October 24, 2005

D is for Donne

Don't worry, I'll get to some reporting of JournalCon today too. But first:

whD.gif is for Donne, of course.

The standard view of Donne is that he comes in two parts: the early womanizing years, in which he derailed his career by marrying his patron's niece without permission, and in which he wrote about love and sex; and the later respectable years when he ended up as Dean of St. Paul's, during which he wrote about God and religion. In keeping with pretty much everything else in the world, it's not really that simple.

For instance, "The Flea" is a seduction poem, but not a serious one: Donne seems to be having enough fun playing with words and his pretty conceit ("Look! Our blood is already mingled in this flea that has bitten both of us, so why resist a little more mingling?") that persuasion becomes almost secondary. Look at the words: in the first verse Donne's still thinking mostly about sex, and the words reflect it. He's got sucking and swelling, wooing, and loss of maidenhead. In the second verse, though, he's gotten into what he's doing and started to riff; he's off onto the sacrament of marriage, with an evocation of the Trinity and the cloister. In the third verse, the women is beginning to sound like Herod, with her nail purpled in innocent blood, though it's more of a flirting teasing than a serious accusation. Then he can't resist: in the end he's not blandishing or flirting. Donne's a very bright man, clearly able to outargue his paramour, and just can't resist turning her own logic on her to win the argument. This is not a poem that would have gotten him laid successfully, but he may have gotten more enjoyment in his play on words and logic anyway, leaving serious cozening for anther day.

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

In contrast, some of Donne's religious works are surprisingly earthy. In Holy Sonnet XIV, he begins with what, according to my excellent high school teacher Mrs. Martyska*, is an evocation of a tinker, banging on a pan in order to remove dents. That almost-awkward rhythm conjures up the hammer in the first quatrain:

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.

Yet though it's only a sonnet, the metaphor isn't big enough to support the whole thing. The rhythm smooths out as he moves on to an image of a beseiged and betrayed town:

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.

Then, even though he's in his older more sedate years by this point, it's still Donne. When he's writing to God he's still using the same sensual images, only now directed to a new end - also, now the poet is become the ravished instead of the ravisher:

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.

I'll post one more. I don't think this one needs discussion, given how often I've paraphrased its opening lines in my own life. So has Great Big Sea: the opening lines of Boston to St. John's, "Girl, don't tell me that it's morning / Can we keep the curtains drawn?" always make me think of Donne. It's universal, for anyone who's had a night good enough that morning's unwelcome:

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.

* I've never been able to find Mrs. Martyska online; I'd guess she remarried and changed her name. She probably had more effect on me than almost any other teacher, partly because I had her for all three years of high school, and partly because, as an engineering student, I only had three English classes in college (poetry, drama, linguistics) so an outsized proportion of what I know about literature is doe directly to her.

Posted by dichroic at October 24, 2005 01:26 PM

I'm writing a paper on the religious elements of "The Flea" and I was wondering if you could give me a specific verse in the bible that is similar to the allusion of Herod? This would be a GIANT lifesaver.

Posted by: Marcie at March 29, 2006 07:05 PM
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