The ‘Nothing’ Trope: Self-Worth in Renaissance Poetry



The recurrence of ‘nothing’ as a topic in renaissance poetry has been explored by many critics, but little attention has been given to the particular trope which is the focus of this article: what might be called the ‘personal nothing’ trope. The article explores various possible interpretations of the trope and explanations for its appearance in English poetry at the end of the 16th century. With reference to poets such as John Donne and lesser known metaphysical poets such as John Davies of Hereford, links to contemporary theology, philosophy and medical writing are suggested, as well as to more particular biographical detail of the poets concerned. The article also considers how the trope relates to Marxist and New Historicist readings of the period. The article argues that the trope suggests something of the value systems and perhaps also the psychological states of the poets, who shared in common a privileged social status which was nevertheless dependent on patronage and preferment in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean courts.