The present research project studies the poetry and prose of John Donne (1572-1631) in order to provide a thorough analysis of his representation and recreation of the spatial changes of his period.

Not only did the known world expand dramatically in the hundred years preceding Donne’s period with the discovery of the Americas and subsequent European colonial expansion, but the discoveries of the New Science, by astronomers such as Galileo and Kepler, meant that the known universe too had expanded, which raised theological and ontological questions regarding the place of man in the cosmos. On the level of church government, the Reformation led to a shift in alliances and enmities that restructured the map of Europe. The Reformation also had spatial implications for church worship, both in the reorganisation of church interiors and in emerging Protestant hostility towards the visual arts. Yet this is a period which also sees major changes regarding the way space is represented, with knowledge about developments in the visual arts in Italy, such as the introduction of one-point perspective, gradually reaching England during Donne’s lifetime. Similarly, scientific innovations in cartography in the fifteenth century, combined with the invention of the printing press, meant that the newly expanding world was documented more accurately than ever before. Donne’s period thus witnessed major changes in the spatial conception of the material and political world, as well as significant changes in how space was recorded both scientifically and aesthetically.

This project investigates the ways in which such macro- and micro-cosmic changes in the perception of space are reflected and recreated in John Donne’s poetry and prose. The multiple spheres in which Donne operated during his lifetime (scholar, lover, diplomat, preacher) meant that he was implicated in many of the evolutions outlined above. The different strands of this project combine together into a sustained argument that not only does John Donne represent changes in society and his concerns about them in spatial terms, but that there is also a spatial structure to his writing which encodes and remakes the developing material spaces of the society in which he lived. The methodology of the project thus involves both a historical contextualisation of Donne’s spatial references, and an in-depth close analysis of the structures of his texts.

The project has three key strands: one PhD thesis by Kader Hegedüs investigates representations of scientific, urban and sacred spaces in Donne’s poetry (Songs and Sonnets, Divine Poems, Elegies, Satires and Verse Letters). A second doctoral thesis by Sonia Pernet deals with the problematisation of space in his prose sermons and the role of place in early modern preaching practices. Finally, a book-length study by Dr. Kirsten Stirling, the principal applicant of the project, explores the relationship of Donne’s poetry to changes in the visual arts of the period.

Together, these three projects will provide a comprehensive survey of Donne’s work in the context of the spatial reorganization of his period, and will argue that his work both reflects that spatial reorganization and engages intellectually and poetically with questions related to space and the visual arts.

We will, in addition, organize a conference on Space, Place and Image in Early Modern English Literature, to be held at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, in April 2017 (more details soon). The papers presented there will be considered for publication in a collection of essays edited by the project’s team.

This project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).