After the splendor of the Elizabethan dramatists, we return now to pure poetry. And the first of the poets I will examine in these last few essays is still much read and admired, despite not being always easy to understand.
John Donne is the best known of the Metaphysical poets, who used unusual images to illustrate powerful emotions. These included, most impressively, love and religious fervor. In Donne’s case it is the love poems that are most popular, but – being the Dean of St. Paul’s – he was also able to convey a strong sense of spirituality, when he put his mind to it.
The best known perhaps of his love poems is The Good Morrow, with its unusual Renaisssance imagery. The Age of Exploration is evoked by the mention of sea-discoverers, but this is subordinated to the main idea of the sufficiency of love, satisfied with its own one world. Again, in the 5th line of the third verse, Donne uses a concept from alchemy, a less than scientific version of chemistry, to affirm the importance of a love that is equal on either side.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
Unusual imagery is found too in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, the latter part of which is based on the image of a compass, the two arms of which have to be firmly joined if it is to fulfil its purpose. The title refers to a farewell, but Donne claims that there is no need of mourning since there can be no question of a breach, or parting. But he also suggests the power of the connection between the two arms by noting that even the arm that is seen as staying still, ‘leans and hearkens’ after the other, and only stands erect when the other returns to it. Following that perception, the last two lines of the poem are a wonderful summation of the impact of love which does not stifle individuality but supports it.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
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,
And makes me end where I begun.
Despite the power of the love poetry, my own favourite is a more melancholy poem, the Nocturnal on St Lucia’s Day, December 22nd, when Donne uses the physical gloom of the day, the longest in the year, to mirror his own feelings of loss.
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.
But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
I have quoted this in full, to show how Donne piles on despair, creating a sense of even greater hollowness just when you think he has ploughed the depths and can go no further. In each verse the last two lines are intensely dark, with striking phrases – Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph; I am re-begot Of absence, darkness, death; Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But side by side with this magnificient despair should be set his affirmation of immortality, in his most famous sonnet
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 pictures 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 art 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.
The logic of the poem can be challenged, since it claims Death is both unpleasant and restful, and also that it is impermanent; but with its rousing conclusion, it is perhaps the most powerful of poems providing consolation against death, which was a common theme in those days.
Donne’s poems are intensely personal. Whether dealing with love or God or death, they present the meditations of an individual soul. But there was another side too to Donne, and I will end with one of the most moving accounts of man as a social being, from one of his prose meditations –
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Ceylon Today 2015-01-04 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-81373-news-detail-john-donne.html