Metaphysical poets and the idea of nothingness
‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in green shade.’ -Marvell
‘I am re-begot/of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.’ -Donne
‘Nothing,’ as a concept has plasticity; it can be used in a number of different ways and refer to any number of different things. Nothing can be an adjective denoting something of little value, a noun referring to nonexistence, or literally meaning ‘not anything.’ Whilst W. Bradford Smith asserts that metaphysical poetry is ‘concerned with the analysis of experience,’ surely nothingness cannot be an experience, as every experience must surely consist of something. Therefore in metaphysical poetry we must interpret ‘nothing’ in a broad, and perhaps not entirely literal, sense. Using John Donne and Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poetry as exemplars, this essay will outline the different kinds of nothing and nothingness that permeate their work, and the fear and frustration associated with it.
Death is a recurrent ‘nothingness’ throughout the works of metaphysical poets, and is the most obvious way in which this concept of ‘nothing’ is approached. it is John Donne who in particular has a fascination with death in his work, or as Ramie Targoff suggests, was ‘gripped by a tremendous dear of death, his writings return again and again to strategies for conquering this fear.’ In a modern context, this fear of death may be taken to be a fear of being rendered non-existent or nothing by it. however, living in a devoutly Christian climate, (Donne being first catholic then later protestant) death meant passing on into some kind of afterlife, and it is clear when reading Donne’s sermon death’s duell that his fear of death is not of spiritual nothingness:
‘the ways of our departing out of this life, are in his hands he will have a care of us in the our of death[.]’
Donne’s linguistic choices here are in fact comforting, ‘in his hands’ evoking the image of god caring for the dead, assuring the listener that death is neither solitary nor arbitrary but is in capable ‘hands.’ Donne’s fear of death seems to lie instead in his fear of physical decay, or ‘an overwhelming concern for the material decay of the corpse,’ and in this way becoming physically nothing. This is perhaps a reflection of the sensuous nature of Donne’s poetry, which is concerned with physical touch and sight; the decay of the body would remove these senses entirely. This fear of decay into nothingness is exemplified in the funeral which effectively gives instructions from Donne to whoever buries him after he is dead:
‘do not harm […] the subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm; the mystery, the sign, you must not touch’
Donne describes how he wants his lover’s hair entwined around his arm in order to keep his limbs ‘from dissolution,’ preserving his physical body. In this line his imperatives, ‘do not harm,’ ‘must not touch’ are commanding and clear, as though firmly in the belief that this preservation will work. In addition to this, Donne uses the words ‘tie’ and ‘manacled’ in reference to the entwined hair, expressing a desperation to be physically held together and remain intact, but also suggesting his desire to remain ‘tied’ with the living world. The final line of the poem, ‘I bury some of you,’ implies a kind of anchoring in the living world, or as Targoff puts it, a ‘strategy’ for conquering his fear of death. By entwining his dead, decaying body with a living woman, Donne cannot become physically ‘nothing’ because a part of him will still be associated with a living person.
This ‘strategy’ employed by Donne raises questions about identity in relation to death and nothingness. Targoff asserts that one of the reasons Donne’s fear of death was so great was the thought of ‘the violation of bodily integrity whereby one person’s remains become confused with another,’ thus becoming anonymous and thereby ‘nothing’ in terms of identity. To conquer this, Donne wrote a number of poems in which he bade farewell to various things; Farewell to Love for instance. Judith Schoerer Herz sees these farewell poems as ‘another way of saying ‘I am here.’ Don’t forget me, he insists to his mistresses and, more urgently, to God[.]’ This kind of grounding is evident in A Valediction: Of my Name, in the Window:
‘My name engrav’d herein, Doth contribute my firmnesse to this glasse[.]’
the act of engraving is one of great permanence as it involves force, and in this case a name; the most important identity marker one has. The choice of a window here is also important in Donne’s desire for permanence; in the second stanza Donne writes ‘here you see mee, and I am you,’ describing the reflection that the addressed woman will see of herself in the window. By engraving his name into the window, Donne makes himself a part of the woman’s reflection, so that when she looks in the window, she sees his name and her reflection as one. By doing so, Donne has made himself permanent on three different levels in the poem, the first being the engraving of the name into the window, the second being his subsequent reflection onto the living woman, and the act of writing the poem itself, which one could argue immortalizes the poet. Donne’s fear of nothingness (in terms of lost identity) is clear in this way, for it is clearly not enough for him to simply leave poetry behind, but even within the poetry he anchors himself with various concrete objects and actions.
Death in metaphysical poetry is not limited solely to the poet’s musings on their own deaths but also those deaths of others; their absence being a kind of nothingness. If we return to Smith’s conception of metaphysical poetry as concerned with ‘experience,’ one might suggest that fear of one’s own death is something approached with fear by metaphysical poets as it is an experience they cannot comprehend. However, in the case of Donne’s holy sonnets, written after his wife’s death, whilst he naturally laments her death, he seems to take comfort in the notion of her being in heaven: ‘And her soule early into heaven ravished[.]’ For Donne here, the subject of the poem (most likely his wife) has not been reduced to nothingness as he fears for himself, but her soul, her essential being, continues to live in heaven. Marvell similarly writes on the death of others, one example of this being An Epitaph Upon- which describes a woman who remained chaste to her death, a source of disappointment or dissatisfaction to Marvell:
‘She summ’d her life up ev’ry day; modest as morn; as mid-day bright; gentle as ev’ning, cool as night; ’tis true: but all so weakly said; ’twere more significant, she’s dead.’
These final few lines of the poem build up to the anti-climax of nothingness; Marvell presents us with the goodness of the woman’s ‘modesty’ and ‘gentleness,’ but in the final, blunt clause, stresses that these virtues are worth nothing now that she is dead. She is not only ‘nothing’ in the sense that she no longer exists, but her virtues and value have come to nothing as she has not given herself to a man, or more specifically, Marvell.
Marvell’s epitaph, however, seems less to lament the absence of the woman than express regret and even anger at the unreciprocated feelings Marvell had towards her, introducing a different kind of ‘nothing,’ in frustrated and unreturned affections and love. As Herz suggests, writing on Donne’s poetry, ‘erotic love, or sexual desire, require or presupposes a certain lack […] obstacles, absence, or frustration seem built into desire.’ Indeed, Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, an urgent plea to the woman of his affections, highlights these frustrations:
‘Then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity: and your quaint honour turn to dust; and into ashes all my lust.’
In a similar vein to ”twere more significant, she’s dead,’ the line ‘then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity’ expresses a frustration at the idea of a woman’s chasteness being wasted; a woman dying without a man enjoying her body. The idea of nothingness is also bound up with the line ‘into ashes all my lust,’ again presenting an image of lust turning into nothing (ashes) because it is unfulfilled. Nothing as a value judgement also emerges in this examination, where women become effectively useless, i.e. nothing, when they die without giving themselves to a man sexually.
It is generally true that early modern metaphysical poetry was concerned largely with religion, death and love. Nothingness, in various senses of the word, pervades all of these things, being in itself a metaphysical concept; something one cannot really touch, and so inevitably is involved in much of Donne and Marvell’s work. Nothingness in most senses, whether this be nonexistence, decay or unreciprocated affections, remains a negative force in their poetry, in opposition to their desires and representing something difficult to comprehend and overcome.
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‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in green shade.’ -Marvell ‘I am re-begot/of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.’ -Donne ‘Nothing,’ as a concept has plasticity; it can […]