Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2000 v52 i4 p251


Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Marquette University Press

TAKEN together, John Donne's Songs and Sonets, along with many of the erotic elegies, constitute a varied, even sporadic meditation on the experience and significance of love. Despite the apparent contradictions in the collection--the outbursts of bawdiness, arrogance, and cynicism among the reiterated, if often problematic, assertions of love's transcendence of what is base and banal--these poems finally evoke a unified vision of what Monsignor Martin C. D'Arcy calls "the mind and heart of love." In fact, it is precisely the candid acknowledgment of the contradictions in human attitudes that enables the complex irony of Donne's witty eloquence to dramatize the approach to that "decisive moment" when a man genuinely recognizes the common human identity of the desired other, and" `love' now takes on its proper meaning" (244). As D'Arcy also says, "It is always, we must remember, a full human person who is loving, and in that love there are sure to be many different strands" (69). Love is an arresting exemplar of the paradoxical structure of reality as it is perceived by men and women; and poetry, understood broadly as a creative literary fiction (a "golden world," if you will), is our most compelling means of manifesting that perception for the contemplation of "a full human person." Few poets have achieved more in this line than John Donne.

Amid the current atmosphere of ideological intimidation, which looms like a menacing gray mist, spawned by some academic El Nino, over the once temperate vale of Donne scholarship, these must seem quixotic assertions. This is, after all, the same John Donne who has been accused of apostasy (Carey 15-36), phallocentrism (Mueller 148), servile submissiveness to an absurdly repellent embodiment of patriarchal royal absolutism (Goldberg 111-12), and even bulimia (Fish 223).(2) The most ambitious twelve-step program may seem hardly sufficient to restore to a man of such vicious compulsions his former status as the most persuasive love poet in English literature. These gloomy assessments of Donne and his work arise, however, from a misconception both of love and of poetry. Both of these vital human activities have been "defined down" in this therapeutic age: judged as something less than the sum of their parts. The vital abundance and mysterious subtlety of love have been subjected to a diminished appraisal in a fashion analogous to the "demystification" of the inventive copia and wit of Donne's poetry. The recovery can be managed only by the constructive work of literary criticism and scholarship--a kind of joint operation seeking to rescue meaning from a wind-swept sea of floating signifiers.

The interpretation of Donne's love poetry offered here depends upon a vision of human love as an experience fraught with tension. D'Arcy refers to "the twofold character of love, in which respect it is compared to the struggle of opposites in nature" (222). At the heart of this "struggle" is the tension between Eros and Agape--in the simplest terms, possessive and and self-sacrificing love, desire and charity. The great value of D'Arcy's work lies in his insistence that simply to favor agape over eros will not suffice: perfect agape is possible only for God whose fund of benevolence is infinite and inexhaustible. A man or a woman cannot give absolutely because we are finite creatures: a measure of self-assertive egotism, of possessive eros, is (literally) essential for us in order to retain an identity to be sacrificed or surrendered. Herein the paradox of the human situation: our most transcendent aspirations are as limitless and insatiable as our most sulphurous desires, while our capacity for each alternative is strictly limited. What is more, our divergent longings often seem not merely simultaneous, but even indistinguishable. The swoon of ecstatic self-immolation is whirled about in the slaver of predatory anticipation. The resolution of this dilemma by means of supernatural grace is matter for another essay. My topic here is just the enigma of earthly, profane love, which embodies so much of what is both admirable and delightful, reprehensible and mortifying, in human nature and conduct.

This tension at the center of human life finds its analogue in the tension that is central to poetry, a tension that attains its exemplary literary form in irony. "Irony" in this context means a poetic figure or a rhetorical device; but it refers as well to a particular vision of reality that is marked by an acute awareness of the fallibility of human knowledge, the uncertainty of human enterprise, the contingency of human existence itself. Such considerations are far more pertinent to this discussion than worries about whether irony is excessively "elitist" (Hutcheon 94) or inappropriate--not to say incorrect--in certain political contexts. The concern here is less with irony as a "political issue" (Hutcheon 2) than with Cleanth Brooks' concept of "irony as a principle of structure."(3) Brooks' 1949 essay describes irony as "a dynamic structure--a pattern of thrust and counterthrust"; and after listing apparently contradictory implications in a poem by Randall Jarrell, Brooks argues that what results is not incoherence, but a complex of ironic tension:

   None of these meanings cancels out the others. All are relevant, and each
   meaning contributes to the total meaning. Indeed, there is not a facet of
   significance which does not receive illumination from the figure. (740)

The concept of irony as a structure of semantic tension, however, offers an obvious parallel to Monsignor D'Arcy's conception of love as a tension of eros and agape. Together the two concepts provide a means of interpreting Donne's love poetry as the ironic embodiment of a vision of love as a version of concordia discors. The same violent yoking that Dr. Johnson finds in the metaphysical style Brooks attributes to irony:

   Irony, then, in this further sense, is not only an acknowledgment of the
   pressures of context. Invulnerability to irony is the stability of a
   context in which the internal pressures balance and mutually support each
   other. The stability is like that of the arch: the very forces which are
   calculated to drag the stones to the ground actually provide the principle
   of support--a principle in which thrust and counterthrust become the means
   of stability. (732-33)

Poetic irony is thus the perfect counterpart to D'Arcy's notion of love as "the struggle of opposites in nature." Where Brooks' formulation perhaps falls short is in neglecting to show how the stability of the poem--of any work of art--is the ultimate ironic turn of the screw. In his closing chapter, D'Arcy observes that love only reaches its culminating resolution--its "stability"--in the eternal perfection of the love of God (363-73). Following T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, Brooks maintains that sentimentality is avoided by that poetry "which does not leave out what is apparently hostile to its dominant tone, and which, because it is able to fuse the irrelevant and the discordant, has come to terms with itself and is invulnerable to irony" (732). In the realm in which irony is the only antidote to irony--a world of what is "hostile," "irrelevant," "discordant"--we have no lasting city, and no lasting love. Thus the stability of the love poem forged out of the clash of ironic tensions is the ultimate ironic comment on the realm of human experience that the poem evokes.

Not only Donne's notorious "metaphysical" conceits, but indeed the entire fabric of particular poems corresponds to Brooks' "conceit" of irony: a typical Donne love poem is a surprising fusion and distillation of hostility, irrelevance, and discord. A privileged recipient of a manuscript of Donne's elegy "The Bracelet" in the 1590s would have been struck first of all by the poem's topicality. The Acts of the Privy Council contains this item for 20 August 1591:

   Robert Henlack has petitioned the Council for redress against certain men
   who robbed him. He complains that while he was absent in the night a
   confederacy of certain evil disposed persons broke open his chamber door in
   the house of Isabel Piggott in Thames Street and took away goods and money
   to the value of 400 [pounds sterling]. Further, one Nathaniel Baxter hath
   since then robbed him of 12 [pounds sterling] more, pretending that by
   casting a figure he would help him to his goods and money again. (Harrison

The probable reader of "The Bracelet," a Londoner, perhaps an Inns of Court man like Donne himself, might well recall this incident, or one like it, when he read in Donne's poem of "many angled figures, in the booke / Of some great Conjurer" (lines 34-35); and the memory would be reinforced by the desperate persona's effort to satisfy his mistress by any device short of melting down his "twelve righteous Angels" (line 9) to replace her lost chain:

   Or let mee creepe to some dread Conjurer,
   Which with phantastique scheames fils full much paper;
   Which hath divided heaven in tenements,
   And with whores, theeves, and murderers stuft his rents
   So full, that though hee passe them all in sinne,
   He leaves himself no roome to enter in. (59-64)

This same reader might also be reminded by "The Bracelet" of Sir Edward Coke's opening statement in the prosecution of the Portuguese Jew, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, for attempting to poison the Queen in 1594. Maintaining that Dr. Lopez was in the pay of Philip II, Coke remarked, "the King of Spain and his priests, despairing of prevailing by valour, turned to cowardly treachery, and what they could not do by cannon, they attempted by crowns" (Harrison 307). Surely this notorious affair would have been brought to mind by Donne's ability to exceed the wit of Coke's cannon / crowns alliteration with a pun on "pistolets":

   Or were they Spanish Stamps, still travelling,
   That are become as Catholique as their King,
   Those unlickt beare-whelps, unfil'd pistolets
   That (more than Canon shot) availes or lets. (29-32)

Allusions such as these, along with the colloquial texture of the language of Donne's strong lines, would anchor the elegy firmly in the world of popular gossip and scandal of the last decade of Elizabeth's reign.

THE generic designation elegy, however, which apparently was attached to this poem and more than a dozen others in the early manuscripts, would have signalled to an educated Elizabethan reader that the poet was engaged in the learned humanist activity of imitating the classics as well as remarking the kind of sensational "news" that was the preoccupation of broadside ballads. Any reasonably well-read contemporary of Donne would recognize the reference to the love poetry, especially the elegiacs, of Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid.(4) Beyond the mere use of the term, Donne succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of the Roman elegy more successfully than any other Renaissance poet known to me. Donne is less an imitator of particular phrases, stylistic devices, themes, or episodes of this or that poem by his ancient predecessors than a triumphant rival, who has recreated in toto the Roman genre and transposed it into his own late Elizabethan milieu. "The Bracelet," for example, captures the mingling of passionate desire, bitter cynicism, and wry irony that mark the classical erotic elegy without drawing on any specific classical poem. Indeed, its chief incident, the lover forced to search the town for a lost bracelet given him by his mistress, may parody, as Grierson and Gardner point out, Soliman and Perseda, a "foolishly romantic play" probably by Thomas Kyd (Gardner 112, 116).

What emerges from this congeries--references to the "news" or gossip of the day, a form modelled on classical antiquity, allusions to contemporaneous popular literature--is a love poem in which "Love's not so pure, and abstract, as they use / To say, which have no Mistresse but their Muse" ("Love's Growth" 11-12). The "impurity" derives, in large part, from the improbable melange: it is a lover who speaks the poem, but his love is shaped by the poet's response to a generic clash. The Roman erotic elegy is, as Paul Veyne says, "one of the most sophisticated art forms in the entire history of literature" (1), and in Donne it collides with the crude Petrarchanism of so much of the poetry and drama of the Elizabethan age. This is a lover who, as he addresses the beloved, is acutely aware of the world of business and boredom, of perfidy and peril, of avarice and ambition, of vileness and violence--all that from which love is so often sought as an escape. The scene of Donne's elegy is thus littered with elements that are "hostile," "discordant," and "irrelevant" to the conventional sense of love: it is irony that brings these antagonistic forces together in a single poetic structure. For despite the disparate elements jostling about among its lines, "The Bracelet" attains not only unity but even dramatic cogency. Whether it amuses or appalls, attracts or repels, the voice of this poem is alive and consistent with human experience, because its exasperated speaker is so credibly torn between two familiar human motivations: lust and greed. The first of these impulses is sufficiently strong that we infer that he will, however reluctantly, submit to the demand of his imperious mistress:

   But, thou art resolute; Thy will be done;
   Yet with such anguish, as her onely sonne
   The Mother in the hungry grave doth lay,
   Unto the fire these Martyrs I betray. (79-82)

The harsh flirtation with blasphemy evoked by the echo of the Our Father ("Thy will be done"), by the hyperbolic term "Martyrs," and by the hinted reference to the Blessed Virgin at the burial of Christ undercuts the familiar idealism of the Petrarchan deifying of the beloved by a mockingly excessive solemnity. This lover laments the loss of his money more than a mother the death of her child, more than Mary the death of Jesus; and yet the mistress is divine--her "will" must "be done." The angry tone of this reluctant erotic worshipper reveals that his devotion can hardly be spiritual, especially since he has already observed that his very act of appeasement will serve only to diminish her favor:

   But, shall my harmlesse angels perish? Shall
   I lose my guard, my ease, my food, my all?
   Much hope which they should nourish will be dead.
   Much of my able youth, and lustyhead
   Will vanish; if thou love let them alone,
   For thou will love me lesse when they are gone ... (49-54)

The final irony of course is, that despite his compulsive yet reluctant yielding to a less than ideal mistress, the speaker of the poem still cannot relinquish his attachment to his "angels." The woman disappears from the last twenty-four lines in the persona's obsessive brooding over the "wretched finder" (91) of the bracelet:

   But, I forgive; repent thee honest man:
   Gold is Restorative, restore it then:
   Or if with it thou beest loath to'depart,
   Because `tis cordiall, would twere at thy heart. (111-14)

This feverish, fickle preoccupation with the hypothetical possessor of the bracelet is an ironic mirror image of his odi et amo relationship with his rather dubious mistress.

This is a bitterly cynical vision of love as possessive passion: the parallel between the irresistible desire for the erotic favor of a woman, whose chief attributes seem to be greed and arrogance, and the lover's own grasping avarice is a finely distilled solvent for the amorous idealism prevalent in a literary culture dominated by love-sonnet sequences. The final comic irony arises from the absurdity of the speaker's own situation: he is, after all, no better off than the deluded Petrarchist whom he implicitly scorns. Like the saturnine speaker of "Loves Alchymie," he has seen through the sham of love, knows that women are hardly human much less divine; but for all his blase sophistication he is still as frustrated, every bit as much a slave to passion as Astrophil. Here again, without imitating a particular classical poem, Donne has succeeded in capturing the flavor of the Roman erotic elegy. "I myself," writes Paul Veyne,

   believe that Propertius, or rather the Ego he brings on stage, does not so
   much suffer from the pangs of jealousy as regard the chains of passion as
   something dreadful. Indeed, the ancient Roman considered the effects of
   passion a form of tragic fate, a form of slavery, a special form of
   unhappiness. (2)

This reflection gives the alternate titles of Donne's poem that refer to the bracelet as a "chaine" rather more resonance: the persona is surely bound to his mistress by the "lost chain."(5)

Here among the love poems of John Donne we find a very acrid view of love, but we find very little about John Donne himself. In a qualified way I wish to endorse the perception of Judith Scherer Herz that "in his poems ... Donne is rarely there, indeed in some poems never there," and I agree that Donne is "the master of complex, unsettling, prickly poems, poems that simply will not resolve," and that we must "not look for consistency beyond the boundaries of any single poem, indeed not even necessarily within those boundaries," and that we may thus recover "the Donne of linguistic surprise, of ventriloquistic virtuosity, of theological and philosophical inconsistency, the Donne who will say anything if the poem seems to need it" (3, 5). Such attributes, however, do not define his character. He is writing poems, and a poet is precisely that man or woman "who will say anything if the poem seems to need it"--"for the Poet, he nothing affirmes, and therefore neuer lyeth" (Sidney 184). As John Shawcross points out, "The false specter of Romantic effusion has blighted poetic criticism for a long time--as if the poet cannot write without parallel experience, as if all that is said is fully and firmly believed as he or she writes" (57). I would go even further than Shawcross in defending the essay by Wimsatt and Beardsley, "The Intentional Fallacy," because it accepts absolutely one of the poet's intentions, the intention to write a poem. This brings us back to the issue of inconsistency between and within poems. The persona of "The Bracelet" is surely inconsistent, a monument of tergiversation: he regards his mistress' will as divine, but her person as less "angelic" than his money; he speculates about someone recovering the gold chain who is now a "wretched finder," now "an honest man," and finally the object of what we may call a heartfelt curse.

The discourse represented by the poem is inconsistent because its speaker is inconsistent. Of course Donne himself was also inconsistent, but then so are you and I, and so are most men and women in every era. In the sixteenth century the leading proponent of Neo-Stoicism, the author of De Constantia (1584), was Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who wandered restlessly from one European university to another and changed his religion at least four times, earning no little scorn among contemporaneous English writers (Gottlieb). Yet Lipsius was himself at least "indifferent honest." There is, then, inconsistency within and among Donne's poems because they deal with the reality of human existence, which is a tissue of inconsistencies; but the poems as such are not inconsistent. The philosopher, as Sidney reminds us, deals in abstractions only tangentially connected to human life; the historian is in danger of drowning in the chaotic flood of experience: "the Historian, wanting the precept, is so tyed, not to what shoulde bee but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that hys example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a lesse fruitfull doctrine." It is only "the peerelesse Poet" who "coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example" (164). This "coupling," or layering of inconsistencies into whatever the pattern of the poem requires, is irony --"irony as a principle of structure." It is the fundamental irony of poetry that it produces consistent formal structures out of the turbid swirl of inconsistency that constitutes human experience, that it reveals meaning--the "precept"--in what may seem meaningless.

THE distinction between poetic intention and the personal life of the poet becomes more complex in those works of Donne where we find what seems an indisputable indication of "parallel experience" providing the origin of the incidents or situation of a poem. If the tone is even more elusive than that of "The Bracelet" and falls into Gardner's category of "poems of mutual love" (liii), then critical preoccupation with the autobiographical features of the poem becomes almost irresistible. There is no better example than "The Sunne Rising." The persona who brashly proclaims his satisfaction at having thrown away the opportunity for preferment in the royal court for the sake of love bears a suspicious resemblance to the historical John Donne, who, we may surmise, had plenty of time to wile away in bed with his teenage bride, since he had no place in the busy world of education, politics, and trade. The seventh line, "Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride," cries out to be associated with the court gossip of the years shortly after Donne's elopement, as retailed by that ubiquitous busybody, John Chamberlain, in a letter to Ralph Winwood:

   The Kinge went to Roiston two dayes after Twelfetide, where and thereabout
   he hath continued ever since, and findes such felicitie in that hunting
   life, that he hath written to the counsaile, that yt is the onely meanes to
   maintain his health, (which being the health and welfare of us all) he
   desires them to undertake the charge and burden of affaires, and foresee
   that he be not interrupted nor troubled with too much busines. (I: 201)

This looks like fairly solid evidence that the poem was written sometime after the accession of James Stuart as James I of England, when his new subjects had become acquainted with his habits; however, there was some notice in England of James' addiction to hunting when he was still just King of Scotland. It was bruited about London at least as early as 1591 that, despite the threat of rebellious Earls to James' safety, he would not "be restrained from the fields or in his pastime, for any respect" (Harrison 13). The detail of a hunting king could have been picked up from political gossip during the last decade of Elizabeth's reign in England as well as during the first decade of James' reign. The poem powerfully evokes certain details of what we know of Donne's life during the latter time, but we cannot be sure when it was written, and, finally, it does not matter.(6)

We must also take into account, again, the element of literary imitation. It is a commonplace to notice that the opening lines of "The Sunne Rising" echo even as they transform the corresponding lines of Ovid, Amores I. xiii:

   Iam super oceanum venit a seniore marito
   flava pruinoso quae vehit axe diem.
   "Quo properas, Aurora? mane!--sic Memnonis umbris
   annua sollemni caede parentet avis! (1-4)
   [Already the blonde who drives the day in her frosty carriage is
   coming over the ocean from her aged husband. What's your hurry,
   Aurora? Wait! --And so may a bird appease Memnon's shade
   each year with solemn slaughter!]

But if Donne is, in part, seeking to outdo the wit of Ovid with his own more extravagant conceits, it also seems that he may be parodying "A Hymn to Aurora" of a more recent Latin poet, Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550). The opening of his Hymnus in Aurora offers a picture of the dawn goddess that contrasts sharply with Ovid's:

   Ecce ab extremo veniens Eoo
   roscidas Aurora refert quadrigas
   et sinu lucern roseo nitentem
   candida portat. (1-4)

[Behold Aurora coming from the farthest East brings round again her dewy four-horse team and brightly bears the shining light within her rosy bosom.]

Besides the fact that Flaminio portrays the Dawn's conveyance as "dewy" (roscidas) rather than "frosty" (pruinoso), this is an altogether more engaging portrait of the goddess as the embodiment of refulgence, and it seems to be a direct reply to Ovid. The moral edification of the closing sapphics may have especially caught Donne's attention:

   Te sine aeterna iaceant sepulti
   nocte mortales, sine te nec ullus
   sit color rebus neque vita doctas
   culta per artes.
   Tu gravem pigris oculis soporem
   excutis--leti sopor est imago--
   evocans tectis sua quemque laetum ad
   munia mittis.
   Exsilit stratis rapidus viator,
   ad iugum fortes redeunt iuvenci,
   laetus in silvas properat citato
   cum grege pastor.
   Ast amans carae thalamum puellae
   deserit flens et tibi verba dicit
   aspera, amplexu tenerae cupito a-
   vulsus amicae.
   Ipse amet noctis latebras dolosae,
   me iuvet semper bona lux: nitentem
   da mihi lucem, dea magna, longos
   cernere in annos! (29-48)
   [Without you mortals would lie buried in eternal night, and without you
   things would have no colors and life would not be enriched with learned
   arts. You expel heavy sleep from sluggish eyes--sleep is the image of
   death--calling from the roof-tops you send each one joyful to his duties.
   The swift traveler leaps from the covers, the strong bullocks return to the
   yoke, the happy shepherd hastens quickly to the woods with his hurried
   flock. But weeping the lover forsakes the bed of his darling girl and
   speaks harsh words to you, torn away from the desired embrace of his
   yielding mistress. Let him love the lairs of deceitful night, let me always
   rejoice in the good light: permit me, great goddess, to receive the shining
   light through the long years!]

The weeping lover who speaks harsh words to Aurora would seem to be Flaminio's version of the irreverent persona of Ovid's Amores. This lover of dark dens and loose women is reproved by contrast to the man who rejoices in the light and hastens eagerly to his duties.

Donne reverts to the tone of the Amores, painting a very different scene from Flaminio's sturdy bullocks, eager traveler, and happy shepherd who go off to work whistling like the seven dwarfs:

   Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
   Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
   Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride
   Call countrey ants to harvest offices ... (5-8)

"The Sunne Rising" undoubtedly celebrates mutually fulfilling love, but the celebration takes place in a context that recalls the limits even of such a love. Donne would have expected his readers to be aware of other claims on human time and attention amidst this exaltation of erotic bliss and sleeping-in. Perhaps neither the poet nor his audience knew this particular poem by Flaminio, but they surely knew poems or prose exhortations like it. There is obvious humor in Donne's mockery of this kind of earnest solemnity; however, even Ovid must have occasionally had to be somewhere on time. Donne calls attention to the equivocal status of the claims made in the poem by their very extravagance. Ovid is never so brash with Aurora as Donne is with the "Sunne," which he calls "Busie old foole" and "Sawcy pedantique wretch." The very excessiveness of his emulation of Ovid and parody of Flaminio discloses the tension between the notion of love's sufficiency and the civic and economic demands of the world:

   If her eyes have not blinded thine,
   Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
   Whether both the'India's of spice and Myne
   Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
   Aske for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
   And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay. (15-20)

There are times when we have all believed this, or at least wished to do so; and it is a truth of human experience that love is finally more important than money or power. What makes this poem so much more than a conventional assertion of the transcendent power of human love is the structural irony: its subtle incorporation of the contrasting reality that love--certainly the sort that is enacted in the lovers' four-poster bed--is a fragile enterprise indeed without the economic and social where-with-all to sustain it. Cleanth Brooks did not perhaps sufficiently allow for the way the irony is deepened not only by such intertextual resonance as is afforded by Ovid and Flaminio, but also by our knowledge of the historical situation of John Donne: the irony of his radical defiance of accepted social norms is surely rendered more piquant by the disastrous results of his elopement with Anne More. Donne the man could stay in bed every morning because he had no office.

But Brooks is finally right: the irony is discernible in the structure of "The Sunne Rising" though it were as anonymous as Beowulf. As evidence I offer the last stanza, which highlights the conflicting norms of conventional society precisely by rejecting them so outrageously. Are the lovers lingering in their bed alienated from the "busie" world to which the "unruly Sunne" awakens them? It is no matter because they not only transcend that world; they epitomize it:

   She'is all States, and all Princes, I,
   Nothing else is.
   Princes do but play us; compar'd to this,
   All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie ... (21-24)

The "real world" thus fades before the sublime bliss of the shared bed. The high-spirited absurdity of these assertions seems so self-evident that there hardly seems any point in refuting Jonathan Goldberg's assertion that here "the speaker makes the absolutist declaration toward which the entire poem tends ... The absorption of the lovers in each other, their replication of the power of the world, constitutes an appropriation of and reversal of the language of state secrets" (111). Likewise, in a generally sympathetic essay, Camille Wells Slights seems to be straining at a gnat when she defends "The Sunne Rising" from the charge that it "reinscribes the culture's gender hierarchy" by arguing that "as third- and first-person singular pronouns give way to first-person plural, the topic becomes not the lovers but their relationship" (78).(7) Carey gets closer to the mark in noticing the tension in the conceits, but he seems altogether oblivious to the tone: "Donne's vaunting language is, like all vaunting language, an expression of insecurity, and this makes the poem more human. The pretension to kingship that he voices amounts to an acknowledgement of personal insufficiency" (109). The speaker of the poem, however, knows this as well as Professor Carey: the "vaunting language" sounds like an effort to deflect by means of laughter an anxious question about, say, where the rent money is coming from this month. The woman whose lover or husband has just proclaimed his universal sovereignty over the empire of the bedroom probably has more concrete worries than being colonized by the hegemony of absolutist patriarchal ideology.

At the same time, there would have been some compensations even to genteel poverty in the company of such a roguish wit. Most of us are capable of stale, reassuring compliments like "I think the world of you." Donne works out the details of the cliche and creates a superbly preposterous conceit in which the cosmos becomes thalamocentric:

   Thou sunne art halfe as happy'as wee,
   In that the world's contracted thus.
   Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
   To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
   Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
   This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare. (25-30)

Ovid chides Aurora for her haste to leave her aged husband:

   Tithono vellem de te narrare liceret;
   fabula non caelo turpior ulla foret.
   ilium dum refugis, longo quia grandior aevo,
   surgis ad invisas a sene mane rotas.

(Amores I.xiii.35-38)

[If only Tithonus were allowed to tell a tale of you; nothing more scandalous would be told in heaven. While you shrink from him, since he is a long age older, early in the day you leap to the chariot odious to the old man.]

Donne's sly sympathy for the aging sun is a comically inventive variation on the Ovidian theme, and it hints at the reality of human aging, which undermines the speaker's jaunty erotic optimism. This is a man ruefully amused at the human limitations he so brazenly denies. Donne evidently was able to laugh at himself, a capacity some of his modern critics might well consider emulating.

The vision of love in "The Sunne Rising" is decidedly more affirmative than what we find in "The Bracelet." Anthony Low has argued persuasively that the former poem marks an important step in "the reinvention of love" at the threshold of modern times whereby lovers, wedded or otherwise, create their own private world over against the claims of the larger community: "Surprisingly, the two lovers in Donne's private room enact one of the central rituals of carnival. They assume the personae of the dominant authority figures of their diurnal society and mockingly invert the social order" (54). The reference to carnival catches the tone of "The Sunne Rising" very well, and it distinguishes Donne's more equivocal notion of the private world of love from the exacting idealism and solemnity of Milton's divorce tracts and his intense portrait of marital love in Paradise Lost. Donne's pervasive wit precludes even a shadow of sentimentality: he retains an inescapable awareness of the proclivity of erotic desire for self-absorption and special pleading. "The Dream" provides a striking example.

This poem weaves conceits that challenge the most idealistic Petrarchan manner. The beloved mistress is no mere donna angelicata; in her intuition of the speaker's mind she is more than an angel with implicitly divine knowledge:

   As lightning, or a Tapers light,
   Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak'd mee;
   Yet I thought thee
   (For thou lovest truth) an Angell, at first sight,
   But when I saw thou sawest my heart,
   And knew'st my thoughts, beyond an Angels art,
   When thou knew'st what I dreamt, when thou knew'st when
   Excesse of joy would wake me, and cam'st then,
   I doe confesse, it could not chuse but bee
   Prophane, to thinke thee any thing but thee. (11-20)

This stanza is both rather grandiose in its language and yet at the same time an example of strictly verbal irony: to say that it is "prophane" to think a woman less than herself, when less means angelic, is in fact profane because the assertion implies that a mortal creature is divine. Both the comedy and the complexity increase in the following stanza when the lady's divinity is put in doubt because of her reluctance to "act the rest" of the speaker's "dreame":

   Comming and staying show'd thee, thee,
   But rising makes me doubt, that now,
   Thou art not thou.
   That love is weake, where feare's as strong as hee;
   `Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,
   If mixture it of Feare, Shame, Honor, have;
   Perchance as torches which must ready bee,
   Men light and put out, so thou deal'st with mee,
   Thou cam'st to kindle, goest to come; Then I
   Will dreame that hope againe, but else would die. (21-30)

There is a great deal here of sheer metaphysical mockery of the pretensions of erotic idealism: the slangy puns on "Comming" and "die"; the outrageously phallic torch, lit only to be put by in readiness, that suggests the woman to be tease; and, above all, the pseudo-Scholastic speculation about how a woman is not who she is and love "not all spirit, pure, and brave" except when it is realized in the flesh. It is a seducer's paradox that argues for the identification of purity and spirituality with physical consummation.

Yet there is a gentleness, even a tenderness, in "The Dreame" that elevates it above a mere cynical irony. The difference is apparent in the contrast with the bitterness of another famous poem about a woman coming into a man's bedroom: "They fle from me that sometyme did me seke/With naked fote stalking in my chambre" (Wyatt 1-3). Readers who know Donne's history will be drawn to set the scene of the poem in York House, and picture the charming intruder in the persona's chamber as a very young Anne More, both daring and diffident, drawn irresistibly to, and yet somewhat afraid of, the witty, sophisticated courtier with the dubious reputation, rather unaccountably employed by her step-uncle. The poem's delicate blend of wry humor and breathless ardor bespeaks both the love and lust of a man who thought his mistress a goddess, but liked his goddess to be flesh and blood--a carnal substitute, perhaps, for the deity incarnate in the sacrament of the Altar that the actual, historical John Donne must have been relinquishing about the time he met Anne More.

However, before casting the roles for this BBC costume drama, we must remember that erotic dreams would have represented a familiar poetic topic for Donne and his contemporaries. "Dreams are not unusual in the Roman love elegy," Clifford Endres observes as he comments on the strikingly original imitation of the motif by Joannes Secundus (1511-1536), who was in turn imitated by other sixteenth-century poets, both Neo-Latin and vernacular (126). As in "The Dreame," the speaker of Secundus' Somnium is concerned about the tension between his desires to possess his beloved sexually and the restraints imposed by social and familial disapproval:

   Non fora, non portus, non jam populosa theatra,
   Templaque sunt nostris conscia blanditiis.
   Mater abest, digitis legem quae ponat, et ori,
   Et cogat tremulo murmure pauca loqui,
   Osculaque aridulis non continuanda labellis
   Carpere, quae juret barbara, quisquis amat,
   Et celare faces, et amici obtexere nomen,
   Multaque quae solers fingere discit Amor. (Elegiae I.x.7-14)

[Now no markets, no warehouses, no packed theatres, no temples are privy to our pleasures. The mother is away who imposes law on fingers and mouths, and constrains us to speak few words in a low murmur, to reap no lingering kisses on parched lips (which any lover would regard as barbarous) to hide our burning torches, to weave the name of friend, and to feign many things which ingenious Love learns.]

Secundus not only anticipates Donne's torch, he also describes a beloved mistress as a source of light: "I hold thee, my Light, my Light, I hold thee" (24: "Te teneo, mea Lux, Lux mea, te teneo"). But in fact the two previous elegies (viii and ix) have described Julia's wedding to another man, and her appearance in the speaker's bed turns out to be only a dream:

   Julia, te teneo: superi, teneatis Olympum.
   Quid loquor? an vere, Julia, te teneo?
   Dormione? an vigilo? vera haec? an somnia sunt haec?
   Somnia seu, seu sunt vera, fruamur, age!
   Somnia si sunt haec, durent haec somnia longum,
   Nec vigilem faciat me, precor, ulla dies. (25-30)

[Julia, I am holding you: let the Gods above hold on to their Olympus. What am I saying? Do I truly, Julia, hold you? Do I sleep? Or do I wake? Is this real or is this a dream? Whether dream or reality let's enjoy it, let's do it! If this is a dream, may it last a long time, and let no daylight, I pray, awaken me.]

Like the lover of Secundus' Somnium, the speaker of "A most rare, and excellent Dreame, learnedly set downe by a woorthy Gentleman," which appeared in The Phoenix Nest in 1593, is consoled only by a dream, and unlike the resourceful persona of the Neo-Latin poem, he cannot even manage to stay asleep. The pace of the poem is leisurely: it runs to 60 stanzas of rime royal and includes a learned disquisition on the origin and nature of dreams worthy of Chaunticleer. After the distraught, unrequited lover finally lapses into sleep out of sheer exhaustion, "Slumber" brings him, "To mitigate the anguish of my thought," the vision of "a Ladie faire (33)" who, at the end of a twelve-stanza blazon, turns out to be "the portraict of the Saint, / Which deepe ingraued in my hart I beare, / The Mistres of my hope, my feare, my plaint" (36). The lady's explanation for her appearance in the gentleman's bedchamber is disarmingly innocent:

   With vnperceiued motion drawing ny,
   Vnto the bed of my distresse and feare,
   She with hir hand doth put the curtaine by,
   And sits her downe vpon the one side there:
   My wasted spirits quite amazed were,
   To see the sudden morning of those eies,
   Within the darke thus inexpected rise.
   Being abrode (quoth she) I lately hard,
   That you were falne into a sudden feuer,
   And solitarie in your chamber bard,
   From companie you did your selfe disseffeuer,
   To charitie it appertaineth euer,
   In duties to our neighbors for to sticke,
   And visit the afflicted and the sicke. (36)

The first of these two stanzas bears an obvious similarity to the situation at the beginning of Donne's "The Dreame," including again an emphasis upon the woman as bearer of light into the darkness. The lady in The Phoenix Nest, however, is devoid of that equivocal blend of daring and diffidence that characterizes her counterpart in Donne's poem. It takes several stanzas for her to realize that her lover expects her to cure his "feuer" without recourse to her garden herbs or "closet of conserues." When she finally understands what he is asking, they argue for several pages the standard love vs. honor theme, with the lady defending rational self-control against blind passion: "The argument is dull, and nothing quicke, / Bicause that I am faire, you should be sicke" (39). The lover's only effective counter-argument is a death-like faint, which leads the lady to relent and recall him to life "with a kisse." Unfortunately his joy is so great that the dream is broken and he awakens to "The vanitie and falsehood of these ioyes" (42-43).

PERUSING a volume like The Phoenix Nest is a forceful reminder of the power and originality of Donne's love poetry. "The Dreame" treats exactly the same dilemma as "A most rare, and excellent Dreame, learnedly set downe by a woorthy Gentelman": namely, the internal clash in a man between love and lust, between the longing to cherish with honor and to possess with casual pleasure, between the image of a woman as angelic, saintly, or divine and the predatory perception of a woman as a quarry. The poem printed in The Phoenix Nest, in keeping with the length of its title, spends 420 lines rehearsing a series of predictable, though loosely strung-together commonplaces. In just thirty lines Donne's poem evokes a world. The young woman who slips into her lover's room, listens to his blandishments, with their mixture of wry wit and anxious pleading, and then, suddenly panicked, draws back--she comes vividly to life in the words of Donne's poetic persona. There is no need for her to speak; we should probably imagine her hushing his expostulations with her finger at her lips, fascinated and fearful at the same time. She is so real that she generates a tremendous urge to find her in history, to re-create her biography. But what, in fact, makes her real is precisely the comparison of the poem in which she takes shape with the dreary litter of Phoenix Nests in their thousands despoiling the literary landscape. It is Donne's capacity to interact creatively with literary tradition that makes his poetry so much more than conventional literature. There is an element of truth in Northrop Frye's assertion that poems are made out of other poems, but all poems are not therefore equal.

But a good poet does not have to react against bad poems. Perhaps the most resonant context for Donne's "The Dreame" comes at the end of the very first canto of The Faerie Queene. Could any reader of poetry in the 1590s pick up Donne's account of a man awaking to find the woman of his dreams there at his bedside and not think of the Redcrosse Knight awaking to a demonic apparition of his beloved? There is a striking inverted parallel insofar as Spenser's hero is beguiled into mistaking an evil spirit--that is, a fallen angel--for the real Una, who allegorically represents the Truth; while Donne's persona at first mistakes the real woman for a mere "Angell." Donne's poem differs most notably from the first two bits of poetic context that we have considered insofar as "The Dreame" is not just a dream--the lady actually shows up in the bedroom. The difference with the scene created by Spenser is still more significant: Una bears a grave symbolic burden as the representation of the transcendental truth and the idea of the true Church. When the Redcrosse Knight finally chases the counterfeit out of his room--much unlike Donne's persona, who urges the lady to stay--it is as if the Truth itself has failed:

   Long after lay he musing at her mood,
   Much griev'd to thinke that gentle dame so light,
   For whose defence he was to shed his blood.

The Faerie Queene I.i.55)

It is no surprise when, several cantos later, in the company of that very different woman, the false "Fidessa," his iron resolve fails "Poured out in looseness on the grassy grownd, / Both carelesse of his health and of his fame" (I.vii.7).

"The Dreame" thus flashes a derisive smile at Spenser's aggressively Protestant, rigorously Neo-Platonic idea of Truth. It also gives point to what is clearly the superior reading of line seven: "Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice, / To make dreames truths; and fables histories" (7-8). If the lady in Donne's poem who enters the bedroom is contrasted with Spenser's Una, then Gardner's reading "so true" instead of "so truth" must be rejected; and the relevance of Grierson's citation of St. Thomas, which she dismisses, becomes clear (Gardner 209). Donne is proposing that truth is a flesh and blood woman, not a Platonic abstraction. The being of God, St. Thomas writes,

   is not only consistent with his understanding, but it even is his act of
   understanding; and his act of understanding is the measure and cause of
   every other being, and of every other understanding; and he is himself his
   own being and understanding. Hence it follows that not only is he truth in
   himself, but that he is the first and highest truth itself.(8)

In other words, God is truth itself because He is absolutely and completely Himself in a way impossible to any creature. The ironic exception is, of course, the lady who enters the bedroom in "The Dreame": she is "so truth" that she too is divine--but only so long as she stays:

   Comming and staying show'd thee, thee,
   But rising makes me doubt, that now,
   Thou art not thou. (21-23)

The woman in his bed, in his arms, is truth itself: palpable, concrete, existential reality. Gardner finds "`so truth' a very forced expression and the repetition of `truth ... truth' unpleasing to the ear" (209), but if the woman in "The Dreame" is set against Una as a differing version of truth, then Donne has provided an Aristotelian/Thomist vision to counter Spenser's Neo-Platonism.

To be sure, "The Dreame," as well as many other poems among The Songs and Sonets, offers a very irreverent version of Thomism or more generally of Catholic doctrine and practice. It behooves us to recall, again, that in the course of writing these poems Donne was moving away from the faith of his youth. Most especially, he was relinquishing the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar--the ultimate manifestation of God's truth in the Catholic liturgy. If the poet's reckless marriage to Anne More was the decisive event in his spiritual journey, then he can be said to have surrendered the Body of Christ for the body of a woman, the flesh and blood present on the altar for the "divine" presence of the woman in the bed. "What Donne proposes in his most idealized love lyrics," writes Anthony Low, "is a union between lovers that is essentially communal, sacred, and religious in a certain sense, but neither Christian nor social" (63). While Spenser tries to reconcile human sexual love with a militantly Protestant, Platonically spiritual version of truth, Donne attempts to forge a dramatic account of the truth of Eros that is ironically modelled on Catholicism at its most incarnational and sacramental. This convergence of conflicting elements--religious and political strife, philosophical and literary competition, the clash of Petrarchan idealism and cynical libertinism--results in the equivocal tension and the pervasive irony that mark the love poetry of John Donne.

An historical individual named John Donne with all his individual quirks and personal experiences; literary conventions derived from ancient elegy, from Medieval Scholasticism, from courtly love lyric, from Renaissance Petrarchanism, and from many other sources; ideas about love of religious, philosophical, and social origin--all these elements converge in the love poetry of John Donne along with many more too numerous to list. What holds them together and forges them into a unity is wit. Baltasar Gracifin calls this agudeza--literally "sharpness" or "keenness"--which finds its literary manifestation in the conceit: "What beauty is for the eyes, what harmony is for the ears, the conceit is that for the understanding" (239).(9) The literary result is irony: the perception of the incongruous and contradictory suspended together in a verbal matrix. Gracifin goes on to define the conceit (concepto) as "an act of the understanding that expresses the correspondence that is found among objects"--found or invented by "the artifice of ingenuity" (242; artificio del ingenio).(10) Literature is thus fundamentally ironic insofar as it acknowledges the incongruousness of human existence. Donne's love poetry is "a well wrought urne" precisely in recognizing its own heroic insufficiency against the temporal and material forces always threatening to overwhelm it. The wit and irony of Donne's poetry are very much akin to what a modern poet, Wallace Stevens, calls "nobility":

   It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without.
   It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It
   seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our
   self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the
   sound of its words, helps us to live our lives. (36)


(1.) This paper was first delivered as the Presidential address to the John Donne Society Conference of February, 1998. I am grateful to the suggestions made by members of the audience, and especially to my colleague, M. Thomas Hester, who read and commented on the manuscript.

(2.) For a more sympathetic account of Donne's relation to Catholicism, see Flynn, "Donne the Survivor" and John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. For recent and persuasive defenses of Donne's attitude toward women see Sabine, Hester, and Slights. For a less extreme view of Donne as absolutist, see Shuger 159-217, while the whole notion of Donne as absolutist is rejected by Shami. For another sympathetic view of Donne's politics, see Patterson.

(3.) See Young (3-4) for a discussion of the current misunderstanding of Brooks' understanding of irony.

(4.) For a variety of differing comments on Donne's debt to Roman erotic elegy, see, among others, LaBranche, Armstrong, Revard, and Stapleton.

(5.) See the textual notes in the editions of Shawcross and Gardner and Ben Jonson's remark that Donne's "verses of the Lost Chain, he hath by heart" (171).

(6.) See Haskin on the vexed question of autobiography in Donne's love poems, especially "The Canonization."

(7.) See also the portentous remark by Docherty, "The woman may comprise the world, but the man is its ruler with its riches at his disposal" (32).

(8.) Summa Theologiae: "Nam esse suum non solum est conforme suo intellectui; sed etiam est ipsum suum intelligere est mensura et causa omnis alterius esse, et omnis alterius intellectus; et ipse est suum esse et intelligere. Unde sequitur quod non solum in ipso sit veritas, sed quod ipse sit ipsa summa et prima veritas" (I.xvi.5).

(9.) "Lo que es para los ojos la hermosura, y para los oidos la consonancia, eso es para el entendimiento el concepto."

(10.) "De suerte que se puede definir el concepto: Es un acto del entendimiento que ezprime la correspondencia que se halla entre los objectos."


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Joint Editor of the John Donne Journal, R. V. Young is Professor of English and Director of Graduate Programs at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. His most recent books are At War with the Word (1999) and Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (2000).