Monday, January 21, 2019

Epigrams and Elegies by John Donne

Source of book: I own this.

John Donne and I go way back. I remember reading a sonnet somewhere in my early days of discovering poetry before age 10. He was a bit over my head at the time, but I at least became aware of “Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls…” and “No man is an island” and a few other good lines.

I experienced a larger dose in high school. As I have mentioned, I took video courses from well known fundamentalist curriculum maker, which was a mixed experience. On the one hand, Mr. Collins, who taught two years of English, was a great teacher, and I learned a lot. He also subtly undermined the worst of the flaws in the curriculum itself, which, as I have come to realize, had problems. One of the biggest gaps was the near-lack of 20th Century literature. Likewise, few non-white authors made the cut. The other problem, though, was that the necessity of making everything about their version of religion meant that the facts were often twisted so they wouldn’t undermine the preaching.

In the case of Donne, this was particularly egregious. The claim was that Donne’s life followed the preferred “conversion narrative.” In his wild youth, he chased women (true) and wrote naughty poems; but then he found God, got married, and traded his smutty poetry for exalted religious poetry. This was, technically speaking, bullshit on a stick. Donne did get married (against her parents’ wishes), had a dozen children, most of whom died in infancy, and then was widowed when his wife died giving birth to the last child. (And no wonder, really.) He then lived another 15 years, and continued to write.

At all times: his unmarried youth, his years as a husband, and his long widowhood - he wrote both devotional and risque poems. This fact was highly inconvenient, however, to fundies. After all, in their worldview, it was impossible to be both devout and incontinent, or to be religious and profane at the same time. But Donne was. 

 The young, dashing Donne.

It has been seven years since I read Donne (man, time flies!), so I was overdue to open that book again. You can read my thoughts on his Songs and Sonnets collection here.

Epigrams and Elegies is a convenient way of grouping the two sections I read. The Epigrams are somewhat tongue-in-cheek tributes to the dead. And by this I mean persons ranging from real people to mythological figures to generic characters like “Liar” to inanimate objects.

Here is an example:

“A Burnt Ship”

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
      They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

Or how about the wicked humor of this one?


If in his study he hath so much care
To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.

The Elegies are quite a bit different from the Epigrams, and indeed from what you might reasonably expect. An Elegy, poetically speaking, is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. In many cases, they are written in rhymed couplets - many of these fit that pattern - and are expected to lament the death, but end on a note of hope.

Donne smashes this idea to smithereens, choosing to write, not about death, but about love. And not in a way which mourns with hope, but instead takes uses brutally sharp wit and satire to examine the good, bad, and ugly of love, sex, and relationships. Right at the outset, with the elegy entitled “Jealousy,” he speaks to a woman married to an abusive and controlling jealous man, who wishes him dead, and encourages her to come on over and have a little nookie at his place, where the risk is less, rather than doing the deed in the husband’s bed.

Unlike the Elizabethans before him, or the Romantics after him, Donne didn’t exactly butter women up. And when he is mean, he is mean. “The Anagram” is a good example. Donne extols the virtue of a woman that is unattractive, and thus likely to be faithful. The title refers to his description of her face as an anagram: having all the same letters as beauty, but in a mixed up order. It is worth quoting in full.

“The Anagram”

MARRY, and love thy Flavia, for she
Hath all things, whereby others beauteous be;
For, though her eyes be small, her mouth is great;
Though they be ivory, yet her teeth be jet;
Though they be dim, yet she is light enough;        
And though her harsh hair fall, her skin is tough;
What though her cheeks be yellow, her hair’s red,
Give her thine, and she hath a maidenhead.
These things are beauty’s elements; where these
Meet in one, that one must, as perfect, please.
If red and white, and each good quality
Be in thy wench, ne’er ask where it doth lie.
In buying things perfumed, we ask, if there
Be musk and amber in it, but not where.
Though all her parts be not in th’ usual place,  
She hath yet an anagram of a good face.
If we might put the letters but one way,
In that lean dearth of words, what could we say?
When by the gamut some musicians make
A perfect song, others will undertake,    
By the same gamut changed, to equal it.
Things simply good can never be unfit;
She’s fair as any, if all be like her;
And if none be, then she is singular.
All love is wonder; if we justly do  
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies;
Choose this face, changed by no deformities.
Women are all like angels; the fair be
Like those which fell to worse; but such as she,  
Like to good angels, nothing can impair:
’Tis less grief to be foul, than to have been fair.
For one night’s revels, silk and gold we choose,
But, in long journeys, cloth, and leather use.
Beauty is barren oft; best husbands say  
There is best land, where there is foulest way.
Oh, what a sovereign plaster will she be,
If thy past sins have taught thee jealousy!
Here needs no spies, nor eunuchs; her commit
Safe to thy foes, yea, to a marmoset.   
Like Belgia’s cities the round country drowns,
That dirty foulness guards and arms the towns,
So doth her face guard her; and so, for thee,
Which forced by business, absent oft must be, S
he, whose face, like clouds, turns the day to night;
Who, mightier than the sea, makes Moors seem white;
Who, though seven years she in the stews had laid,
A nunnery durst receive, and think a maid;
And though in childbed’s labour she did lie,
Midwives would swear, ’twere but a tympany;
Whom, if she accuse herself, I credit less
Than witches, which impossibles confess;
One like none, and liked of none, fittest were;
For things in fashion every man will wear.

Not too different from a certain Jimmy Soul song. Although Donne’s language is much more witty.

Even meaner is “The Comparison.” It is a comparison between the narrator’s mistress (who is all good and divine and beautiful) and the mistress of the person the narrator addresses, who is the opposite. It includes such gems as:

Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils...

And also a comparison of her vagina to “the dread mouth of a fired gun.” Yes, Donne could be naughty and mean.

Not all the elegies are in this vein, however. An interesting contrast is this one, extolling the virtue of an older - but not decrepit - woman.

“The Autumnal”

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
         As I have seen in one autumnal face.
Young beauties force our love, and that's a rape,
         This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If 'twere a shame to love, here 'twere no shame;
         Affection here takes reverence's name.
Were her first years the golden age? That's true,
         But now she's gold oft tried and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time,
         This is her tolerable tropic clime.
Fair eyes, who asks more heat than comes from hence,
         He in a fever wishes pestilence.
Call not these wrinkles, graves; if graves they were,
         They were Love's graves, for else he is no where.
Yet lies not Love dead here, but here doth sit
         Vow'd to this trench, like an anachorit;
And here till hers, which must be his death, come,
         He doth not dig a grave, but build a tomb.
Here dwells he; though he sojourn ev'rywhere
         In progress, yet his standing house is here:
Here where still evening is, not noon nor night,
         Where no voluptuousness, yet all delight.
In all her words, unto all hearers fit,
         You may at revels, you at council, sit.
This is Love's timber, youth his underwood;
         There he, as wine in June, enrages blood,
Which then comes seasonabliest when our taste
         And appetite to other things is past.
Xerxes' strange Lydian love, the platan tree,
         Was lov'd for age, none being so large as she,
Or else because, being young, nature did bless
         Her youth with age's glory, barrenness.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
         Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
         Age must be loveliest at the latest day.
But name not winter faces, whose skin's slack,
         Lank as an unthrift's purse, but a soul's sack;
Whose eyes seek light within, for all here's shade;
         Whose mouths are holes, rather worn out than made;
Whose every tooth to a several place is gone,
         To vex their souls at resurrection:
Name not these living death's-heads unto me,
         For these, not ancient, but antique be.
I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay
         With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.
Since such love's natural lation is, may still
         My love descend, and journey down the hill,
Not panting after growing beauties. So,
         I shall ebb on with them who homeward go.

That may well be my favorite of the set, although there are so many good ones. Another that caught my attention was this one, with its musing on the dream of love contrasted with reality, and the question of whether one should prefer the love of dreams, or love as it is in reality, with all its pain and difficulty. In this sense, Donne has a very practical approach to love, rather than a dreamy one. His life wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, but he deeply loved his wife, and never quite got over her loss.

“The Dream”

IMAGE of her whom I love, more than she,   
Whose fair impression in my faithful heart
Makes me her medal, and makes her love me,   
As kings do coins, to which their stamps impart
The value; go, and take my heart from hence,    
Which now is grown too great and good for me.
Honours oppress weak spirits, and our sense   
Strong objects dull; the more, the less we see.
When you are gone, and reason gone with you,   
Then fantasy is queen and soul, and all;        
She can present joys meaner than you do,   
Convenient, and more proportional.
So, if I dream I have you, I have you,   
For all our joys are but fantastical;
And so I ’scape the pain, for pain is true;  
And sleep, which locks up sense, doth lock out all.
After a such fruition I shall wake,   
And, but the waking, nothing shall repent;
And shall to love more thankful sonnets make,   
Than if more honour, tears, and pains were spent.  
But, dearest heart and dearer image, stay;   
Alas! true joys at best are dream enough;
Though you stay here, you pass too fast away,   
For even at first life’s taper is a snuff.
Fill’d with her love, may I be rather grown     
Mad with much heart, than idiot with none.

I was also struck by some lines from “The Bracelet.” The basic plot of the poem is that his mistress has lost a gold bracelet which symbolized their love. The narrator rages - but not so much at her, but at the person who stole it. He calls down a series of curses on the the thief, using his imaginative powers well. Here are a few selected lines:

NOT that in colour it was like thy hair,
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear;
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss’d,
For so it had that good, which oft I miss’d;
Nor for that silly old morality,       
That, as these links were knit, our love should be,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost;
Nor for the luck sake; but the bitter cost.
But O! thou wretched finder whom I hate
So, that I almost pity thy estate,
Gold being the heaviest metal amongst all,
May my most heavy curse upon thee fall.
Here fetter’d, manacled, and hang’d in chains,  
First mayst thou be; then chain’d to hellish pains;
Or be with foreign gold bribed to betray
Thy country, and fail both of it and thy pay.

I should also mention a line from “His Parting From Her” which caught my eye. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons in Mad Magazine back in the 1960s. Well guess what, Donne was there first. The narrator and his mistress have to part, and he mentions that they have kept things carefully secret from her husband: “Have we not kept our guards, like spy on spy?”

There is a line that ends “Julia” that is worth quoting. It is the one elegy which is not clearly one of Donne’s poems. There appears to be a dispute about whether he wrote it or not. I won’t get into it, but just mention that it is a screed against a jealous and nagging woman.

I blush to give her halfe her due ; yet say,
No poison's half so bad as Julia.

I’ll close with the most famous of the elegies: “On Going to Bed.” I think this may have been the first of the “naughty” Donne poems I read. At the time, it was a bit shocking, what with its reference to body parts - and erections. It is a lesson in double entendres. But it is a good one, and now that I don’t have the degree of prudery I was raised with, I find it quite enjoyable.

“On Going to Bed”

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped 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 that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst 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 new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: 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.

Donne isn’t always the easiest read, and my edition retains his original spelling, which occasionally requires a pause to figure out the meaning. However, his language is so delicious, and his ideas deep and creative. I never fail to enjoy reading his words.

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