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The Complete English Poems - John Donne

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  • cleverness and passion
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      27.08.2001 03:00
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      • "cleverness and passion"

      Passion. That's what I first think of when I see Donne, but it's an intellectual, as well as a physical passion. It's a passion where ideas are explored, and which is governed by the head, as well as driven by the heart. It's an uneasy passion, always looking at it's own end, and even in his sonnets, endowed with an extreme urgency, becuase we know the end will come, the scales will fall, and age and death will triumph, because they have to. That makes Donne sound terribly depressing, but he isn't. He isn't because he juxtaposes ideas together so cleverly, and uses the new scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century to explore basic human emotions, characters, and situations. This works both ways, and by exploring characters, and love, and human passions, he educates you to their philosophical and scientific context. Oh, and he isn't dry, either, even though I'm making him sound like a wizened prude. By far the contrary. If there's been criticism levelled at Donne it's because his language is 'coarse', meaning that although he's no user of bottom jokes, his verse doesn't quite fit with the idealised courtly rythmic pentameter of his immediate literary predecessors. What that really means, is that he makes the words fit, forcing images together, and rushing through verses with enormous strength. I always get the feeling, reading Donne, that he's using verse as a dam to hold back raw emotion, and that sometimes the emotion breaks through the wall he's constructed. So, throw the idea of wizened prude out of the window, and maybe try alchemist on for size, instead. Donne, for me, turns base words, and philosophical ideals, into gold. It's apt, too because alchemy was one of the more popular scientific researches of the seventeenth century. Philosophers, poets, scientists, those multi-talented 'rennaissance men' searched for the 'elixir of life', too, and, alon
      gside all this, satirized their ever changing society, it's 'types' and 'whims'. Donne is a 'metaphysical' poet, so-called because of his using philosophical ideas to look at the physical world. On a more political level, he was also, in much later life, made Dean of St Pauls. He took up religious vows, late in his career, since, pretty much, if he hadn't done so at the behest of King James, he'd have had no career to think of, anyway. After living for years in poverty (he married for love, and threw away his earlier career due to it), he probably wanted a bit of security in his old age. I'm sorry to go all contexty on you. It's just that Donne is one of the few great poets I know that benefits from you knowing a bit about the setting he's writing in. Yes, his verse speaks for itself, and I'll come to all that later, but, because it's also so clever, so witty, and so darned contemporary, I just want to do a bit of the history, since it really does make reading him more fulfilling. This is potted history, too, so, historians, wince now, and blench later, because you'll hate this. John Donne was born in 1572 (the same year as Ben Jonson), and before 'Othello' has been performed. Courtly men are wearing huge ruffs, fancy tights, and richly embroidered jerkins, and the world has just been started to be explored. So too the universe, the 'celestial heavens', and with all this exploration comes a total shake-up of what has been considered a certainty for the past few hundred years. The world is round, you see, and with that discovery comes a theological hissy fit, because, as we all know, the world is flat, underneath it is purgatory, then hell, with a bit of darkness in between them, and above it are the angels, and God, with Jesus sitting at his right hand, according to the scriptures, which, of course, are wholly accurate. On earth, the King (or Queen) is Gods repre
      sentative, and we follow the strata of society through a nice fixed triangle. Everything has it's place, and, really, there's nothing to worry about, unless you've an urge to do a bit of sailing, and are worried you may fall off the edge of the world. Look at medieaval maps like the 'Mappa Mundi', and you'll get the idea. Just look at them anyway, because they're visually stunning, and terribly interesting, especially if you come from the same home town as the cartographer, since you'll find your village is suddenly at the centre of the whole universe, because you drew it, so why not? But all this has changed. Copernicus has discovered that, shock horror, the world is in fact round, and people are discovering, or 're-discovering' Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca. Machiavelli is writing in Italy, on political systems, but also satirising the failings of humanity. English writers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), are defending the pursuit of knowledge, and carrying out scientific research, with new inventions such as the microscope. The 'heavens' have been opened to scientific scrutiny for the first time in modern European history, with telescopes, and,all these writers and scientists are trying to come up with theories and laws based on observation, rather than belief. Donne uses these ideas as metaphors in his poetry to explore people, learning, the church, love, and death, and probably quite a lot besides. And he does it beautifully, not always dwelling on the spheres, or the theories, but using them in all he writes, simply by his use of language, and his mixtures of metaphor. Here's a love poem, though, from "Songs and Sonnets", because it shows his power, and all that emotive force I was wiffling about earlier, before I got sidetracked with potted history: Busie old fool, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through window, and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions
      lovers seasons run? Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide Late school boys, and sour prentices, Go tell court-huntsmen, that the King will ride, Call countrey ants to harvest offices; Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clyme, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time." I can't think of another poet who would call the Sun a "saucy pedantic wretch", and do it so beautifully. If you read the lines aloud you hear the power, the force of them, and the emotion behind the lines, and, the satire, the anger, in a way. Dawn is a great leveller, and all these people scurry to her rise, from the workers in the fields, to the King, to the dawdling lovers. Oh, and the beauty of words. Here's another couplet, but this time from "Aire and Angels": "For, in nothing, nor in things Extreme and scattring bright,, can love inhere;" Taken out of context, they don't mean much, but I love the sound of them. There's very little gloopy emotions in Donne. Rather, the beauty of his words sing out from the pages, and then are reined back, with the head, or a witty 'conceit' or just a bit of wordplay, to neatly defuse what could end up as just a collection of rather lovely sounds. I'd better point out here, too, that Donne's work is usually divided up into three: The "songs and sonnets", the " satires" and the "later religious bits". They're all clever, but for different reasons, although the beauty of the language is the same throughout. Unsurprisingly, they mirror the life of Donne himself, but I don't think this is a place for a potted biography, too, so if you're interested, I'll direct you to a website at: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/. It's a basic biography, but it's not too bad. Most "Collected Works" have one in the introduction, too, and they are worth reading, for he was
      an interesting man. He was also quite attractive, despite the fashionable pointy beard and ruff, and if you're interested, his portrait can be found in the National Portrait Gallery. Donne is the perfect Rennaissance man. Everything, his ideas, his relationships, are mixed together - and he's the language to do it, and do it well. He talks of elephants, whales, the moving of the spheres, the way the earth was thought to wobble slightly on its axis. He talks of the relationships between men and women, characters - things that have never changed and puts them in the context of the ever-changing social world, and then of religion, and how it could be made to fit with all these new discoveries, and the uneasiness of that fitting. Here's one last quote, from "The Anniversaries": "And new Philosophy calls all into doubt, The Element of Fire is quite put out; The Sun is lost, and th'Earth, and no man's wit Can well direct him, where to look for it... ...Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone All just supply, and all Relation: Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot, For every man alone thinks he has got To be a Phoenix............" I love his poems, you know. They really are beautiful, passionate, clever, witty, and interesting, even if I don't always agree with his sentiments. All the things I'd ever ask a poet to be. He was the poet I read throughout my first love affair, and the poet that got me through the end of my first love affair. He brings a dry humour to situations, which, when you're sixteen seem intolerably wedged in sticky emotion. Now, he's an antitote to mundanity. You can't think about Donne when you're pureeing carrot soup, but you can in the evening, when the soup is pureed, and everyone is asleep in bed. I don't curl up with Donne. Rather, I sip him, slowly, and savour him, and the way he uses words, explores
      ideas, and lets out any surplus emotion without fury, thunderclaps or wallowy self pity. He's also a joy to read, of course. His words rush past, full of urgency and trickery, and he informs as he goes. I love Donne. I do, I really do. I'd take him over Crashaw, or Marvell, or Milton, and it's only really Ben Jonson that comes close, if you want to laugh at the failings of the human race, written, and expertly satired with more than a touch of lemon. Donne isn't gentle, and he isn't kind, and sometimes, just sometimes, that's a perfect antidote to the big novels, or the clever prose, or the socially aware fiction that lines my bookshelves. You've got to have balance. Donne provides mine. He's my alchemist, transforming this prosaic world into gold.


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