359. (John Donne)

If I were asked to give a complete account of what it means to dwell, I could do little more than to point to the poems and novels that mean most to me; they show what it means to dwell, and to need to dwell, and how painfully, irksomely we might be prevented from dwelling. Dwelling is maybe just my version of Matthew Arnold’s high seriousness; I know it when I see it, or know it when I feel it. The test of the notion of dwelling is whether it can be held without its holding me hostage; whether it can let me stand on surer, more nimble footing when I read. And I think it can; whether it can for anyone else, I leave to them.

It does not explain why, to take on instance, Donne’s “Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s” is his greatest poem, but thinking of how that poem relates to dwelling allows one to account for its beauty: the way in which it gathers the elements of nothingness up, holding them against the exposed, vulnerable poet, and at the same time refuses to feel comforted or complacent in its self-denial and denial of self, reminding itself, and us, repeatedly that to be “all that is not” is to lack the brace of being, and to stand apart also, in the final stanza’s suggestion of a phantasmagoric flaneur, from others.  

Nor does “dwelling” explain why Donne’s “Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed” is among the greatest erotic poems in English, but it does help me say more succinctly what sets its eroticism apart: that in it the erotic moment is an expanse of experience, becomes sufficient for the fulfillment of a most adventurous life, but all the more in anticipation rather than fulfillment.

And it might be the case that Donne’s “Song,” “Go and catch a falling star” does more to explain dwelling than to be explained by it; the poem depends on the poet’s remaining fixed at the center of fantasy, grounded in his disillusionment; but the poem is not animated by disillusionment, so much as by the tension between the fertility of illusion, wonder, and hope and the disappointment that he has experienced; the poem would not work if the world he lived in did not have room for both, if it were instead marked only by his marred experience of women, and the poet himself is as at home in fiction as in the bitter slights that painfully contract each stanza in the final three lines (“and find/what wind”…. “And swear/No where”). In this poem, the betrayal of the poet’s vivid spirit of wonder by his compromised, cramped feelings is registered by the verse form; we are given the world where he would live, if he could, dwindling to the world where he does live. Though the root of his disillusionment is repugnantly narrow-minded, the fact disillusionment of living in one world rather than another, the denied appeal of escape and impossible possibility, can be shared.

 “The Good-Morrow” assures by its assured sense of what is what, and is so conspicuously about living, and living well,  in the world that is measured by, and made within, a moment of consummated love:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?

’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.


And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.


My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres,

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

The first stanza reads to me as a preface, a ramble of a preamble, its brash questions teasing and idling in the gaze and touch of the other, anchored in the word “this.” There is some of Donne’s characteristic braggart swagger in “which I desired, and got,” but the line’s reach, out beyond that satisfaction, to “thee,” surpasses that moment. But the poem opens most in the second stanza, where “now” stretches out, the moment to time what the “little room” (and the little room of the stanza) is to an everywhere; he settles into the time, the place, and the poem all at once.  “And true plain hearts do in the faces rest” is itself so plain and without the strain of a conceit” that its style seems to speak its truth. But the last three lines of the poem are abrupt, without apparent warrant; we need to imagine something coming undone in the mind of the poem; even as it suggests that two so alike (“if” they are alike, and that “if” sweats with sudden anxiety) could never slacken, something in the writing slackens. Could it be a sudden claustrophobia? The dwelling now an imprisonment, so that the death of their love, and death itself, is desirable? Or could it be that the impossibility of the fantasy comes to bear; the dwelling collapses around Donne. At either rate, there is in the last three lines something of a collapse in the poem’s power, which (to me) is not a dramatization or self-conscious diagnosis of its occasion.

When Donne is compared to Baudelaire on grounds of technique or some implicit theory of poetry, I am at a loss; but the two poets do share something in their inability to stay in a place for long, or to remain for long only at a distance, expressed in their delight at artifice as they imagine places that cannot be theirs to live for long.

The comparison to Browning can likewise seem to stretch a point; the Victoria editor of Donne Alexander Grosart was one to proclaim the difference, and it is possible given the eclectic range of his father’s library that Robert Browning read Donne, but the resemblance of convoluted, impassioned syntax and demotic register in Browning’s monologues and some of Donne’s elegies and satires feels coincidental; but what that coincidence rests upon is the projection of a voice and mind at persistent, restless, and violent odds with its circumstance; Donne and Browning have within them the power to imagine a relentless, self-consuming, painful itch, as if in allergic reaction to one’s situation. An extreme example of this in Donne is his elegy, “The Bracelet.” But where that poem differs most from Browning is in its taking its occasion to rove over so many places, to the extent that the poem does not feel adequately placed. That, though, seems to be the point; it’s speaker cannot settle down, imaginatively or otherwise, and the entire world is made to melt into confusion around him, along with the links of the bracelet:

Which, negligently left unrounded, look
Like many-angled figures in the book
Of some great conjurer that would enforce
Nature, so these do justice, from her course ;
Which, as the soul quickens head, feet and heart,
As streams, like veins, run through th’ earth’s every part,
Visit all countries, and have slily made
Gorgeous France, ruin’d, ragged and decay’d,
Scotland, which knew no state, proud in one day,
And mangled seventeen-headed Belgia.

Throughout “The Bracelet,” we can see Donne’s frequent  impulse to encompass the whole world in a small space, but whereas the motivation for doing so is established by the circumstance in the lyrics and songs, and is even capable of being registered by formal pressures, here the occasion is the destruction or loss of a trifle (straining we can imagine he despairs at the loss of a lover); the despair is so disproportionate to its circumstance that are made to feel that it had a life of its own, and that it was more properly a despair at the disorder of the world; and we can in turn ask whether the Donne of the lyrics wants so much to accommodate the entirety of the world because of how deeply he values it, or if he wants to limit it to his grasp to make it more manageable, less itself, more a place he can endure. “The Bracelet” invites us to imagine a man already homeless, not only in the world, but in the order of creation; the (fictional, or real) woman would have been astonished by how his imagination seizes on the bracelet, though of course the word most implicated in his mind is “angel,” and it is most pervasively a poem about damnation, which in this poem is not just a fall, but a continuous falling, itself embodied in the tumble of its lines:

But shall my harmless angels perish? Shall
I lose my guard, my ease, my food, my all?
Much hope which they would nourish will be dead.
Much of my able youth, and lustihead
Will vanish ; if thou love, let them alone,
For thou wilt love me less when they are gone ;
And be content that some loud squeaking crier,
Well-pleas’d with one lean threadbare groat, for hire,
May like a devil roar through every street,
And gall the finder’s conscience, if he meet.
Or let me creep to some dread conjurer,
That with fantastic schemes fills full much paper ;
Which hath divided heaven in tenements,
And with whores, thieves, and murderers stuff’d his rents
So full, that though he pass them all in sin,
He leaves himself no room to enter in.

The poem is too frenzied, perhaps, to recognize the power of its nightmare; it flees from its own horror in writing it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s