Negotiating the threshold: Self-other dynamics in Milton, Herbert, and Donne
Mintz, Susannah Beth
Doctor of Philosophy
Donne, Herbert, and Milton share a persistent concern to excavate self-other dynamics. Despite differences of theology and ideology, these poets pursue others with similar complexity: longing for and seeking out, quarrelling with and striving to understand their primary "objects"--whether a woman or God, a spouse or "parent." Each poet seems preoccupied with testing the quality, and interpreting the meaning, of the self's relatedness to the other; speakers are in conversation with others, approaching the other with alternating delight, mistrust, and anxiety about the risks of contact. The prevalence of such moments throughout Songs and Sonets, The Temple, and Paradise Lost not only suggests the primacy of relational issues for these poets, but also testifies to the nuanced, idiosyncratic conflictedness of self-other engagement. Donne, Herbert, and Milton write from deep with a realm of intersubjective experience--a "relational matrix"--that requires an often precarious balancing act of contradictory imperatives. Such a dialectical process can be richly explored through the paradigms of object-relations psychoanalytic theory, which holds self and other to be inseparable and is broadly focused on inter- and intrapersonal conflict as the primary environmental determinant of "self." In particular, the work of D. W. Winnicott provides a unique set of terms with which to unwrap and sustain the liminality of object relating in these poets' work. Committed to "paradox," Winnicott believed that self and other, interior and exterior, reality and fantasy, autonomy and attachment all paradoxically coincide; this fundamental notion of the overlap of relatedness is especially suited for unpacking the ways in which relationality in these three poets seems strained and ambiguous, challenging and revisionary. My argument attempts to push this body of poetry past traditional characterization--to suggest that while the interdependence of self and other may require a constant negotiation of opposing claims, it also opens a space where revisions, exchanges, renegotiations of gender and ideology transpire. By attending to the dialectical characteristics of these poets, one discovers how consistently they test boundaries, challenge hierarchies, and contrive to revise the terms by which "self" can be defined and experienced.