play, men and women are actors” (Mroczkowska-Brand 1993, 20), an awareness strongly reflected also in the theatralization of monarchy and other aspects of public life.

In the remaining part of the article I am presenting a handful of sketches analyzing the theatrum mundi topos that underlies Donne’s love poetry and his Holy Sonnets. My readings draw on Gardner’s comparison between Donne’s poems and plays in relation to the feature that she called “completeness,” as well as on Watkins’s conclusion that

Donne is dramatic primarily because his most effective work is presented like little plays, indeed little theatres, to which the reader-cum-audience is drawn and upon entrance cast into an active role that is co-creative as opposed to strictly interpretative. In all of the truly dramatic lyrics this effect is achieved largely through implicature – that which is not explicitly stated within the context of the surrounding poetic utterance – whereby the poetic audience is coerced into imaginative participation in the form of guided inference in the play of words into which it is drawn. […] The great poems, the ones he will always be remembered for […] are rightly to be thought of as performance texts, playing spaces, or “theatres of the mind.”
(2002, 162-163)

A relatively easy example is the song “Sweetest love, I do not go…,” in which the speaker, on abandoning his beloved, manages to hyperbolically deny that they are ← 15 | 16 →going to be parted at all if only the addressee pretends, during the speaker’s absence, that they are as if “turn’d aside to sleep” (l. 38). Thus, it is argued, the lovers should be growing accustomed to real death (which is inevitable) by undergoing pretended deaths, i.e. absences. The sense of directness and immediacy in this poem is achieved as the reader witnesses the subsequent stages of persuasion undisturbed by any extended metaphors. Pierre Legouis mentioned this poem to illustrate what he saw as the dramatic element in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets: “there are two characters; the second is indeed a mute; or rather his words are not written down; but we are enabled to guess how he acts and what he would say if he were granted utterance” (Gardner 1962, 38). In this song the attention is given to the mute addressee as the speaker’s tone and means of persuasion alter according to the effect exerted on the addressee. Closely related to “Sweetest love…” is another valedictory poem, “Break of Day.” It gives priority, quite untypically, to the lover who is staying, not the one who is leaving and, equally unexpectedly, to the woman. The sense of immediacy and progression is created by the abrupt conversational opening, “‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be? / Oh, wilt thou therefore rise from me?” followed by passionate witty argumentation moved forward by a set of increasingly irritated questions directed at the mute (though by no means passive) addressee.

A similar effect of looking at participants involved in a situation enacted in front of the reader’s eyes is achieved in “The Sun Rising,” “The Good Morrow,” “The Flea,” “The Canonisation,” and many other poems. In some of them, significantly, the realisation of the scene occurs both verbally and non-verbally, like in e.g. “The Dream,” in which a stock Renaissance theme is treated dramatically (Kermode 1974, 38). The particularly intricate stanza contains a carefully processed tripartite argument enacted within a clearly established setting, with the use of aptly chosen metaphorical vehicles that suggest properties:

As lightning, or a taper’s light,
Thine eyes, and not thy noise, wak’d me;
Perchance, as torches which must ready be
Men light and put on, so thou deal’st with me,
Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come;
(Redpath 1987, 177)

Central to “dramatising a progressive action” (Craik 1986, 192) in this poem are what we could call implied stage directions, i.e. phrases that set the scene, control its progress and activate the imagination of the poetic audience1: “Would I have ← 16 | 17 →broke this happy dream” (l. 2); “thou waked’st me wisely” (l. 5); “Enter these arms” (l. 9); “Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak’d me” (l. 12); “Coming and staying show’d thee, thee, / But rising makes me doubt” (ll. 21-22).

Several other texts illustrate the features of Donne’s poetic craft that allow one, while reading, to enter a little theatre. In “The Sun Rising” the three opening lines establish the conflict between the Sun and the other two participants of the situation, the speaker and his lover. The comparison of the Sun to a semi-senile father figure may be seen a reflection of the theatre-of-human-life topos, as would generally be the contrast between the young lovers and the “busy old fool” (l. 1), the Sun. The setting in this early morning scene is hardly sketched as if on a bare stage of the Elizabethan theatre. Centrally located is the curtained bed that forms a rectangular scene on which the lovers-cum-actors perform their roles. There are windows in the walls and the walls provide a sense of closeness and completeness as they contain the whole world: all the world’s wealth and all the world’s powers, “All here in one bed lay” (l. 20). As in “The Good Morrow” happiness is to be found in the “world contracted thus” (l. 26), not outside. The lovers create a quasi-theatrical space for their love, but on the other hand, some theatrical vocabulary used in the poem, as “Princes do but play us; compared to this, / All honour’s mimic” (ll. 23-24), also suggests that the world outside the bedroom is only an illusion while the true timeless love that knows “no season […] nor clime” (l. 9) is inside. Empowered by the sense of fulfilment and all encompassing energy, the speaker moves from rebellious invectives thrown at the interrupting Sun to an ingenious volta, in which the lovers hope to outwit the puppet-master to whose “motions lovers’ seasons run” (l. 4). To prevent the Sun from moving, they invite him to their world: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere” (l. 29-30). Again, as in the “The Good Morrow,” the ideal space for lovers is circular, as is the globe, to symbolise perfect unity. Donne’s love poetry, if read in a way that does justice to its dramatic qualities, reveals energies that draw the reader into the worlds of the poems to make the reading experience lively and creative. The same is true for many of his religious poems.

Similar dramatic quality is found in numerous religious poems. It served as inspiration for the author of Wit, in which a middle-aged university professor of English literature, an expert on the metaphysical poets, is diagnosed with cancer. The play depicts an introspective quest towards self-awareness that the protagonist ← 17 | 18 →undertakes when faced with the terminal illness. The central dramatic technique – meta-theatrical addresses to the audience – is introduced in the opening monologue, in which professor Bearing states, “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end. They’ve given me less than two hours […] I’ve got less than two hours. Then: curtain” (Edson 2001, 6-7). This theatrical framework is reinforced by one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets which Bearing recalls at the end of the eight cycles of aggressive chemotherapy, and which is one of the very rare cases of explicit use of the world-theatre metaphor in Donne:

This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes last point,
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoynt
My body, and soule
(Edson 2001, 52)

To perform her last hours professor Bearing is forced to put on the “costume” of the in-patient of the University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Centre, and to participate in the ward rounds on which she comments in conspicuously theatrical terms:

Grand Rounds. The term is theirs. […] Grand Rounds is not Grand Opera. But compared to lying here, it is positively dramatic. Full of subservience, hierarchy […] sublimated rivalries – I feel right at home. It is just like a graduate seminar. With one important difference: in Grand Rounds, they read me like a book. Once I did the teaching, now I am taught. This is much easier. I just hold still and look cancerous. It requires less acting every time.
(Edson 2001, 36-37)

Convinced that her participation in the experimental treatment will make a significant contribution to scientific research and aware of the seriousness of her case, Bearing finds reassurance in her expertise as a literary historian: “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language” (Edson 2001, 12). While throughout her academic career Bearing has appreciated Donne for his “hyperactive intellect” and his dramatic monologues in “Death, be not proud…” and “If poisonous minerals…” for their “histrionic outpouring” (Edson 2001, 50), she is now forced to reevaluate the point of this poetry. Bearing’s recollections of her lectures and research allow her to rediscover compassion, acknowledge fear and understand what her mentor had in mind thirty years earlier when she insisted on paying close attention to Donne’s punctuation:

← 18 | 19 →And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die. […]
Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.
(Edson 2001, 14-15)

Scholars working on John Donne have established a relation between the ubiquity of the world-theatre topos in his epoch and characteristics of his poetry, such as sudden openings, conversational style, variety of tones, changeability of moods, situational immediacy and argumentative force. The world-theatre metaphor underlines the construction of the poems in that they present a dynamic situation, rather than describe it, and put the reader in a position of an audience that witnesses the changes of the scene and the progression of argumentation as if it followed events on stage. And this should not surprise us in a poet who dramatised even his own death. During his last illness in 1631 Donne ordered a painter to draw his likeness as he posed in his shroud. Izaak Walton described this scene as follows:

Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted […] he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and death-like face.
(Williamson 1958, 14)

Because death – as well as love – is after all “something to act out on a stage.” On the stage of life.

Works Cited

Abrams, Meyer Howard, gen. ed. 1979. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton.

Bate, Jonathan, and Dora Thornton. 2012. Staging the World. Shakespeare. London: The British Museum Press.

Craik, Thomas W., and R.J. Craik, eds. 1986. John Donne. Selected Poetry and Prose. London: Methuen.

Cruttwell, Patrick. 1954. The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. London: Chatto and Windus.

Curtius, Ernst R. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Edson, Margaret. 2001. Wit. New York: Faber and Faber.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Victorian poetry contemporary poetry Gothic fiction Victorian ficition Neo-Victorian fiction Science fiction 17th-century poetry gay novel
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 338 pp., 13 graphs

Biographical notes

Grzegorz Czemiel (Volume editor) Justyna Galant (Volume editor) Anna Kędra-Kardela (Volume editor) Aleksandra Kędzierska (Volume editor) Marta Komsta (Volume editor)

Grzegorz Czemiel, Justyna Galant and Marta Komsta are Assistant Professors at the Department of English Studies, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Anna Kędra-Kardela and Aleksandra Kędzierska are both Associate Professors at the Department of English Studies, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland.


Title: Visions and Revisions
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