Donne’s Will to Power

Christopher Ricks

  • John Donne: Life, Mind and Art by John Carey
    Faber, 303 pp, £9.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 571 11636 1

Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single-minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord’. For Carey, these powers, these sheer strengths, sweep everything before them, razing moral questions to moralism, spiritual values to pietism, and critical reservations to prissiness. Carey’s book is itself alive with the kind of energy which it attributes to Donne, and since he can think of no higher compliments than those he pays Donne, he will presumably be very happy to have them returned to him.

Yet there is a distinction between the masterful and the masterly, and this masterful portrait of Donne, as man and preacher and poet, is less than masterly because it is hypnotically blind to any such distinction.

        Oh, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength: but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Carey’s ears could not hear such a plea. His Donne is tyrannous, as is this Grand Vizier’s way of paying him homage. There is a confident continuity between the poet (when seen so) and his critic, and it is this which makes the book so compelling, though sometimes at the cost of cogency.

Just as Donne possesses some of the power of his angels, so Carey repossesses some of the power of Donne:

‘They are Creatures, that have not so much of Body as flesh is, as froth is, as a vapor is, as a sigh is, and yet with a touch they shall molder a rocke into lesse Atomes, then the sand that it stands upon; and a milstone into smaller flower, then it grinds.’ The utility of producing flour which is actually ground-up millstone is not, of course, something we are expected to inquire into. Donne’s angels are performing a pure feat of strength, as pointless, in its way, as tearing up telephone directories, only much more colossal. We are to admire them because they possess irresistible force.

Which is itself why we are to admire Donne, whose poems are as thrillingly pointless in their way as the tearing up of telephone directories. ‘He found scientific speculation, like theological speculation, compelling as well as pointless’ – which is how Carey delightedly finds Donne, and how I, less delightedly, find Carey. A hundred pages after the angels’ millstone, the mills have ground slowly to a grim cliché: ‘The fact is, he did not care whether the new theories were true or not, so long as they supplied material for his speculation. He wanted to feel free to entertain or dismiss them, and to play them off against his existing patterns of thought, as mood or occasion prompted. They were grist to his mill.’ All the quirks and feats of learning, the vaulting ambition of thought, the imperiousness of self-assertion, are grist to Carey’s mill. But the mill produces flour which is actually ground-up millstone. To ask for bread is then assuredly to be given a stone. The poetry is admired for being callous, brutal and pitiless.

For Carey hates the thought of being soppy. ‘What we require in a writer is not amiability, but the power to show us alternative ways of experiencing the world.’ Yet the antithesis is sturdily coercive, since it forbids the question of whether some alternative ways of experiencing the world are wiser and saner than others. The belief that great literature ministers to good things, and that good things cannot simply be a matter of maximising the alternative ways of experiencing the world, should not have been travestied as a liking for amiability. In his dislike of priggishness, Carey’s conscience often stings him into preferring a metallic consciencelessness to the exacerbated conscience of ‘readers of liberal views’. But this makes his praise of Donne belittling in its vehemence, as if what really mattered most was that at least he wasn’t today’s kind of blackguard. Donne, like Carey, ‘enjoyed outraging the narrow-minded’. But you could think better of Donne than that, could think that he appreciated that nothing narrowed the mind more than the constraints within which it had to operate to outrage the narrow-minded.

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