384. (John Donne)

After all some faffing with patterns, a return to basics, two legs upon which to stand and move forward. For criticism, two questions:

  1. What does this work (or passage or character) promise to be and aspire to be?
  2. How does this work fulfill those promises and aspirations, and how does it exceed them or fall short of them?

In response to the first, questions of genre, of convention, of responsibility, of humane sensitivity, of feeling and thinking about the world. In response to the second, questions of technique, of form, of judgment, and of critical evaluation.

What of Donne: what does he promise and aspire to be? Ferment, dazzle, novelty, ingenuity, brilliance, and wit; intensity of passion; independence of mind; his freedom from the proportions and scales of value set on him by the world. And how does he fulfill those promises and aspirations?

C.S. Lewis on Donne:

“Donne’s real limitation is not what he writes about, but that he writes in, a chaos of violent and transitory passions. He is perpetually excited and therefore perpetually cut off from the deeper and more permanent springs of his own excitements.”

“Paradoxical as it may seem, Donne’s poetry is too simple to satisfy. Its complexity is all on the surface—an intellectual and fully conscious complexity that we soon come to the end of. Beneath this we find nothing but a limited series of ‘passions’—explicit, mutually exclusive passions which can be instantly and adequately labelled as such—things which can be readily talked about, and indeed, must be talked about because, in silence, they begin to lose their hard outlines and overlap, to betray themselves as partly fictitious. That is why Donne is always arguing. There are puzzles in his work, but we can solve them all if we are clever enough; there is none of the depth and ambiguity of real experience in him.”

“Donne’s love poems could not exist unless love poems of a more genial character existed first. He shows us amazing shadows cast by love upon the intellect, the passions, and the appetite; to learn of the substance which casts we must go to other poets, more balanced, more magnanimous, and more humane. There are, I well remember, poems (some two or three) in which Donne presents the substance; and the fact that he does so without much luxury of language and symbol endears them to our temporarily austere taste. But in the main, his love poetry is Hamlet without the prince.”

“The very qualities which make Donne’s kind of poetry unsatisfying poetic food make it a valuable ingredient.”

These are fighting words, not to be simply swatted aside or side-stepped. I quote them because I am not unpersuaded by them. Donne, as exciting as he was for me when I was sixteen or seventeen, is harder to go back to; my first thoughts are often akin to Lewis’.

What, then, would a response be? If I were to imagine myself entering into the ring, where would I point? Perhaps first to those not two or three, but seven or eight, poems by Donne that Lewis does not name, but that seem significant enough to land a blow; and since Lewis praises Donne as a forerunner of Crashaw and Marvell, it is worth asking how many more than seven or eight such poems the former certainly and possibly Marvell have in their bodies of work.

The poems would be: “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day,” “The Ecstasy,” “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” “The Good Morrow,” “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” and two or three holy sonnets, including “At the round earth’s imagined corners” and “I am a little world made cunningly.”

None of these are poems about love per se, and do not promise or aspire to be love poems; they are instead about something fundamental to love, which is the dependence of one person on another, the yearning need for some kind of a stable attachment. In them, the metaphysical techniques of strained relation are transferred onto an ideal subject: not relationships, but the possibility of relating, one person to another, or one person to God.

Donne is a great poet of what the insecurities of masculinity, and of the compromised masculine capacity for a secure attachment to others. The same insecurities that can issue in lines of crass misogyny that mar even some of his most searching poems (“Go and catch a falling star”) are the objects of that same searching when Donne is at his best. In these poems, Donne does not write with a fervent of passion, a “froth,” as Lewis says, but instead achieves a strong equanimity, and a quiet simmering introspection, as he expresses the feeling of needing to feel for another, and to trust that such a feeling will not be betrayed.

What I believe to be the greatest of Donne’s poems “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day,” is ringed with pain, but finds its harmony in the dissolution of the self in the absence of another. Lewis’ language of shadows and substance is continuous with Donne’s language in the poem, which represents an accounting of the loss that love demands and incurs, when it cannot be had; it is a fantasy of how ruptured of self might be by a rupture that cannot be healed. No line in the poem is more devastating or devastated than the calm of “But I am none; nor will my sun renew.” Devastated, but hardly in the throes of passion; it is a searing and cold self-indictment, a cry for help in its refusal to cry. In this poem, Donne is punishing himself, and doing so at the sense of self that is the very wellspring of feeling anything true for anyone at all. Quite otherwise, “The Ecstasy” and “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” imagine not just platonic fulfillment, but something far more humane: the perfection in human terms of trusting attachment.

Donne is often paired with Byron, and both might be set in relation to Eliot, as all three are similarly subject to and creative sovereigns of the insecurities, cynicism, and despair of masculinity—different over their centuries, but not so different.

The most revealing in Donne’s poetry, both because Donne is revealed and because it is revelatory of Donne’s greatest strength, maybe comes in “The Good Morrow”:  “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, | Which watch not one another out of fear.” It is strong because in it Donne frees himself from his own anxieties, even as it acknowledges them in the negation, “watch not one another out of fear,” and also recognizes, in the temporal anchoring “and now” that it is an achievement, a victory, but also that it is likely ephemeral, the “now” soon becoming “then.” The souls are “waking” to the day, to one another, and to their own strength. It is also, in its first-person plural, something more confidently embracing and embraced by another than even “The Ecstasy,” where the two-in-one conceit, so much on the surface of the poem, bespeaks both a yearning and a reminder that the poem is only fantasy.


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