Date of Award

Spring 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of English


English and Cultural Studies


Mary Silcox


Melinda Gough



Committee Member

Cathy Grisé


This thesis examines the metaphorical expressions of Robert Southwell and John Donne in light of the instability created in metaphorical thought by Reformational debates. I argue that the theological doctrines regarding the Eucharist and Biblical interpretation had associated consequences for figurative thought and that the violence with which these doctrines were interrogated in early modern England created a crisis of figurative representation that contributed to the elaborate experimentation of metaphor (layerings, argued conceits, rapid transitions between tropes, etc.) found within the poetry of Southwell and Donne.

My first chapter traces the theological landscape of early modern England, noting the continental Catholic and Protestant positions which defined the Reformational debates, as well as roughly locating the position of the English Church in the centre of these debates. While each of these doctrinal positions contains certain understandings about metaphorical thought, this chapter argues that it is the general uncertainty and the society-wide fluctuations between these ideas that defines my concept of the “theological aesthetic.” In my final two chapters I look at specific metaphors in the works of Robert Southwell (“Saint Peter’s Complaint,” “Christ’s bloody sweat,” and “The prodigal childs soule wracke”) and John Donne (“The Cross,” “Holy Sonnet 10: Batter my heart, three- personed God,” and “Holy Sonnet 2: I am a little world made cunningly”). Close analysis of these poems reveals that Southwell’s poetry often combines imagery and tropes in complicated ways to form multifaceted metaphors, while Donne’s poetry often functions as a meditation upon the possibilities of figurative language to create meaning.

This thesis does not attempt to form a comprehensive theory of early modern metaphor, but rather examines how the theological debates of the Reformation questioned the representational efficacy of figurative language, allowing metaphor to be redefined by the experiments of early modern poets like Southwell and Donne.

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