‘He affects the Metaphysics,’ Dryden wrote of John Donne, ‘not only in his satires, but in his Amorous Verses, where Nature alone should reign; and perplexes the Minds of the Fair Sex with nice Speculations of Philosophy, when he shou’d ingage their Hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of Love.’ He didn’t mean this as a compliment. When Dr Johnson invented the ‘metaphysical poets’ as a category, he objected along similar lines:
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they wrote only verses … The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
When I was a student I took Donne’s greatness as axiomatic. I still enjoy much of Donne much of the time, but will grant more readily that Dryden and Johnson had a point: conspicuous cleverness is not always a good thing. It can go too far, and seem merely frivolous. There are moments, subjects and genres where it feels out of place. The usual advice – read a poet’s best poems, and ignore the remainder – can be hard to follow with Donne, because his incandescent lines and his frivolous ones are found side by side; indeed, they may be the same lines, depending on how, or in what humour, you read them. This is true even of celebrated poems like ‘The Good-morrow’:
I wonder, by my trothe, what Thou, and I
Did, tyll we Lov’d, were wee not weand, tyll then?
But suck’d on Countrey pleasures childishly?
Or snorted wee in ’the seven Sleepers den?
’T was so; but thys, All Pleasures fancyes bee;
If ever Any Beauty I did see,
Which I desir’d and gott, ’t was but a Dreame of Thee.
And now, Good morrowe to our waking Soules,
Which watch not one another out of feare,
For Love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome an every where.
Lett Sea-discoverers to new worlds have gon,
Lett mapps, to others, worlds on worlds have showne;
Let us possess one worlde, Each hath One, and is One.
My face in thyne Eye, thyne in myne appears,
And true playne harts doe in the faces rest;
Where can wee find two better Hemispheares,
Without sharpe North, without declining West?
What ever dyes, was not mixt equally.
If our two Loves bee One, or Thou and I
Love so alike that none doe slacken, none can dye.
The poem describes the erotic glow at the beginning of an affair. ‘Countrey pleasures’ contains a sexual pun, as in Hamlet’s words to Ophelia: ‘Do you think I meant country matters?’ Though the sex of neither lover is specified, it’s easier to imagine the speaker as male, because men are more likely to brag about their promiscuity, then as now. The ‘good-morrow’ of the title comes first as a metaphor: we slept before we became lovers, now we wake. Real life starts now. In the second stanza a literal sense grows up alongside the metaphorical one: the couple waking together in their little room, with renewed desire and delight. The juxtaposition of New World explorers and the exploring of a lover’s body is typical of Donne; his poems delight in making small large and large small, comparing them, contrasting them, reversing them, collapsing one into the other.
In the third stanza the ‘metaphysical’ complexities come in. The lovers are looking into each other’s eyes at such close range that each sees their reflection in the eye of the other. Each eye is a globe; the visible part of each eye is half of a globe, a hemisphere, but without the uncomfortable changes of the great globe itself, cold (‘sharp north’) or sunset (‘declining west’): more micro/macro play, picking up on ‘worlds’ in the previous stanza. ‘What ever dyes, was not mixt equally’ draws on Galenic medical theory: disease comes from an imbalance, or unequal mixture, of humours in the body. The last two lines get philosophical. If our two loves are one love – if they are so perfectly reciprocal as to be one thing – then they, or it, is immortal (according to Aquinas, a single essence cannot be divided, corrupted or dissolved). Alternatively (‘or’ moves us from one possibility to the other) our loves are immortal if they are two exactly equal things. ‘Love so alike that none doe slacken’ suggests a mechanism whose two parts keep each other working perfectly, in perpetual motion.
The third stanza’s images have in common a sense of perfect reciprocity or equilibrium, a delicate balance that in its perfection will resist change. Two details complicate this fantasy: another sexual pun, and the ‘if’ clause. ‘To dye’ is also to reach orgasm, and that sense combined with ‘none doe slacken’ brings to mind a less blissful kind of perpetual motion: copulation without climax. ‘If’ makes the ending conditional. If our love is perfectly reciprocal, it will last for ever; if it isn’t it won’t, and if it doesn’t it wasn’t.
You might say, if you’re feeling generous, that the poem’s claims of permanence are meant be taken with a grain of salt. Of course the blissful state ‘The Good-morrow’ describes can’t last: that’s the point. The poem, or the poet, knows this; it, or he, is wiser than the post-coital lover whose voice we hear. This superior wisdom comes through in the third stanza’s complications. Its images of perfection get more and more extravagant, balanced precariously on top of one another until the no-orgasm joke at the end gently topples the house of cards. The philosophical stuff in the last lines is not to be read seriously, and this playfulness makes the poem at once more tonally complex, less sentimental and more poignant.
You might say, if you’re feeling less generous, that treating ‘The Good-morrow’ as a dramatic monologue delivered by a callow youth has only a slender textual basis. Nothing in the poem requires ironic distance between poet and speaker. The sexual sense of ‘dye’ in the last line is a hint, not a reversal of the poem’s meaning. As for the philosophising in the last lines, it had better be playful, because it doesn’t make much sense. ‘The Good-morrow’ is a warm, exuberant love lyric that gets bogged down in gratuitous erudition at the end: a good example of what Dryden was talking about.
Donne’s audacious mixing goes beyond philosophical references in love poems. The sacred shows up in the profane, and vice versa:
Like pictures, or like bookes gay coverings, made
For lay men, are all women thus arayd,
Themselves are mistique books, which only wee
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed.
As Christ justifies unworthy believers through his imputed grace, so a woman dignifies her unworthy lover by letting him see her naked. ‘Imputed grace’ is a Protestant idea, opposed to the Catholic view that sanctifying grace is infused into the soul, making the believer worthy of salvation. You wouldn’t want to make too much of it, though. It’s a casual reference, one of a quick succession of images. Donne is playing with the idea, just as he plays with ideas of ecclesial schism in his fifth elegy, which ends by threatening to break with an inconstant mistress if she drives him to despair:
Though hope bred Fayth and love, thus tought I shall
As Nations do from Rome, from thy love fall.
My hate shall outgrow thyne, and utterly
I will renounce thy dallyance: and when I
Ame the Recusant, in that resolute state
What hurts it me to be excommunicate?
Here Donne’s imagination tacks between religious identities. ‘As Nations do from Rome’ figures his mistress as the papacy, himself as the English (or another Protestant) crown. Recusants were those, usually Catholics, who refused to attend Church of England services. The idea in the last couplet is that his mistress can’t hurt him by excommunication if he’s already refusing to go to church. So Donne imagines himself first as Protestant (a nation falling from Rome), next as a resistant English Catholic liable to punishment by the state (for recusancy) and by the English church (by excommunication). He may be thinking too of excommunication by the Roman Church; the most salient example would have been Pius V’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570, which put English Catholics like Donne’s family in the dangerous position of having to choose between their sovereign and their pope. It may seem surprising that Donne felt able to handle such weighty matters in this off-hand way, given his Catholic upbringing and family history. The elegies are early poems, most likely written in the mid-1590s when Donne was in his early twenties, living in London, reading law and writing for other clever young men around the Inns of Court. But he could treat these subjects seriously too. His famous ‘Satire III’, probably of the same period, urges a sincere, conscientious search for ‘true religion’. It surveys options – Rome, Geneva, England, no church, all churches – and mocks the various reasons for choosing each; it makes no choice but insists on the need to keep searching, and then to ‘Keepe the truth which thou hast found.’
Donne uses religious images in his love poems, and amorous images in his sacred poems. The sonnet ‘Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear’ takes up the question explored in ‘Satire III’: which is the true church? The image of the church as Christ’s spouse is as old as Christianity. Paul used it in his letter to the Ephesians, in telling wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. Like ‘Satire III’, ‘Show me, dear Christ’ avoids declaring which church is the true one. It raises possibilities, then concludes by taking the church as spouse metaphor a step further, discovering a paradox:
Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights
And let myne amorous soul court thy mil Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she’s embrac’d and open to most men.
This makes the spouse promiscuous and Christ a willing cuckold. R.V. Young holds that the metaphor only seems indecorous, because it is ‘intended to startle us into recognition of how very different God’s love is from ours’. Perhaps. The fact remains that, when Donne posed the Reformation’s most pressing question for ordinary believers, what came to mind for him was making love to Christ’s wife.
Donne’s family were devout and prominent Roman Catholics, related on his mother’s side to Thomas More. Two uncles became Jesuit priests; one of them, Jasper Heywood, was briefly the leader of the Jesuit mission in England. In 1593 Donne’s brother Henry was arrested for harbouring a priest, and died of the plague in prison; the priest was hanged, drawn and quartered. We don’t know when Donne converted, or why. On Donne’s own account, he made his decision only after he had ‘to the measure of my poore wit and judgement, survayed and digested the whole body of Divinity, controverted between ours and the Romane Church’. Some evidence suggests a transition during the first half of the 1590s. A portrait taken when he was 18, in 1590, depicts him with a crucifix earring, hand on sword-hilt, and the Spanish motto Antes muerto que mutado, ‘sooner dead than changed’: this could be interpreted as a forthright, even defiant assertion of his Catholicism. If that was his position in 1590, it had probably modified by 1596, when he volunteered for the English expeditionary force against Cadiz: a militant English Catholic would have been unlikely to sign up for war with Spain. ‘Satire III’ may show the change in progress, though we can’t be sure, not just because the poem’s date is uncertain but because it’s unclear to what extent it may be read autobiographically. The most quoted sentence in modern Donne criticism must be John Carey’s: ‘The first thing to remember about Donne is that he was a Catholic; the second, that he betrayed his Faith.’ A more recent current of opinion goes easier on him, preferring to speak of conversion or conformity rather than apostasy or betrayal. This view is based on historiography that has given us a messier picture of confessional identity in post-Reformation England, for the nation and for individuals. While England remained officially Protestant after the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, the transition at the popular level was a slow and patchy affair, far from complete by the 1590s. Conversions were common. Some people switched sides more than once; others drifted uncertainly and anxiously. Seen against this background, Donne’s choice to conform looks less anomalous and less dramatic. That said, his Jesuit uncles would certainly have seen him as an apostate, and in his first printed work, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), he argued against the uncompromising version of Catholicism they represented.
The competing claims of papal and monarchical authority posed an enduring problem for English Catholics. For hardliners like the Jesuit missionaries and their lay supporters, papal claims to temporal supremacy trumped allegiance to the English crown. Such people saw a moral imperative to return England to communion with Rome, and were willing to risk a gruesome traitor’s death. The less activist majority saw themselves as loyal subjects and sought neither martyrdom nor revolution. The 1606 Oath of Allegiance, imposed by James I in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, aimed to isolate the hardliners, thereby dividing the English Catholic community and weakening it as a political force. The oath required those suspected of recusancy to swear loyalty to the sovereign, and to disavow papal claims to power as ‘impious and heretical’: ‘And I do further swear, that I do from my heart abhor, detest and abjure, as impious and heretical, this damnable doctrine and position, that princes which be excommunicated or deprived by the pope, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any whatsoever.’
The phrase ‘impious and heretical’ tightened the screws. As Stefania Tutino explains in Law and Conscience: Catholicism in Early Modern England 1570-1625 (2007), it moved the question from one of civil obedience to a matter of conscience. Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr makes a lengthy, learned defence of the Jacobean government position, arguing that ‘those which are of the Roman religion in this kingdom, may and ought to take the Oath of Allegiance.’ Dying for the faith is one thing, Donne argues, but in their treasonous opposition to the English crown the Jesuits promote a false martyrdom, grounded in a false theory of the pope’s temporal power: this was Bellarmine’s doctrine of potestas indirecta, controversial even in Catholic circles. Donne declares himself at the start of the book an ex-Catholic, one with an insider’s knowledge of Jesuit ways, a claim both true and rhetorically advantageous. It may be that he wrote Pseudo-Martyr in hope of royal preferment; by 1610 he had been without a steady job for nearly a decade. Its pro-government line is far removed from the emphasis he had placed on independent judgment in ‘Satire III’:
Foole and wretch wilt thou let thy soule be tyde
To Mens lawes, by which she shall not be tryed
At the last day? Oh will it then serve thee
To say a Philipp, or a Gregorie,
A Harry, or a Martin tought me this?
Is not this excuse for meere contrarys
Equally stronge? cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayst rightly obay power, her bounds know:
Those past, her nature, and her name is chang’d, to be
Then, humble to her is Idolatree.
Donne’s even-handed rejection of authorities – Catholic and Protestant, civil and ecclesiastical – gives the impression that he has been buffeted by religious arguments from authority from both directions, and has come to see more clearly than most how such claims cancel each other out. The bottom line in ‘Satire III’ is neither tolerance nor equipoise, but a fierce, nearly Miltonic insistence on the individual conscience. In Pseudo-Martyr the accent falls on the obedience due to princes, as it generally would in Donne’s sermons after he took orders in 1615.
Debates persist about Donne’s religion. What balance of conviction and self-interest led him to convert, and later to take orders? What kind of Protestant did he become: Calvinist? Arminian? First one then the other, changing with the times? Was Dr Donne, dean of St Paul’s, an unequivocal supporter of royal ecclesiastical policies, or did he maintain a critical edge? Where, how and how far is his Catholic past visible in his poetry? Does it manifest as guilt? Resolved conflict? Unresolved conflict? If unresolved, deliberately so or not? How can one tell? Do these elements make the poetry better, or worse? Interesting as these questions are, if you focus on them too narrowly you can miss the wood for the trees. Some of Donne’s best religious poems have nothing to do with inter or intra-confessional controversy or division. ‘If Poisonous Minerals’ points out how strange it is that Christianity’s threat of eternal torture applies only to mankind: ‘Yf Lecherous Goates, yf serpents envious/Cannot be damn’d: Alas why shoulde I bee?’ The poem knows the orthodox answer – because we have reason, hence liability for sin – and finds it unsatisfying. Though the various post-Reformation churches differed on the means by which one might avoid damnation, all took final judgment as a hard fact, to be ignored at one’s ultimate peril. Donne’s poem expresses no doubts on this score; what it questions is the justice of the arrangement, and the question is not answered but shut down. The solution the sonnet offers in its last six lines is traditional: shut up, stop cavilling and throw yourself on God’s mercy. Donne expanded on this theme in a sermon preached on New Year’s Day, 1625:
So if that infectious inquisition, that Quare, (Why should God command this or this particular?) be entred into me, all my Humilitie is presently infected, and I shall looke for a reason, why God made a world, or why he made a world no sooner then 6000 yeares agoe, and why he saves some, and why but some, and I shall examine God upon all the Interrogatories that I can frame, upon the Creed (why I should believe a Sonne of a Virgin without a Man, or believe the Sonne of God to descend into Hell). Or frame upon the Pater Noster, (why should I worship such a God, that must be prayed to, not to leade me into tentation?) Or frame upon the Ten Commandments, why after all is done and heapt, for any sinfull action, yet I should be guilty of all, for coveting in my heart another mans horse or house. And therfore Luther pursues it farther, with words of more vehemence, Odiosa & exitialis vocula, Quare, It is an Execrable and Damnable Monosillable, Why; it exasperates God, it ruines us …
A passage like this reminds us that the implausibility of Christian fundamentals was plain to see in the early 17th century, freely conceded by the respectable 52-year-old dean of St Paul’s, who preached this sermon. It reminds us how much effort was required to keep up the necessary suspension of disbelief. Hence the common emphasis on faith to guide reason, and the description of faith as a gift. If you read a lot of older literature you may not need to be reminded of these points, but they are easy to forget, and are regularly forgotten by two sorts of modern polemicist: by religious apologists who posit an imaginary golden age of faith before harmony was destroyed by Luther, or Voltaire, or Nietzsche, or Allen Ginsberg, and by secularists who posit an imaginary dark age of faith when all sleepwalked in credent superstition apart from a brave handful of questioners who usually ended up getting burned at the stake. There was no age, golden or dark, of general untroubled belief. Potentially unsettling questions might occur to anyone. Virgin birth? Really? Ministers would provide answers where they could, but it was safer to snuff out the questioning before it got started, and the trustiest method was fear. Donne, in this passage, wasn’t trying to puzzle his auditors with fresh doubts; he assumed that they had their doubts already, and was trying to prevent those doubts from getting oxygen.
Editing Donne’s poetry is a challenge. The problem is that a large number of early texts exist, none of pre-eminent authority. Donne wrote his poems for narrower audiences than the general reading public, and had very few of them printed in his lifetime; the first print collection appeared in 1633, two years after his death. Before that, they circulated widely in manuscript. Donne wrote about two hundred poems; more than four thousand individual transcriptions of them survive. This abundance testifies to the popularity of Donne’s poetry among his contemporaries, and to the liveliness of manuscript culture more than a century into the age of print. The manuscript copies of Donne’s poems vary in countless ways. Some variants look like scribal errors, others like deliberate revisions – made by whom? The copyist? Donne? An unknown intermediary? Sometimes it’s possible to make a good guess; sometimes it isn’t. Textual scholarship has sorted the manuscripts into genealogically related groups, and identified certain manuscripts of greater authority than others, but none of these can be traced back to Donne himself. Of the poem transcriptions, only a handful are in Donne’s own hand. Some poems are found in one or two early manuscripts, others in dozens. For these, establishing the text is eye-glazingly complicated. Indeed the very idea of establishing the text is an illusion, if we take it to mean reconstructing a single definitive version of what Donne wrote.
Sir Herbert Grierson’s 1912 edition of Donne established the practice that remained standard until recently: it based its texts on the first printed version of each poem, looking to the manuscripts for variant readings. The Donne Variorum, a massive editorial project underway since the 1980s, introduced a new approach. It starts with the manuscripts, on the grounds that these are likely to be closer to Donne’s lost originals than the early printed texts. Since there is no mother of all Donne manuscripts, the Variorum chooses among them on a poem by poem basis, sometimes printing multiple versions, along with vast textual apparatus and critical commentary. Donne’s 19 ‘Holy Sonnets’ occupy a volume of 713 pages. Robin Robbins’s two-volume critical edition (2008) follows the Variorum’s textual approach in a more compact format. It chooses among the early texts case by case, emending from other early texts and modernising spelling and punctuation.
Janel Mueller’s single-volume edition in the Oxford Authors series extends this manuscript-based approach. Rather than choosing among the manuscripts poem by poem, the edition chooses two of the most complete and authoritative early manuscripts and prints them nearly in full: the Westmoreland MS, copied by Donne’s friend Rowland Woodward, and the Dowden MS, copied by another friend, George Garrard. Between them these two manuscripts include most of Donne’s poems. To avoid redundancy, Mueller leaves out Dowden poems present in the Westmoreland MS, with the exception of the ‘Holy Sonnets’, which are printed twice. The volume also includes two texts printed in Donne’s lifetime – the Anniversaries (1612) and the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) – as well as a group of seven letters concerning Donne’s secret marriage in 1601 to Anne More, the 17-year-old niece of his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton. It’s a pity a broader selection of Donne’s letters aren’t included, and at least a taste of his sermons.
Mueller’s editorial choices follow the guidelines developed by the series editor, Seamus Perry, to ‘convey something of the circumstances of the original appearances of the texts’. On historical grounds this is a worthwhile goal, and by printing the two manuscripts she has found an effective way to meet it. Short of reading the original manuscripts or facsimiles, this edition brings you about as close as possible to Donne’s poems as they would have appeared to at least some of their first readers. Since the two manuscripts haven’t been printed in their entirety before, the book has the additional merit of providing something new. What it isn’t is a critical edition, like the Variorum or Grierson or Robbins. To produce a critical edition, an editor begins by choosing one early version of the text as a basis, or ‘copy text’, before comparing it with other authoritative early versions, noting where they differ, choosing among variant readings, correcting obvious errors and emending the copy text accordingly. The result is a composite or ‘eclectic text’ that doesn’t correspond exactly to any version but aims to combine the best features of all of them. Since the editor’s choices will always be contestable, a critical edition includes a textual apparatus so that readers can see other possibilities and judge for themselves.
To produce an edition like Mueller’s, the editor simply chooses a manuscript and prints it, with minimal intervention and no textual apparatus. The result is a more streamlined volume, and the text has the advantage of authenticity: it stays close to one actual early version of Donne’s poems. But other early versions exist, and without an apparatus you can’t tell where they differ. The third line of ‘The Good-morrow’, for example, reads ‘But suck’d on Countrey pleasures childishly’ in one group of manuscripts, and ‘But sucked on childish pleasures seelily’ in another. Even if a critic decides, as I did earlier in this piece, to ignore the variant reading, scholars need to know where the variants occur.
For the general reader, some features of this edition will take getting used to. Poem titles are given as they are in the manuscripts. Thus ‘The Sun Rising’ appears as ‘Ad Solem’, ‘The Triple Fool’ as simply ‘Song’; others, such as ‘Break of Day’ and ‘The Good-morrow’, are untitled. This fidelity to original appearances teaches a lesson about the fluid nature of 17th-century manuscript poem titles, but the lesson will be clearest to those who know the standard titles. The table of contents doesn’t list each individual poem; to find those, one must use the index. Spelling is lightly modernised. It will look like old spelling to most readers, as can be seen from the passages of Donne’s poetry I’ve quoted.
The volume’s greatest drawback is presumably a publisher’s decision: the notes are hidden away at the back. To read ‘The Good-morrow’ (once you find it, untitled, on page 163) you must keep your thumb between pages 492 and 493, where its notes are located, and toggle back and forth. I don’t know why scholarly editions so often opt for endnotes rather than footnotes. The usual reasons given are bad ones. It is said that footnotes are unwelcoming, and scare off the common reader. This view presupposes a reader so skittish as to take fright at footnotes, and yet so hardy as never to tire of flipping to the back of the book. It is said that footnotes defamiliarise old poems. Old poems are already unfamiliar. Everyone needs notes when reading 17th-century poetry; everyone needs notes often when reading Donne, whose verses seemed obscure even to his contemporaries. It is said that footnotes are meddlesome, telling the reader what to think. They needn’t and shouldn’t. It is said that a page free of notes is cleaner, and more aesthetically pleasing. This treats a printed page as an object to be looked at rather than read. If you worry that the notes will overwhelm the text, write more concise notes. Robbins’s Longman edition is heavily footnoted, but it is easier to use. I go on about this because the plague of endnotes is widespread, and it is time for readers to object.
For scholarly megafauna like the Donne Variorum, the future may be digital. The Variorum website – digitaldonne.tamu.edu – is already a valuable resource in its own right: there you can find, among other things, digitised images and transcriptions of the complete Westmoreland MS. As it develops, DigitalDonne may prove more useful for research purposes than the Variorum’s bulky print volumes: easier to expand and correct, searchable, easier to access. For general reading purposes, however, there is still much to be said for the printed book; it’s a durable, efficient technology. Print editions of poems should be designed as functionally and attractively as possible. Mueller’s edition falls somewhere between a scholar’s text and a reading text, ideally suited to neither purpose. On the other hand, it gives us a new version of Donne, and takes a reasonable compromise approach to a set of problems with no perfect solutions. You can see it both ways, as you can the poems themselves.
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