Brief notes on John Donne.

Or, thoughts that have probably all been written before. The following is just some mental processing/memory imprinting.

La Corona: Christ here becomes the model for selfhood, the poet a secondary model.

In poem 6, “The Resurrection,” along with Christ’s resurrection, the poet imagines the resurrection of the final days: “If in Thy little book my name Thou enroll, / Flesh in that long sleep is not putrefied, / But made that there, of which, and for which ’twas; / Nor can by any other means be glorified” (6.8-12). To be written is to return to a first, unfallen state — the state when one was made up of God’s thoughts alone. Words are real material (as opposed to putrefying flesh), and to write poetry, then, is to return oneself (or to remind oneself) of that state which is closest to God — which is God (to recall John’s opening lines). So the poet is a model for a proper relationship with the divine. But he is always second to God, dependent upon him. The writer’s poetry of praise may (in Donne’s repeated pun), raise God (“Thy holy Spirit, my Muse did raise” 7.13), but he can only do so because God has already raised himself, thus providing a model for the poet’s action. Again and again, human actions in The Corona repeatedly move towards the divine only to find that they have always already been incorporated into that divine, as the opening lines of the “Annunciation” sonnet reveal: “Salvation to all that will is night; / The All, which always is All everywhere” (2.1-2). All individuals requesting salvation have it, but the request for salvation is already anticipated by the divine, who already is “all.” Being already implicated in the process of turning towards the divine, however, poses the question of what room we have to fashion ourselves — a question I may have in mind because of the nature of this course (on devotional poetry, rhetoric, and subjectivity): Lanyer and Southwell are concerned with setting up proper models for worship, and distinguish from bad examples of attitudes towards God; Donne though, doesn’t leave us much room to reject a proper relationship with the divine.

[I’m imposing narrative on John Donne based on the order of reading. A convenient approach, if somewhat lazy.]

Holy Sonnets: The poet fashions an Aristotelian God.

The answer to how much control individuals have to fashion themselves seems to be located in the material world, as sonnet 3 indicates (Helen Gardner’s numbering): “So [to earth], fall my sins, they all may have their right, / To where they’re bred, and would press me, to hell. / Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil, / For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil” (3.10-14). The soul in the Holy Sonnets is always God’s (seemingly whether we like it or not — the speaker finds his only confidence in this fact). The problem is that despite the soul’s purity, even the most faithful people tend to muck everything in the material world up (the sonnets are a catalogue of spiritual weakness and error): so much so that the Christ who supposedly becomes “like man” (11.14) is a better example of earthly action. And the sonnets set him up as the proper example to follow in the material world, as opposed to people like Jacob: “And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire / But to supplant, and with gainful intent, / God clothed himself in vile man’s flesh that so / He might be weak enough to suffer woe (7.10-14). Fascinatingly, Donne includes “intent [and] reason” (5.5) along with other material aspects of the body, and reminds us that “To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assigned, / This beauteous form assures a pious mind” (9.13-14). (And these lines, in Gardner’s ordering, immediately followed by “Batter my heart,” Donne’s most infamously sexual sonnet — not to a female lover, but to God. The movement from mortal lover to immortal God indicate the poet’s attempt to reform his mind away from potential wickedness, perhaps.) I’m intrigued by the constant association of Satan with “the world, the flesh.” In the first sonnet, Satan fights against God  for the speaker — an image suggests God is as divided as the speaker (standing in for all humans) is. The difference, however, is that God has firm control over his “baser” aspects, and so in him, weakness is not weakness at all, but merely another part of an ordered whole.

Donne’s poem to Anne is the only one that rings hollow for me: the position of trying not to mourn is one where these poets always seem to stumble.

“The Cross”: “The Cross” shares all the ideas of the Holy Sonnets and The Corona: the impossibility of rejecting God, the idea that he had the crucifixion planned before the world began (and so builds the world after the pattern of the cross), the idea that Christ is the model for the self (and in this poem, even the body’s poses). And lots of puns.

Actually, considering this course is also on rhetoric, the puns should be more than an afterthought: they are the basis for the poem’s humour, its playfulness — they are, in effect, charming (in  the sense that they are pleasing, and because of that they win us over to Donne’s argument — even if their logic is based on at times unsound associative metaphor).

“Resurrection, imperfect”: Not sure how fruitful it is to note the same themes again. But it occurs to me that God’s ability to “dispose / Leaden and iron wills to good” and “make even sinful flesh like his” (14-16) doesn’t necessarily connote the transformation of all such persons. (I’m searching, here, for a way that Donne’s poetry and faith/ideology might account for the continued existence of sin following the resurrection.)

“Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608.“: The poem delights in the paradox of the anniversaries of both the birth and death of Christ happening on the same day, but the temporal meditations on which Donne embarks here are really repetitions of the way he construes God’s understanding of time in The Corona: that is, the patterns of the world are based on the knowledge that the Crucifixion will happen — in a sense, it already has happened for God (and this is why we’re able to read signs of God’s intentions in the world). It strikes me that Donne styles himself as a prophet of sorts — able to read and interpret signs (such as the coincidence of two events in the Christian calendar), and to give them meaning. The poet (who, if we remember from The Corona is set up as a model to imitate), reads not only texts, but the world itself — and actually seems to have much in common with the empirical scientist (hence Donne’s forays into scientific metaphor — in this poem, astronomy and navigation).

“Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”: Despite his protestations that he turns his back from the sun/Son in order to avoid the miserable spectacle of death, the poet still rides in the same direction as the sun, following its trajectory. And, the direction he faces is the direction in which the sun sets/dies. More styling self after Christ? More inevitability of avoiding Christ? Reading far too much into poem?

“Upon the translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney, and the Countess of Pembroke his sister.”: It seems wrong to say that I find the image of Christ as conductor, running between both the heavenly choirs and the human ones, tuning them both and teaching them how to listen to the other, a cute one. I’ll stick with observing that Donne engages in the same sort of flattering poem that Lanyer did last week — except the Sidneys aren’t Donne’s patrons, and they’ve already written their poetry, so he’s not using the poem to set up a model of what the Sidneys could be (last week we discussed how writers use flattery to shape their subjects’ behaviour). Instead, Donne sets up the Sidneys as a model for proper speech and worship — except we shouldn’t just try to speak like the Sidneys, we should speak exactly the Sidnean lines. Not just a model, here, but an actual script for gaining access to the heavens and God’s ear.

But the poem assumes that speech is enough (speech being words which are God), and doesn’t allow the possibility of an insincere imitation, an empty profession of faith: to speak the words is to pursue the divine. A comment on the strength and moving power of the poetry? Donne’s hopefulness that his parishioners listen sincerely to his words?

Shoot, I don’t know anything about Donne (bad early modernist!). I wonder to what extent the readership of his poems and the audience of his sermons is the same. Probably not much overlap; still, I wonder how his awareness of the latter audience affects his rhetorical strategies in his poems, or the models of faith he uses. In this context, the poet with his affinity for words makes a perfect sense as an ideal model (Donne would have to hope that people are going to listen to and respect rhetoricians, no?).

“To Mr Tilman after he had taken orders.”: A poem conveniently set to follow the last: Donne’s instructions to the formerly derogatory (towards the clergy) Tilman allows Donne to reflect on what he thinks the job of a cleric and preacher should be. Apparently, writing a sermon involves thinking in ways similar to the Petrarchan sonneteer, in that it involves becoming a “blessed hermaphrodite,” or “One who combines opposites” (54 and n.8). So perhaps Donne does conflate the paradoxical style of the sonnet with that of the sermon. I suppose such an attitude makes sense, given the paradox that rests in the concept of the fortunate fall (both in the narratives of Eden and Christ).

I don’t know why I feel more impelled to write about Donne’s work via biography. (Bad early modernist critic!)

“A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going into Germany”: I finally paid attention to Donne’s birth and death dates: 1572-1631 (he died quite young of a fever). At the date of this poem, he’s about 48: which seems a bit early to be preoccupied with death — though his wife had died only a few years previously. Ack! This was meant to be an attempt to read outside of biography. Though I think Anne’s death relates to (or, at least, it reminds me of) the mood of momento mori that runs through many of Donne’s poems. A literary trope, though one that is doubtless linked to the real deaths associated with plague, childbirth deaths, etc. (see, I’m considering Donne’s poems in the context of the literary and other environments in which he wrote them).

A really bland and oft-noted observation, but I guess one that connects to conceptions of self-hood and ways of thinking.

I wonder if reading other of Donne’s work might find he’s not so preoccupied with death as I think.

“Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness”. Donne likes the metaphor of the journey to describe a life: another common conception of self, and an interesting one given that it makes one a text to be read (“While my physicians by their love are grown / Cosmographers, and I their map,” 6-7). The way Donne conceives the metaphor (in conjunction with his own readings of both the world and biblical texts, and his sermons to others) fascinatingly brings together the spiritual and the material once again (as physicians engage in the same acts of reading and interpretation as he himself does). Donne’s poetry really does try to make no distinction between the secular and the spiritual.

The last lines, “Be this my text, my sermon to mine own, / Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down” (29-30), reveal the intrinsic connection between using a discourse to set up a model for others, and using that same discourse to construct beliefs for one’s own self. The comfort that Donne finds in his faith depends upon the models he sets up for his parishioners being true.

“A Hymn to God the Father”: I wonder about the role that jokes play in faith. Or that irony plays in securing a  stable conception of self.

Alright, those are all the readings for this week. I don’t think I’ll do this every week. Shall have to see how useful these notes are, practically, in class tomorrow.

6 February 2011 ~ Hamilton

Works Cited.

Donne, John. John Donne’s Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Arthur L. Clements. New York; London: Norton, 1991. Print.


2 thoughts on “Brief notes on John Donne.

  1. “the position of trying not to mourn is one where these poets always seem to stumble.”

    Isn’t that, in its own way, beautiful? I love Donne for how he dwells in contradiction, sometimes.

  2. That’s entirely why I love Donne. And because he’s witty. It’s almost impossible to be witty about personal death and loss though, and those breaks always seem to me to be very human moments.

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