The Value of Donne’s Poetry

July 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

Donne is sick and his poetry is sick.- Stanley FishFish’s comment, though extreme in its reductive appraisal, is nevertheless understandable. He may find Donne’s poetry objectionable on three accounts: style, explicitness, and morbidity. With regards to style, Fish says Donne “is bulimic…someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up.” And Fish is certainly not alone in this sentiment. C.S. Lewis called Donne the “saddest” and most “uncomfortable” of our poets, whose verse “exercises the same dreadful fascination that we feel in the grip of the worst kind of bore – the hot-eyed, inescapable kind.” For his “not keeping of accent,” Ben Jonson said that Donne “deserved hanging.” And if Jonson finds fault with the way Donne ran roughshod over conventional rhythm, Deborah Larson finds his renegade semantic scope bewildering. “There is nothing,” bewails Larson, “not even the ugly and disgusting, which his verse will not say, no manner, not even the rudest, which it will not adopt to attain its almost impossible ends.” Added to this is Donne’s apostasy. “The first thing to remember about Donne,” writes John Carey, “is that he was a Catholic; the second that he betrayed his faith” – of which there are plenty of instances. For example, the poet states, “As a Father, as a Master; I can preserve my Family from attempts of Jesuits: to let a Jesuit escape is like sparing a fox or a wolf.” Such accusations, however, are hasty and subjective. If accusations of being “sick” stand, they stand alongside the justification of Donne’s desire to startle his readers into re-analyzing their faith and belief. In “Batter my Heart,” for example, Donne is deliberate in his use of shocking imagery to convey a mystic’s fervent desire to be alive in a faith that is indelicate, forceful, and all-consuming. Certainly, the imagery – “burned,” “battered,” “broken,” “ravished” – is morbid, but through it Donne reveals an urgency to be overwhelmed by God, and his images give us a glimpse of that moment when the self is absorbed into the whole, when the individual becomes an indistinguishable part of all time and creation.Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’ and bend Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new. I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue. Yet dearely’I love you,’ and would be loved faine, But am betroth’d unto your enemie: Divorce mee,’ untie, or breake that knot againe; Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I Except you’ enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. To take Donne literally as a sick proponent for rape or sadism is to seriously misread him. At worst the metaphors are startling, but in being so they remind us that one’s faith is not always a comfort and invite us to acknowledge that true spiritual discipleship requires not only accepting these contradictions in one’s understanding of God, but also a willingness to be consumed by that divine entity whom one can never fully comprehend.In fact, if there is a “charge” that holds any water, it would be that Donne’s arguments are sometimes too perfectly head-scratching and almost mathematically persuasive in their proof. In themselves, however, Donne’s metaphysical conceits are interesting not only in their novelty but also in the breadth of fields from which they draw analogies: God as a violent conqueror and rapist; the Holy Church as a wife made more holy by her availability to all men; the Sun as an exasperating “old fool” who disturbs a couple’s intimate morning; a teardrop as a navigator’s globe; separated lovers likened to the legs of a compass, the leg drawing the circle and eventually returning home to “the fixed foot”; or a flea bite compared to the act of making love (“Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee,” is a good case in point, particularly with the knowledge that in 17th century typography, the printed “s” looked a lot like the printed “f”). Donne’s conceits range from the commonplace to the diminutive, and his comparisons are elaborately rationalized. When they work, the metaphysical conceits have a startling appropriateness that makes one examine the topics in entirely new ways.If he can “play up” the terror in routine acts such as prayers through images of rape and ravishment, Donne is equally adept at “playing down” the terror in situations in which it may genuinely be justified. In “Death, be not Proud,” for example, Donne cleverly reverses the threat of death onto death itself, when he says, “Death, thou shalt die” Donne completes the idea that Death is the one who should be afraid, not the one to be feared: Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ; For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow, Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be, Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. Donne subverts the standard perception of Death as powerful and terrifying, by suggesting that instead of causing people to fall, Death helps them to rise, to “wake eternally.” The speaker’s tone is patronizing with “poor Death,” and culminates in saying that Death cannot kill him, thus he holds no power over the speaker. By personifying death, using pejorative conceits (“And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well”), Donne depicts Death not as “mighty and dreadful” but as a mere mortal – or rather less than we mortals, since he will die an eternal death at the resurrection, whereas we mortals will enjoy eternal life. In sum, this is an interesting “Donnesian” play of words and concepts. For Donne, however, innovation doesn’t stop at metaphysical conceits. Despite Jonson’s gripe of the poet’s “not keeping of accent,” closer analysis reveals a method in his apparent madness. In “Batter my Heart,” there is a conspicuous struggle between the “I” and the “you” pronouns, with the latter recurring significantly more than the other, and revealing the predominance of God over the individual. Added to this is the effect of the poem’s noticeably stumbling meter and the short-breathed caesuras that emphasize the speaker’s urgency to be ravished by God. This is not a sonnet of softly lilting iambic feet, but a series of pentameters that abuse the tradition of syllabic regularity. “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you” defies poetic explanation. It is neither solely iambic, nor exclusively trochaic, but rather a mixture of both. “Batter my heart” can thus be read as either a trochee followed by an iamb, or two spondees side by side. This unidentifiable meter, it can be argued, turns the prayer into a strongly individualistic poem that mirrors the instability of a troubled mind. But as the sonnet ends, the jarring metrical irregularity of the previous quatrains is suddenly transformed into pure iambic pentameter for the final line, “Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” The iambic meter here reflects the peace found as the poem ultimately finds its spiritual resolution. The tension still exists, but in a poised state of equilibrium. The divine assault is now seen fully as a spiritual act. That which is humanly imperfect and even exploitative becomes divinely perfect and fulfilling. The rape preserves, rather than destroys, chastity.Something must also be said of Donne’s fixation with anatomical functions, a characteristic that has brought him complaints from critics such as J.E.V Crofts and Rupert Brooke, and is also an elementary part of Fish’s gripe. As Prof Crofts notes, Donne’s oft-times explicit and unabashed treatment of sex surpasses his interest in visual beauty, “The beauty of the visible world meant nothing to him and yielded him no imagery for serious purpose.” The paucity of visual beauty in Donne’s work is, however, not a deficiency, as John Carey notes, because this poet seeks inspiration elsewhere – in more intense pressures of inner experiences and the tumults of unrequited passion. For him, love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or merely a sexual one, and it can give rise to emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. And to this end, Donne displays a natural predilection in his descriptions of human physicality, over descriptions of any other kind. Indeed, his conflicting proclivities often cause Donne to contradict himself. For example, though he writes, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,” in another he writes, “Death I recant, and say, unsaid by me/Whatever hath slipped, that might diminish thee.”In “The Ecstasy,” for example, the body (joint at the sweaty palms) and the soul are distinct, but are nevertheless related aspects of the totality of love. The uniting of souls is the purest and highest form of love, but this can only be attained through the uniting of bodies . Soe soule into the soule may flow,Though it to body first repaire. His focus on the soul leads Donne to express a contradictory attitude towards physical love (met with disfavour in this instance) in this poem:But O alas, so long, so farreOur bodies why doe wee forbear?They are ours, though they are not we, we areThe intelligences, they the sphere. This is in marked contrast to the speaker’s liberal attitude and eagerness to uncover his mistress’ body in “To his Mistress Going to Bed” or the speaker’s desire for cunnilingus in “Love’s Progress.” Nevertheless, Donne’s descriptions of the body (often deeply couched in metaphors) are a measure of his creativity, and one is inclined to agree with Carey, who sees the aim of Donne’s physical imagery as a self-assertive “intensity” – an effort to make “his inner self… sound concentrated and vehement.” As for Donne’s contradictions, they are representative of the powerful contrary forces at work in his poetry and in his soul, rather than of “sick” thinking or other charges of inconsistency. Taking any single poem in isolation, in this case, would only give one a limited view of Donne’s creativity depth, but treating each poem as part of a totality of experience, offers a better opportunity to appreciate his work.

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