Saturday, 2 May 2009

Donne's party (for all you poetry freaks)

This a longish post - well, actually, VERY long, but it came up over at Flinthart's blog, and I thought I'd post it for anyone who might have a teenager who has to do Donne for senior English, unless of course they're studying the intertextualisation of shopping lists or whatever the f*ck it is they study instead of the classics these days. Sigh.

Anyhoo - it is a letter I wrote to my son bout how to read poetry. He'd written an essay and was angry he got a dud mark. This was an attempt to give him a few clues and explain to him that there is no right or wrong to reading poetry - just a point of view that needs to be backed up with a good argument.

Here you go.

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three-personed 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 usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, 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 betrothed 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.

Paradoxical juxtaposition of opposites.

The poem begins with an image of violence - batter my heart..

The three person'd god is the trinity, but may also stand for the tripartite self - the Me myself I thing you recognised when you were very young - "I can't sleep, my brains are talking". You were aware of the conversation going on in your head, so therefore, there was a 'listener' part of your mind, as well as the two conversing parts. What you identified in this statement was your own consciousness, that third party that is often identified as the 'soul' of you - your conscience - that part of you that regulates the fight between the base animal instincts driven by the earthly body, and the reasoning sensible side of yourself. It is the mediator between the two.

So, here you have the poet suspended between his earthly body, and his aspiration to spiritual purity, and he perceives it as a struggle, as if his natural 'state' is under threat from an invader. Now, have a look at the meter - it is regular Petracan until the third line where he throws in an extra syllable. It wrong foots the rhythm and upsets the flow, just as the language contained in the line increases in violence, and makes the reader feel as if they are stumbling from the force of the blows. And the paradox is there again - to rise up, the poet must be beaten down.

Now, in the following quatrain, he likens himself to an invaded town, He wants to admit the invader (God's love), but he can't because in spite of his professed love for the new governor (reason) and his desire to be ruled by God, he is held captive by the corrupt body (life), which must be ravished by death in order to attain perfection.. He's on a promise to his 'wife' (life and nature - God's enemy), or to use the sexual connotation he's fond of, God's rival for the poet's love is nature.

He pleads in the next quatrain to be divorced from life, to break the knot, which may only be done by submitting to death, and then in the final couplet, which so tightly ties binds the two states together, and roughly translates as
Unless you take me, I cannot escape the pleasures of the flesh, and the only way to God is by complete submission to the process.

Nature is feminine, and associated with death and reason with the tyrant (albeit presumed benevolent) a conqueror of the natural world. Science is getting to be pretty advanced by the 17th century and Donne comments on it a lot. He has figured this poem with the image of states at war, one conquering the other, but in fact, they are evenly matched because man may only be a man if he lives and dies. He is alluding to a state of BEING and its inherent paradox. He figures himself married to nature by the body, being invaded by a benevolent colonial master imposing law and structure on the chaos inherent in nature. Think noble savage and remember that by this time, England was already embarking on it's colonial drive for empire. (The Tempest as you know deals with this philosophical problem, and much of the wealth generated in the 17th century came from slavery and ravishing of the new world.

The meter is discordant and more like hip hop than the ordered decorative poetry of Spencer (Faery Queene) which harked to an Arcadian time of courtly love and honour, whereas this poem speaks of trouble and conflict. It is said that Donne's poetry is masculine, but I think what they mean by that is that is it muscular -- not the same thing, but he uses words not as decoration like Spencer, but for dramatic effect. Spencerians were more interested in the music, whereas Donne is interested in the images and their coloration. (I suspect this is why Donne was reclaimed later as a vanguardist. He wasn't the first to do this, but he was prolific and did it extremely well, as did Marlowe and Shakespeare before him. You will find many correspondences with Shakespeare's imagery too.

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
    "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."                     

So let us melt, and make no noise,                                       5
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love. 

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
    Men reckon what it did, and meant ;                              10
But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent. 

Dull sublunary lovers' love
    —Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove                                     15
    The thing which elemented it. 

But we by a love so much refined,
    That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.                           20

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to aery thinness beat. 

If they be two, they are two so                                          25
    As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do. 

And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,                                30
It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home. 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,                                    35
    And makes me end where I begun.

Always go to the image first. Look for the simple setting and characters in the poem and try to visualise it, then go into the deeper meaning. The first thing to look at is the title - it is generally the clue to what he poem is about. Summon up all your own preconceived notions about what is suggested by the poem's title, and let it inform your reception of the rest of the text.
What poetry really is, is an early version of what we know today as film, It communicates its meaning in the same way as a film, with moving interconnected images, so you can apply similar critical skills to a poem as to a film. They work like dreams, and Donne is especially good at it, and sometimes it is only the images that are linked, and the links are not necessarily made by the words themselves, but the images he creates with them.

The poem begins talking of all virtuous men - a generalisation, and then by stanza 2 he has personalised it to be the poet and his lover. The virtuous man is quiet about his death - he has nothing to fear for he has lived virtuously and knows he will see the face of God. He also has no fear of being parted from his loved one, and as he says, has no intention of letting ordinary folk know of their love - it would be vulgar to kiss and tell 'what a miracle shee was'. (See how I have used a line from another poem here to reinforce what the poet is saying - this serves to thematically reinforce your reading. Donne very often uses similar ideas across a range of poems. Their love is pure and higher than base carnality, and therefor need not be manifested in the bodily world of reality.

'Moving of th'earth brings harms and fears'. This refers both to the motion of time the revolution of the earth from light into darkness each day, but also refers to the moving of the earth from the pagan centre of the Universe out into its modern place in the solar system. This was a big shift for the whole basis of the church. Before Copernicus et al, the world was thought to be the centre, and sublunary (under the moon) was the realm of man, and as you went further away from the earth, you passed though the planetary heavens till eventually, your soul ascends to the highest heaven and the realm of God.
All these theological notions come out of a philosophy that has its roots in pagan sun and moon agrarian worship rituals. The earth is the mother/feminine and the Sun is masculine/mercurial and predictable - reasonable. The Earth is capricious and unpredictable.
So, here on earth, dull sublunary lovers cry at the thought of losing the flesh and bone lover because their love may only be perceived by the 'eyes, lips and hands', so the person that they can touch and see and taste is the object of their love and if the lover is gone, so is their sensual pleasure of the person, and therefore, the love.

But the poet's love is of the mind - a spiritual union, and you can quote Shakespeare here:
'Let not the marriage of true minds alter
when it alteration finds.'
He loves her for her self (soul, intellect, her essence; this is a big thing in metaphysics and comes form Aristotle's Metaphysics). He won't miss her parts, and can keep a pure image of her in his mind - he can remember her in all her completeness because he knows her so well. He can picture her (have a look a the poem about the name in the glass - it is about this wonder at being able to picture or pre-figure the image of a loved one and hold them in the mind to be recalled at will.

Because he and his lover have joined their souls together on earth, he believes that that marriage persists beyond the grave, because she can summon him at will, and he, her. They remain connected by faith and memory, so now, exactly half way through the poem, he makes the break and 'leaves' her, but leading up to this point of departure has been alluding to an image, which is an image of the spheres tuning in space, and now he gives her an image with which to navigate her grief - a golden compass. At first it is the metal that he talks about which you have recognised quite rightly as beautiful - the gold beaten out - a strand of gold stretched between them, connecting them, then it is reinforced further by instantly leaping to the image of the compass, each arm of it representing the lovers. She has her foot still on the earth and stays fixed (go back to the Shakespeare Sonnet here - he uses the stars and a barque to try to express the same sentiment.) And he leaves the earth with his foot, and leaves the sublunary world in an act of 'expansion, spreading outwards from her fixed point. Although her foot stays put, she moves her top part (head/mind) to follow, then grows erect as it comes home'. Donne can't resist the sexual pun here, and it is very effective in reinforcing the image - erect here means that the compass becomes taller as the two feet meet at the same point. While she is rooted in the earth, he, mercurial and like the sun, describes an arc about her, indeed revolves around her. Donne is putting her at the centre of his universe. It is her gravity that keeps him orbiting till she moves her foot to join him (dies) on whatever plane he may have reached. Then, even more beautiful, you are left with the image of these two souls continually arcing one after the other to 'obliquely run' through eternity.

This is a spectacular image of movement, practically choreography. To take an image and move it through time and space and at the same time use it as a metaphor for the duality of humanity is an amazing feat of language. THIS is what beauty is. The magic and wonder of the capacity of one human imagination to excite another.

The Relique
WHEN my grave is broke up again
            Some second guest to entertain,
            —For graves have learn'd that woman-head,
            To be to more than one a bed—
                And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
                Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls at the last busy day
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

            If this fall in a time, or land,
            Where mass-devotion doth command,
            Then he that digs us up will bring
            Us to the bishop or the king,
                To make us relics ; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
                A something else thereby ;
All women shall adore us, and some men.
And, since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

            First we loved well and faithfully,
            Yet knew not what we loved, nor why ;
            Difference of sex we never knew,
            No more than guardian angels do ;
                Coming and going we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals ;
                Our hands ne'er touch'd the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.
These miracles we did ; but now alas !
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was. 

I read your essay and can see why you lost a couple of marks, and although I didn't hear the reading, it is clear in your essay that you were offended by the readings - they offended 'your' reading, using the voice inside your own head. You intuitively took the meaning on board, and your ear was offended by the various takes. You will find that the two readings were meant to be extreme, so that you could perceive the wide variation in the meaning that is received when the poem is only heard, not read. You have to remember that for most people in Donne's time, this was the only way they could receive a poem - many were sub literate, so to hear someone recite a poem was often the only way it was circulated, so it is not an unreasonable question. What you didn't do in your essay was distance yourself far enough from your own violent emotional response to the received aural experience, so you weren't able to be entirely objective in your answer. It would have been a much more useful exercise to have you all listen to the poem without having ever read it, to see what meaning you could glean from it by only hearing it, without access to the formal line structure on the page. I also think your teacher is wrong in her assertion that their love is AS sacred as the relic. I think you are right, and all the language of the poem points to Donne elevating their passage through the grave as the higher miracle - so, let's have a closer look so that you can argue your case more fully if it comes up in the HSC question.

I think it can be argued that Donne is denigrating the Relique in favour of the mystery it represents. He is saying that the mystery of life and death is sacred, and that the Relique is just a hollow sentimental memento of the corrupted body. The real proof of eternity is the passage of the body back into the earth, and that this sexless consummation represents the creative spark of life. If you take into account Donne's metaphysical investigation into the nature of being, the case is made. Donne sets up an almost Bawdy Hamlet-like image of the grave digger preparing the way for another body - this charnel house is also a carnal house - a brothel of sorts where every body sleeps with everybody else, regardless of true love. So, the image is of two strangers being caught in the act by the grave digger, disturbed in their sexy act, co-mingling their bodily fluids and he spies a 'bracelet of bright haire'. If it were merely a hank, then you wouldn't have the image of him reaching in to rob the grave of it's valuables - in this case, her crowning glory that has not yet begun to decay.

What they are in the midst of is what was called in medieval times the sacred marriage. It represents the union of the feminine and masculine to create life, which can be done while living though sex, and in dying, by decomposition back into the earth and become nutrient so that life on earth can continue. The completion of the life cycle gives life to the generation to follow. Donne wants to complete the circle on a spiritual level as well as physical. The Relique is an attempt to deny the reality and finality of death, 'to make a little stay', which is to say to help hold the memory in the mind of the worshipper, but it denies the truth of the mystery.

In the next stanza he talks of the future; 'In this (the opening of the grave) fall in a time or land where mass-devotion (Catholicism) doth command' he supposes that the gravedigger may be corrupt enough to take the Relique to the King and claim it to be the one true tress of the Magdalen (or some such - there was a lot of it about then, the splinter of the one true cross, the mumified body of an old nun who lies in a cold chapel somewhere in an old church). And by association Donne suggests that he may be Christ, or perhaps merely a user of prostitutes (the Magdalen was a redeemed seductress don't forget) and this further reinforces the image of the bawd in the previous stanza (and the final lines of the poem). The Magdelen's earthly body was corrupt and base, whereas her resurrection and purification in Christ raised her soul up as forgiven. Why then would anyone worship part of the corrupt container, when it is her soul and her story which made her a saint! The Relique is of the body and therefor corrupt - it still has the devil in it, and there it is in a church for adoration.

He is suggesting that the WORD (the poem/the bible) is the thing that should be worshipped, not the book (or the poet himself). It is not what we do on Earth that is the point, but the aspiration. The poet aspires to transcend the grave by leaving his words behind as the Relique, as Christ left the Word of God behind him. This is a common theme in the poetry too, as it was for Shakespeare. The idea of projecting oneself into immortality by what one writes - the abstractions of his mind, not the physical evidence of his Earthly body. (See also the Name in the window - it asks the same question.)

The last quatrain in this stanza is difficult to decipher unless you keep in mind that he is speaking from the grave to a time in the future. He wishes 'that age were by this paper taught/what miracles we harmless lovers wrought.' Meaning that he hopes that in a time that is looking for miracles and faith, that they might instead read this poem and understand that the miracle is right under their feet, and doesn’t reside in the Relique. It resides in the mystery of their escape from the grave!

At first they were like Adam and Eve, they knew not what they loved or why' - innocent of their circumstances, innocent of the sex of the bed partner too, for there is no sense in the grave - (and this is also a nod to un-natural act of homosexuality perhaps, but not worth pursuing) What he is really suggesting is that in death we are all innocent souls, engaged in a meeting of 'true minds'. They come and go, one on top of the other, and the meales her refers to are not merely the meals of the maggots, but etymologically meale means a measure of time (the time it takes the body to decompose, and for there to be room to house another corpse. But where do they go? Like Houdini, the dead have for all intents and purposes escaped the grave and THAT is the miracle, but alas, dead men tell no tales and that is the irony of the poem - no one can know till they go, so the Relique is meaningless, and indeed robs the earth of its rightful claim and witholds its replenishing force. The grave digger, like the church, has robbed the miracle of part of its mystery. The Relique is a mere trinket (like a bracelet, a love token, a memento, but nothing to do with the real thing. This poem is not about worldly love - love is used to stand for transcendence. So, I think you got the poem intuitively, you just didn't have enough proof for your argument.

When we buried Nana McHugh at Easter, they opened Grandfaher's grave in exactly that same way. She was in a little white coffin, and my mum and her two sisters sat clutching the wreaths from atop the casket, and looked for all the world like bridesmaids at a wedding. It WAS a wedding, she was about to be returned to the marriage bed, but this time forever, and she would melt into him for the last and final consummation of their bodies. It was a beautiful moment when I realised this and said it to them at the funeral as they watched the casket descend into the grave. They were all balling and I said, look at you, you look like bridesmaids at a wedding, and suddenly they got it too. This is what the poem is about. The paltry order of service and the few tatty photos that were left to remind them of Nanna were nothing compared to the immense love she inspired in her family. It was a very beautiful warm and loving funeral, and there at the grave side everyone realised that it would be our fate, and we all hoped that when we passed on, that someone would love us as hard, and would be so delighted by the fact that we had lived a virtuous life like hers. Hers was a good death. It isn't frightening, it isn't morbid, and it isn't scary. The idea of dying doesn't frighten me because I know that I am part of a continuum. I don't fear death at all, and neither did Nanna - I asked her before she went into the home and began to decline. She said no, I'll just go to sleep. And she did.

A Valediction of My Name, in the Window.


        MY name engraved herein
Doth contribute my firmness to this glass,
    Which ever since that charm hath been
    As hard, as that which graved it was ;
Thine eye will give it price enough, to mock
        The diamonds of either rock.


        'Tis much that glass should be
As all-confessing, and through-shine as I ;
    'Tis more that it shows thee to thee,
    And clear reflects thee to thine eye.
But all such rules love's magic can undo ;
        Here you see me, and I am you.


        As no one point, nor dash,
Which are but accessories to this name,
    The showers and tempests can outwash
    So shall all times find me the same ;
You this entireness better may fulfill,
        Who have the pattern with you still.


        Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratch'd name to teach,
    It as a given death's head keep,
    Lovers' mortality to preach ;
Or think this ragged bony name to be
        My ruinous anatomy.


        Then, as all my souls be
Emparadised in you—in whom alone
    I understand, and grow, and see—
    The rafters of my body, bone,
Being still with you, the muscle, sinew, and vein
        Which tile this house, will come again.


        Till my return repair
And recompact my scatter'd body so,
    As all the virtuous powers which are
    Fix'd in the stars are said to flow
Into such characters as gravèd be
        When these stars have supremacy.


        So since this name was cut,
When love and grief their exaltation had,
    No door 'gainst this name's influence shut.
    As much more loving, as more sad,
'Twill make thee ; and thou shouldst, till I return,
        Since I die daily, daily mourn.


        When thy inconsiderate hand
Flings open this casement, with my trembling name,
    To look on one, whose wit or land
    New battery to thy heart may frame,
Then think this name alive, and that thou thus
        In it offend'st my Genius.


        And when thy melted maid,
Corrupted by thy lover's gold and page,
    His letter at thy pillow hath laid,
    Disputed it, and tamed thy rage,
And thou begin'st to thaw towards him, for this,
        May my name step in, and hide his.


        And if this treason go
To an overt act and that thou write again,
    In superscribing, this name flow
    Into thy fancy from the pane ;
So, in forgetting thou rememb'rest right,
        And unaware to me shalt write.


        But glass and lines must be
No means our firm substantial love to keep ;
    Near death inflicts this lethargy,
    And this I murmur in my sleep ;
Inpute this idle talk, to that I go,
        For dying men talk often so.

This poem is much more about the idea of transendence by the word. To really get this poem you need to read Aristotle's discussion of form and matter. I've attached it for you. Unless you are informed by this philosophical mindset, it is difficult to get at Donne's meaning. In a sense, Adam was the first empirical naturalist - the first scientist and metaphysicist - his job was to name everything on earth, to begin the task of metaphorical classification. Here, Donne figures himself with his name, but he places it within the surface of a pane of glass and has a lovely time with the paradoxes and ironies it throws up.

And, by the process of writing the poem, he is doing the same thing, inscribing his ideas in the page of language, and thereby the poem is a glass through which to view the world and the self, bearing his name and his memory. (See the Triple Fool)

So, let's go through it stanza by stanza. This one is about earthly love, but it does point to the church as well, by it's image of the stained glass window in a church which figures the images of the word of god in all their beautiful splendid colour and light, but it is only an illusion - a trick of light, and insubstantial compared to the word itself.

He has scratched his name in her window with a diamond, and by doing so, hopes to be as durable as the diamond, so long as she looks at it.
He compares the qualities of the glass to himself, transparent and translucent, and his love, like a mirror, shows her herself - reflects her image to her in the same way that remembrance of him through reading his name with bring back his image, and his gaze upon her.
But time cannot erode his name, as it can him. When she sees his name (or reads this poem) all his parts are intact, and she sees him in her mind's eye, complete and adhering to the pattern of him she carries in her memory.
Here he is troubled that his name (or the poem) may not be enough to say what he wants. All that remains of him is the name in the glass, it is really only a shadow, a sign that stands for him (like all his words). It is not a true representation, because it requires the imagination of the reader/lover to complete the form.

The very thought of her looking on his name rebuilds his image in her imagination and makes him substantial - If she thinks of him, then he exists not only in a physical, but a spiritual sense as well. He is remade in her imagination.

The rest is pretty basic, but remember, it can be read on two levels - one on the personal, of a lover parted from his love, hoping that his name inscribed on the pane will remind her of their love enough for her to resist any other suitor. But it is also an attempt to transcend death by leaving a 'Relique' behind him. His words and the ideas he had while alive, and able to confess and express his thoughts, and transmitting them to others. And, as you can see, he was successful - he has cheated mortality, because you are reading his words and feel as if you know him as well as a friend, because you the reader are his lover, the one taking the time to see his name in the pane and reconstruct the 'rafters of his body and bone' in spite of his ruinous anatomy. As long as we continue to hear his voice, he is immortal.
It is the same with God - in the beginning was the WORD. It is the transmission of the story that creates immortality. God is only immortal while the story of his creation persists. God fails to exist if men forget the story.

Holy Sonnet VI
   This is my play's last scene; here heavens appoint
    My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race,
    Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
    My span's last inch, my minute's latest point;
    And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
    My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
    But my'ever-waking part shall see that face
    Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
    Then, as my soul to'heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
    And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
    So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
    To where they'are bred, and would press me, to hell.
    Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evil,
    For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

Here is another movement poem. It is heavy in image and texture.

In the first quatrain, the first line begins with the tension of the denouement of animation of life in the confined space of the stage (all just an act) the audience knows it is a tragedy and that it will culminate in the death of the player, but they can't do anything but watch it come to its final conclusion. The pilgrimages last mile is also tragic, for the best thing about a pilgrimage is the journey, not the arrival, and it moves through a linear space, from a to b, as he does with a race, but the movement by suggestion of the race even though it is idly run, is nevertheless a race, with a finish line. Then he moves into a 3 dimensional space with the span's last inch,, and then into a four dimensional space with the addition of time 'my minutes last point.' So, the poet has built the space of the 'theatre' of this final moment.

The second quatrain moves into this space and turns it into Hell's kitchen, where the Devil as head chef tears him apart, soul from body and the body dies (sleeps a space), but his soul, the dreaming mind that is awake even when we sleep 'shall see that face' (the face of God). Then there is an image of his soul ascending as his sins, like body parts and flayed flesh, fall to earth where they are formed, and his soul shucks off its impediment (body) to purity. (See Sonnet XIV where this idea is also discussed). Then, an interesting reinforcement of the kitchen image, he uses an homminymn (go back to that listening exercise you did, and imagine what you would hear if you couldn't read the poem) - the sins are bred on earth, but the word sounds like bread, and then the word 'press' suggests that the body is dough, being kneaded in preparation for baking in the oven (hell), but this could also mean that the devil is reforming the matter of the body to make new bodies for new souls to inhabit, and sins are bread on earth - it is part and parcel of being human - we are sustained by sin by the very fact that we are also animal - it is our knowledge of our capacity for sin that makes us human (and the knowledge of our death as well.
Because of the inclusion of this bred/bread pun, (and it works for both meanings, the image of the Devil as the uncaring butcher is modified to the benevolent baker, forming the staff of life, and he also becomes our progenitor, toiling away tirelessly in his kitchen to keep the earthly realm eating.
The purging of the last couplet is reinforced by the image of the hot kitchen, the searing and flaying are like a human sacrifice (see Bacchus and the early rituals - they used to tear animals to pieces in their sacrificial rites.)
There is an image in Milton of ravenous Death, married to Sin, Sin, the mother of all Death's children, fucks him eternally and bears his children for him to devour. Great image of a closed system from which there is no escape. I think this image of the marriage of sin and death as interdependent and unavoidable is in Genesis in the bible, but not 'imagined' like it is in Paradise Lost. I reckon this is a pretty bloody good version of that idea.


SINCE I am coming to that Holy room,
    Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made Thy music ; as I come
    I tune the instrument here at the door,
    And what I must do then, think here before ;

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
    Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
    That this is my south-west discovery,
    Per fretum febris, by these straits to die ;

I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;
    For, though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me ?  As west and east
    In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
    So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific sea my home ?  Or are
    The eastern riches ?  Is Jerusalem ?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar ?
    All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them
    Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
    Christ's cross and Adam's tree, stood in one place ;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me ;
    As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
    May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in His purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord ;
    By these His thorns, give me His other crown ;
And as to others' souls I preach'd Thy word,
    Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
    “Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”

(I am decoding these poems without knowing anything about Donne's life.
I do know about his times, I know about the philosophy that informed him, and the poetry that came before his, but I am not responding to him a human being, I am responding to his words, and this is what you must do first. Forget what you know about the man till you have grasped his meaning, then you can add in snippets of his own life if you are trying to make a point, but on the whole, he is often alluding to much larger more complex ideas than can be found by relying on his own chronology. What say he wrote a poem in his old age about a relationship he had when he was twenty? You have no way of knowing where in time he was imagining himself from, or for that matter, which time he is imagining himself into. So, in this poem, it may not be him personally who is dying - he is speaking on behalf of us all - we who must die.

The central image of this poem moves on the word instrument - the body is the instrument that needs to be tuned to join the celestial choir. The poet is waiting in the wings to go onto that final stage to be played by God.

That Holy room is the sick room too, where he is tended by doctors, but they become cosmograhers (which sounds like cartographers) and he is their map (instrument). When you go to the West in Europe, you look towards the setting sun, sinking into the ocean (the straits) beside which he to is o die. (Think also river Styx)

He sees his West - his final resting place (he is like the sun, on a relentless journey, but he is not afraid, because he knows that East eventually becomes west, because the world is round (they know this scientifically, so science and reason are a comfort to him, and he figures himself as a map, curling up 'and makes me end where I begin' (See Forbidding Mourning) Death does eventually meet life again - resurrection. The soul (like a sextant or an astrolabe) is an instrument of navigation of these straits that gives the poet a map of the universe on the inside of his skull. There is no east or west, only movement on one direction or the other, and no matter where the body is situated on the globe, all will face the same fate, one man's death (West) is another's beginning (East).

He builds on this image in the 4th stanza, asking the rhetorical question: Is the East (Jerusalem) the beginning of civilisation or the just the continuation of a cycle, and then further reinforces it by adding the sons of Noah who through faith avoided the deluge (the 'straits' that rose up to engulf the whole world!) Their instrument of their salvation was their faith in God's warning - they built that boat (sea navigation again). So you see, the containing metaphor of the poem is setting sail into the unknown with only your faith in God to navigate. And the Jerusalem allusion could be hinting at the Crusades, and their fruitless quest for the Holy land (the Crusades were lost by the West) and thousands lost their lives in the useless acquisition of the territories where the faith was born.

An in the following stanza, he asks another rhetorical question related to the previous idea: does it really matter where Christ was born and crucified, or where Paradise is supposed to be when the poet knows full well they are empty 'Reliques'. This image of the poet suspended between the first and last Adam is wonderful. The first Adam represents the birth of consciousness and the last Adam represents the resurrection of the soul from mortality.

So, it is the soul that is the instrument which the Lord will play in that celestial chior - it is the VOICE of the poet, and so it is possible here to suggest that the poet is being self reflexive and making the point that what he says and preaches to others about the nature of being that tunes his voice for his maker's pleasure, and which makes him valuable.

So, see how it is the image that is important? And in Donne, it takes precedence over the music of the poem the decoration is not as important as the meaning. And the best way for Donne, a preacher, to hold his audience in thrall was to fill their minds with images.


LET man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face. 

Again, Donne is concerned with the metaphysical problem of existence - why are we here, where does a reasoning creature fit into the natural world which we are bound to by our bodies but which consciousness allows us to transcend (get out side of ourselves and look at ourselves from a distance) - be objective about our own existence and the prior knowledge of our death. We are the only creatures who exist with such a deep and abiding sense of tragedy - we can't just BE, because our language has put us into a time continuum that requires prefiguration - we have to imagine what we are going to say before we can say it, and this gives us a linear perception of time. It is why our stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, because to speak we need a subject, and object and a verb (which denotes what and when we act). It is this movement back and forth in time that predicates or whole existence.

He imagines man's soul as a sphere, and it's prime mover is devotion. You need to know about first causes to get this part of the poem (see Aristotle on first causes and created form) Think also on the idea of Christ being the way, and the light - here he is following the light, as it sinks below the horizon, and thinking that although for him the sun is setting, somewhere else it is rising - behind him as he follows the sun. apparently, to look on the face of God is to die. It is too radiant and bright (like the sun) to actually behold.

And because it is Good Friday, he is thinking about the Crucifiction, and pushes the envelope by imagining what would happen if it were God who died and not Christ. This idea relies on the notion that the function of men is to Love God, but God does not have to love them - he is too busy thinking everything into existence, and that very existence relies on the continued devotion of all creation to the maker. It suggests that if men do not devote themselves to thinking God into existence, then the first cause (God) will disappear and perhaps everything. This is a kind of complex notion about reality that he is discussing. (look at the Window poem- where she sees him in the glass, but sees herself - the poet only exists if his lover thinks about him).

He suggests that Christ's sacrifice was to remind us of our need for renewed devotion, for if God were to die, then the whole of creation would cease to be - because He is the prime mover - and the perpetual motion of life and death (or the sun rising and setting), might cease.

He also suggests that Christ is perfect form, and His model is to be aspired to, for He is the perfect image of the creator in human form, as Adam was. The poet cannot look upon the face of God, but he can imagine his image, and the face of Christ bears the mark of a man, and so the devotion could go both ways - and although he never witnessed the passion of Christ, he can imagine himself into that experience and see himself and his own tragedy reflected there. And as he muses on the Resurrection of Christ, he sees his own death and hopes that he will be returned to that pure state. Until he sloughs off the deformity of his soul (the physical body and its propensity for sin and forgetfulness) he can never see the image of perfection he seeks.


       BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
        Late school-boys and sour prentices,
    Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
    Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

        Thy beams so reverend, and strong
        Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
    Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

        She's all states, and all princes I ;
        Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
        Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
        In that the world's contracted thus ;
    Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
    To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

Here is another poem using the central image of the Sun, but here it is not representative of God, rather, it is used to talk about the nature of time. It relies on the same image as used in the Good Friday poem, where you have to imagine the poet and his lover at the centre of a sphere, and his purpose is to stop time and shrink the entire universe to their very own bed, which is what happens when lovers are in the grip of their passion, it is one of the few moments where we have no need of language, where a touch or a kiss or a sigh is enough to carry the weight of all the emotion contained in the relationship.

The sun is figured first as a meddling old busybody who can't mind his own business, who would interrupt their lovemaking with morning. Love doesn't give a toss about time, and the poet bids the sun to bugger off and go annoy someone who cares.

In the second stanza, he tells the sun that he could eclipse him by closing his eys, but he needs the sun to behold his beloved, (sensual and human) and suggests to the sun that all the distant lands it visited yesterday are still going to be there tomorrow, and that if he were to hang out with the lovers, he would find that the whole world exists in that one room. Now, here is a wonderful example of the compression of language that poetry does and by compression makes it seem so much larger than life. The third stanza shrinks the entire world down - 'she is all states, and all princes I'. They are all of creation, engaged in the act of procreation, and in a fantastic image of orgasm, the invites the sun to stay still and consume them. All creation is contained in their union of body and soul. Sexual union is symbolic of the integration of polarities physical/spiritual, masculine feminine.


  1. Holy shit! Will come back to read after I have borrowed someone's brain.

    I have always liked Donne's poetry. The poem with 'Death be not proud etc' gets me every time

  2. Lerm, it's written for a seventeen year old to understand - you won't need anyone else's brain!

    I never really thought much about Donne till I went through this exercise - there's probably heaps I've missed,and I could be wrong - his is just my humble thoughts on a few poems.

  3. Hmm. I think it's precisely the metaphysics which I dislike. I have come, through much reading and practice, to a love of the keen edge of Zen. It is the practise of Zen to speak as plainly as possible until it is necessary to speak of that which cannot be put in words. At that point, living action is required.

    Western metaphysics, so closely entangled with Christian mythology, leaves me unmoved. Donne has a lovely turn of phrase... but the very idea of 'transcendance by the word' is anathema to me.

    ...which may seem paradoxical, for a writer. But that's how it is.

  4. What an amazing, amazing post.

    I want very much to share a bottle of wine with you, Flinthart and a few select others and spend a little quality time talking poetry. I want that very much.

  5. The wine need not be zinfandel. But, one of the conditions for such an encounter would be that I choose and provide the wine.

  6. FH - I don't have that big a problem with it - Christianity yes, mythology and metaphysics no. It'd be like writing off Hafiz and Rumi because you can't come at Sufism. Metaphysics is the central concern of most religions - but you don't have to be religious to look into it. Aristotle was pagan! And Dawkins atheist! To read is God Delusion requires comprehension of the religions of the Book.

    Boylan -
    Perhaps we could do it on the web. Each with a bottle at our elbow and all agree to be online at the same time.

  7. Holy shit! When I mentioned Donne's 'The Flea' over at FH's place it was a quick observation that no-one seemed to rate him. Then I find this! Fantastic stuff, breaking it down like that. When you do that 'on-line with the wine thing', make sure you have a spare keyboard or two. I'm not saying any of you are clumsy, but, you know ...

  8. Don't let Havock see this it will set him off on his poetry gig again!!

  9. Ah, but you know Guru, it is the very fact that Havock is up for the poetry gig that makes him so adorable to the chickibabes. There's a sensitive soul beneath all that body armour and artillery.

    Otherwise, he wouldn't need all that protection!

    But you didn't hear that from me.

  10. Having just reread the last crit, I guess, as a good feminist, I should have gotten all huffy about "She is all sates, and all princes I", but hey, I was playing to an audience that was certain to be thinking with the little and not the big head for much of the time - I'm sure that almost ten years later, he has a handle on it (and not just his hand on it) now.

    Thanks for the captain sensible tip Thurbs

  11. Hughesy - Hell no. I find the suggestion perverse (and not in a pleasant manner). One day I will visit your neck of the woods. The pretense will be a lecture tour, but the true purpose will be to commune with a few of you.

    I have organized my life so that I get invited to sit briefly at tables (I define "table" loosely) among interesting people.

  12. Goodness! A lecture tour? What do you lecture in?

  13. Do you really want to know, or is this an example of cruel Australian sarcasm?

    Please don't answer. Believe it or not, I am the leading international authority on celebrity confidentiality/non disclosure agreements. See for more info. Click on the vid link to see my CNBC interview.

    It isn't difficult to persuade universities and law schools to invite me to speak. I use that as an excuse to travel.

  14. I have read this post and the poems several times, and i must admit, have seen very little of what you see. I really tried. Over several days.
    I only really came close to understanding Holy Sonnet VI, Hymn to god & Good friday because you broke them down so well. The Sun rising was a little easier for me, I think because it's imagery is a lot blunter than the rest and perhaps because my mind had been broadened by the previous ones, and of course your commentary.
    I am stunned that any 17 year old at any school could even come close to attempting to describe these poems, I am certain no person i went to school with could have. Well they might have if you had been there to explain it.
    I have bookmarked this post, so I am going to keep trying. Hopefully I eventually get it.

  15. Adam, in my case Donne didn't do it for me until I learned a bit about his life, then inot only did his poetry make sense, it also became empathetically very beautiful.

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