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.

Donne is here a Tamburlaine in his will to power, and Carey sets himself to be the scourge of those who would prefer to the scourge of God something more amiable. But is it necessary, for the poet or the critic, so to rebound? ‘There is no avoiding the fact that he battened on the great unblushingly. To modern readers this may seem degrading and regrettable.’ Carey, worldly and wise, knows better. But the rhetorical sleight is there in ‘to modern readers’, as if it would be an anachronism to attribute to Donne’s contemporaries any principled censure of those who batten on the great unblushingly. ‘The notion of love as ownership offends our modernism. We are careful to talk, nowadays, as if we believed that the male ought to respect the female’s individuality. Donne is above such hypocrisies.’ Is that really all there is to it? Hypocrisy does not have a monopoly of cant. Carey is not above setting up these coarse and cutting antitheses, and if he wins polemically, he does so only at the cost of coarsening and cutting the poetry which he champions.

The speed, wit and range of the book make it unignorable and exhilarating, but not persuasive. Again this has to do with its own passionate predilections. Donne is valued because he does not argue or persuade. When the poet speaks of ‘my words’ masculine perswasive force’, Carey hears this as brooking no resistance: ‘Power – or “masculine perswasive force”, as Donne called it’. Carey himself, a polemicist of great resourcefulness, does not write books which brook resistance.

On the relation of soul to body, Carey says:

      The richest fruit of Donne’s tussle with this question is not to be found, though, in his Christian musings, intricate and impassioned though they are, but in the famous lines from ‘The Second Anniversarie’ about young Elizabeth Drury’s body:

                             we understood

Her by her sight, her pure and eloquent blood Spoke in her cheekes, and so distinctly wrought, That one might almost say, her bodie thought.

Elizabeth’s thinking flesh is plainly the creation of the Donne who wrote: ‘I say again, that the body makes the mind.’

Then, after a discussion of the lines which precede this passage, Carey sums up:

    So Donne achieves an integration of body and mind. He conceives of Elizabeth’s body as an intellectual thing, and he does so in the teeth of deeply entrenched traditions. For centuries Western Christendom had seen the soul as the prisoner of the body – a bird in a cage, an angel trapped on a dunghill. Donne collapses, in an instant, this age-old dualism. That he does so is the more remarkable because the ‘Anniversaries’ vigorously corroborate, elsewhere, the traditional opposition of soul and body. Donne was the least consistent of mortals, and he never felt that an idea had been properly exploited until he had tried it out backwards as well as forwards. But if Elizabeth’s thinking flesh is inconsistent with the rest of the poem it occurs in, it is perfectly in key, as we have seen, with the flea’s living walls of jet, or the ecstatic lovers’ cemented hands.

It is a crucial instance, not only because of the fame of the lines, but because there could be no more important example of a contrariety. But to paraphrase (twice) the line ‘That one might almost say, her bodie thought’ as ‘Elizabeth’s thinking flesh’ is to abolish the crucial five words with which Donne calmly insists that her body did not think. ‘That one might almost say ...’ Nothing could be more firm, but since it is quiet, it is inaudible to Carey, and his Donne never sets any limits to what he claims. Far from showing that ‘Donne collapses, in an instant, this age-old dualism ... the traditional opposition of soul and body,’ these lines show Donne maintaining, with all the authority of mild-spoken awe, that even here the opposition has to be maintained. If we ask why Carey, who has such an eye for contradictions, should so casually contradict Donne’s words, the answer is that Carey has an eye only for contradictions, and when he cannot find them he must make them. ‘The more remarkable’, ‘the least consistent’, ‘inconsistent with the rest of the poem’: Carey needs to be able to speak in this way because for him Donne is remarkable exactly as a genius of inconsistency.

A similar thing happens with another famous moment, the end of ‘Death be not proud’:

    One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

It is part of the strength of this poem that its argument is so weak. Its ill-assorted reasons tumble out in no recognisable order, reflecting inner disarray ... The last four words of the sonnet, which are meant to crown the edifice, actually topple it. After insisting from the start that death is nothing to be afraid of, the speaker can hardly, at the end, use death as a threat (‘thou shalt die’) without ludicrously betraying himself. He stamps his foot with fine dramatic conclusiveness, and plummets straight through a trapdoor. It spoils the act, but improves the poem, for it shows how little its reasonings have impinged on the speaker’s basic fears.

But the point about death as a threat would be cogent only if those whom death did and did not threaten were one and the same. There is nothing contradictory or ludicrously betraying about the witty claim that, although to men ‘death is nothing to be afraid of’ (since they will not really die, but will wake eternally), it is a threat to the personified figure Death: his ‘dying’ will be eternal non-existence. Carey pretends to believe that it doesn’t make any difference to whom (or to what) the threat is addressed. But the prospect of a lecture on Donne could be at once – to different auditors – a threat and a promise. ‘It spoils the act, but improves the poem.’ No, Carey’s fine dramatic conclusiveness improves the act but spoils the poem.

There is a related falsifying of ‘To his Mistris Going to Bed’, which is the longest poem quoted by Carey in its entirety. He devotes several pages to commenting on it, and later returns to his sense of it in order to validate his remarks about other poems.

Come, Madame, come, all rest my powers defie, Until I labour, I in labour lye.

So it begins, and it ends:

To teach thee, I am naked first: Why than What need’st thou have more covering than a man.

Those lines have not died away before Carey leaps at once to the attack, though claiming that it is to the defence: ‘The despotic lover here, ordering his submissive girl-victim to strip, and drawing attention to his massive erection (the point of Donne’s jokes about “standing”), is of course a perennial dweller in the shadow-land of pornography.’ But is the tone ‘despotic’? Carey never does anything to substantiate his hearing of it. Is the woman a ‘girl-victim’? Is there anything in the poem about the erection being ‘massive’? Carey is melodramatising the poem, as he does in all his subsequent paraphrases: ‘the luscious sex-symbol whom Donne puts through her paces’, ‘the strip-tease’, ‘the garment-shedding girl’. He insists that the important thing in the poem is ‘the urge to dominate’, and then sets about a steady escalation and in-duration: three pages later, this has become ‘the contempt and arrogance of the elegy’; and a further seven pages later, ‘the almost pathological imperiousness of a poem like “To his Mistris Going to Bed” is apparent enough.’ From here, it is a short step to the hardening of Carey’s mind against everything which is insinuating, affectionate and bantering within this ‘punitive poem’: ‘We have observed how in early poems, such as “To his Mistris Going to Bed”, the lust for power takes the form of a wish to insult, humiliate and punish. In all these respects the sermons take over where the poems had left off, and they pursue, under the aegis of religion, the same imperious ends. Even the sadism of “To his Mistris Going to Bed” finds a natural home in the sermons, for in them Donne’s withering rhetoric is turned loose not merely against one wretched, half-naked girl, but against all fleshly beauty.’

Nothing in Donne’s poem is contemptuous towards the woman (Donne says ‘you women’ and ‘all women’, but it suits Carey repeatedly to call her a girl), unlike Carey’s misplaced gallantry on her behalf: ‘one wretched, half-naked girl’. If such a poem might reasonably be summarised as ‘sadism’, we would lack words to describe the genuine S – M article. ‘The girl has no mind – only a body and clothes to remove from it.’ But this is the sort of cleverness which would occur only to an idea-ridden critic, for it ignores the fact that every word of the poem – a poem which communicates its love of the mind’s play as much as of the body’s – is addressed to the woman. Whatever other poems by Donne may say about women and minds, this poem lets us hear someone needing to be generous with all his powers of mind, and it makes no sense to posit that none of it could make sense to the woman addressed. The poem does not simply command, for all its imperatives (‘Madame’ need not be a nasal sarcasm): it pleads, cajoles, performs, banters, promises and reveres, so that nothing could be a handsomer compliment to the woman and her mind than the need to fashion for her benefit such ways of talking. But Carey, despite a few curt nods elsewhere to Donne for mustering something tender, likes Donne for being brutal and dictatorial, all ego, and so is determined to bring out the worst which isn’t in him.

These violations are the consequence of a fundamental falsity in Carey’s sense of what the imagination is. ‘Renaissance scepticism was a poetic advantage to Donne, then, because it made all fact infinitely flexible, and so emancipated the imagination.’ But if all fact were infinitely flexible, this would not emancipate but eviscerate the imagination, because it would eviscerate fact. Imagination has force – has meaning – only if it may be contrasted with something that is not imagination. Carey wants Donne (as a poet of ‘mania’, ‘obsession’, ‘fixation’ and ‘neurosis’) to offer his acts of imagination as not imagination at all, just as he wants Donne to be proffering hyperboles straight. But Ruskin was right to raise, with patience and fear, the lamp of truth:

It might be at first thought that the whole kingdom of imagination was one of deception also. Not so: the action of the imagination is a voluntary summoning of the conceptions of things absent or impossible; and the pleasure and nobility of the imagination partly consist in its knowledge and contemplation of them as such, i.e. in the knowledge of their actual absence or impossibility at the moment of their apparent presence or reality. When the imagination deceives, it becomes madness. It is a noble faculty so long as it confesses its own ideality; when it ceases to confess this, it is insanity. All the difference lies in the fact of the confession, in there being no deception. It is necessary to our rank as spiritual creatures, that we should be able to invent and to behold what is not; and to our rank as moral creatures, that we should know and confess at the same time that it is not.

Carey, in pressing upon Donne the advantages of infinitely flexible fact, permits him to be the best poet of his kind, the only trouble being that the kind is self-mutilating. I don’t myself believe that Donne is as great a poet as Carey does, but if I thought his art matched Carey’s descriptions of it, I should not think him a great poet at all. Not all energy is eternal delight.

Finally, there is belief. Donne abandoned his Catholic faith, his family’s Catholic faith, and Carey rightly urges the importance of this. Yet Carey juxtaposes the most detailed and appalling accounts of what the Catholics suffered – torture, execution, terror – with the most insulting judgment as to why they suffered it.

    This critical procedure will, admittedly, entail regarding the doctrines to which Donne attaches himself not as elements of religious truth but, rather, as imaginative choices. But then, that is what religious doctrines are. For their ultimate truth or falsehood cannot be tested, and all the available evidence – such as that of Scripture – is so diversely interpretable that individual decisions in the matter are bound, in the end, to rest on the psychological preferences of the believer (or unbeliever): that is to say, on the structure of his personality and imagination. Viewed in this way, a writer’s religious beliefs provide an invaluable guide to the workings of his fancy (as, of course, do his political and moral views, which are based on similar arbitrary preferences).

    All this is perhaps no more than a rephrasing of what T.S. Eliot meant when he said that Donne picked out ideas because he was ‘interested in the feeling they give’ – only I would argue that what Eliot observes is not an individual aberration on Donne’s part but, however we may disguise it from ourselves, the universal practice.

Like other pyrrhonisms, the reduction of beliefs to psychological preferences cannot be decisively overthrown, though questions can be asked. First, where do the psychological preferences, the structure of personality and imagination, themselves come from, to be rested upon? Second, does this belief – that beliefs are based on arbitrary preferences – itself rest on an arbitrary preference? In any event, the word ‘preferences’ remains calculatedly shocking, as it was when Will Ladislaw rounded upon it to the complacent Rosamond: ‘Explain my preference! I never had a preference for her, any more than I have a preference for breathing.’

Carey speaks repeatedly of Donne’s ‘imaginative needs’, as if this didn’t raise as many questions as it settles. Once he lets slip the phrase ‘spiritual need’ (‘the wit of the poem may be seen not just as a dazzling excursion but as the answer to a spiritual need’), but it is not clear what a spiritual need could be within the world of reductive psychologism. The only protection against this corrosive scepticism as to religious, political and moral beliefs is to observe that Carey himself does not observe it. The tone in which he speaks of the torture of the Jews (and of the Catholics) is simply incompatible with his believing that the disagreement between him and Hitler rests on anything which he could honourably call their ‘psychological preferences’.

His arguments suffer too: ‘A passage like this makes it clear that Donne’s interest in bodily resurrection is not in any distinctive sense religious. It is a corollary of his preoccupation with changing states of matter.’ But what, on Carey’s terms, could it be for anybody to profess a conviction which was ‘in any distinctive sense religious’? For Carey, all religious beliefs and doctrines are nothing other than a corollary of a man’s preoccupations, so the point made here is vacuous: the world of belief is empty of anything other than such corollaries. Again, when Carey speaks of ‘the personal slant which his imaginative needs imposed on his theology’, what can be meant, since for Carey a man’s theology is sheerly the consequence of his personal slant? What are the two terms being posited? ‘The congruence of Donne’s standpoint, on this complex topic, with the patterns which his imagination loved to trace, helps us to understand the ebullience with which he puts across the doctrine once he has worked it out.’ But there can’t be anything which could sensibly be called a congruence (given the inconceivability of an incongruence) if a standpoint is itself always a consequence of the patterns which a man’s imagination loves to trace: and so it won’t do to attribute ebullience to such a congruence. Everybody’s religious standpoint, since it must equally be a consequence of his or her imaginative needs or psychological preferences, would have to be equally ebullient. ‘It is a sign that Donne’s adjustment of his theology to his basic interests has taken place with complete success.’ Given Carey’s insistence that theology rests only upon basic interests, indeed is chosen because of its accommodation to such basic interests, it is impossible to see how there could be an ‘adjustment’, or to see what it means to speak of success when failure is inconceivable. Carey’s withering of all belief to psychological preference means that much of his brilliantly perverse presentation of Donne as brilliantly perverse should not be believed.