Thursday, 2 February 2012

Poetry in context: John Donne

I heard a rumour that somebody read the poem I put at the end of my first post - John Donne's 'The Flea' - and thought it was a bit distasteful.  Perhaps the notion of seducing someone by saying you wished they were a flea sucking on your blood is a little gross.  Anyway, this comment made me think about Donne.  When I first read Donne as a teenager, I thought he was a horrible misogynist.

His poem Air and Angels is a good example of evidence in support of this argument.  I won't reproduce the whole poem here,  but the crux of it is the end of the poem:
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
    So thy love may be my love's sphere ;
        Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air's and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be.
The implication appears to be that a woman's love is less than a man': men's love is objectively and universally better than a woman's love because men's love is more 'heavenly', corresponding to the view that men are closer to God that women.  And definitely that's the kind of line which made me think Donne was a sexist jerk when I was a teenager.

But are things so simple? How to we approach a poem from a very different time, when society, beliefs and thoughts were very different to our own? I studied Donne at university, and suddenly 'discovered' him, as this amazing, complex poet full of ambiguity and beauty.

Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed is a fantastic, raunchy celebration of his lover.  Here is a saucy excerpt (but definitely read the whole poem):
Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread
In this love's hallow'd temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring'st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet's paradise ; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite ;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below. 
Hot stuff.  And here the woman is linked with religious images, and the act of love becomes an act of celebration of beauty a spirituality.  Innocence and guilt are removed from sex, hinting at a different kind of morality.

On the other hand, Love's Alchemy is a bitter account of love and women.  The last stanza runs:
Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day,
Shall we for this vain bubble's shadow pay?
        Ends love in this, that my man
Can be as happy as I can, if he can
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom's play?
        That loving wretch that swears,
'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
        Which he in her angelic finds,
        Would swear as justly, that he hears,
In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
    Hope not for mind in women ; at their best,
    Sweetness and wit they are, but mummy, possess'd.
No sign here of spirituality and beauty in lovemaking, or in women.

After writing a lot of sexy love poems, Donne then wrote a whole lot of 'divine' poems about God. He eventually went into the Church. So for some people he is a great religious poet, for others a great love poet.  His religious poems are also great. Here is one of his Holy Sonnets:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
This is an extremely personal account of a struggle with faith - not an intellectual discourse.  It admits the reader like a love poem into the struggle in the heart of the speaker.  Reason and love pull the speaker in different directions - reason cannot bring him to God, but he loves God.  He is aware that a state of holiness will bring freedom, but cannot achieve it through an exercise of his own will - God must 'entrall' and 'ravish' him violently to bring him to this state.  Hot stuff.

So when people 'read' Donne, and write long essays or books about him - he's one of the most written about writers in the English language, up there with Shakespeare and William Faulkner - they often try for a unifying theme to understand all these works.  Often they look for a unified 'self' behind the poems, or an ideology.  This may involve trying to read Donne entirely in the context of his time, his life etc (ie - he was sexist because it was the olden days), or entirely from a modern perspective. I think both of these approaches are misguided, particularly where they seek a unified self (even a progressing self) behind the poems.  I believe Donne's poetry, in its very inconsistency,

He is often described as a metaphysical poet, which I believe means he wrote about the experiences of human beings in the world, and used interesting metaphorical devices to express them. Basically. A lot of books have been written about this.

What I think we can connect to in Donne is his uncertainty, his seeking.  He wears masks and personas, inhabits different positions.  He does not have coherent answers to the questions he raises.  But this uneasiness about being human - about love and sex and faith - can still reward the contemporary reader.  What kind of man he is - sexist, religious, conniving - is in the end not the point.  He is also really funny.  In 'Air and Angels' he refers, for example, to 'love's pinnace'.  I love dirty jokes that still work after half a century.

So, read Donne. He is an example of how poetry can explore what it means to be a human being in the world - our world, or another world.


  1. Hi Miranda!

    Very nice post. I was thinking that Johnson called these writers 'metaphysical' poets not only because they wrote about human experiences using metaphors, but also because they wrote about metaphysical themes (Life, God, the Universe) as though they were personal experiences.

    Eliot says that they 'feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose,' which I think is what you're talking about when you say that 'Batter my heart' is a record of personal experience rather than an intellectual discourse. I love the idea of personifying Reason to the point that it can be not only 'weak' but even 'untrue'. To me the genius of the metaphysical poets is in giving the immediate concreteness of the personal to things that are abstract and metaphysical.

    Chesterton says somewhere about Browning that he had no vulgar mysticism that would take a flower as the symbol for Life, but he had plenty of the true mysticism that would take Life (a mere abstraction) as the symbol for a flower. I liked that and thought it might be relevant to Donne somehow. But I'm not sure.

    Anyway, thanks for this post; I enjoyed it!


    1. That makes a lot of sense A - I understand better now why Donne was considered the first metaphysical poet by some. Samuel Johnson apparently disliked the metphysical poets for not being purely intellectual enough. But I agree with you that the embodiment (particularly with Donne, who writes a lot about the physical body) of abstract ideas is very powerful, and I think has a more enduring meaning that more abstract works.

      With regards to your comment abou Browning and the flower, I think that Donne's religious poetry is particularly powerful because the body and faith and love and doubt are all inextricably interwined. I feel like there's something similar there....

  2. Oh I meant to say Eliot's essay on the metaphysical poets is here in case anyone wanted it:

  3. I must confess I've never read Donne (must get onto this). However, (and hopefully I haven't misinterpreted this) I very much like the idea that he doesn't stick with just the one impression of himself - that he writes from different perspectives, times and moods. However much we want to box people into frameworks or get upset when they write in a manner which doesn't accord with what we (think we) know about them, I do like to be a little shocked and think it's important to remember that we all show different faces to different people at different times... and it sounds to me like Donne does a pretty good job of having the confidence to reveal many of those faces.

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