'Sweets for My Daughter'

Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Zululand
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In a 1969 study of metaphysical poetry, Earl Miner distinguishes between the private mode of John Donne and the public mode of Ben Jonson. Schematic as this distinction might seem, it sheds light on the poetry of Donne because it takes up the proposition put first by J.B. Leishman in 1951, and developed by others after him, that Donne was a ‘coterie-poet’, whose work was significantly shaped by the small and intimate readership for whom he wrote. This means, for example, that he can assume an audience of friends and equals who will ‘understand not only the allusions and witticisms, but (what is harder) just when he is serious and when not, and just what kind of seriousness is being displayed; they will understand also where the poems are “personal” and where not, and again just what kind of “personality” is involved’. Now it might seem strange to begin a consideration of Coetzee with a disquisition upon Donne; the medium, of course, is Eliot, whose early opinion of Donne has been famous and formative for generations of readers in the twentieth century: ‘Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. Athought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility’. As Leishman has shown, Eliot’s opinion of Donne itself underwent some degree of modification: by 1931 Eliot had discovered in Donne a ‘manifest fissure between thought and sensibility’. Irritating as Leishman appears to find Eliot and his public pronouncements, I will argue that the theory of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ has uses for a study of Coetzee in South Africa at the turn of the century: one, because it directs us to seek explanations of characteristic features of the writer within the mind of the writer, and two, because in doing so it enables the converse line of approach that Leishman followed in relation to Donne – of seeking explanations for such features in the readership to whom the writing is directed (or at least by whom it is influenced).

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