Posts Tagged ‘Metaphysical Poetry’

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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Poems for Valentine’s Day #5

February 9, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

Donne Elegy XX

TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED.

COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Writing about this poem is a challenge; teaching it was always one, but I did not like to shy away from it, for it is Donne at his finest, his wittiest, his sexiest, too. I would like to know what he made of it if he ever looked back at it, much later in his life, when he was Dean of St Paul’s…

Structurally, it’s a single piece, in rhyming couplets: none of the inventiveness of some of his love lyrics in this elegy. And we have to remember, as we read, that although in our twenty-first century reading, the poet appears to be actually addressing a woman as she undresses, for Donne this may not have been the case: the poem may merely have been a poetic exercise, an extended piece of wit (not humour, but cleverness, a show-casing of knowledge) of the kind that educated young men of the time might be expected to turn out, a poem about a woman undressing. The mistress may be real or imagined.

I’m afraid it can help our understanding of poems like this to read with the smuttier mind of a teenager, deliberately looking for the double-entendres, and I’ll urge you to do that: consider at least the words which I’ve underlined in the text of the poem…

Clearly women wore far more clothes, and far more complex clothes in those days! Almost the first half of the poem is a catalogue of the different garments he watches her remove, and his description of what is then revealed. The reference to Mahomet’s paradise is interesting one: clearly even in Donne’s time people were familiar with the nowadays hackneyed (and perhaps inaccurate) trope of the hordes of beautiful virgins awaiting the blessed in paradise.

We can sense the poet’s eagerness, impatience even, in Licence my roving hands and the line that follows, understandable perhaps, after how long the disrobing must have lasted. O, my America, my Newfoundland: I love this line, so clever, with its topical references to the newly-discovered world across the Atlantic; this is what I mean when I write about ‘wit’. And then follow the slightly less original comparisons with mines of precious stones and empires; jewellery is clearly a distraction to him, as we see from the classical reference to Atlanta’s balls. Pleased that she is finally undressed, he points out how much quicker he was in removing his clothes, as if to set the example and reassure her: if he is naked, why should she be afraid to be? The last line says it all.

Does the poem work, as a piece of erotic fantasy? Or is it pornography? Those are not throwaway questions, but serious considerations, and started off lively discussions in some of my classes with sixth-formers. I don’t see it as pornographic because in the end I can see no exploitation of the woman here; nonetheless I’m not totally comfortable that, as in some other of his love lyrics, only the man gets to speak: the woman’s voice is imagined and her consent therefore assumed.

Poetry: my choices

January 6, 2015

I looked at my shelves to see what poetry I have collected over the years, apart from the usual anthologies. Chaucer is there, representing for me the time when a recognisable English begins to flower into poetry, now deemed too difficult for our sixth form students, by and large. Shakespeare, obviously, though as I’ve opined elsewhere in these pages, it’s his dramatic rather than his lyric poetry that moves me most, and the lyrics of the metaphysical poets shine out most strongly to me from that time period – Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan. After that, there is a huge gap until the twentieth century, where I have been enchanted by Eliot, Cummings, Larkin and others… so I will not claim any kind of comprehensive knowledge or appreciation of poetry: it’s what I like and what speaks to me.

Poetry used to be narrative; Milton has always astonished me, and I’ve always been conscious of being in a very small minority here. Paradise Lost works best when read aloud – Anton Lesser’s stunning account on Naxos Audiobooks is highly recommended. Sounds, words, rhyme and rhythm, all the other poetic devices come alive in their full glory, as does Milton’s inventiveness with the language, rivalling Shakespeare’s.

Poetry has always been associated with love and passion; for sheer verve I’ll take The Sunne Rising or The Flea, by Donne, or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris, for tenderness Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning is hard to beat. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are very clever. As I taught Love Through The Ages as a unit in the sixth form I came to know and like much twentieth century love poetry for its honesty, frankness, passion and eroticism, its attempts to break out of the old and often rather sexist conventions.

The other side of that coin for me has always been religious poetry, with feelings running as deep, and  just as unfathomable. Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Herbert’s The Temple are obvious, but Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach speaks to a more modern age, an age of doubt and questioning, as does Larkin’s Church Going, which is probably my favourite, working on so many levels, very clever but beautifully understated…

I’ve written earlier about war poetry, portraying the unspeakable, and sometimes I have been struck by other, more ephemeral verse, about nature, natural beauty, different ways of seeing things. And this, for me, is poetry’s value and achievement: briefly I share someone else’s view of something, I stop and contemplate and wonder and am entranced…

John Drury: Music at Midnight

August 30, 2014

9780141043401Back to my roots as a teacher of literature for this one: an excellent biography of the poet George Herbert, whose works I never actually had the good fortune to teach, apart from using a couple of his poems to teach general practical criticism. Alas, his poetry nowadays, along with other Metaphysical Poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan, has been judged to be too difficult for today’s sixth form students… yes, I actually had an examiner say that to me, a few years ago.

And, reading this book did have me feeling my age, as Drury – an Oxford don – felt it necessary to explain so many small things to his general reader, things that I had as part of my general knowledge as a school student back in the distant past. Nowadays, so many cultural, historical, religious and theological glosses are needed. (Pauses to put on his dead colonel’s hat.)

It is a detailed, thoughtful and sympathetic biography of a wonderful poet with a masterly fluency with the English language, from that Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean period when the English language was bursting into full bloom. Herbert died , probably of consumption, before he was 40. He seems to have been the epitome of the Church of England clergyman, in the early days of the Church of England, before the Civil War, a man who was fortunately sheltered from the violence, torturing and persecution taking place in his time.

Drury weaves much careful exploration and revealing analysis of Herbert’s poetry into the story of his life; layers of meaning are teased out and new aspects revealed – to me, at least. It wasn’t an easy read, but an enlightening one. What comes across most strongly is Herbert’s deep religious faith and trust in his God, speaking from an age that we can nowadays hardly begin to comprehend. An excellent read, a book which refreshed my pleasure in Herbert’s poetry.

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