John Donne “Satire 3”

Donne’s elegies are not particularly funeral and satires are not particularly funny, because again he imitates the Roman model of the satire, whose main purpose was to attack various vices and foibles of humankind. In this case, he imitates a Roman poet Persius, “known for an abstruse style and moralizing manner”, as the NAEL editors say. Indeed, the subject is a moral one and the diction sometimes quite complicated.

“Satire 3” was probably written when Donne was in his twenties and in the process of converting to Anglicanism, and its object is the laziness of people in matters of religion. In Donne’s times, various Christian denominations competed with one another, sometimes in a very bloody manner and the central question of this satire is: how do we know which religion is the true one? The poet starts by saying that he can neither laugh nor weep, as his feelings both of pity and scorn for that human malady zero out each other. From that moment on he uses consistently “thou”, addressing his imaginary reader, but perhaps himself as well. Religion should be as important to us as virtue was to ancient philosophers, but isn’t it possible that our fathers in heaven are going to meet those pagan philosophers rather than their sons? Is not the virtuous life of these philosophers “imputed faith”, i.e as deserving, or indeed more deserving of salvation than faith without virtuous life? Does this question make you feel scared? It should and in fact, “this fear great courage and high valor is”. Donne than lists the whole roster of superficially courageous things that his contemporaries did: fighting with the Dutch against the Spaniards, travelling to the dangerous tropical or polar zones, fighting duels in the name of their mistresses etc. “Courage of straw!” The true foes of man, quoth Donne medievally, soare the world (going to worse and worse), devil and flesh.

So the answer should be simple: “Seek true religion. O, where?” Donne uses several allegorical figures personifying various religions or indeed, irreligion. Mirreus, the Roman Catholic, seeing that what he considers true religion cannot be found in England anymore, seeks her at Rome because he knows she used to live there. He loves her rags like silly people who worship the canopy under which the prince used to sit. Crantz, the Calvinist, loves the religion who is “plain, simple, sullen, young/contemptuous yet unhandsome”. He is like guys who love only coarse country wenches. Graius, the Anglican, loves the religion of his country because his preachers and his tradition tell him to. He is like a young boy who has to marry the girl his guardian makes him to, or he will have to pay a fine. (You had to pay high fines in post-Reformation England for not attending Anglican services.) Phrygius, the atheist, is like the guy who hates all women because some happen to be whores. And Graccus, an agnostic, is like a guy who thinks that all women are the same, even if they wear different national costumes, so it makes no difference which one he chooses. Donne dares here to use an extreme form of enjambemetn, breaking off the word “blind/ness” in the middle for the sake of rhyme. I wonder if he does it to emphasize the fact that he is as indifferent to the traditional rules of rhyming as Graccus to all religions. Donne’s final point is that you have to choose one religion and you have to do your own thinking: inquiry is not a sin, but sleeping or being wrong is. You can’t put it off until you are old and infirm, and you can’t choose a religion because you are afraid of your rulers. Kings (contrary to what James I claimed) are not God’s representatives on earth but “hangmen to fate”. People who obey earthly power more than God are like flowers torn from their roots by a mountain stream and vanishing in the sea. On the whole it’s a very interesting poem, with quite strong medieval undertones (all these allegorical figures) but also I think it is very symptomatic of Donne that he compares various religious choices to the various men’s tastes in women.



John Donne “Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going to Bed”

This is going to be a short post, because I am writing about a short poem, which is followed in the NAEL by a rather long Satire 3, so it makes no sense for me to start reading it today. “Elegy 19” is exactly what it says on the tin: the lady undresses herself and the impatient lover hurries her on. Being a 17-th c. lady, her undressing involves a bit more than just slipping out of her T-shirt as you can imagine: her girdle, glistening like the zodiac belt, her breastplate, unlacing herself, taking off her coronet, her shoes, and finally taking off her gown leaving only her white shift on. The white robe makes her look like an angel, but she’s more like an angel from Mahomet’s paradise, and although scary ghosts also are prone to wear white sheets, the difference is that the ill spirits set our hair and the angels our flesh upright. This is not the only erection joke in the poem: earlier on, the speaker complained about his being tired with waiting for her, comparing himself to the army which is tired just by having to stand in the field. Now the lady is finally in bed and the poet exclaims the famous line “O my America! my new-found-land”. The next stage is getting naked: women’s jewellery are like Atalanta’s balls (or to be more precise, Hippomenes’ balls [hee hee], but Donne reverses the roles here), thrown in order to lead the gaze of the viewers from what is really important. Women’s clothes are also compared to books’ coverings: their contents are like the mystic books, whose contents can be revealed only to the elect, says Donne, playing again with mixing sex and religion. The poet is already naked and at this moment the poem stops but we can pretty well imagine what happens next.

John Donne “Elegy 16: On His Mistress”

Elegies do not have to be only funeral poems: in ancient Rome “elegy” meant a poem written in a specific kind of metre, which could be about death as well as about love. For instance Ovid’s Amores are elegies. Donne dropped the metre requirement which would not have worked out in English and imitated Ovid in writing love elegies. Even though we’ve been taught for the last five decades or more to avoid biographical readings, I cannot help but read the poem through what we know about Donne’s troubled courtship of his future wife. The lovers depicted in the poem apparently have to keep their love a secret and they are in fear of the wrath of the lady’s father. Now the speaker has to go abroad and the lady has apparently formed a wild notion to accompany him dressed up as a boy page. (Some ladies apparently did attempt it.) The whole poem is the speaker’s attempt to talk her out of it.

The poem begins with a series of imploring requests, recalling all the troubled circumstances of their courtship: the necessity to hold back their love, spies and rivals, “thy father’s wrath” and so on. Now the poet uses all them to swear by them in order to ask his mistress not to do something that dangerous. She should stay back and remember him, and if she should die before he comes back, her soul is going to call his soul and he is going to die too. Her beauty is not mighty enough to calm the raging seas and she should remember the fate of Orithyia, whom Boreas, the god of north wind loved and inadvertently killed. (I don’t think it’s the most popular version of the myth.) Moreover, she should not dissemble anything, even with good intentions. Then Donne indulges in some national stereotyping, warning his lover that the notoriously amorous Frenchmen will recognize her as a woman and “know her” in the biblical sense, while the homosexual Italians will want to pursue her as  boy. He does not specify what the Dutchmen will do to her except for calling them “spongy, hydroptic”, i.e. drinking all the time, so maybe his point is just that they are not pleasant to be with and she’s better off at home. England is the only gallery worth of her, through which she can walk until she is called to be presented at court. In the meantime, she still should hide her love, and especially don’t frighten her nurse with her nightmares about her lover being killed and dead. Instead she should foresee for him a better fate, unless God thinks having been loved by her was enough happiness for him.

John Donne “The Relic”, “A Lecture upon the Shadow”

“The Relic” is in a sense a follow-up to “The Funeral”, with Donne imagining the posthumous fate of his body with its bracelet of hair. Donne imagines people opening his grave to put there another body (because, he adds saucily, graves learnt from women to be beds to more than one. Trust Donne to combine death, sex and misogyny in two lines!) Those who are going to see a bracelet of bright hair around the poet’s arm bone are going to think that they have come across the remains of a couple of lovers. And should it happen “in a time, or land/where mis-devotion i.e. Roman Catholicism) doth command”, their bones are going to be proclaimed holy relics. Again Donne plays here with his former religion: he condemns it as superstitious, but at the same time the whole poem is structured around the notion that England would become Catholic again, unless he planned to go to die in a Catholic country. The owner of the hair is going to be proclaimed Mary Magdalen (because of her association both with the fallen woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, as well as with the medieval legend that Magdalen did her penance naked, covered only by her long hair.) So, since people are going to come up with the stories about these saints’ miracles, the poet is going to tell them in advance what miracles they performed. The main miracle was that they loved each other chastely, limiting themselves only to rare kisses. But even the poet has no language to explain what miracle the woman he loved was. Some critics believed this poem as well as “The Funeral” was addressed to Magdalen Herbert, the mother of the poet George Herbert and Donne’s patroness. But there are no other proofs confirming that the relationship between Magdalen Herbert and John Donne was anything more than the one between the patroness and the beneficiary, although apparently Donne wrote a rather saucy poem when Herbert remarried to a man half her age. Another problem which troubles me here: is the speaker going to be buried with his (Platonic) lover? The poem is not very clear about it and at the beginning I thought the lover’s body is present just symbolically in her hair. But on the other hand, how could one body be mistaken for two? Even  I feel, perhaps too optimistically, that I would be able to distinguish between two skeletons and one, just on the basis of my high school biology classes and having seen the scores of CSI episodes.

“A Lecture upon the Shadow” uses the metaphor of shortening and lengthening shadows to illustrate the nature of love. The lovers have been walking for three hours and their shadows, gradually becoming shorter, illustrate how their love needed less and less concealment as it grew. But now, when the noon passes, their shadows are going to grow again, this time in front of them, illustrating the possible waning of their love and mutual deception. Love is only love when it is growing or constant, and the first minute after its high noon is night. There is a melancholy note, because how can one stop the sun? Does it mean that love is by its very nature impermanent? Of course the obvious answer would be to turn back after noon, but somehow Donne did not think about it.

John Donne “The Funeral”, “The Blossom”

“The Funeral” starts with the poet, true to the title, envisaging his own funeral and imploring whoever is going to take care of his body not to remove the bracelet of woman’s hair tied around his arm. It’s his outward soul which is going to preserve his body, while his actual soul is gone to meet its maker. How is it possible? Well, if the threads of his nervous system can hold his body together, so can the woman’s hair, which grew out of a better head and brain than his. Now the speaker asks to be buried with them, because otherwise they would reach the status of relics, since he is love’s martyr. (It’s not the first time when Donne is playing somewhat cheekily with his Catholic past.) He says somewhat mysteriously that it was humility to ascribe to this hair the power of doing everything soul can do, but I am not sure whose humility? Does he mean his own humility, because he gives to this external substitute of soul the same or even greater power than to his actual soul? Anyway, if he was humble in this instant, he is also defiant now: if the hair’s donor would not save him (other manuscripts read “have”), he is now going to bury a part of her.

“The Blossom” is similarly to the previous poem a text about the woman who would not succumb to the poet’s advances. The speaker starts by addressing tenderly a spring blossom, which does not realize, after its seven or eight days in the world that it is going to be nipped in the bud by spring frost. Similarly, his poor heart, still hoping to win the woman, does not realize that the poet has to go on a journey and it has to go with him. The heart, which is rather too clever for its own good, says “go on, I will stay behind. You are going to meet your friends, who are going to please your eyes and ears etc., but my business is here.” Sure, the poet answers, you may stay behind, but a naked heart is useless to a woman, especially a heartless one – having no heart of her own she is not going to notice you. She may recognize other body parts from experience (nudge nudge) but she won’t recognize a heart.  Fine then, see you in twenty days n London. I will be then fatter and fresher and I hope you will be such too. I can then give you to some other friend, who will have both my body and my heart. The poet is not easy to follow and it takes a moment to realize that “thou” is the heart and “she” is the cold woman. It also took me some time to realize which parts are spoken by the poet and which by the heart. But it was worth the effort.

John Donne “The Ecstasy”

“The Ecstasy” is formally a rather simple poem, written in smooth 8-syllable lines, as if Donne had not wanted to get the form in the way of his ideas, which are very sophisticated. The opening stanza is full of the images of fertility: the lovers are sitting on a “pregnant bank”, swelling like “a pillow on a bed”. However, their behaviour still remains chaste: they are holding hands together and looking into each other’s eyes; the babies reflected in each other’s pupils are the only babies they are making so far. Their souls left their bodies (hence “the ecstasy” of the title, meaning literally “being out of place”) and are suspended in the air between them, while the lovers are in a comatose state, lying like tomb effigies and not saying a word. An observer, if he were as refined neo-Platonic as they were, would not be able to understand which soul was speaking, since they were already united and speaking with one voice, but could become somewhat even purer by the influence of this concoction the two souls mingled together produced. The new soul, produced by the combination of these two souls, is far wiser and nobler than two individual souls. These two souls are grafted upon each other, like a small violet transpanted into a new place grows and multiplies.

But let us not forget about the bodies! They are not all what we are but they are important parts of what we are: again using an image from the Ptolemaic astronomy, they are like the spheres, while we (or rather our minds) are like the angelic “intelligences” guarding them. We should be grateful to our bodies because they brought us together. We need our physicality to communicate with the world through our senses, or otherwise our souls would be like “a great prince in prison”. So our bodies should not be treated like “dross” in alchemy, an impurity, but “an alloy”, an element which makes the resulting substance stronger. Even if this hypothetical observer were able to hear the conversation (or rather the monologue) of the souls, there would be not much difference between the way the souls and the bodies communicate. All that is expressed in a language very heavily dependent on the jargon of alchemy, but still very beautiful and suggestive. For instance, Donne writes about the lovers as “unperplexed” by their ecstasy, as if perplexity was the normal state of human mind, and one reached higher understanding only through these mystical moments. He also nicely subverts the way “ecstasy” was used in his times, since it could refer to people who lost consciousness or their minds, for instance Shakespeare uses it referring to Othello’s epileptic fits. But Donne’s ecstasy is the opposite of “crazy”, in fact it means the communion with the higher consciousness.

John Donne “The Apparition”, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

“The Apparition” is a tongue-in-cheek hyperbolical poem, threatening the woman who scorns the speaker that her scorn is going to kill him and he is going to come and haunt her after his death. If he sees her in the arms of a lesser man than he, then her candle will start to flicker. She is going to be scared and try to wake up her bedmate, but he, being tired and thinking she is importuning him for more sex, will pretend to be asleep and shrink from her (“shrinking” may indicate both the whole man and his tired penis). She is then going to lie there awake, drenched “in a cold quicksilver sweat”. (Mercury, as the footnote usefully reminds us, was used for treating venereal diseases). She is going to be then much more like a ghost than the ghost of her lover himself. He won’t tell her now what he is going to tell her then, because if he did, she could repent now and ask him to forgive her. But he is now out of love with her and only the wish for revenge remains, so he doesn’t want to give her that chance.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mournng” is one more poem I have discussed so many times I almost know it by heart. The parting of the pair of lovers is going to be as quiet as death of virtuous men, almost unnoticeable. But it doesn’t mean their love is so small: on the contrary, it is much bigger than the ordinary loves, just like the trepidation of the spheres (a concept from Ptolemaic vision of the universe) is much bigger than the earthquake, even though we can’t notice it. The love of the speaker is so refined that it does not require the physical presence of the beloved and even when their bodies are far apart, their souls are the one, connected by a very thin golden wire. (Gold, being very ductile, can be stretched into far thinner and longer wires than less precious metals.) And finally comes the most famous conceit of the poem: the lovers are like a pair of twin compasses, the woman is the base and the man is the foot drawing the circle, always returning to the base, and always moving at the same time as the other arm.