Saturday, June 21, 2008

Meditations on John Donne

A difficult writer, a man who became a leader of his Church in England, whose sermons are as famous as his poems. Often quoted, often misunderstood. I've sung numerous choral settings if his words, feeling via the repetition of rehearsal the meanings of those words get under my skin. I've never set any of his words to music, as I have done with Hopkins, but there's still time.

John Donne, poet and priest, capable of erotic and satirical poetry as brilliant as his religious verse. A man of many facets, some of them contradictory. If you could call him back to life, for one day, to converse and ask questions of the man, I might ask him, How did you resolve your contradictions? or did you at all? Sometimes it's the inner conflicts in a writer that lead him or her to the greatest depths, the most profound insights into the human self and soul and mind. Sometimes it's the unresolved tensions, held in paradoxical suspension, that lead one towards enlightenment.

There's a light that shines through Donne's words, even at his darkest and most problematic, a light borne of experience. This is a poet who lived a life of hard, dark passages, which seasoned both his self and his art, and gave him the confidence to write about those dark times with a spiritual honesty echoes rarely in English poetry. The poet he is most often placed in companionship with, George Herbert, Donne's equal in many ways (and to whom Donne dedicated a poem), is another mirror in which we see these shadows. The are not dissimilar. (Oddly, we know more about Herbert than Donne, as persons.) We have a few portraits of Donne, some epitaphs, and other sources; but the man is still best viewed through the veil of his own writings.

This first poem, one of the Holy Sonnets, is well-known. But it is not deeply known, it seems to me. Few who read it seem to understand that Donne is both reflecting upon his soul's dark night, and begging for it to be afflicted upon him, again and again—break, blow, burn—because it is in the dark night that we find who we really are, when all else is stripped away. The imagery is violent, sensual, dramatic; a characteristic of Donne's greatest poems. How are we to take this? It is as if Donne is begging to be raped by the Divine, to be entered by Spirit and raised to ecstasy: the language is as sexual as it is spiritual.

Many of the world's mystics have used the language of sexual love to describe the movement of Spirit into themselves. What so many critics do not understand is that these mystical poets meant it to be literal ravishment, literal ecstasy, not merely some disembodied gnosis, some magnesium flare that separates mind from soma. I believe that Donne knew better; and this is what makes him a genuine mystical poet—the common label for Donne and Herbert, and their peers, the "metaphysical poets," falls far short of their actuality, their awareness that the soul and the body are One, not-two.


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.
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.
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.

This next poem is a lesser-known poem from Donne's canon, but to me it speaks, both figuratively and literally, of the start of new life, of rebirth and resurrection. It speaks to me of starting my own life over, after the difficult passage I have passed through. It speaks of the desert, but also of cool waters, of the ocean, but also of mist. Again Donne's language is violent, and he focuses on the passage of blood that he has passed through. But there is still light behind the blood.

La Corona
7. Ascension

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th' uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash'd, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter'd heaven for me!
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark'd the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

And then there are Donne's Devotions, the best known passage of which I quote below. No man is an island. We have all heard that countless times, even though we don't always know what it means. We ken it somehow on a non-verbal level, knowing that we are all One, all connected. Again, the mystical poet's vision is akin to the depth psychologists: the shared archetypal images of the collective unconscious give weight and truth to Donne's images and phrases: and we know them to be true. No man is an island: and on this spherical planet on which we ride, waters seek their lowest grounds: islands are not disconnected from the mainland, because all the land between the shore and the island is one land, connected under water. The water lies between, but also above and around the spine of the earth.

This seventeenth Meditation begins with the epigraph:

Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

And so we must. No one gets out of here alive. The two things we all share in common, without exception, and being born, and dying. The process of each binds us together, even if nothing else can. We are in relationship if only because we shall all shed the last skin.

Donne uses analogies and examples to make his point, in this Meditation, but he also states the truth, plainly and simply: for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

This is the asking for the dark night again. The asking for burial and rebirth. The shedding of the skin, to be reborn. Some centuries later, another poet, a far less pious and Christian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, gives us the same message, in very similar words, in the opening section Tenth of the Duino Elegies:

How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year-, not only a season
in time-, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil
and home.

And Donne echoes all this, in his Meditation:

The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

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