Sunday, April 26, 2009

Donne's Meditation XVII

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
John Donne is a staple of English Literature classes, as I know from personal experience. In my Lit class during the last year of high school we devoted a good day or three to the works of this so-called "metaphysical poet." The reign of Elizabeth I had ended, and Shakespeare was on the point of dying, when Donne flourished. But the "New Learning," the late English incarnation of the Renaissance, was unfolding a new leaf of learning and science, and a peculiar but fruitful intermingling of religion (vide George Herbert) and a fascination for science and exploration ensued in the arts. There was likewise already a strain of the earthiness and weighty seriousness which were, in my view, to distinguish the 17th century at its height.

The tale goes that John Donne was, when a young man, very fond of women and a trifle wild, and his breathlessly animated poetry of that period duly reflects it. What is indubitable is that he was also very fond of metaphysical "conceits." Maps and compasses, astronomy and metallurgy, and so on and so forth, furnish the metaphors which he, like his contemporaries, employed elaborately and lavishly in his verse to illustrate, almost as abstractly as possible, the felt and seen realities of life. Peculiarly enough he was no armchair traveller, but did in truth go on seafaring expeditions, and even whilst in England go to Oxford, study law at Lincoln's Inn, earn his bread as a secretary and diplomat, and otherwise lead a diverse and interesting life. Then he married. This was initially awkward, given the hearty un-consent on the part of the bride's father and a resultant stint in the clink, but the couple was happy and their children numerous.

Later, his wife having died and he being left alone, he became a minister of the church, and the passionate intensity with which he once celebrated love was redirected into the worship of God. Fortunately his sense of religion appears to have been a large-minded and open one, so that he did not figure among those who
Compound for sins they are inclin'd to,
By damning those they have no mind to.
The "holy sonnets" that he wrote after this conversion are interesting especially due to this intensity, which in some cases appears to be inspired as much by the old passion as the new. There is the very famous one, "Death be not proud," and then this one:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
[Poetry Foundation: John Donne]

Which sounds not a little masochistic; still, de gustibus non est disputandum, after all.

So far, at least, my favourite work is Meditation 17, which is famous in its own right as well as in its capacity as Ernest Hemingway's (last-minute) source for the book title, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like the bells of a church, phrases of this sermon have the effect of echoing in one's memory long after one has encountered it, or at least that has been my experience. The thesis of the sermon is that we, as humans, are connected to each other, and that the good or bad that befalls one of us in a way befalls us all. So we cannot remain unmoved by the lives of others, and nor should we, and nor is it in our moral interest to do so. Donne is also of the opinion that "tribulation is treasure," i.e. that suffering improves us. [N.B.: This is not an opinion that I share; to me it's how we react to our suffering or happiness that improves us.]

At any rate, I should like to post the meditation in its entirety, but it is quite long, so here is an excerpt:
[A]ll mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
This is probably the most famous passage:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
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Meditation XVII []
An e-text of the Meditation.

John Donne [Poetry Foundation]
An overview of Donne's life and writings, and links to much of his verse.

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N.B.: To add a trivial note about Holbein's Ambassadors at the top of this post, it was one of the paintings in London's National Gallery that I already knew; so when my sister and I went there, I paid special attention to it and was shocked by the vivid, electric green of the curtains in the background. It was one instance where it may have been preferable if the painting were left in its natural, unrestored state. At any rate, I've included it for the sake of its concise illustration of the intellectual pursuits and scientific devices which fascinated Donne's contemporaries, and because my Lit 12 textbook employed it on the same grounds.
[The portrait of John Donne is likewise available at Wikimedia Commons.]

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