John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

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