204. (John Donne)

An exemplary poem by Donne, “The Expiration”:

So, so breake off this last lamenting kisse, 
    Which sucks two soules, and vapours Both away, 
Turne thou ghost that way, and let mee turne this, 
    And let our selves benight our happiest day, 
We ask’d none leave to love; nor will we owe 
    Any, so cheape a death, as saying, Goe; 
Goe; and if that word have not quite kil’d thee, 
    Ease mee with death, by bidding mee goe too. 
Oh, if it have, let my word worke on mee, 
    And a just office on a murderer doe. 
Except it be too late, to kill me so, 
    Being double dead, going, and bidding, goe. 
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The “too late” in the penultimate line is the crucial moment, the joke depending on the belatedness of realization, so that the poem has chased after the double death one of which must have happened between the first and second stanza, when the “go” shifts from hypothetical, to imperative, and then to request, and the second of which must have happened after he implores the word to work on him, so that the final lines tell us that something changed in the course of the poem itself: by the end he is dead, gone and having bid her to go, dead by his own absence from her presence (though the poem remains) and dead by her absence from his presence (though he remains); either he has gone and his doubly dead knowing he told her to go, or else he is dead twice for going and for having told himself to go, the speech act itself a mortal blow, or else he left and does not know whether she has left but assuming she has, feels himself to be killed by her departure; the change is too fast, the movement from presence to absence, the movement of the word itself, and the alteration of the situation simultaneous to the poem are exemplary Donne. “Wit” doesn’t seem like the right word to describe it at all, though it is easy to see why it is pulled in, considering the relationship of “wit” to rapidity, altering circumstances, and improvisation. The poem has expired in both senses of the word: it has been exhaled and it has gone past its due time.
A central part of Donne’s poetry expired long ago: his denigrations and occasional hatred women. It’s not gone unremarked that the misogynist endings spoil his poems, but that sense of their spoiling, is not, I think, entirely counter to their purpose, which is often to make us feel that Donne has spoiled, gone off, having passed the proper time; out of joint with time, he is out of joint with himself, with the best self that he can be. Take “Love’s Alchemy”:
.
Some that have deeper digg’d love’s mine than I, 
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie; 
         I have lov’d, and got, and told, 
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old, 
I should not find that hidden mystery. 
         Oh, ’tis imposture all! 
And as no chemic yet th’elixir got, 
         But glorifies his pregnant pot 
         If by the way to him befall 
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal, 
         So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, 
         But get a winter-seeming summer’s night. 
.
Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day, 
Shall we for this vain bubble’s shadow pay? 
         Ends love in this, that my man 
Can be as happy as I can, if he can 
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom’s play? 
         That loving wretch that swears 
‘Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds, 
         Which he in her angelic finds, 
         Would swear as justly that he hears, 
In that day’s rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres. 
         Hope not for mind in women; at their best 
         Sweetness and wit, they are but mummy, possess’d. 
.
The title speaks of the transformational promise of alchemy, which Donne would have known to be a promise left unfulfilled; and so he and the promise are both transformed, without satisfaction, by love. If only we could redeem the final line by hearing in “mummy, possessed” a Freudian pun: “all women are both mother possessed, and so lack their own minds because we possess them with the minds of women.” But that reading is not there. The only hope for it is that the verb “possess’d” suggests that when women are “possessed” and not loved properly, they become mummified; that the love of men is to blame for failing to find the mind that it seeks, and that because the failure is inevitable, the hope is itself misplaced. A further point in favor of such a reading could be found in the opening line where “mine” is both a mine and also a pronoun of possession so that Donne is saying that he has dug deeper into what it means to possess a woman than most, and found such possession to mummify what it would preserve alive.
 .
Such a reading very well might stretch the poem too far, seeking too much for its loathsomely loathing ending. And yet that loathsomeness is in part self-loathing, Donne describing many of his own poems, and it is also a symptom of the poem’s own decayed state, it not being fully alive. It’s a poem that has given up, and it spits and sputters well before the ending: “Can be has happy as I can, if he can” for instance. Its similes are winnowed down, eroded conceits from “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day.” The ending short-circuits what is already a flickering, unsound line of thought. The ironic audacity of dismissing the “wit” of women with a line so lacking in “wit” could not have been lost on Donne’s readers. It’s not a poem about change, but a series of metrical lines that doesn’t matter to change into what Donne’s other poems do, genuine poetry, and that at least in part because it has turned away from the prospect of chasing and admitting into itself the thrilled agonized awareness of change that distinguishes Donne’s real poetry; this poem sounds like c-rate Larkin, a discarded heap of lines. I take, however, that exhaustion to be the point, in part, because it comes in the collection, where love does consistently enter into the poems as a force for change.
 .
It’s not enough then to say that Donne’s true subject is change, that change and flux are the foundation of his metaphysical poetry; it is more accurate to say that the poems thrill and agonize over change by admitting change into their design, so that there are poems, like “The Expiration” that effect change and then reflect upon the change they have effected, all within the course of an utterance; and there are poems, like “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” where the change is the simile itself:
 .
As virtuous men pass mildly away, 
   And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say 
   The breath goes now, and some say, No: 
 .
So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
‘Twere profanation of our joys 
   To tell the laity our love. 
 .
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant; 
But trepidation of the spheres, 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 
 .
Dull sublunary lovers’ love 
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove 
   Those things which elemented it. 
 .
But we by a love so much refined, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 
 .
Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat. 
 .
If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
   To move, but doth, if the other do. 
 .
And though it in the center sit, 
   Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans and hearkens after it, 
   And grows erect, as that comes home. 
 .
Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
   And makes me end where I begun. 
.
The change, though, is mostly felt in what becomes of the poem when the compass simile is initiated: a slowing, a change in the speaker, so that the poem dedicates three stanzas to the conceit, rather than one, not only because it is worthy of development, but because it transforms the poem into something else–though the poet ends where “I begun,” inviting us to look back to the first “I” of the poem, “I must go.” He still must leave, the poem now coming to an end. The simile comes to an end because the change it has summoned in the state of the two lovers cannot substitute for the reality of his departure for the change that the poem cannot contain.
 .
In a poem like “The Flea,” there is, as in “A Valediction,” an implicit affirmation that poetry really does make something happen, arguing for a change, but also arguing that the change, by virtue of how we see things, has already happened, and happened in the course of the poem, as in “The Expiration”:
 .
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.
 .
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
 .
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
.
The poet is not discerning resemblances, and he is not arguing by standard means of persuasion; he is exerting his mastery over the inconstancy of the world by thinking faster than it can change.
 .
But he is also racing against it, and the time of the world’s change, against which is thought is vying, is measured, here and elsewhere in Donne, by the metrical order of the verse; Donne’s irregularity, his strong syllables and iron-wrought prosody, is not just a matter of passion, but also an effect of his wanting to make the gallop of his mind urgent, sometimes lagging, sometimes blissfully free of time, as we apprehend it in the meter. That is why, often, the turns of thought follow the turns of lines; it is like he has beat it around the bend.
 .
The temporal effect of the meter is especially evident in “Go and Catch a Falling Star”:
Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.
 .
If thou be’st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.
.
If thou find’st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
.
The abbreviated lines are tense with uncertainty as to whether he will make it out, which he does, though the close of the poem presents time’s closing on the poet.
 .
Empson thought that poems all had a quality of “verbs,” and nowhere more than when they most vigorously argued, which he felt a great many did. Donne’s poetry argues about many things, but not least of all it represents a sustained argument that the world is always changing too fast to be true, but also too consistently to be positively false; that to go and to die might be forms of the same thing; that a loss of the other threatens to coincide with a loss of the self; and these arguments are only persuasively carried out in a poetry that exists in the same proximity to change as verbs themselves, entailing a logic of substance and state, but also questioning whether a substance can remain itself from one state to another, and whether a state can be reliably ascertained.
 .
In Donne’s great religious poem, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” God is worshipped not as only as a transcendent eternal point, but as a force that, intervening in human history and manifesting in the world, represented a change utterly unlike any we know, too great to contemplate directly, but offering future redemption through the power of backward-looking memory; under the divine, forward and reverse, past and future, the very standards by which change are known, lose their usual bearing and meaning:
 .
Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, 
The intelligence that moves, devotion is, 
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West 
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East. 
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set, 
And by that setting endlesse day beget; 
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, 
Sinne had eternally benighted all. 
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see 
That spectacle of too much weight for mee. 
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye; 
What a death were it then to see God dye? 
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke, 
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke. 
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, 
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes? 
Could I behold that endlesse height which is 
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes, 
Humbled below us? or that blood which is 
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his, 
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne 
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne? 
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I 
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye, 
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus 
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us? 
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, 
They’are present yet unto my memory, 
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee, 
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree; 
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive 
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. 
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee, 
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity, 
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, 
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face. 
.
Even here, the devotion to God does not remove Donne from a devotion to the change that defines the world; when it does, his deformity will have been burnt off, and with it, one suspects, any vestige of his human mortality.
 .
The pun early in the poem is both condemnation of and tribute to the jostled, inconstant world, which, the simile suggests, contains and is contained by each soul:
 .
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 
.
“Are whirld by it” because they are moved, and so brought into the endless succession of changes, “whirld” because the spheres and our souls both circle and circulate, and “whirld” because of the echo of “world,” the motions of pleasure and business, and the deformations they wreck, being what makes soul soul and world world.
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