Donne’s poetry does not achieve ambiguities at the cost of compression; it achieves compression with the success of ambiguities. That is, the ambiguity is, in the poetry, a consequence of the straitened confines from which the poet writes; the poems are an exertion of self that depends on the self’s being so keenly within a situation as to be threatened by the domination of that situation. The self in Donne’s poetry is under siege from without; the response is the claim of breadth within; a self can contain everything, even every nothing, and so need not feel the narrowness of its place. The great animating tension of Donne’s poetry is not, to me, the metaphysical puzzle of how everything is united into one; Donne more often than not affirms the unity with a blank confidence. When he does the more strange and special thing, stretching his metaphors, and yoking them together, to elaborate on the nature of the unity—as in “The Ecstasy”—he is not so much solving or laying bare the problem of one and many or parts and whole or self and other, so much as he is apprehending the limits of the situation from which he writes, from which he cannot find escape.
The eroticism of “The Ecstasy” is a rebellion against and frustrated acknowledgment of the fact of being bodily, however much the imagination may aspire to a Platonic unity; the prospect of Platonism in Donne, there or elsewhere, is not persuasive, so much as it is used persuasively, as a part of a drama against being, however free one’s soul may be figured, one person, in one place, with one nerve-cast form of flesh. He is, in a way, as morbid a poet as Tennyson, preoccupied always with what chafes against him, with the pressure exerted from without; he escapes Tennyson’s fatalism in fancy only, and for flights that do not set him free. I think Eliot’s profound admiration for Donne to an enduring critical puzzle; it’s hard not to feel that Eliot did not wish to leave obscure the full grounds for his appraisal. Similarly, Empson, in response to Eliot, eloquently admires Donne’s individuality and compounded senses, but with a tacit reserve of appreciation that is not given direct outlet. I would think both admire him for more Victorian reasons than they state: that Donne might be, for either, a precursor not only to Hopkins’ abrupt self, but to Tennyson’s besieged self. Eliot and Empson felt, I suspect, similarly besieged in the 1920s and 1930s.
But Donne is not only besieged but besieging: the confines he feels pressing upon himself he extends to others. His boldest, most impassioned declarations of love, in which the identity or perfect commingling of lovers is proclaimed, can often be heard as an act of aggression, a threat that they will themselves be confined. In the poems of revenge and outright anger, he imagines another undergoing torments that cannot be escaped, that press with the force of his tormented blacksmith’s meter. And when he is at his boldest, asserting that all of the world is contracted within himself, he can also be heard taking revenge against the world, suffering its imprisonments but also condemning it to imprisoning it within himself. Compromised by circumstance, which includes even the most compromising of circumstances, love, he refuses the accommodation of compromise and instead accommodates the all or the other to conquer it. Donne embraces fatalism and individualism alike—and it would not be difficult, might in fact be too easy, to find both extremes expressed in an age of puritanical entrepreneurship and entrepreneur puritans. Donne’s poetry is an expression of an intensely proud mind, but also an insecure, anxious mind, and the poetry’s rapidity, reach, boldness, and defiance are proud of the strength of mind that can take on the world that would take over the man, all without proud purring over the expression itself; there is no narcissistic rhetoric, and the language instead takes on a stiffly utilitarian cast, saving the man from the straits of the moment. Even when the grandiose claims and comparisons urgently persuade (in “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” for instance), they do not seek to impress; the urgency exists because the poet needs to be persuade himself that something is the case because of the overwhelming feeling that the case is, in fact, something else. The metrical , the stanza form, the abrupt lines, and syntactical turns over meeting, are shaped by the same urgency. They are plied into shape by the world they would overcome; they are both cast by the furnace of the world and the cast-iron tools that would master the world in the furnace of Donne’s imagination.
The resistance and pressure is felt even when the poetry is at its coolest, and least metallic as in “Valediction: My Name in a Window”:
My name engraved herein
Doth contribute my firmness to this glass,
Which ever since that charm hath been
As hard, as that which graved it was ;
Thine eye will give it price enough, to mock
The diamonds of either rock.
‘Tis much that glass should be
As all-confessing, and through-shine as I ;
‘Tis more that it shows thee to thee,
And clear reflects thee to thine eye.
But all such rules love’s magic can undo ;
Here you see me, and I am you.
As no one point, nor dash,
Which are but accessories to this name,
The showers and tempests can outwash
So shall all times find me the same ;
You this entireness better may fulfill,
Who have the pattern with you still.
Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratch’d name to teach,
It as a given death’s head keep,
Lovers’ mortality to preach ;
Or think this ragged bony name to be
My ruinous anatomy.
Then, as all my souls be
Emparadised in you—in whom alone
I understand, and grow, and see—
The rafters of my body, bone,
Being still with you, the muscle, sinew, and vein
Which tile this house, will come again.
Till my return repair
And recompact my scatter’d body so,
As all the virtuous powers which are
Fix’d in the stars are said to flow
Into such characters as gravèd be
When these stars have supremacy.
So since this name was cut,
When love and grief their exaltation had,
No door ‘gainst this name’s influence shut.
As much more loving, as more sad,
‘Twill make thee ; and thou shouldst, till I return,
Since I die daily, daily mourn.
When thy inconsiderate hand
Flings open this casement, with my trembling name,
To look on one, whose wit or land
New battery to thy heart may frame,
Then think this name alive, and that thou thus
In it offend’st my Genius.
And when thy melted maid,
Corrupted by thy lover’s gold and page,
His letter at thy pillow hath laid,
Disputed it, and tamed thy rage,
And thou begin’st to thaw towards him, for this,
May my name step in, and hide his.
And if this treason go
To an overt act and that thou write again,
In superscribing, this name flow
Into thy fancy from the pane ;
So, in forgetting thou rememb’rest right,
And unaware to me shalt write.
But glass and lines must be
No means our firm substantial love to keep ;
Near death inflicts this lethargy,
And this I murmur in my sleep ;
Impute this idle talk, to that I go,
For dying men talk often so.
The poem is a counterpart to “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s.” Though without the perfect intensity of that poem, where “Valediction” feels weakest—the ending for instance, characteristically of Donne—it does not undermine itself. I think that both poems are greater ever than Donne’s celebrated poems, “A Valediction forbidding mourning,” “The Ecstasy,” “The Canonization.” They are distinguished from those other poems, at any rate, by a more searching apprehension of the self’s vulnerability and potential for loss. They are also both poems that turn on an imagination of light, though “Nocturnal” imagines instead a visible absence of light. (It occurred to me a few posts ago that it would be revealing to compare poets in how they let light into their verse—and “Valediction: My Name in a Window” would represent Donne’s contribution. )
In “Valediction: My Name in a Window,” like “A Nocturnal” is less frenzied than some of Donne’s poetry, but the self-possession in the throes of passion and fear is a consequence of the equipoise between Donne’s feeling himself fixed and fixated on another, fixed as a name within the glass of the window, and his feeling his name to contain the life of another, being a passage to the light in the room where she dwells. It is the fragility as well as solidity of class that sustains the conceit through the poem; glass can be engraved, and then preserves that which is engraved within it, so that it is both subject to the pressure of language as well as capable of fixing language in place; and being both transparently luminous and opaquely reflective, it is like language itself, the world shining through the self by means of language, and the self permanently established within writing. It appreciates that language, itself a medium of commerce, can also engrave itself indelibly as an ornament—as a poem–upon the medium of worldly exchange. The poem itself is as cool, unyielding, and, especially by Donne’s standards, limpid as a sheet of glass, while also being brittle.
“Valediction: My Name in a Window” is, despite its claim to having achieved an enduring presence in the world of the loved one, more resigned to how little such a presence can mean or do than any other Donne poem, even “Nocturnal.” That poem is not passive as this poem is. Here, Donne is fatal as to the prospects of retaining control over the world, or enacting revenge; the most he can hope for is that she will inadvertently remember, inadvertently stay in touch. Passivity is accepted in the poem as a consequence of the act of strength—the engraving—that recalls the limits of Donne’s art, and also the limits of personhood, reduced to a name; the poem’s strange calm seems an acceptance that he has done all he can, and that he can do no more to overcome the world. Hence the final lines, though they close the poem with a fizzle, are not at odds with what comes before; they are unfair to the terms of the poem (“impute this idle talk”), but the unfairness seems exhaustion, a maligning thought that even this fantasy is hopeless to overcome circumstance.