62. (John Donne)

Central to Donne’s intelligence is a legalistic capacity to contest claims to property: since so much of the world cannot rightly be claimed or owned by any, it might as well be said to be in the beds or arms of lovers as in the domains of kings.  So that in “The Sun Rising” when Donne circumscribes the entire wealth of the Indies in his bed, he is not merely being facetious; he is suggesting that any claims to circumscribe it are rhetorical maneuvers of about the same worth.

It is natural that his imagination should so take in the sense of property in its broadest capacity: that which things and people possess, their attributes, as well as the material items to which they have rights.

Donne is a healthy restorative to an impoverished sense of property as mere possession of material possessions: a person is, to be himself or herself a self, essentially a compound of property and properties. He is a metaphysician of properties and he plays on the divisibility of whole into parts, which are more often than not attributes that belong, and that, by the logic of possession and rights, can be transferred.

Being able to see these in their diversity allows Donne to make connections where none had seen them before; but it is also seeing these in their diversity that allows Donne to suggest that the connections where people most often seen them are conceit and metaphors hardened into convention.

Donne is both the blazing proponent of individualism (the space-man that Empson admired), and also the writhing victim of intertwined claims of ownership and attribution, so that an individual is divided so many ways. The tone of triumphant defiance that animates the poetry is itself animated by a mind that is straining to take advantage of the same propensities for conquest and partition that could do him in—the triumph comes from his having outdone his opponents, who were probably both imagined and real. The terrifying shadow cast by Donne’s poetry–an anxiety that he must have felt–is that if he could be so ingenious as to make these comparisons and arguments in the first place, then someone else could make comparisons and arguments that were equally valid and arbitrary.

Empson wrote that the richness of Marvell’s poetry was a “readiness for argument not pursued.” Empson must have been thinking of Donne too; where there are grounds for distinguishing the two, it is not here. The argumentation in Donne’s poetry is metaphor and simile-making of course; a chain of similes and chain of metaphors as property of one attracts property of another, as one becomes the property of another, as the two become inseparable, the self-same.

Hence Coleridge explaining that Donne provides an education in how to read poetry for sense (Milton for sound, said Coleridge): the capacity for any one word to itself be a property of, possessed by the gravity, scope, or constitution of, any other is richer in Donne’s poetry than in any other, except Shakespeare.

But what motivates Donne to remind us repeatedly of the power, to argue so litigiously (granting, that is, that all poets argue, in different ways), is that he is so often writing about what is is to make a claim on another, to make a claim on a part of another, to feel oneself claimed, and to live at a time, as the engine of capitalism whirrs, faltering, to life, when those claims were themselves whirring in charter companies and schemes for agricultural improvement. Not, thoughm Donne as the poet of the new capitalist order (they are all that, since Donne, too); instead, Donne as the poet in whom the stirrings of capitalism coincided with an inheritance of Petrachan sonneteering and Italianate simile-making (Frank Kermode argued that Donne be recognized in a tradition, rather than as an innovator; it does not make his relationship to the English language less innovative or language in general less powerful) and a residue of medieval philosophical argumentation, with its distinctions and substances, essences, and attributes, under conditions of a mind that grasped firmly the impulse to grasp, to possess, be possessed, and make one thing possessed of and by another.


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