Close Reading of John Donne’s Epigrams

Author: Hester, M.
Professor Hester is the world’s expert on the poetry of John Donne. In this book he delivers what he promises: an elucidation of the literary power of Donne’s epigrams as a genre.


Author Abstract
If a genre is an invitation to match form to matter, or a set of metaphoric problems to be solved, then Donne in his epigrams seems to be exploring or testing the poetics of the epigram itself. We get the pun we expect (usually), the hyperdetermined closure required of the epigram whether it is assaulting, dedicatory, sepulchral, ecphrastic, or amatory.But we also get more than conventionally ought to fit into such as small space, expanding the one sign (whether the pun or the form as a paradigm) into all kinds of relevant, interrelated, and contradictory meanings.

In Donne’s epigrams (as in his lyrics) the movement is towards the compression of the speaker’s utterance into as small a space as possible, almost to reduce the poem to a phrase or even a word. This, of course, is a given of the genre “If we would,” suggested William Drummond of Hawthorn, Donne “might easily be the best epigrammatist we have found in English,” Apparently, even Ben Jonson was willing to consider such a possibility:
Who should doubt, Donne, where I a Poet bee,
When I dare send my Epigrammes to thee?
That so alone canst judge, so’alone do’st make.
Here are the arrangements of Donne’s epigrams in the first edition of Poems of 1633.
Hero and Leander
Pyramus and Thisbe
A burnt ship
Fall of a wall
A lame begger
A selfe accuser
A licentious person
An obscure writer
Mercurius Gallo-Belgicus