Eying the Thought Awry: The Anamorphosis of John Donne's Poetry



By applying the concept of anamorphosis to the logical structures of John Donne's poetry, this essay extends the concept of anamorphosis from the visual peculiarity of an obscured image whose revelation requires finding an eccentric point of view to the epistemological process experienced by the viewer. An encounter with anamorphosis possesses its own strict logic; likewise, anamorphic constructions engender a rhetoric specific to their needs. Riehl argues that literary criticism should extend the study of anamorphosis in early modern literary texts in a new direction: both visual and verbal anamorphic models are engendered by the habits of thought, patterns of thinking that, by the seventeenth century, pervade various media and modes of representation. Even in the absence of explicit references to perspective, seeing, or painting, a text may nevertheless operate according to the rules of anamorphic logic and rhetoric. Aiming the anamorphic lens at Donne, this essay unravels anew the complex argument of “The Extasie” and reveals the sparkling drama of the verse letter “To M. M. H.” Extending the anamorphic concepts from visual to verbal representation, from verbal imagery to thinking processes not only unfolds of the logic of “The Extasie” and explains stark contradictions and inconsistencies in the argument, but also follows the pattern laid by Donne himself, who allows the anamorphic principles to seep from the poem's narrative to its argument, from philosophical and erotic illustrations to insistent logical persuasion. “To M. M. H.,” on the other hand, displays a distinctive self-awareness that is crucial to the poem's fantastical plot and that is analogous to the visual makeup of anamorphosis. The poem's concern with epistemological reliability, its communicative disasters, its rhetorical tricks are shaped by the distinctly anamorphic doubleness that allows two different images or meanings to inhabit the same textual space.