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Byline: Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Publication Date: 04-01-2001
The meaning of "rage" in "The Canonization"
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Analyzing the climactic conceit of Donne's "Canonization," John Carey remarks that whereas future lovers invoke him as the intercessor for a peaceful love, "Donne's furious tirade in the poem shows us that love is not 'peace' to him at all" (43)-this in refutation of the "prayer" that reads, "You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage" (Donne 48). His reading founders on the fact that the addressee of "The Canonization" is not the beloved, the perfect peace of whose love Donne is defending, but rather a worldly adversarius, whose values he regards with an angry contempt. But while I believe Carey is wrong to confuse the tone of Donne's apologia pro amore suo with the love itself, I agree that "rage" should be read with its modern acceptation, namely, "(a fit of) violent anger" (OED). Construed thus, it has an antithetical relation to "peace."
A. J. Smith, however, provides a different take in his annotations to the poem. Ascribing to "rage" the less common meaning of "intensity ... of a feeling" (OED), he glosses "rage" as "the bliss of love's saints in heaven, the highest ecstasy" (Donne 362). Construed thus, "peace" becomes a milder point on the same continuum as "rage," and not its opposite. As I see it, this interpretation, interesting though it may be, poses quite as many problems as Carey's. For a start, Donne believed that the universe was running down, as witness these lines from "An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary":
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again into his atomics.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot. (276)
In other words, if traditional relations, whether physical or familial, are disintegrating, then they will have disintegrated even more for the future generations that "The Canonization" projects. Instead of harmony, there will be rage, and lovers to come will look back to St. John and St. Ann-if we assume this lyric to celebrate the love for which Donne lost the world-as a pattern of that peace. Such peace "The Good Morrow" presents inter alia as the absence of anxious vigilance-"And now good morrow to our waking souls, / That watch not one another out of fear" (60)-and it is that which has earned them their canonization as the saints of love, not, as Smith claims, their having been "true martyrs for whom a worldly disaster turns by their death into an eternal triumph" (362).
Having miraculously realized "the peace which passeth understanding" on earth, Donne and his wife earn the heavenly franchise for that branch of intercession. Saints, after all, as often are canonized for imitatio Christi as for bloody ends. The death of the lovers is not a martyrdom; they have already reached a beatific, a heavenly calm in a raging world, participating in the infinite alpha and omega of godhead in "The Anniversary" ("But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day," Donne 42), as well as its omnipresence in "The Good Morrow" ("And makes one little room, an everywhere," Donne 60). For that reason, they earn a place in heaven as perfect embodiments of eros turned agape.
If I am right in reading the peaceful love that Donne and his wife experience on earth as a phenomenon continuous with what they experience in heaven (cf. Edgecombe), then we must construe the conceit differently. Surely the Catholic doctrine of intercession implies that one invokes the saints chiefly when in distress. By demarcating such provinces of hagiological expertise as "lost keys" (St. Anthony of Padua) and "hopeless causes" (St. Jude), the church would.certainly suggest as much. What would be the point of invoking Donne and his wife simply because they are now enjoying a more intense version of their previous love? None. They are invoked because their love has become an irrecoverable datum, like the heavenly presence that, as Herbert's "Whitsunday" at one point suggests, withdrew from the world in the centuries after Pentecost. Donne's "now" much more logically attaches itself to the future generations in which lovers invariably quarrel, or, just as bad, live with the frustration of an unrequited love akin to Romeo's:
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create. (Shakespeare 90)
Donne has implied as much earlier in "The Canonization" by separating the undifferentiated fusion of his love from a world characterized by divisiveness and (though the word is not used) rage:
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love. (47)
The "then and now" scheme thus applies to love as it was in 1602, and to love as it is in 1702 or 1802 or 1902, when the center has given, and things have fallen apart. That, I believe, is the rage to which Donne refers in the last stanza: a future anger and heatedness, not a sublime version of the terrestrial love he has already experienced with Ann.
RODNEY STENNING EDGECOMBE
University of Cape Town
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Spring 2001