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John Donne, (1572 –1631)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of himself commissioned by Donne, supposing how he would appear at the Apocolypse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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,

Compared 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now for the prosaic version.

 

 

It is the very end of the year, and it is St. Lucy’s day, with scarcely any light. The sun is exhausted and only shines sporadically — it gives no steady illumination. Starlight is feeble, and the world’s life seems to have drained itself into the ground and made it waterlogged like a person with edema. Life  itself has sunk to the very bottom and seems dead and buried. Still, all these things  seem positively cheerful in comparison to me.  I am reduced to feeling like the words engraved on a tombstone.

So study me all of you who will be lovers next spring — which seems to me as far away as another life — because I feel I have become like death itself, though love with its magic did distill out of my nothingness the deepest and most concentrated essence of myself.  Love has ruined me. He has now re-made me out of absence, darkness and death, almost as if I had been born out of nonexistent things.

Everyone else seems to have the best of all good things. They are made of life, soul, form, body, spirit — they are real.  I, on the other hand, have been boiled away and evaporated and have become a grave containing emptiness  — a grave in which emptiness is buried.

So many times in the past we wept together and almost drowned in our tears. Together we lost all sense of order and coherence, becoming chaotic when we had to pay attention to anything besides each other. When we were apart we were lifeless as corpses.

But I am by her death made into a nothing, like the universe before the moment of creation. I am like a magical potion made out of this anti-matter. Even if I were a real human being (and I know what that is like because I used to be one) I would think myself better off if I were an animal.

Even plants and stones have feelings, and they are more real and alive than I am.  They are capable of loving and hating. Even if I were a nothing, a mere object, I would have the capacity to cast a shadow when light shone on me. But I am truly nothing, and the sun will never shine for me again.

All of you — and you lovers – spring will come around for you, and let you feel passion. Go ahead and enjoy your summer!  Since she is enjoying and celebrating this long night, let me get ready for her, and let me call this hour her vigil, and her evening, since it is the end of both the year and this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can honestly admit to never having been an admirer of the ‘male poetical canon’., and of one of its hoary stalwarts, John Donne, in particular. Donne  has always left me figuratively scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about.The reasons for the reverential  awe with which such poems as ‘Death be not Proud’ are referred to and quoted have always escaped me, though in the past I tried assiduously try to understand them.  Although I can to some degree acknowledge the originality of Donne’s  stylistic innovations and his quirky language, style aside, the question that comes to my mind is: what about content? The far-fetched artifice of his early profane poetry with its idiosyncratic conceits gave way in his later years to a hortatory species of  religious hand-wringing, chest-beating, repentance, retraction and self-deprecation which were in their way far more dismaying than his celebrations of youthful lust.I am about as tolerant as the next woman when it comes to human weakness, but I can find no such accommodation for Donne. In this I think it is fair to compare him to Leo Tolstoy. Both men married 16 year old girls and kept their wives continuously pregnant – Tolstoy having fathered 13 children and Donne 12. Donne doubtless would have broken Tolstoy’s record had his wife not inconveniently died on August 15th 1617 at the age of 32 after being delivered of  her twelfth child, a stillborn infant, 5 days earlier.
Both Donne and Tolstoy were former rakes who ‘got religion’ and were a little too glad to preach it. If there are two things that pollute poetry as badly a load of pesticides cast in a river, in my view they would be politics and religion. Both these rely heavily on declaiming and mendacity for their propagation and success, and most noxiously reprehensible of all, an unchecked enthusiasm for misleading the gullible, credulous and foolish for the purpose of venal self-enrichment.
When Donne found his path to professional and pecuniary advancement blocked by his Roman Catholicism, in 1615 (probably after his wife’s death)  he switched his allegiance to the more promising Church of England. He had belatedly received his dowry six years earlier around 1607, which must have relieved at least a few financial pressures, but 1615 marked the upswing of Donne’s monetary and career prospects.  Although his brief imprisonment subsequent to his marriage had forfeited him his post of  Member of Parliament, he sufficiently regained his professional footing to subsequently rise to the rank of Royal Chaplain to King Charles I. He had found a solution for his money troubles by renouncing his religion and turning his coat to suit his sovereigns Charles . In fact, Donne preached his final sermon  “Death’s Dual”  in February 1631, in the presence of this singularly unfortunate monarch who was later condemned (and the sentence publicly carried out) to death by beheading.
True, Donne had been plagued by the many deaths in his family besides that of his wife and still born infant in 1615, (eight of his children died before the age of 10) but his possible grief of bereavement  appears to have been surpassed by pecuniary concerns. Though he acknowledged that these deaths meant he had fewer mouths to feed, he complained he could ill afford the burial expenses.  In this he seems to resemble the mother of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who rejoiced at the death of several  of her children because she would be spared the expense of having to rear them. Apparently burial expenses in early nineteenth century Italy were not so great a burden as Donne found them to be in seventeenth-century England. Considering all this, it seems to me silly and more than a bit fatuous for Donne to have obsessed so tenaciously over the prospect of his own death, while those about him were dropping like flies. Nor did his anxious apprehension cease at death’s dark portal, but ventured in metaphysical guise a bit beyond it, into distressing speculations about the trouble God might encounter in trying to  reassemble the scatted atoms of the long deceased. Donne expected that his own body would be so reconstructed on the day of the apocalypse, and he had a portrait of himself painted clad in his shroud. This he hung on his wall to serve as a reassurance he would resume an enhanced version of life following a brief post-mortem interruption.

“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” notwithstanding, Donne’s stiff upper lip  was less due to an accommodation with death,  than to a fervent belief in the hereafter where he would share God’s heavenly glory. Donne’s ambitions were never modest.

Donne’s poem about St Lucy’s day, which was published posthumously in 1633, is thought to have been written in 1627 when both his patron Lucy Countess of Bedford as well as Donne’s fifth child Lucy, then aged 18,  to whom the countess had stood as godmother, died.

By this time Donne had been enjoying his handsomely remunerated position as Dean of St. Paul’s for a period of around six years. Three years before that he had received his doctorate in divinity from Cambridge, so in the years before his death Donne had achieved many of his worldly ambitions, and perhaps all of his spiritual ones as well.  Besides, it must have been especially gratifying to him to be earning his bread whilst also following his vocation. I consider most preachers to be by temperament attention seekers and getters, so it must have suited Donne very well to be paid for declaiming from the pulpit with the authority of the Church of England fully behind his hortatory efforts.

Why then these abysmal thoughts, so inconsistent with Christian faith of the saved soul and the happily hereafter?  In his lustful irreverent youth Donne was filled with energy and optimism. Now as a well-paid, well-respected and well-situated prelate comes this baleful moan of a poem, and at that, less a real poem than a really bad sermon.

Here again we find the exaggeratedly stretched conceits of Donne’s habitual vanity, as he steadily works himself into an increasingly abject position, when those very conceits compel him to a contortionis’st twisting and distending of sinews in order to cram himself in to a tighter and tighter confinement. But Donne first makes sure we know ahead of time that his chosen box has been lined with rusty nails.

In his downward progress from animal to vegetable to mineral he goes on grinding away in his plummeting trajectory straight into a pulverised residue of the insensate.  It is so very difficult to be charitable, and to find any dignity in Donne’s insistent self-indulgence and the soggy ‘hydroptik’ of his dropsical preachments.  Now that ‘the alembic’ – that uterine symbol of fulfillment, wholeness and merging lovers – has lost its original meaning, and has been left behind in the past of Donne’s  former  manipulations of women  and his persuasions of  them to venery (The Flea). The wine of younger love has now turned to the vinegar of sour grapes as he invidiously induces lovers, by means of his preachments, to feel anxious on account of their futures. Donne’s alchemical conceit has been reduced to a mere chemical precipitate.

Perhaps in thinking about young lovers he recalls own his precipitous marriage, and its unfortunate consequences (imprisonment and temporary forfeiture of dowry) and sees that those ‘bad’ times were not so bad after all compared to his condition when nearing the completion of his sixth decade.This rambling, uneven, muddled, befuddled bizarre rumination, points to a mind that can no longer resort to poetry – if indeed it ever did so. I can’t imagine that Donne thought well of his wife – for in his eyes women were “at their best mummy (and yes, he meant the Egyptian kind) possessed.”  Nor does he, for all his vociferations, appear to possess the consolations of religion. In the past he had toyed with the idea of suicide, but fear and religious scruple in equal parts, no doubt deterred him.  As is usual in depressives, and before the era of Prozac, he may have stumbled upon the fact that for even a person of average intelligence, (despite his ‘convictions’) there is no real consolation to be found in religion.
In fact Donne may have increased the volume of his assertions in order to drown out the still, small voice which refused to stop whispering “it ain’t necessarily so”. This might have proved to be an unsettling , and even unhinging experience for Donne. In fact, I have been wondering if I have not heard in the first few lines of this poem,  and particularly in their sinister sibilant sounds, an echo of the speech of that that other poor forsaken creature given to demented whispers,  Tolkien’s Gollum.Perhaps middle-age and depression hit Donne hard. I think I can understand that, and also that Donne might have considered himself better-off when he was scrounging off his friends and begetting brats anon – 12 in 16 years – than as a comfortable widower having a mid-life-crisis.  Perhaps he was secretly losing his faith – who knows: But one grey day in December, nearing the winter solstice, he sat down to write.  It seems clear he was sapped by depression, and this depression may have been  ( in those days of scant artificial light) to be suffering from what we refer to as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’.  Donne was obviously feeling dead inside. The future seems impossibly remote. The year too is slowly dying, and nature seems to be in bathetic consonance with his inner darkness. He is beginning to have have doubts about his survival, and his very being, when he unreservedly succumbs to self-pity, and claims that Love has transmuted him into the essence of nothing.Then there enters the note of envy and petulance he cannot keep out. He emerges from his black despair in order to indulge in invidious thoughts. “Oh those lovers”, he might have said to himself, “how happily  they will soon slip into their springtime rut – but Oh! What immensely heavy reasons I have for  lamenting my own sad lot. “I think it is at this point Donne may have realised he has the makings of a workable poem, and decided to try and make something of it. He may have begun to reminisce, and found he could profitably mine a different seam, and put it to his advantage. He might have alternated between a restating of his condition, and asseverating he was more pitiful than the dumb beasts – No! more pitiful even than inanimate objects (albeit objects which have feelings). One moment he felt himself to be a substance refined to its its ultimate essence, then to be less substantial than even a shadow.Now Donne finds he has worked his poem as far as he can take it, and has wedged it into a dark corner of nothingness.  It is like a black hole from which not even a photon of light can emerge.  Inspiration has long since fled. Perhaps he remembers an unfinished sermon, an unwritten letter – perhaps he smells dinner cooking, or the candle may be near to being burned out. Since preaching comes easily to Donne, he comes up with a handy exhortation to the lovers of the world whom he was envying but a few short moments ago. He briefly gives them a snarky warning as he throws a bucket or two of cold water on what he imagines will be their moment of happiness. This done he feels his confidence restored, and he suddenly finds he has happened on a way to neatly end his poem.  Perhaps he had decided that after his long night’s vigil with St. Lucy, he was going to wait for the very Spring which only a few moments before he was saying was as far away as the next life. Never mind that since he had pronounced himself as being so very close to death, the next life would have been much closer than any Spring could be.

It must not have been all that bad after all. We know that Donne recovered sufficiently from his funk to write his poem  “Sappho and Philænis,” (published posthumously in 1631) and said to be the earliest English example of a lesbian love poem.

So here then is my conclusion:

 

 

This is by no means a true poem, but the gloom induced by falling under the  somber spell of a dark winter evening, and the overall deadness of the season. That is not to say that the Muse, on a day so significant to her offices,  may not have peeked in  Donne’s cloudy window, but Preacher Donne soon shooed her away with his foolish maunderings.

It is confused, whining and bathetic. There are even grammatical errors. I want to ask what is the object the word day’s in the first line possesses?
What can day’s Lucy’s possibly mean?

If it is a wanton bid for pity, I think Donne should not have importuned quite so crudely and insistently.  He might have done better if he had left it to us to give it freely, rather than trying to extract it by force. Even if one is very badly off, whining is not the best way to gain interest.

“Were I am man “ etc – makes absolutely no sense.  All these faults are compounded by extraordinary exaggeration and excessive mental gymnastics  “If I an ordinary nothing”  etc tell me that he is not so despairing as to disavow verbal slithering.  And then he is so so patronising – his love is noble, but the love of others is animalistic and capricious ( like a goat)
and not only that, but hell and its fires must be evoked to chasten lovers he must feel to be inferior to himself

Donne may have supposed he recovered his investment of time, paper, ink and tallow, but in my view it would have been better if he had just had an early dinner an gone to bed instead.

Ah…. the great metaphysical poets!

* In Donne’s time, the calendar would have placed St. Lucy’s day around the 13th of December, but in our Calendar it falls in December 21st.

Donne's home.

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