- John Donne edited by Janel Mueller
Oxford, 606 pp, £95.00, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 959656 0
‘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.
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