POETS Day! John Donne

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Welcome to POETS Day! The John Donne Edition, so prepare to Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. By the time this post is published you still won’t have voted yet so feel free to make your workplace a haven for free speech. Who will end up holding the reins of power is on quite a few minds. People say that it’s impolite to talk about politics or religion in public, but people love to talk about politics and religion. Once they get going it’s Katie bar the door. Indulge their desires by giving the people what they want and don’t hold back. If people are reticent to speak up start assigning positions like a debating coach. “Sally, you defend congressional stock trades. Bill. Abortion. I’ve got you down for anti. Tommy, pretend to be above it all and keep saying that there’s no real difference between the parties.” Have fun with it. Maybe designate a supply closet as the penalty box. I’ll give it thirty minutes before everyone is at each other’s throats and forty-five before the walk outs begin. Follow suit. You aren’t going to get any work done in this environment. Hit the bars, grab a matinee, surf PornHub for the articles, take a walk along a creek, or otherwise indulge yourself. It’s the weekend and it comes early to those willing to seize it. But first, some metaphysical stuff.

Samuel Johnson had some harsh words for the metaphysical poets. He thought they were showoffs always trying to impress on the reader how learned they were. He’s probably right about that. He also had issues with their devotional poetry. He felt that any communication with God was by de facto divine and attempts to improve the experience by framing it poetically were attempts wasted. The divine exists above poetry. I’m not a Johnson aficionado so I have no idea whether or not he had similar issues with devotional poetry by non-metaphysical poets, but I have read a few lines of his explaining why it was okay when Milton did it. I just skimmed his Milton excuses, but it seemed to me like he was protesting too much.

Johnson also observed that the metaphysical poets can’t leave well enough alone. Elaborations of ideas get elaborated on. He wrote of Abraham Cowley, a later poet of the movement, “Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration.” They certainly do go on, but I find the power of description is determined by the phrase. Its too much to denigrate the whole because occasionally a member strays too far in a direction. If I were in the mood to pick a fight I would suggest to Johnson that the such instances should be judged as they come; the metaphysical poets deserve a more scrupulous enumeration. After reading this far I hope that I have impressed upon the reader how ingrained the democratic spirit is in America that a hobbyist who admits to having merely skimmed the man considered perhaps the greatest literary critic in the history of the English language feels no compunctions in finding fault with said critic’s conclusions in front of all and sundry.

This week’s poem, “The Dream” by Donne, does go on, but in a pleasant vein. Often the poets of this school will start in midst of something as Donne does here. The protagonist is dreaming about his beloved who wakes him and seamlessly makes the dream reality. He rebukes her when afterwards she wants to leave but comforts himself with the hope, a desperate hope given the closing, that he can return to dreaming of her. Behind the wonderful language is a simple prosaic story that is likely familiar to most: He imagined having sex. He had sex. He then wanted to go back to sleep. C’est la vie.

John Donne writes in a conversational style. The phrases are to the point, move quickly to the next concept, and then the next, conveying many things felt in succession. It’s three stanzas of ten lines each with an ABBACCDDEE rhyme scheme, although he makes a dog’s breakfast of it with lines 5-8 of the first stanza. The second and third stanzas each contain recalls to the first’s A rhyme.

John Donne will be known for his more complex works such as “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” where you read it and think it’s pleasant until you read an essay about it. Then you truly realize what Johnson meant when he wrote “The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to shew their learning was their whole endeavor…” Apparently, in order to fully grasp the poem you need to know all about what Love told Dante regarding angelic love as opposed to beastly love and how that can be represented by circles and lines and compass construction. It’s a hell of a piece of writing if you have time for it. Shew offs indeed.

“The Dream” requires less of an investment but still delivers on the pleasing end. Enjoy it and have a great weekend.

The Dream

John Donne (1573 – 1631)

Dear love, for nothing less than thee
Would I have broke this happy dream;
It was a theme
For reason, much too strong for fantasy,
Therefore thou wak’d’st me wisely; yet
My dream thou brok’st not, but continued’st it.
Thou art so true that thoughts of thee suffice
To make dreams truths, and fables histories;
Enter these arms, for since thou thought’st it best,
Not to dream all my dream, let’s act the rest.

As lightning, or a taper’s light,
Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak’d me;
Yet I thought thee
(For thou lovest truth) an angel, at first sight;
But when I saw thou sawest my heart,
And knew’st my thoughts, beyond an angel’s art,
When thou knew’st what I dreamt, when thou knew’st when
Excess of joy would wake me, and cam’st then,
I must confess, it could not choose but be
Profane, to think thee any thing but thee.

Coming and staying show’d thee, thee,
But rising makes me doubt, that now
Thou art not thou.
That love is weak where fear’s as strong as he;
‘Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,
If mixture it of fear, shame, honour have;
Perchance as torches, which must ready be,
Men light and put out, so thou deal’st with me;
Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come; then I
Will dream that hope again, but else would die.

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