Modernist Metaphysics: Empson, Donne and the Science of Feeling

This paper concerns, in a roundabout sort of a way, the effect of the publication of Herbert Grierson’s influential anthology, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems (1921). In particular, I’m interested in what Grierson’s pioneering scholarship does for the reception and study of John Donne – its leading light – in the decades that follow. T. S. Eliot is an early adopter, and an influential proponent and disseminator of Grierson’s vision of a dynamic modernist Donne, but he quickly loses interest – unlike William Empson, to whose career as both poet and critic Donne remains central for more than half a century. The main task of the paper will be to read Empson’s Donne, then Donne and Empson together, in an attempt to find lines of sympathy and mutual illumination. It will feature bracelets, soap, compasses, bicycles, globes, puppies, space travel, relativity theory and puddles.