Among the tissues of judgments that compose a poem will be a judgment about what a poem plays at doing (“Plays at” because poets, like novelists and playwrights, being concerned with what is possible in this bodily experience, write utterances that correspond to the fictions of narrative).
The excitement of a poem can depend on the ambitions of its play, including what it judges itself to be doing; the durability of a poem can depend on whether it justifies such play in terms of the world’s possibilities, and the speaker’s place in those possibilities; and the latter in turn depends on whether its language is both suitable to its supposed occasion and communicates a sense of what that occasion is, what its conditions are; finally, the immediacy of a poem can depend on its vigilance for how much and what is felt, bodily as well as emotionally, in a situation, what I’ve suggested be thought of as its tact.
Those seem general, if not iron-bound, principles by which to approach a confusion about a poet. In this case, the confusion is entirely my own and involves what sort of poles of poetry Ben Jonson and John Donne can be said to represent; why the metaphysical conceit of the latter separates him from Jonson as much as it does. I’ll suggest, without claim to originality, that the distinguishing effect of the conceit lies not in its internal grammar, or its wit, but in its arrogating to itself, with an arrogance that turns “conceit” to our sense of the word, powers that Jonson would not claim. Among the judgments of Donne’s poetry about what is possible in life is a fiction of what a poem can effect: a transformation of the world.
Alchemy is, of course, among Donne’s favorite sources for jargon, and the transformation of base metal into gold provides a convenient figure for what Donne’s poems themselves, often, claim to achieve. But Donne perhaps had suspicions about alchemy, not thinking it a pseudo-science, but at least knowing it to be so far a failure in its ambitions, so that by supplying it as a figure for transformation, he is supplying also the acknowledgement that radical transformation such as alchemy and poetry promise is not yet in the realm of the actual.
That may suggest that Donne is attempting something foolish—imagining his words capable of transforming the world. I’ll explain both in general and in particulars how that is not so. In general, because Donne’s words have been held as a classic example of an “unserious” use of language, how “not to do things with words,” by the philosopher J.L. Austin. Austin is concerned with performative language, illocutionary effects, and the like; as an example of language that seems performative but is not, he quotes Donne’s “go and catch a falling star,” explaining that poetry is often an example of language that is not performative or serious. The best response to Austin is Geoffrey Hill’s essay “Our Word is Our Bond,” and I imagine I’ll echo some of Hill here, but would not want to be thought responsibly summarizing his arguments.
Austin’s decision to quote Donne is apt, in so far as Donne often does seem to be asking his words to do something, to make the world other than it is. They invite us to see them as performing something. On the other hand, the particular phrase Austin quotes is an infelicitous example in so far as anyone uttering those words in any context would be demanding an impossibility; their being in a poem is beside the point. The poem is not what makes them unserious.
But elsewhere, Donne’s poems seem to behave as if their utterances mattered, as if they worked like as sort of spell, not just impeaching or imploring or promising but effecting the change they imagine. A classic case would be from “The Canonization,” from which I quote the second and third stanzas:
Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
What merchant’s shops have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We are tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us the find the eagle and the dove,
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us; we to being one, are it.
So to one neutral ting both sexes fit
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
But proved mysterious also, and foremost, by the poet—and the disingenuous irony of the second stanza (the first above) consists in Donne’s disowning just the sorts of consequences that he might elsewhere insist that, metaphorically, by way of conceits, at least, his love has done.
I’ve written earlier that Donne’s poetry includes a drama within itself; an action intercedes amidst the poem’s language, so that a verse will suddenly respond to an event that has taken place by its side, as if prompted by its language. That point bears on the one I’m working out here. Donne writes as if his poetry brings about the occasions for its own utterances.
Another way of getting what I’m trying to say is that Donne, like all poets, must get within the judgment of his lines the condition of that judgment—the circumstances and situations in which the judgment holds, in which the claims are appropriate and just. But Donne’s poems assume, as one of their central judgments, that they are altering the conditions in which they are written, as they are written, and so can justify their own excesses. That is their central fiction, it is the fiction they sustain of a world in which the poet does effect transformations in the identity of things, so that the simile in a conceit can seem not a happy choice of phrases, but an assertion about what is the case—an assertion that, outlandish as it is, would not have been apparent had the poet not advanced it, but that holds nonetheless.
Donne is the poet as magician; the poet who believes poetry can at least invest itself in the fiction of making something happen…but only something possible… “Go and Catch a Falling Star” is not intended to be read as a plausible command. To interpret it aright is to see that it is not serious. Elsewhere, however, the challenge of interpretation, and the satisfaction, lies in deciding which of the outlandish claims are, in the fiction of the poem’s circumstances, intended to be seen as affecting something and which are not; the poems dramatize an astonishing efficacy and inefficacy of language. And sometimes they do not ask us to decide which is happening—they leave us in doubt as to whether one is.
Hence in “Woman’s Constancy,” the final words are not only an evasion of her threatened inconstancy by means of the prospect of his own, but they are also a threat that his own words are potent, more even than hers, that they will gain an upper hand:
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by tomorrow, I may think so too.
“Dispute” and “conquer” are not synonymous but allied; and yet the final twist is not that he would argue successfully against her but that he will come to hold as valid thoughts what, in his poem, remain only speculations on what she might entertain:
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,
So lovers’ contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death’s image, then unloose?
A long time ago, it was remarked by Frank Kermode among others that Donne’s conceits in “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” were not startlingly original, that they were borrowed from the Italians; Empson held out that the originality of Donne lay in part in his imagining life on worlds other than our own, and so decentering the scheme and story of Christian salvation.
The force of the poem is not, for me, a matter of its originality in literary history as it is a brazen confidence that the poem’s language makes true what it says:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery 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 th’other do.
The “if” is a concession to those who would question the soundness of his extravagant claims, but only to make it seem as if their more limited conception of the souls were itself the fiction, that his fiction in turn can override regardless.
Another way of saying what I’ve been trying to say is this: in Donne’s poem, the poetry’s claims about the world—the transformation of the world into what the poem says it is, by means of the poem saying it is so—is itself a condition of the poem’s consequent judgments.
Any poem makes its own occasion, but in the fictions of poetic utterances, some poems adhere to the notion that an external occasion exists independently of the poet’s mind, and that the poet must subordinate his judgments to its demands; these are the poets of decorum, though I mean for that term to adhere to a wider range than snobbery usually allows—Dickinson , for instance, is very much a poet who dramatizes a submission to circumstances beyond her control, and her poems are both reactions against the sham “decorum” of her society as they are instaurations of truer way of responding. Ben Jonson is just such a poet, also.
Donne is a poet of another type—Shelley is his descendent, as is Pound. They are poets whose poetry would claim, sometimes grandiosely, to master the circumstances of its own making. Donne would not say, I think, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind; that would be to go further than he ever goes. For Donne, the circumstances in which a poem can itself master circumstances are more limited; there is still a starting condition to which the poet is beholden; and for Donne that is love, first human and then divine. Saying so brings me back to the most familiar observations about his poetry, the grounds of its transcendent powers which are themselves not transcended if it is to hold its charm.
It’s a daring, reckless position to be in as a poet, exercising one’s powers over the world. But the alternative is no less an imaginative feat, with no fewer responsibilities, judging and summoning for the reader the circumstances of one’s utterance. They are just less likely to be thought unserious, less likely to be thought of as pretending so much as to fool themselves. Love is strange like that. Fanaticism and obsession too. At its best, Donne’s assertions of power are as much diagnoses as symptoms of both, trials of imaginative grandeur and grandiosity.
Therefore I’ll give no more; but I’ll undo
The world by dying; because love dies too.
Then all your beauties will be no more worth
Than gold in mines, where none draw it forth;
And all your graces no more use shall have
Than a sundial in a grave.
Thou Love taught’st me, by making me
Love her, who doth neglect both me and thee,
To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.
There are more types of poets than those represented so perfectly by Donne and Jonson, but as poles by which to plot the ambitions of the rest, one could do worse.