In the latest issue:

Robespierre’s Chamber Pot

Julian Barnes

Too early or too late?

David Runciman

Short Cuts: Five Victorian Marriages

Tom Crewe

Society as a Broadband Network

William Davies

Fifteen days from now

Thomas Jones

In 1348

James Meek

The Yorkists

John Guy

At the Movies: Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’

Michael Wood

Whitehall Spookery

Neal Ascherson

Poem: ‘The Bannisters’

Paul Muldoon

Clarice Lispector

Rivka Galchen

Marius Petipa

Simon Morrison

At the Foundling Museum: ‘Portraying Pregnancy’

Joanne O’Leary

Gordon v. O’Connor

Rupert Thomson

Revism

Joe Dunthorne

Poem: ‘The Reach of the Sea’

Maureen N. McLane

Diary: Where water used to be

Rosa Lyster

Cold FeetFrank Kermode
Close
Close
Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. I: Donne and the New Philosophy 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Cambridge, 296 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 44043 2
Show More
William Empson: The Critical Achievement 
edited by Chistopher Norris and Nigel Mapp.
Cambridge, 319 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 35386 6
Show More
Show More

William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, not wishing to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity. Christopher Norris comes right out and calls Complex Words ‘a work of deconstruction’. His collection is meant to demonstrate that Empson can be accommodated in modern theory. It can now be shown that he was in many ways anticipating the interests and procedures of a newer criticism, though Norris in his Preface cautiously denies any intention to annex Empson’s criticism to any one prevailing trend: ‘it is a hopeful sign,’ he remarks, ‘that “theory” is coming of age when it manages to find room for a strong but problematical figure like Empson, a critic whose thinking goes so markedly against some of its basic precepts and principles.’

As a rhetorical concession this is prudent and ingenious, but it gives some measure of the size of the task. Norris knows very well what Empson thought of these precepts and principles. He once sent the great man some essays from the new French school, including Derrida’s famous lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, later treated as a manifesto by his American followers. Empson wrote back to say he found all these papers, including the one by Derrida, or ‘Nerrida’ as he preferred to name him, ‘very disgusting’. Norris, or Dorris, as Empson might have called him in his later career as a theorist, laments, not without reason, that his correspondent showed no signs of having understood what he had found disgusting. On the whole the current tendency is to compare and contrast him not with Derrida but with de Man – Norris spends time on this comparison, and Neil Hertz, in the collection reviewed here, has a whole essay about it. One can only imagine what Empson would have said about that, or what names he would have found for these in so many respects unlikely mates. True, Empson and de Man shared a certain hauteur, and a certain iconoclasm, but the political adhesions were different, and so were the critical dialects, one conscientiously bluff, the other rarefied and prone to gallicism.

That Complex Words is what Norris calls it, ‘Empson’s great theoretical summa’, is the view also of his contributors William Righter, Alan Durant and Colin MacCabe, and Jean Lecercle, whose lively piece includes a remark to the effect that the poem ‘Camping Out’ mentions a girlfriend cleaning her teeth into the lake. Empson, so keen on biography, would have liked him to know that this was no girlfriend but a sister.

Norris’s own essay takes up a good third of the whole book and best explains what is going on. There are, as he rightly remarks, more misunderstandings of Empson’s critical positions than is defensible. For example, Empson’s loose association with the American New Critics of long ago has given rise to the notion that he agreed with their anti-intentionalism, although for forty years he went on explaining with increasing force and irritation that the purpose of criticism was to follow the movement of the author’s mind. He saved some of his more brutal insults for W.K. Wimsatt, co-author of a famous article about ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. In the end, I think, this particular bogey distracted him from what he did best, and in Using Biography he seems to have given up movements of mind in favour of fancies and speculations he wouldn’t at earlier dates have thought relevant.

However, you would expect that this strain in his thought, alien not only to the old New Criticism but to the new New Criticism, might give Norris some trouble. He gets out of it by what I take to be a change in his own position, so that theory, now come of age, can henceforth permit some attention to what was intended. Again, it is a congenial consideration that Empson thought that the New Critics adapted his methods in a sneaky way to import Christianity into the argument: indeed, he believed that the decay of criticism was directly due to this intrusion of what Norris calls ‘surrogate or ersatz theology’. This accounts for his habit, sometimes baffling to the agnostic opponent, of condemning criticism he disagreed with as ‘neo-Christian’. The prefix suggests that indignant denials of Christian faith were merely evasive and would do you no good: you could be neo-Christian without being Christian. I think that historically this has something to do with a certain fashion for Christian criticism, and a more general worry about poetry and belief, at the time of Empson’s return from China; this fashion, led by such as C.S. Lewis and practised by such as Fr Martin Jarrett-Kerr, seemed interesting to others, who may thus have seemed, willy-nilly, to be crypto-Christians.

One point of importance in this, as usual good, but as usual digressive, essay concerns Empson’s refusal to distinguish between the truth of poetry and the truth of science. He rejected the ‘pseudo-statement’ theory of his mentor I.A. Richards, and as time went on had many tussles with the problem of figurative language, which often apparently says the thing that is not. He came to think of most contemporary literary criticism as a dreary professional attempt to avoid decisions about truth-statements made in poems. And of course he suspected a Christian plot. Norris is quite right to say that ‘what comes through most strongly is his deep-laid conviction that the best – indeed the only – way to make sense of complex or problematic novels or poems is to read them with a mind unburdened by the self-denying ordinances of modern critical dogma.’ But of course there are other forms of prejudice. Problems arising from arguments about truth and prejudice were to lead to noisy arguments about Donne.

I believe firmly that Empson was a great critic, but have to regard as wasteful his advocacy, over many years, of an eccentric view of Donne. To understand that view, here documented in full and supported by John Haffenden’s conscientious and adulatory commentary, one point at least is essential. Empson found it all but impossible to believe that any intelligent and honest person could be a Christian. A lot of his work is devoted to showing that even writers who would have been amazed to hear it nevertheless did at some level of sensibility or intellect see through the horrors of the Christian religion; Milton is the most obvious example (Milton’s God, 1961), but the very devout Herbert is another.

Donne he had early taken as his model, regarding him, he says, with awe and love, and trying to write poems like his. That Donne became a famous parson was not too grave a problem, since he took orders against his will, because no other way of making a living was open to him; he wrote most of his poetry, and all of his erotic poetry, before he did so. (Empson doesn’t show much interest in the sermons and devotional writings.) He cannot have accepted such absurd doctrines as the Trinity, and such horrible notions as Atonement, or believed in a religion that permitted you to torture your theological adversaries and burn them alive.

A minor instance of Empson’s reflex of disgust at Christian thinking comes up in Norris’s introduction, worth mentioning only because it shows how that reflex could block understanding. I had remarked, in a book he reviewed, that in Mark 4.11-12, a famous crux, Jesus is plainly reported as saying that he uses parables to ensure that the people will miss his point: in order that ‘hearing they may hear, and not understand’. Empson professed to think that I, in his peculiar view a palpable neo-Christian, was reverently offering this as a piece of divine wisdom; as Norris puts it, he ‘was quick to discern the hints of a quasi-theological dimension’. My supposed misrepresentation was dismissed by Empson in the interests of ‘a forthright appeal to common sense’. Norris applauds Empson for what in any lesser figure would be dismissed as a mere failure of attention.

Critics who disagreed with Empson about Donne got specially harsh treatment. The poet came from a devout Catholic family which was all too familiar with the penalties of recusancy; and it cannot be denied that he was very well read in theology, which Empson regarded as double-talk, a means of hiding from good men the insane wickedness of the God they were obliged, under state penalties, to worship. So no one will say that Donne was indifferent to religion. However, it can be maintained that he saw through Christianity and made up a religion of his own, the tenets of which can be reconstructed from some clues in the poems, and involve the idea of woman as a rival and superior Logos. This religion of love transcended Christianity, and was very modern in that it (more or less secretly) accepted the doctrine of plurality of worlds and the possibility of life on other planets: so it depended heavily on the New Philosophy of the time. Empson believed that Donne imagined lovers rejoicing in a liberty unknown under the political circumstances of the time, but available in America, and conceivably on some inhabitable planet in the newly opened-up universe.

Though nobody had taken quite this line before, Donne and the New Philosophy has long been a stock literary-history problem. Empson went carefully into the question of Elizabethan Copernicanism. In 1576 Thomas Digges published a book by his father with an addition accepting Copernicus; it was often reprinted, though without alteration or further addition. Since Digges went on doing advanced astronomy, Empson took this continual reprinting of an unchanged text as evidence of censorship. This is possible, though merely conjecture. But in any case it is probable that a well-connected young man, with an immoderate thirst for learning, would know quite a bit about Digges, and about the novae which, after 1572, upset the traditional idea of the incorruptible heavens. Moreover, Giordano Bruno, the main proponent of the idea that there were other inhabited planets (which gave rise to awkward theological problems, especially concerning Incarnation and Redemption), had made a stir in England. He was well known, for example to Sidney, and doubtless to London groups of freethinkers, like those around Ralegh and the ‘wizard’ Earl of Northumberland.

Haffenden talks about the ‘School of Night’, dominated by such figures as Thomas Harriot, magician and atheist. The School of Night is conjectured to have been an organisation devoted to this kind of modern study; here it is offered as undoubted historical fact. The term derives from a dubious reading in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and good authorities treat it sceptically. Haffenden says nothing of this in his text, consigning evidence against it to the backnotes. But even if there was no group called the School of Night there were certainly people who behaved as its members are thought by some to have done. Harriot had a special reputation as the original thinker; not much is known about his thought, but one has a rough idea of the kind of thing he would go in for. At that time the patterns of learning were not as they later became, and an interest in scientific cosmology was perfectly consistent with astrology, alchemy, skrying and magic in general. Marlowe, it was reported, thought Harriot a better magician than Moses.

Empson, wanting to make Donne as like himself as possible, argues that he would have been very interested indeed in the work of these groups, though he seems to take little account of their interests other than in the new astronomy. The great mage John Dee, a central figure, was a scholar and had one of the great libraries of the age; he was famous not only for editing Euclid but for extraordinary feats of magic, alchemy and fortune-telling. So one ought not to think of these people simply as intellectual revolutionaries dedicated to the advancement of modern science in its early phase. And Donne’s poetry uses far more alchemy, angelology and scholastic philosophy then it does up-to-date astronomy. He would be aware that there were exciting new ideas around, but that would not be a reason to give up all the old and more familiar ones, and on any unembattled view he was far from doing so.

In this respect Donne’s position is indeed somewhat like the young Empson’s. The study of Donne in the Twenties was conditioned by the mistaken idea that he strongly resembled the Symbolist poets, an idea given up when, with the help of Grierson’s edition, people perceived that the poems, although difficult because of their extraordinary intellectual ingenuity, normally had perfectly clear arguments one could follow if one could come to terms with the unfamiliar allusions. These, as I say, were more often to scholastic philosophy, angelology and indeed the old Ptolemaic cosmology than to Copernicus. When Donne talks about spheres he is quite naturally thinking of the Ptolemaic ones, one to each planet including the moon, with the earth at the centre; round these spheres an angel or intelligence drove the planet, rather, as the contemptuous Scaliger was later to remark, like horses in a pound. This sense of ‘sphere’ was not altogether suitable for Empson’s argument, so he had to insist that Donne also habitually used it to mean ‘planet’.

Empson badly wanted to keep hold of the belief of his youth – that the ideas of the New Philosophy were central to Donne’s poetry – and this book contains repeated affirmations of that belief. I have to say that, however ingenious and entertaining the arguments, nothing here persuades me to alter the opinion tersely expressed and supported by citation in 1951 by J.C. Maxwell, a scholar whose name is absent from the index of Haffenden’s collection: namely, that the impact on Donne of New Philosophy has been much exaggerated. At a time of worrying cultural crisis, Donne was needed to represent an earlier worrying cultural crisis – the earth was no longer at the centre of the creation, there was a general ferment of religious and philosophical ideas, and so on. The truth seems to be that Donne was interested in Copernican theory exactly as he was interested in other forms of learning: exciting as they may have been, there were considerations that limited their force. In ‘The Second Anniversary’ he gives a list of baffling intellectual problems and closes it with a dismissive couplet:

In heaven thou straight know’st all concerning it,
And what concerns it not shall straight forget.

Empson abhorred the notion that somebody could be quite passionately interested in learning, yet at the same time remain somehow uncommitted to it. And well he might be, for it is an old Christian idea, and Donne had a severe Christian education. The sin of curiositas was a desire for human learning strong enough to impair performance of the higher duty of saving one’s soul. It was possible for very learned men such as Augustine and Milton to condemn it; and it was sometimes stated in very repressive forms, as indeed it is in Paradise Regained. That Donne should have such an opinion even in a mild form was unacceptable to Empson because he would feel contempt for anybody who held it. So he fights throughout for a Donne who was not only profoundly interested in all this new science, but gave it his real assent and even used it as the foundation of a new religion to supplant disgusting Christianity.

Haffenden backs him up loyally whenever he can, saying, for instance, that Donne might have known Kepler’s Somnium long before it was published in Prague, because Kepler corresponded with Harriot and Donne may have known Harriot; the possibility is admittedly slight, especially since nobody outside Prague, according to Kepler himself, saw the Somnium until 1611, a year after Donne’s skit Ignatius his Conclave, which could otherwise have been indebted to it ... Oh well, says Haffenden, ‘it is not unimaginable that Kepler got the date wrong.’ This is a way of introducing supporting evidence even when you know it to be false, a practice now common in our courts of justice but still not admirable. There is more of this kind of ‘not impossible’ argument. It is even suggested that when Donne wrote the Conclave he might well have included an allusion to Bruno’s De Immenso; as it isn’t there now he must have discreetly crossed it out later.

The real point is not, I think, affected by arguments as to whether Donne knew or read this author or that. It is to decide how, if he knew quite a bit about these matters, which is plausible, he responded to them. One answer is that they mostly got into his poems as witty and conceited arguments or illustrations, demonstrating the same degree of commitment as his repeated allusions to the conduct of angels and alchemists. Haffenden, taking his tone from the master, would condemn this position as an instance of ‘superficialism’ – or worse, as implying that Donne was a liar. This is a curious objection. Empson, in his poetry, was often himself given to conceits and to a wide range of allusions which are not to be taken as simple statements of truth (‘All those large dreams by which men long live well/Are magic-lanterned on the smoke of hell’).

This difficulty about belief and figuration in poetry is central to the problems posed in this book; it is as if Empson, with Haffenden in attendance, had devised a special philosophy of rhetoric for this poet, the favourite of his youth. To make it clearer how this arrangement affects the reading of the poems I had better give a sample or two, explaining first that Empson, who hated what Helen Gardner made of the texts, and often attacked her with asperity and justice, also wanted readings that suited his view of the matter best, just as he rightly says she did. The quarrel extends to many poems, but I must select, and the best place to begin is probably the Elegy ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’, disagreement about which caused Empson to be remarkably nasty to not one but two Merton Professors, Helen Gardner and John Carey.

The poem is an impatiently erotic series of exhortations to a woman to hurry up and undress:

Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing ...
License my roving hands and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land ...

The textual difficulty comes near the end, when he is talking about the last garment:

       cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.

Such is the version in the belated first printing of the poem in 1669; the poem had been omitted in the edition of 1633, presumably on moral grounds. There is manuscript authority for a different reading: ‘There is no penance due to innocence.’

Empson wants this to be the true version; the poem is saying that there is no guilt in sex, that the woman represents freedom, like America; he also compares her to an angel, and a good angel; bad ones ‘set our hairs, but these the flesh upright’. Moreover he says, in a theological figure, that women are the source of grace to the elect. In short, he could not have written a line saying the woman wasn’t innocent. Empson supposed it had been altered, at first carelessly, by somebody who substituted ‘much less’ for ‘due to’, whereupon somebody else changed ‘Here’ to ‘There’, to make sense. The reading given by Helen Gardner he can’t accept, since it is out of key with the rest, which can be fitted into Empson’s general view that the young Donne was serious about sex; in any case it would be a blunder for the lover in these circumstances to tell the girl she wasn’t innocent, while on the whole claiming that in going to bed with him she would indeed be behaving very correctly. Critics who favour the Gardner reading, he thought, are likely to be the sort that deplore young people doing such things.

In short, Empson needs the manuscript version. He could be right, though it is not very likely. This is, for all its undoubted erotic force, an odd poem; as Barbara Everett once pointed out, it might be thought a record of failure, since the only participant who is undressed at the end of the poem is the man (‘To teach thee I am naked first’). What Empsom seems to have left out of consideration is that there is quite a lot of Donne that takes a Juanish view of women; for instance, the question of what women are to be loved for is taken up in a witty, macho way in the next elegy’, ‘Love’s Progress’. Since virtue is specifically named among the qualities for which we are told they should not be loved, we can be sure innocence was not, in the warmth of pursuit, thought essential or relevant. ‘Innocence’ might well be read as an ironic citation from the lexicon of conventional attitudes to sex; as in ‘The Dream’, ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ are said to have no place in the play of love.

My point is simple. One could reasonably prefer the reading Empson hates without having any of the reasons for doing so that he always angrily alleges. But he really needed his enemies, and enjoyed working hard to catch them out. One consequence is much textual quibbling, for instance, in his studies of ‘A Valediction: of weeping’. All will agree that it is a superb poem:

           Let me pour forth
  My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
  For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
  And by this mintage they are something worth,
           For thus they be
           Pregnant of thee;
  Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
  When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

         On a round ball
  A workman that hath copies by, can lay
  An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
  And quickly make that, which was nothing, All,

         So doth each tear
         Which thee doth wear,
  A globe, yea world by that impression grow,
  Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.

           O more than moon,
  Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
  Weep me not dead in thine arms, but forbear
  To teach the sea what it may do too soon;
           Let not the wind
           Example find
  To do me more harm than it purposeth;
  Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Who e’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death.*

The opening seems straightforward, but the first edition says ‘falst’ instead of ‘falls’. Grierson preferred ‘falst’ and so does Empson, who says the variant ‘raises large issues’. If the correct version is ‘falls’ the line means ‘that image of you that is on the tear falls with it’. In the last couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, you make a bad mistake it you take ‘she’ to be the subject of ‘belied’ rather than a word for ‘woman’:

And yet by heaven I swear my love is fair
As any she belied with false compare.

In rather a similar way it might be thought that some copyist mistakenly wrote ‘falst’ because he thought ‘thou’ was a pronoun subject, not a noun. Empson will have none of this, regarding ‘falls’ as dull, perverse and pedantic: ‘She’ – Gardner – ‘is doing what Theobald did to Shakespeare, altering the text to make a duller and simpler kind of poetry’. ‘Falst’ has the backing of Grierson in the original Oxford edition, though his gloss seems to me rather to fit ‘falls’: ‘as your image perishes in each tear that falls’. However, Empson argues that ‘falst’ is essential to the idea that the lady has a ‘real presence’ in her reflection. I cannot see why you couldn’t believe that while reading ‘falls’, thus avoiding not pedantry or harshness but nonsense. Empson sometimes gets himself into cantankerous fights without necessity; here his argument is as obscure as it is contemptuous.

One final instance: ‘The Dream’. Here the poet is dreaming about his mistress when she arrives and wakes him. She joins him in bed and later, to his regret, leaves, presumably out of caution. He consoles himself with the thought that she will return. Empson scolds Gardner for printing

Thou art so true, that thoughts of thee suffice
To make dreams truth ...

when the first edition has ‘thou art so truth ... to make dreams truths’, and Empson wants this. Here I agree entirely: the reading has good authority and is much more striking. John Carey and Gardner, I also agree, got this poem as a whole wrong, and are chid for it, but so does Haffenden, when he says the lover chides himself as ‘weak’; what he says is that ‘love is weak’ if it takes any notice of fear, shame or honour.

Empson is right about ‘so truth’, and about two other disputed readings in this beautiful text; but he feels obliged to argue that getting them and the poem right depends on our understanding that the lady is really God or rather better than God. At first the man thought his visitor was an angel, but then realised she couldn’t be, for she has read his mind and angels, unlike God, are not empowered to do that. So

I do confess I could not choose but be
Profane, to think thee anything but thee.

So, concludes Empson, she must be God, or his superior. But this hardly seems a necessary conclusion: the lover is saying that it would be profane to think her God, so he must settle for her being just her. An alternative reading is: ‘I do confess, it could not choose but be/Profaneness to think thee anything but thee.’ Rather remarkably, Empson likes this; and here, having been right about the drift of the poem, he is wrong on a detail because he wants support for his theory about a new religion. He thinks Donne changed the original reading because he ‘got cold feet’, and says that on purely textual grounds ‘it ... profaneness’ has more authority. The textual argument is very involved, and Empson went into it pretty thoroughly when attacking Gardner’s edition; but he could not have claimed that his textual choices were not, like hers, influenced by their coming to the poems with a set of prior assumptions about them and their author.

The battle is fought through these pages, and in very fine detail, but the conclusion has, I think, to be that following one’s nose – a practice Empson recommends for critics – can occasionally cheat one into following false scents. It remains impressive that one true poet should so wish to identify with a predecessor, should wish to credit him with the attitudes the newcomer finds most admirable, and wherever possible to clear him of all moral and intellectual blame, even if it means that less important commentators will sometimes be traduced. All Empson’s writings about Donne are labours of love, and have their own inwardness. Not many professional critics nowadays love poets in this manner. Empson’s new admirers do not love him for loving a poet, only for having had the prescience or luck to anticipate some of their theories. For on the whole it is for the theoretical elements of Complex Words, rather than the individual and devoted study of complex words in poems, that they seek, according to their lights and without necessity, to rescue Empson from critical oblivion.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 15 No. 16 · 19 August 1993

I much admired the poise and reasonableness of Professor Frank Kermode’s review of books by and about William Empson (LRB, 22 July). These gifts, though, can bring with them special assumptions. Kermode is generous, speaking of Empson as a great critic, if with strong reservations, and I happen to agree with this estimate. But the discussion involves terms that worry me.

Empson’s general theory of Donne Kermode calls ‘eccentric’. He wouldn’t want to say ‘wrong’, because he defines as one of Empson’s leading failings the wish to be ‘right’. What it can in his view lead to is described in a local point concerning the long debate about a reading in Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’: ‘Empson sometimes gets himself into cantankerous fights without necessity; here his argument is as obscure as it is contemptuous.’ ‘Gets himself’ and ‘cantankerous’ and ‘fights’ and ‘without necessity’ and ‘obscure’ are like ‘eccentric’: these words strike me as loaded and tendentious. They minimise the relevance of truth and feeling to the intellectual life.

To be more precise, there is more room than these terms suggest for difference of judgment as to the reading in question. I have to say that I agree with the first edition of the poem, made by Donne’s son just after the poet died, and with Grierson and with Empson. I am interested that Professor Kermode agrees with Dame Helen Gardner, a scholar with many unlike opinions to his, and think that a reading espoused by both needs disproving as it is likely to be either general or influential. But more importantly, I am disturbed that Kermode sees such differences as somehow (as he would say) ‘eccentric’ to the real stuff of poetry, ‘without necessity’: for he calls them ‘textual quibbling’. Because I believe that literary-critical and scholarly matters may still turn on intellectual issues of real weight, I’d like to ask for space to argue out a question that some of your readers may perhaps, like Professor Kermode, find trivial.

Kermode’s quotation of the first stanza of ‘A Valediction’ in a modernised form is – quite accidentally – tendentious as well (modernised versions of poets are often highly desirable, but not in textual discussions). I will quote the verse in Grierson’s unmodernised edition, on which in any case Gardner’s version is based:

Let me powre forth
My teares before thy face, whil’st I stay here,
For thy face coines them, and thy stampe they beare,
And by this Mintage they are something worth,
For thus they bee
Pregnant of thee;
Fruites of much griefe they are, emblemes of more,
When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

The debated phrase is the penultimate line’s ‘that thou falst’. Unpublished in Donne’s life time, the poem was passed in manuscript from hand to hand, and clearly much copied; and some surviving copies read not ‘falst’ but ‘falls’. It seems possible that this was mere colloquial modernising. But on it Helen Gardner based a confident new reading in her 1965 Oxford Donne. Adopting the manuscript ‘falls’, she read it as a third-person singular verb; she made its subject ‘that thou’; she took ‘that’ as a demonstrative, not a conjunction; and ‘thou’ as not a pronoun but an irregular noun, meaning ‘the-image-or-concept-of-you-reflected-in-my-tear; the real you’.

Professor Kermode’s ‘All will agree that it is a superb poem’ is pacific and intended to enlarge the area of debate by conciliation. The trouble is that in the process a steady look at the text is demoted to ‘quibbling’. And yet scholars and critics exist, one would have thought – and Kermode’s own excellent work helps support the belief – to show just how superbness depends on what the writer wrote. Though ‘A Valediction; of weeping’ is not my favourite Donne poem, brilliance and magnificence it certainly has. These derive from a peculiarly Donnian or Metaphysical fusing of contrasts. A lover says goodbye, and weeps to say it, and weeps more to realise what the grief of separation may humanly mean. In that process of discovering meaning, something simple becomes complicated – the simplicity and the complexity go on together. Saying goodbye (even for a while) involves some vast, essential human loss, as in the infinite void of pre-Creation: ‘Thou and I are nothing then.’ But, oddly enough, this very grand abstract ending is achieved through an all too concrete argument of images, weirdly precise concepts of tears-like-coins that clatter and jangle through the lines, finally softening through pregnancy and fruits to emblems then mere, sheer tears.

There is perhaps something here marvellously mimetic of real, problematic human partings, the combination of (say) plumbed souls and red noses. This couldn’t have been done by a lesser poet, and couldn’t be done by Donne himself except by the exercise of certain laws. There has to be in the writer an equality of energy and control, each vital, each contradictory to the other. If the poem is ‘superb’ this is because hard conditions are sustained; for instance, the undoubting pace with which Donne drives his difficult stanza through its mind-boggling logic of images to the incomparable abyss of the last line.

This requires unique economy and naturalness. The first edition’s ‘falst’ is already a contraction of ‘fallest’; comparably, the conjunction ‘that’, in ‘that thou falst’, needs to slip in the reading into ‘tht’ as the English always say it colloquially. Keeping the word unstressed lets it perform more than one syntactical function at once. It means ‘in that’ (‘weeping is unavoidable but ominous because it brings about what it grieves for, so we grieve more’) and also ‘lest that’ (‘we weep in fear that we lose the other’). The lover weeps from knowledge of more kinds of loss than mere separation: loss by distance and death, but also loss of love itself, of trust and belief in the other, of trust and belief in the self.

Helen Gardner’s new reading ruins the rhythm and thereby the meaning without (to my mind) any concomitant advantages. By turning the conjunction ‘that’ into a demonstrative, and the pronoun ‘thou’ into a new and difficult noun, she slows down the line as if dropping an anvil in the middle of it. What should be an unstressed and breathless colloquial iamb at the centre of the line becomes an obstructive distracting spondee; ‘When a teare falls, THAT THOU FALLS.’ The line rocks and changes direction under the difficulty of the phrase, and the wonderful desolate climax of the last line disintegrates.

Professor Kermode has implied in his An Appetite for Poetry that literary academics may be doing actual damage to literature. But perhaps they always have; or perhaps some of us sometimes have. This must be a matter of more than ‘textual quibbling’. And, if Empson is the ‘great’ critic that Kermode cautiously calls him this depends on more than a very brilliant mind (in any case, one always variable in its success). As a very good poet himself Empson cared enough about what is done to the living poetry of others to get into ‘fights’ about it, sometimes despairingly trying to prove his highly distinguished instincts ‘right’ by falling back on wrong arguments.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College. Oxford

In his review of William Empson: The Critical Achievement, Frank Kermode remarks that Empson would have liked one of the contributors to this volume of essays to know that the ‘she’ in the poem ‘Camping Out’ was not a girlfriend but a sister. In the poem ‘Aubade’ there is a ‘he’ who can easily be taken for a husband. The poet’s female companion explains that she must take a taxi and leave his bed when they are disturbed by an earthquake, because it will have woken someone who will ‘bawl’, and finding her not there, ‘would know’. This person, referred to as ‘he’, was not a husband but a small boy in the charge of the nursemaid who was the poet’s companion – as Empson explained when I wrote something which assumed a husband was involved.

S.F. Bolt
Cambridge

Vol. 15 No. 17 · 9 September 1993

When you really get down to it Barbara Everett’s letter (Letters, 19 August) is about a single disputed reading in Donne’s ‘Valediction: of weeping’, so I will refrain from comment on her more general remarks and merely say why I think she is wrong about that reading. I do not know why the modernised text was ‘tendentious’, nor is any evidence adduced to suggest that it was. However, I surrender, and add an ‘e’ to ‘tear’ to put the whole matter on a properly scholarly footing.

The line in question reads either: 1. ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore’ or 2. ‘When a teare falls, that thou falls which it bore.’ Ms Everett, like Empson, strongly favours the first of these; the second she twice calls ‘Helen Gardner’s new reading’, though why she calls it that, when it occurs in numerous 17th-century manuscripts, some of them authoritative, I cannot tell. (Nor do I understand why it is thought that because I have differed from Dame Helen on other issues I must perforce do so on this one.)

However, it is true that the first edition of 1633 favours 1, and that Grierson’s great edition prefers it also. Yet Grierson’s paraphrase, as I remarked in passing, seems, strangely enough, to be based on 2: ‘For, as your image perishes in each tear that falls, so shall we perish.’ And I admit that I couldn’t see Empson’s defence of it as proceeding from anything more cogent than his strong desire to be disagreeable to Gardner.

Ms Everett, on the other hand, offers to give reasons that are not mere ‘textual quibbling’ but considerations of weight for preferring 1. They are, as I understand them, a. ‘that’, or ‘tht’, means ‘in that’ and also ‘lest that’. Against 2 it is argued that by turning ‘that’ into a demonstrative and ‘thou’ into ‘a new and difficult noun’, Gardner and her predecessors have ruined both meaning and rhythm. In fact they saw what the meaning was; and far from injuring the rhythm by substituting an ‘obstructive spondee’ for an ‘unstressed and breathless iamb’ they may be thought to have saved the poem from clumsiness or nonsense.

This difference about rhythm might be called a matter of opinion or ear. It is less a matter of opinion than of common sense to prefer the reading which takes ‘that thou’ as meaning ‘that image of you in the tear’ to one that is as uncharacteristically strained as Ms Everett’s must be; so far as I can see she shuns direct paraphrase but has in mind something like ‘When a tear falls in that thou fallest which it bear’, plus ‘When a tear falls lest that thou fallest’, a Pelion of nonsense on an Ossa of the same. It seems to me far more likely that somebody just misunderstood the slightly unusual use of ‘thou’ as a noun (see OED s.v., 2a), and therefore stupidly changed ‘falls’ to ‘falst’, than that anybody went the other way about and changed ‘falst’ to ‘fall’ in a burst of ‘colloquial modernising’. If anybody really did need to alter ‘falst’ to ‘fall’ he had it in mind to make sense of the line and was smart enough to guess what the poet must have written. But I daresay it will be argued that I am misunderstanding Ms Everett, and, almost as bad, Donne.

Frank Kermode
Cambridge

Vol. 15 No. 19 · 7 October 1993

I remember saying to my old friend Helen Gardner long ago, perhaps while she was preparing her edition of Donne’s love poems (1965), that I was haunted by the possibility that Donne’s poem ‘The Anniversarie’ celebrated the ‘marriage of souls’, as Isaak Walton calls it, between Donne and John King. Helen said succinctly: ‘Forget it.’ But I didn’t forget it and, decades later, the interest recently shown by the LRB in the text of one of Donne’s lyrics emboldens me to outline the case for a new reading of another.

More precisely, it seems possible that ‘The Anniversarie’ celebrates the completion of the first year of a friendship that began in 1597-8, when John King became chaplain to the Lord Keeper Egerton and John Donne became Egerton’s secretary. When Walton calls this friendship ‘a marriage of souls’ in his life of Donne it is so apt a description of the subject of this poem that Walton might be covertly alluding to it. The part played by ‘bodies’ in this relationship is strikingly small. What will be lost in death will be ‘eyes’ and ‘eares’, the sight and speech of the loved one: ‘Oft fed with true oathes, and with sweet salt teares’. The language, though rather hectic by modern standards, is not more so than that used by the male friends Pyrocles and Musidorus in Sidney’s Arcadia, whose virtuous friendship allows one friend to kiss the other’s ‘weeping eyes’.

The love between the parties in ‘The Anniversarie’ will continue the same or be increased ‘when bodies to their graves, soules from their graves remove’. Are the bodies the graves of the souls? The desire to be buried together, ‘Two graves must hide thine and my corse/If one might, death were no divorce,’ reminds one that at this period male friends might with public approval desire not to be divided in death: for instance, in Caius College Chapel the tomb of Thomas Legge (d. 1607) bears an inscription commemorating his friendship with Stephen Perse, Junxit amor vivos sic jungat terra sepultos (‘love joined them living and so may the same earth link them in their graves’). But John King in 1598-9 was a married man, unlike those necessarily celibate fellows of colleges, and other considerations would enter in. Death was no divorce to Saul and Jonathan who were ‘lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their death they were not divided,’ as Donne no doubt recalls.

The concept of a love that might continue in heaven just as it was on earth is strikingly echoed by Cowley in his lines on David and Jonathan, fifty years later, in Davideis Bk II: ‘O ye blest Ones whose love on earth became/So pure that still in Heaven ‘tis but the same’. This for me a little confirms the notion that Donne, too, had been alluding to a David and Jonathan type friendship. Cowley may or may not have had ‘The Anniversarie’ in mind.

It is manifestly untrue that Donne could conceive of no virtuous love between man and woman outside matrimony (and matrimony is ruled out by ‘Two graves’ etc). But it must at least be granted that there is nothing to mark the person addressed in ‘The Anniversarie’ as female. Perhaps indeed there is a hint to the contrary in ‘Here upon earth, we’are Kings.’ A woman can be called a ‘Prince’, as Elizabeth often was, or a monarch, or a sovereign. It is at least extremely unusual for her to be called a ‘King’. It may seem on a hasty reading as though Donne does call his love a ‘King’ in ‘The Sunne Rising’:

Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.

But a more attentive reading shows that all these Kings are Donne himself: the lady has previously become ‘both the’India’s of spice and Myne’. The division of roles is clear in the next verse: ‘She’ is all States, and all Princes, I.’

I suggest that the starting point of ‘The Anniversarie’ was King’s surname; as one would expect, much punned upon at the time. Fuller tells us that James I was wont to call John King ‘the King of Preachers’. There is no need to labour the point that Donne liked such puns: and there is ample evidence that he habitually punned on the name of John King. In a letter of 1613 Donne refers to dining ‘at the King’s side at Pauls’, meaning ‘in the quarters of John King’. He carries on the pun in the same letter by calling Mrs King’s relations ‘the Queens kindred’.

The first line, it seems to me, is made more intelligible if the allusion to Kings and their favourites is to John King and his beloved friend John Donne. The scorn of court which Helen Gardner finds in it seems inappropriate. There may be a hint of playfulness but ‘All Kings, and all their favorites’ need involve no satirical fling, particularly in the reign of a queen. ‘Favorite’ here might have merely the sense of ‘person beloved’ as defined in Johnson’s Dictionary.

Donne of course often introduces the word ‘King’ into other love poems: but ‘The Anniversarie’ is, I believe, the only poem in which the notion of regality is sustained throughout. The pun is not slavishly adhered to, the roles of King and subject are interchangeable, but the notion of ‘reigning’ predominates. Like kings, the two are wished long life (vivat Rex), they are to love ‘nobly’, they have a reign by which the years are dated.

I should agree with C.S. Lewis, though he of course did not see the poem as I do, that it is a poem of delighted love. The rather unregenerate hint that in heaven the two will not be quite so happy because others will be as happy as they are at least marks the poet’s total content and zest for living.

Although John King did not remain long in the service of Egerton, he continued to be important in Donne’s life. It was King, then Bishop of London, who in 1615 ordained Donne deacon and priest. The Bishop died in 1621 and was buried in St Paul’s. On Easter Day 1630, preaching in St Paul’s, Donne speaks of ‘a love … that will melt one’s bowels if he do but passe over or passe by the grave of his dead friend’.

E.E. Duncan-Jones
Cambridge

Vol. 15 No. 20 · 21 October 1993

E.E. Duncan-Jones’s thoughts on same-sex love in Donne’s poem ‘The Anniversarie’ (Letters, 7 October) find some confirmation in an essay published last year in Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England, edited by Claude Summers (Harrington Park Press). George Klawitter draws attention to the verse epistles written in 1592-4, perhaps six years before ‘The Anniversarie’, between Donne (aged 20-22) and Thomas Woodward (aged 16-18). In the sonnet ‘Pregnant again with th’old twins Hope, and Feare’, Donne writes of his eagerness for Woodward’s letter and delight at receiving it:

After this banquet my Soule doth say grace,
And praise thee for’it, and zealously imbrace
Thy love, though I thinke thy love in this case
To be as gluttons, which say ’midst their meat,
They love that best of which they most do eat.

In the same volume, Janel Mueller discusses Donne’s ‘celebration and defence of a passionate lesbian relation’ in his poem ‘Sappho to Philaenis’.

William Empson observed in relation to the Woodward poems: ‘It would leave a scandal-monger in no doubt that the two lads had been up to something together’ (in his essay, ‘Rescuing Donne’). Our current sense of the scope of ‘friendship’ should help us to take the question further; see especially Alan Bray’s article, ‘Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England’ in Histoary Workshop (1990). What will not easily be resolved, nonetheless, is whether Donne is being idiosyncratic and adventurous, or merely conventional – precisely the controversy in relation to his apparently cross-sex writings.

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex

Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993

May I come in late over Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’ (Letters, 9 September)? The line currently in contention between Frank Kermode and Barbara Everett is: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore.’ The word in contention is ‘falst’, modernised to ‘falls’ in Helen Gardner’s edition, and accepted by Kermode. The late William Empson famously did not accept it, and that is where the story begins.

As I read and (thanks to Everett) hear the line, ‘falst’ puns on ‘false’/‘falls’ in a familiar indictment of female unchastity and untrust-worthiness. Everett also performs another familiar turn against Kermode’s reading, when she asserts the mutual trust and consequent mutual blame for betrayal of trust as between heterosexual lovers. This I believe is not Donne, but does well by liberal humanism in the British literary tradition.

The second clause of the same line reinforces the false/falls paronomasia. I read ‘which it bore’ within an ironic French-accented syntax, which carries the theme of cross-Channel travel and translation in the poem (and the period of its composition). To paraphrase the whole line: ‘When a tear falls, which you who bore it falsified’. The shift of the relative pronoun to the (French) position of antecedence to the verb is still the trap into which student translators of French into English are most likely to fall, by transposing grammatical subject and object of the principal verb. English grammar would allow Donne, had he wished (but he did not in my opinion), to have distinguished ‘whom it bore’ (Gardner-Kermode reading) from ‘who bore it’ (my reading).

Since in his text Donne has the neutral ‘which’, I cannot choose between ‘whom’ and ‘who’, and must attempt to persuade my readers in turn that ‘falst’ and ‘bore’ are two active verbs with a single feminine grammatical subject ‘thou’ who is elsewhere the ‘thee’ of Donne’s speaker’s address. Now we need both the concluding lines of Donne: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,/So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.’

A woman bears a child as she coins a word as she stamps a coin with a royal image as she translates a word from one side of the (whose?) Channel. And each and every one of these acts is illegitimised, counterfeit and unchaste, outside the control of the man who speaks and chides her with the ‘nothing’ (the ‘nought’ which he suspects she ‘goes to’) whenever he is absent from her side. He has reason to suspect for he judges her by himself, and this is what he goes to in spite of his (or are they only her?) tears.

Judith Barbour
University of Sydney

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences