268. (John Donne)

Feeling is notoriously difficult to discuss in a work of literature (almost as difficult as “tone”) but it helps to suggest that feelings are compounded judgments, often experienced as visceral, sensual, and preconscious truths; they are assessments of self, other, and world. In the case of Donne, the immediate appeal for many readers, especially adolescent readers who experience the poetry in a classroom, is the brash pride, contempt, and cynicism towards all but his own experience of the world; the poetry bristles with bravado. But bravado, a blessing when it bestows the energy to meet the fullness of the world, can close on itself, prizing the meeting as an occasion for self-vindicating conquest, an affirmation for further self-willing; it can open to the world only to close upon it. (It is very much a feeling common even to bookish adolescents). After so many encounters, the novelty of experience dims; cynicism sets in.

One of Donne’s great equal in bravado is Byron, whose Don Juan has, more than once, thought to be shot through with cynicism. The defense against that charge is that the cynicism is in fact a detachment that tolerates waste and that can redeem one false perspective or register by setting it against another. Another of Donne’s equals in bravado is a poet to whom cynicism seems entirely alien, but who is instead open to the charge of its opposite—a willful naïve optimistic return: that is, Walt Whitman. There, the charge is met by acknowledging what James Wright has called Whitman’s “delicacy,” the point being that Whitman really has attended to the suffering of the world, and that reading him carefully means fairly weighing the pained vigilance that foreground his hopeful prophecies.

To read Donne fairly requires something of both: on the one hand, expecting rapid shifts in feeling and register between and within stanzas, and sometimes within single lines, and grounding that expectation in an appreciation for Donne’s own attention, not only to his conceits, but to the distinctions of wording that they contain, to the pauses and hesitations that accompany their articulation, and to the situation of his own imagination, often compromised or over-heated, or weakened by the strength of its own urgings. To read Donne this way is to look for something of the vulnerable restlessness that characterizes his judgment, that makes it more than bravado.

We can hear it even where the bravado is dominant:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,

               Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

               Late school boys and sour prentices,

         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,

         Call country ants to harvest offices,

Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.


               Thy beams, so reverend and strong

               Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long;

               If her eyes have not blinded thine,

               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,

         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine

         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.


               She’s all states, and all princes, I,

               Nothing else is.

Princes do but play us; compared to this,

All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.

               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,

               In that the world’s contracted thus.

         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be

         To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;

This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.


The exuberance here is positively Byronic and Whitmanesque, both; in its self-centeredness, there is room for the entire world. It is most like Byron in the understanding of the dramatic place of the utterance; not in the context of a narrative like Don Juan but in the bed itself, performing for the mistress who lies beside him. He is not really addressing the sun, but her. He is tuning his imagination to this pitch of intensity for her—and yet such an implied scene raises its own question: how long until the poem has said enough? It is in the nature of the sort of utterance it is that quite quickly into saying it, the person speaking must wish to be done, must want this performance to yield to another sort of performance. Where the poem closes, then, it is not for cynicism, but to let in more than the poem (any poem like this) can contain. And that is itself a sign of its openness to the world, a restlessness that is eager to be done with itself because it knows that, whatever it might say, the moment, the mistress, and opportunity are not going to hang around for long. At the same time, the poet is eager to show how much of the world he has seen, and so the world-ranging breadth of the poet’s imagination comes to seem as if it is itself an erotic boast; it is easy to think of his companion laughing as he runs from schoolboys to prentices, to court, to the toiling ant; and, as in Whitman, the erotic energy works diffusively, so that Donne is not only felt to be magnifying the greatness of his bed by including the whole world in it, but is felt to be redeeming the world by the erotic intensity of his bed. But, again, the generosity is itself vulnerable to the mutability that the poem tries to deny; it is not about vulnerability, but it is poignant in providing enough grounds for our knowing that this of course cannot last.

Elsewhere, as in “The Flea,” the restlessness is at one with unsatisfied desire:

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 desire of the poem is something other than the lust it pretends to be; the poem hangs together by ironic glances at theology, but like any successful ironies, these take seriously some measure of truth, and Donne does not dismiss the theological reasoning that he relies on. Because he seems to both accept it and to deploy it to so lascivious an end, the poem suggests an extraordinary intimacy between speaker and addressee: even if she does not give in to his demands, she has permitted him to speak to her in this way. We are to assume that she hears and laughs at the Biblical echoes (from “deniest me” on…) and that she has granted him a safety to indulge in this fantasy. He does not speak alone on stage for an audience; the crucial moment, “cruel and sudden,” insists that she is there with him. The shifts of feeling are Byronically false, but the false didacticism to false imploring to false indignation are true to a desire that is too cautious to lecture, beg, or scold. The vulnerability is, in a sense, all the flea’s, but it is also the conceit of the flea, which she literally takes in hand and destroys; he is at the mercy of what has been given to him, his attention roving, confident, but precariously dependent on what it can find.


Where Donne is most vulnerable, the restlessness of tones and feeling is greatest; it is not simply that “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day” reacts with proud hurt to the loss of love—that pride wavers and would know itself:


‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s, 

Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks; 

         The sun is spent, and now his flasks 

         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays; 

                The world’s whole sap is sunk; 

The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk, 

Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk, 

Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh, 

Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph. 


Study me then, you who shall lovers be 

At the next world, that is, at the next spring; 

         For I am every dead thing, 

         In whom Love wrought new alchemy. 

                For his art did express 

A quintessence even from nothingness, 

From dull privations, and lean emptiness; 

He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot 

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not. 


All others, from all things, draw all that’s good, 

Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have; 

         I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave 

         Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood 

                Have we two wept, and so 

Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow 

To be two chaoses, when we did show 

Care to aught else; and often absences 

Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses. 


But I am by her death (which word wrongs her) 

Of the first nothing the elixir grown; 

         Were I a man, that I were one 

         I needs must know; I should prefer, 

                If I were any beast, 

Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest, 

And love; all, all some properties invest; 

If I an ordinary nothing were, 

As shadow, a light and body must be here. 


But I am none; nor will my sun renew. 

You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun 

         At this time to the Goat is run 

         To fetch new lust, and give it you, 

                Enjoy your summer all; 

Since she enjoys her long night’s festival, 

Let me prepare towards her, and let me call 

This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this 

Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is. 


The melancholy resignation of the first lines are, at the same time, the coolly scornful judicial sentence passed on a world deserving of this fate. “Compar’d with me” boasts but also snivels, and yet also steps back, because his own lifelessness is diagnosed and partially belied by the energy of what follows. “Study me” is mocking, knowing that no lover would do such a thing, but also an exhibitionist’s plea, and also, on top of that, an acknowledgment of helplessness: he is to be anatomized, open on a table.


Yet the stanza moves on to be less about him than an homage to Love, “even from nothingness” able to produce a quintessence; his having been made a nothing is something, to him and it; here, “re-begot/ of absence, darkness, death: things which are not,” the bravado is greatest, the conceit most conceited, the play of creation and destruction, impressive at first, seeming, finally, hollow in its self-regard. The lines are incommensurate to what we know of Donne’s situation; few Shakespearean villains could merit them.

But the lines dramatize, they are such good symptoms that they cannot fail to impress, and the following stanza seems to offer more of the same with the play being chiefly on the word “all,” where “all that’s nothing” is ambiguously torn between : between “everything, which, whatever it is, is as good as nothing,” and “all that which is a form of nothingness.” He is the set of all sets of emptiness. Then something, and the quickening of feeling, of rhythm, of life in the poet accompanying memory: “drown’d the whole world, us two” is, in the turn back to, “us two,” rueful and proud, wistful and an affirmation of identity by apposition, and a reminder of his present isolation.

With the flood and chaos, Donne recalls what at least promised rebirth or new creation, and the thought of how they grew from those losses, even reanimating themselves as carcasses reborn, takes him to the next stanza where he owes this last change, “growth,” to her final absence, which, not a death, might be one; I remember debating in 9th grade whether she was in fact dead, and though biography might help the question out, it is the fact of his unwillingness to call her dead, either by guilt or denial or both, that seems most relevant here. We are given, in these lines, an honest understanding of a destructive love that nonetheless, in its destructiveness, proved the juvenative powers of both lovers.

“Were I a man, that I were one/ I needs must know” holds out, as rarely in Donne, the prospect that his masculinity has failed, “that I were one” temporarily seeming a wish for virility; but even when the line resolves itself in “I needs must know,” the doubt of virility remains active within the more obvious doubt of his humanity. Donne’s line breaks, in any poem, seem distinctly emblematic of his mind’s operations, and when he pauses on “yea detest” before turning into “And love,” it is as if he cannot bear to imagine that anything else could love—or, what’s more, that he cannot bear to imagine that envies their love, that he does wish to love again.

The figure of the shadow is peculiar: if he were an ordinary nothing like a shadow, it would assume a light and a body. He might mean his own (on that, more), but he might mean also the light and body cast by another: by his lover, or by love itself. That, he seems to suggest, is how most are diminished by love’s misery. But here the claim does seem also potentially more exorbitant: that he lacks even a body and light, that he is no longer of this world’s matter or radiance, beyond what can touch or see. This denial of despair seems most hopeless of all: “if I an ordinary nothing were” is again potentially a boast that he is more extraordinary in his nothingness than any other. But it is also a fear: that he is less than an ordinary nothing. That to be any nothing that is not ordinary is perforce a diminishment, a further remove from the something that nothing implies. He is suggesting that he is hollow in his independence; and the relative paucity of dramatic circumstance in this poem is at one with that assessment.

The final stanza is defeated and scornful both; “enjoy your summer all” is taunting (they will suffer too) but also indifferent and perhaps even generous; it need not be abrasively dismissive. Most surprising in the final stanza is the word “let,” which has little sense of imploring, and also none of commanding (“let there be light”), but which instead seems a summoning of strength, Donne speaking to himself, doing what must be done, reconciling himself to the time that it is, the time of the present that he cannot get beyond but only reaffirm in the final line.

Donne’s most excited, and exciting reader, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, commented in the margins on the final stanza of “A Fever”:

Just & affecting as dramatic, i.e. the out-burst of a transient Feeling, itself the symbol of a deeper Feeling, that would have made one hour, known to be only one Hour (or even one year) a perfect Hell! All the preceding Verses are detestable. Shakespeare has nothing of this. He is never positively bad, even in his Sonnets. He may be sometimes worthless (N.B. I don’t say, he is but not where is He unworthy).

Coleridge’s remark drives at what is most difficult in Donne: interpreting the judgments that cannot be easily subsumed into a history of ideas, but that are compounded at the preconcious, visceral level of feelings, often inseparable from the situations in which they are know, the dramatic circumstances of their crystallization, which Donne also asks readers to interpret. The vigor of the poetry, of which Coleridge writes at length elsewhere, may mislead; it is a necessary consequence of the variety and rapidity of what Donne feels, and why, but it can obscure what is softest and can make seem a carapace of contempt what is usually a muscular tissue, breathing, sweating, contracting, stanza to stanza, line to line.


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