Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English & Film Studies

Program Name/Specialization

Textuality, Media, and Print Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Anne Russell

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor

Second Advisor

Dr. Robin Waugh

Advisor Role

Committee Member

Third Advisor

Dr. Lynn Shakinovsky

Advisor Role

Committee Member


This dissertation examines literary estrangement, that is the act and effect of making the familiar strange in a literary work, in the religious poems and sermons of the poet-preacher John Donne (1572–1631). My study uncovers and explores what Donne "estranges," how he achieves this, and for what purpose, as well as the practices and modes of thinking that shaped his poetics. In Donne's religious verse and prose, making the familiar and traditional tropes, images, doctrines, and events of Christianity strange forms active readers and revitalizes those elements, imbuing them with newfound interest, significance, and affective power.

My study offers a reassessment of Donne's uniqueness as a poet and preacher, as well as of the nature of metaphysical poetry more generally, by emphasizing the strange features of Donne's writings as the product of specific rhetorical "devices of estrangement." Although the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of "defamiliarization" informs this project, my study breaks new ground by situating Donne's poetics of estrangement in the literary-rhetorical theory of late Renaissance England. Donne's writings reflect important features of a tradition advocating the uses and value of figurative strangeness, from Aristotle, Horace, and Augustine in antiquity, to Aquinas and Geoffrey of Vinsauf in the Middle Ages, to the rhetoricians and literary theorists of sixteenth-century England. New readings of George Puttenham's The Art of English Poesy, Henry Peacham's The Garden of Eloquence, and John Hoskins' Directions for Speech and Style reveal the close connection between figurative language and estrangement. My study catalogues and analyzes a number of prominent rhetorical figures which these theorists recognized as producing, or which they indirectly associated with, the estrangement effect, and upon which Donne relied in his writings. The broader cultural "discourse of strangeness" as well as post-Reformation theology and religious culture also shaped Donne's poetics.

Close analysis of Donne's religious works—including his emblematic poems, "The Cross" and "Upon the Annunciation and Passion"; his long liturgical poem, "A Litany"; his Holy Sonnets, particularly "Spit in my face", "Since she whom I loved", "Show me dear Christ", and "O to vex me"; and his sermons, particularly his five on the Book of Job—reveals important features of Donne's poetics. The estrangement effect plays a significant role in Donne's rhetorical and devotional strategies. He frequently deploys multiple devices of estrangement in describing the central mysteries of Christianity—such as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—in order to renew attention to the original strangeness of Christian doctrine. These devices also express important authorial and cultural desires, anxieties, and tensions, pointing to concerns about wit, invention, and originality as well as conformity to literary and biblical tradition and Church of England orthodoxy. Estrangement functions as both technique and theme in Donne's writings: Donne uses devices of estrangement to articulate themes of divine strangeness as well as to convey fallen humankind's estrangement from God, others, and self. The estrangement effect is also a means to produce "holy estrangement": that is, the disruption of the reader's or auditor's worldly habits of thought in order to encourage reconciliation with God. My study reveals Donne's religious poems and sermons to be some of the foremost expressions of the cultural trope of estrangement in early seventeenth-century English literature.

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