Archive for April, 2015

“The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster

Webster was much possessed by death,
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

– from “Whispers of Immortality” by T. S. Eliot  

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, the twin pillars on which Webster’s reputation primarily stands, make for a fascinating comparison. They are both clearly products of a dramatist in full control of the craft of playwrighting; they are also, equally clearly, the products of an author who did not see much in humanity to inspire confidence in its essential goodness or nobility – who, indeed, could not even see the possibility of redemption. But while The White Devil is a flamboyant work of bold, vigorous and colourful strokes, sweeping the audience along in its seemingly irresistible torrents, The Duchess of Malfi looks inwards, finding as often as not a stillness, and room for contemplation. It finds also a curious lyricism, dark and death-possessed; and also a rather strange beauty. Those daffodil bulbs that appear for eyes are given, in Webster’s hands, a peculiar fascination.

We are, once again, in an Italian court, but the cast of characters is smaller than it had been in The White Devil, and the plot simpler and more concentrated. The action here belongs, effectively, to the world of what we now regard as Gothic horror – demonic villains, sadism, terror, madness, death. In such stories, there are, in general, two types of villain – the unstable psychopath on the one hand, and the cool, calculating type on the other: here, Webster gives us both, and they both happen to be brothers of the Duchess of Malfi. There’s the Duke, Ferdinand, whose lust for his own sister is barely concealed, and who, after having had his sister and her children murdered, goes quite spectacularly mad:  

PESCARA.          Pray thee, what ‘s his disease?
DOCTOR.  A very pestilent disease, my lord,
They call lycanthropia.
PESCARA.                 What ‘s that?
I need a dictionary to’t.
DOCTOR.                     I’ll tell you.
In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows
Such melancholy humour they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into wolves;
Steal forth to church-yards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up:  as two nights since
One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully…

The other villain, the other brother, is the Cardinal. Not for him lusting after his sister, and walking the streets with limbs of dead men on his shoulders; however –

The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads.

In The White Devil, Isabella was murdered by coating with poison a picture she was known regularly to kiss; and here, Webster gives this already bizarre plot device an extra twist: the Cardinal murders his mistress by making her kiss a poisoned Bible. That’s right: a poisoned Bible. In such a world, in which God’s own word is poisoned and becomes an instrument of death, there seems little room for anything but the most crudely and ingeniously horrific and sensational; but Webster surprises us. In the first place, he is not particularly interested in plot, and thins out its elements: compared to The White Devil, the plotline presented here is very straight-forward, and is easily summarised in a few sentences. As a consequence of this reduced emphasis on the action, not much time need be spent explaining to the audience the mere mechanics of the plot; and this leaves room for other, more important matters. Even towards the end, as the action is approaching its denouement, Webster is happy to hold up the action to give us a scene which advances the plot not a whit, but which adds significantly to the darkly poetic atmosphere: Antonio, not yet knowing that his wife, the Duchess, and their children, have been murdered, is in the ruins of an abbey, and an echo in the voice of his dead wife eerily tells him of the doom that envelops him:   

ANTONIO.  Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.
ECHO.                       Thou art a dead thing.
ANTONIO.  My duchess is asleep now,
And her little ones, I hope sweetly.  O heaven,
Shall I never see her more?
ECHO.                        Never see her more.

Such a scene would have been very much out of place amidst the more frenetic action of The White Devil, but it is perfectly in place in this play with its more measured pacing, and its atmosphere of intense private grief.

The plot, such as it is, is simple enough: the still young and recently widowed Duchess of Malfi, against the express instructions of her two villainous brothers, secretly marries a social inferior, Antonio; and, when her two brothers find out, they visit upon herterrible punishment. Such a plotline doesn’t really leave much room for the revenge – for, after all, who is to be the revenger? The obvious candidate is the Duchess’ husband, Antonio, but he is relatively weak, and is more easily cast as victim rather than avenger. The avenger turns out, in what may be, I think, a twist to the usual formula, an instrument of the original crime – Bosola, who, in service of the villainous brothers, murders both the Duchess and her children. His reasons for his turning against his employers after the murders are not obvious: it is true that despite the appalling nature of the crimes he has committed, he is not entirely without scruples: he even comforts the Duchess in her last moments; but one suspects that the key factor here is the lack of gratitude on the part of his employers.

Such ambiguity of character could easily be either a dramatic weakness, leading merely to lack of clarity; or it could be quite the opposite – a dramatic strength, leading the author to examine the ambiguous nature of human motivation itself. But here, it is neither, for it is not the revenge that is at the centre of the drama: rather, we have at the centre human evil and human suffering, and the vexed question of whether, in the midst of such unmitigated horrors that make up so much of life, where even the divine word of God is coated with poison, there can be any such thing as a higher order.  

DUCHESS. What are you?
SERVANT.       One that wishes you long life.
DUCHESS.  I would thou wert hang’d for the horrible curse
Thou hast given me:  I shall shortly grow one
Of the miracles of pity.  I ‘ll go pray;       [Exit Servant.]
No, I’ll go curse.
BOSOLA.              O, fie!
DUCHESS.                      I could curse the stars.
BOSOLA.                                        O, fearful!
DUCHESS.  And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter; nay, the world
To its first chaos.
BOSOLA.              Look you, the stars shine still.

Bosola’s response to the Duchess – “look you, the stars shine still” – denotes, at one level, the insignificance of human agency: the Duchess can curse the stars – those manifestations of a higher order – as much as she wishes, but they shine still. But equally, Bosola’s response may betoken the existence of a higher order that the Duchess in her suffering denies. His words are as ambiguous and as double-edged as is his role in the drama.

But it is on the suffering that most of the dramatic focus falls, and on human life lived in the close proximity of death. There is, throughout, as Eliot put it, an awareness of “the skull beneath the skin”. And from this awareness there emerges a strange and eerie poetry. The long scene in the fourth act in which the Duchess and her children are murdered is, at the same time, the most horrific and yet the most poetic of scenes. To see horror presented in so poetic a manner is rather unnerving: I do not think I have encountered elsewhere such an unlikely fusion. And the poetry is, of course, the poetry of death.

It is a long and carefully paced scene, and seems to contain in it the very kernel of Webster’s strange vision. First, Bosola brings in, seemingly for the Duchess’ entertainment, a troupe of madmen, whose lunatic singing and dancing and meaningless gibberish create a quite extraordinary atmosphere: one gets the impression that reality is somehow suspended, and that we have entered a world that occupies some vague borderland between sanity and insanity, between life and death – a world that is not quite our own. Bosola, still the loyal servant, is soon to kill the Duchess, but he tries before doing so to comfort her, to bring her to terms with the inevitability of death:

Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory  of green mummy. What’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible, since ours is to preserve earth-worms.  Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body:  this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o’er our heads like her looking-glass, only  gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison. 

By the time the Duchess is strangled onstage, she is reconciled to her fate, but that does not make the fate any less horrific. Her waiting-woman Cariola is also strangled onstage, and then the bodies of the strangled children are brought in. Ferdinand then enters to see the corpse of the sister he had sexually desired:  

FERDINAND.            Is she dead?
BOSOLA.                             She is what
You ‘d have her.  But here begin your pity:       [Shows the Children strangled.]
Alas, how have these offended?
FERDINAND.                      The death
Of young wolves is never to be pitied.
BOSOLA.  Fix your eye here.
FERDINAND.                   Constantly.
BOSOLA.                                   Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.
FERDINAND. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.

Anyone can depict a succession of gruesome savageries, but it requires a poet, I think, to pen that line of Ferdinand’s – so apparently simple, and yet so haunting and resonant. A poet, yes, but a damn strange one.

I am not quite sure, to be honest, quite what to make of Webster’s poetic sensibility. It had seemed relatively straight-forward in The White Devil: there, life is but a teeming pit of human evil, a mere succession of horrors, and the humans occupying this pit utterly irredeemable. But here, Webster seems to add a quite different dimension: even in his contemplation of the skull beneath the skin he seems to find an eldritch yet hauntingly beautiful music. It is a sensibility unlike any other I think I have encountered, and occupies regions of the mind that I don’t think I have ever till now been led into. I ended The White Devil repelled by the horror, and yet invigorated by the sheer dramatic energy of it all; but The Duchess of Malfi took me on a quite different journey, and led me into regions of human experience that, though astonishingly vivid, seems impervious to any rational analysis.

“Meant to be seen, not read”

Yesterday, as well as being St George’s Day, was Shakespeare’s birthday. There were celebrations a-plenty, and quite rightly so: but what was very conspicuous by its absence – at least, if it was there, I missed it – was any encouragement actually to read his plays. One might have thought that the best way to honour any writer is to read what that writer has written, but somehow, when it comes to the writer widely claimed to be “our greatest”, reading does not seem very high on the agenda. Even otherwise well-read people appear not to have read much, if any, of his writing. And the unthinking mantra “Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read” seems to be commonplace. Here, for instance, is Mark Rylance, one of our foremost Shakespearean actors, on the matter:

Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be performed and reading them was “the last thing the author intended,” [Rylance] said.

There’s no point overwhelming this post with further links to illustrate my point: that these plays “were meant to be seen, not read” has now become, more or less, accepted wisdom, as even the most cursory Google search will testify.

There are, of course, several arguments to be presented against this contention that these plays were intended to be seen and not read. The most obvious is that it’s not a question of either one or the other – that one may do both, and that both are enriching in their different ways. One may point out that many good texts of these works – the Good Quartos – were published in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that it is unlikely that such publications could have appeared without the author’s own authorisation; and that if Shakespeare did indeed authorise these publications, as seems likely, then he clearly intended them to be read: after all, we know for a fact that a great many major dramatists in future eras (Ibsen, Shaw, etc.), and at least one dramatist from Shakespeare’s own time, certainly wanted their plays to be read as well as seen.

One may point out also that Shakespeare’s writing is rich and multi-layered – as one would expect from “our greatest writer” – and that the riches on offer are better absorbed when read and meditated upon in one’s own time in the study, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound. One may question also how well one may get to know the plays if one were to rely only on performance: after all, how many Shakespeare plays do most of us get to see in performance? How often? Are they all good productions, that do justice to the plays? Further, is each performance not necessarily an interpretation, which, fine though it may be, highlights inevitably only certain aspects of the work at the expense of others? That only when one encounters these works oneself, free of the interpretations of others, can one appreciate its multi-facetedness, and arrive, as one does with other major works of literature, at one’s own interpretations?

One may go further, and argue that if reading these plays is an enriching experience – and I can personally vouch for it that it is – then it really doesn’t matter what the author had intended. The author had also intended Rosalind and Cleopatra to be played by boys, but we don’t, thankfully, turn our backs on actresses playing these roles.

I have put forward these arguments and others many a time, but I don’t think they have made much impact: at least, I don’t think I have encouraged many people, if indeed any at all, to read these plays. And that’s a shame. People need no encouragement to see the plays, after all: both the Globe Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre get huge audiences: indeed, it is often quite difficult getting tickets for the latter, unless one books well in advance. It is the reading, not the seeing, that requires encouragement. And that mantra “meant to be seen, not read” is hardly conducive to encouraging anyone to read. Quite the contrary, I’d have thought.

So the next time I hear that mantra repeated, I think I will dispense with all my usual arguments, and merely counter with “How do you know?” That really is the only answer necessary. Whenever someone says that reading these plays was “the last thing the author intended”, the obvious riposte is surely: “How the hell do you know what went on in Shakespeare’s mind?”

In the meantime, we go on celebrating Shakespeare as “our greatest writer”, while even people who are otherwise well-read do not consider reading him. I must say I find that rather sad. For unless we read Shakespeare, celebrating him as “our greatest writer” is no more than lip service.

“The White Devil” by John Webster

Before engaging with the play itself, the reader of The White Devil would be well advised to read Webster’s preface to the first printed edition, especially if the reader likes, as I do, to get some impression of the authorial persona.  Here, Webster, still a relative novice in the craft of playwrighting – having at the time written plays only in collaboration – and following, as he himself acknowledges, in the immediate footsteps of some of the very finest practitioners of the art of drama (including Shakespeare), lays the blame for the failure of the production of The White Devil fairly and squarely on the audience, and the audience alone:

…since it was acted, in so dull a time of winter, that it wanted a full and understanding auditory: and since that time I have noted, most of the people that came to that playhouse, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to enquire for good books, but for new books) I present it to the general view…

It must surely have crossed Webster’s mind that the play he is now presenting to the reader is also a “new book”, but he seems to harbour not the slightest doubt that this new book of his is several cuts above those other new books that those “ignorant asses” so hanker after. For he is not finished with those “ignorant asses” yet, who dared dislike his work. He goes on to list the various qualities that pertains to a great tragic work, and then continues:

…yet after all this divine rapture … the breath that comes after the uncapable multitude is able to poison it …

I don’t think I have ever come across such unmitigated disdain on the part of an author for his public – or, at least, for a sizable section of his public; and neither have I come across a self-belief so extraordinary as to be virtually indistinguishable from megalomania. For which other author speaks of “divine rapture” in reference to his own work? Even Shaw at his most provocative never quite attained this level of self-regard. I can’t help wondering whether Webster actually meant this, or whether he was being tongue-in-cheek: either way, one gets the impression of an authorial presence that is colourful and tremendously flamboyant. And one starts the play hoping that after such a striking preface, the drama itself does not prove anti-climactic.

To anticipate my conclusion, it isn’t. It may not quite justify the epithet “divine rapture”, but it is nonetheless magnificent.

We are, from the start, in familiar territory – a Mediterranean court (Italian in this case: in a revenge tragedy, if it isn’t Spanish, it’s Italian), peopled with powerful and corrupt rulers and cardinals and, in this instance, even a Pope; there are political factions, lust in action, jealousy, Machiavellian unscrupulousness, amorality – all the necessary ingredients for a successful revenge tragedy are here, all present and correct. There is also, inevitably, murder in the air; indeed, it comes as a bit of a surprise that we are well into Act Two before the murders actually take place. But in these first two acts, it isn’t just a case of waiting for the killings: a very large cast of extremely colourful characters is presented with the utmost dramatic skill; even when reading rather than seeing the play, each of these characters is distinctly characterised, with no two in danger of being confused with each other; and the relationships between the characters too are presented with perfect clarity. I cannot frankly think of any other play in which so complex an exposition, both in terms of situation and of character, is achieved with such clarity and with such regard for dramatic flow. There is no long narrative speech explaining the necessary background facts for the benefit of the audience (Shakespeare was doing this even as late as The Tempest); there is no stock device such as a newcomer who needs things explained to him. This may have been Webster’s first play without a collaborator, but the stagecraft is as assured as I have encountered from anyone.

This level of technical skill is maintained throughout. One danger of introducing so large a cast of characters is that it becomes difficult to keep them all simultaneously at the centre of the action, and that, as a consequence, some who had been introduced as major characters end up falling, as it were, by the wayside, while others splinter off from the central action into subsidiary plotlines, which then need to be resolved separately from the principal action. But once again, such is the quality of Webster’s stagecraft, there is no danger of any of that happening here. The seamless incorporation of each of these characters into the central plot is achieved so unobtrusively, that playwrighting is made to appear quite easy, and one wonders why other dramatists seem to make such heavy weather of it all.

But of course, technical skill, even of this order, is not enough to create a work of art: there needs to be what I call, for want of a better term, an “artistic vision”, a view of human life that penetrates beyond the mere surface. The vision that Webster presents here is one of unmitigated human evil. The evil that men do – and women do as well, for that matter – is presented not merely to titillate, or to make our flesh crawl: the horrors are not piled on merely for effect. They are presented quickly, and then we move on: there is no extended dwelling on the horrors, because, despite Webster’s reputation as a purveyor merely of sensationalist and grisly effects (“Tussaud laureate”, Bernard Shaw called him), he seems uninterested in depicting horror for its own sake: his interest seems to be the murky human soul from which such evil arises.

All the traditional set-pieces of revenge tragedy are there, but, rather than being there for their own sake, they are integrated into the whole. Thus, for instance, when characters express loss and grief, and their determination to be revenged, they do not do so in long, extravagant rants: instead of the action pausing to accommodate, as it were, solo arias, here, each voice, whatever it expresses, is invariably integrated into a larger ensemble that is constantly moving forward in dramatic terms. Even when Cornelia is given her mad scene after one of her sons gratuitously murders the other, the scene is dealt with swiftly: Cornelia’s madness is but one of several other things happening at almost the same time. Throughout, there is a refusal to dwell, to linger, on scenes that, given the tastes of the time, were potential showstoppers.

Not that the plot is without sensation. Indeed, it is the very presence of sensational elements that makes Webster’s reluctance to milk them so remarkable. At the centre is an adulterous affair between the Duke of Brachaino, and Vittoria, originally from a somewhat lower rank of nobility, but now married to the foolish Camillo, nephew of a cardinal. And for this adulterous couple to come together, two murders need to be committed – that of Brachiano’s wife, and of Vittoria’s husband. Camillo’s murder is the more straight-forward of the two: while exercising on his vaulting horse, his neck is broken, and the killing made to appear an accident; but the murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, is altogether more intricate, and – it has to be admitted – delightfully sensational: the painting of her husband that she kisses every night – the very husband who murders her – is coated with a deadly poison. The two murders are presented in a single scene in a superb coup de theatre, as a conjurer allows Brachiano, not present at the scene of either murder, to see both in a vision.

Of course, it would have been easy to have enlisted audience sympathy on behalf of the murdered pair, but Webster is careful not to do that – at least, not in the case of Camillo, who is presented as something of a fool: one can even, up to an extent, at least, sympathise with Vittoria for being married to him. As for the grievously wronged Isabella, Brachiano’s wife, it would once again have been very easy to have presented her merely as a passive victim, but Webster is having none of that: he endows her with as intense a passion as that of the guilty lovers. Her fury on discovering her husband’s adultery is quite magnificent:

Isabella: O that I were a man, or that I had power
To execute my apprehended wishes!
I would whip some with scorpions.

Francisco: What! turn’d fury!

Isabella: To dig that strumpet’s eyes out; let her lie
Some twenty months a-dying; to cut off
Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth;
Preserve her flesh like mummia, for trophies
Of my just anger! Hell, to my affliction,
Is mere snow-water. By your favour, sir;—
Brother, draw near, and my lord cardinal;—
Sir, let me borrow of you but one kiss;
Henceforth I ‘ll never lie with you, by this,
This wedding-ring.

It is indeed a shame that so magnificently spirited a character plays no further part in the drama, but one feels the loss of this character to a greater extent than one would, I think, have done had she been depicted but as a stock pallid sufferer and passive victim.

The movement to the double murder takes up the first two acts; the elaborate revenge, the last two. In the third act, bridging these two dramatic movements, is a magnificent court scene, in which Vittoria is put on trial for having instigated the murder of her husband.  Once again, Webster refuses to guide the reader’s (or the audience’s) sympathy: her accusers and judges are themselves corrupt, and, despite the lack of any evidence against her, she is found guilty and sentenced:

Monticelso: … Hear your sentence: you are confin’d
Unto a house of convertites, and your bawd——

Vittoria: A house of convertites! what ‘s that?

Monticelso: A house of penitent whores.

Vittoria’s defiance is splendid:

Vittoria: Die with those pills in your most cursed maw,
Should bring you health! or while you sit o’ th’ bench,
Let your own spittle choke you!

Monticelso: She ‘s turned fury.

Vittoria: That the last day of judgment may so find you,
And leave you the same devil you were before!

Vittoria is soon out of the “house of penitent whores”, and lodged in Brachiano’s court; and then, starts the second arc of dramatic action – the Revenge. Except that, in Webster’s vision, the revengers are as morally corrupt and as evil as those they seek to destroy. The evil in this play seems all-encompassing.

Over the course of this long play, a picture emerges of passions that are neither controllable nor sought to be controlled; of remorse disjoined from power; of humanity ruled merely by lust and depravity and cruelty. This picture is painted on a large and immensely colourful but poison-coated canvas; and so oppressive is this image of evil, that the effect, despite the largeness of the canvas, is claustrophobic: it is a human inferno with no hint in sight even of a purgatory in which sins may be suffered away. Were it not for the tremendous theatrical vigour and exuberant energy with which this vision is presented, the whole thing would be a deadeningly depressing affair – a picture of life enmeshed in darkness only. Nihilism is not a way of looking at the world that I find myself attracted to, but I do find it hard, at least while experiencing the work, not to be drawn into Webster’s nihilistic vision.

One cannot help feeling, perhaps, that Shakespeare’s vision of evil, at least in his greatest plays, was even deeper, and even more terrifying. In Webster’s play, evil is something done by evil people, and this leads to a circular logic: why do people do such evil things? because they are evil; and why are they evil? because they do evil things. In Macbeth, the evil is not a monster that is out there, but, rather, a monster that lies latent within ourselves. But Webster’s vision of the monster out there is terrifying enough. From the preface, it is obvious that Webster knew full well he had written a masterpiece: he was not wrong. It is a tremendous achievement.

Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

Trying to read Donne

Monarchs aren’t often renowned for their wit, but if James I really did speak the line attributed him, that “Dr Donne’s verses are like the peace of God: they pass all understanding”, then he was spot on.

I have been acquainted – though no more than acquainted – with some of Donne’s more famous verses. Over the last two weeks or so, I have tried to come to a better understanding, and come closer to these works than a mere casual acquaintance can allow. Donne is, after all, indisputably among the major poets in the English language, and it is absurd that anyone with any interest at all in English literature should be so ignorant of his verse as I am. The project to become better acquainted with this body of work has not, at least in the early stages, gone too well: his sensibilities seem very alien to my own (which is perhaps why it has taken me so long to get round to a serious study of his works), and I find it difficult, often impossible, to follow his train of thought. His mind seems to make leaps that leave my mind bewildered; he finds relationships between object and thought and between thought and image that seem to me to make little sense. I feel like a dull-brained Polonius as a sharp-witted Hamlet is running rings around me: if only I can come to some understanding of those damn rings he is making – and why he is making them in the first place!

Not that I am giving up: these are but early days. But I don’t think I have come across any other major poet whose works have eluded me so – not even T. S. Eliot in his most inscrutable Four Quartets mode. In poem after poem, Donne puzzles me, and seems to laugh at my befuddlement. There are many examples I could give, but let me focus on the elegy titled “The Bracelet”, which strikes me as particularly opaque. The opening eight lines run thus:

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.

The first two lines refer to a motif that recurs quite frequently in Donne’s – the bracelet he wore around his arm of his lover’s hair. But the syntax of the sentence, that spans the first eight lines, is such that we do not know what the “it” is that he refers to in the first line until we get to the seventh: this “it” is, we then find, a “sevenfold chain”, the colour of his love’s hair (which, we may infer from the context, is the colour of gold). And it is only at this point that are we told that the poet has lost this chain, and is mourning this loss. Once we read these lines over again, they certainly make sense; but what should pass through the reader’s mind when reading these opening lines for the first time? What should the reader be thinking, or feeling, or sensing, or intuiting, as Donne spends six lines listing the various reasons he is not mourning something, even before the object of his mourning, or even before the very theme of mourning itself, is so much as mentioned? Speaking for myself, I was bewildered. Only when I read the seventh line did the first six lines fall into place, and I had, of course, to go back and read them over. But by this stage, the spontaneity of response – which has always seemed to me an important element in reading poetry – was no longer there.

But as soon as this is clarified, Donne introduces an ambivalence: the cost. This could be the cost of the chain that he has lost; or it could be the cost that is a consequence of the loss. It could be a straight-forward monetary cost, or, more likely, an emotional, or even perhaps a spiritual cost. All possibilities are tantalisingly present. And there is, I think, a further ambivalence: the object that he has lost is referred to not as a “bracelet”, but as a “chain”; so is this the bracelet of the title? Or could the bracelet of the title be the strands of his lover’s hair tied around his arm that he mentions in the first line? For, after all, why mention so striking a detail at the very outset if it is to play no further part in the poem?

Fine, let us move on. In the next two lines, we get this:

O, shall twelve righteous angels, which as yet
No leaven of vile solder did admit;

This sudden leap – for I can only see it as such – is very characteristic of Donne. Who are these twelve righteous angels? The footnotes refer to the twelve righteous angels guarding Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Book of Revelations, 21.12. I have actually read the Book of Revelations, but I am not so great a Bible scholar that I could instantly relate this line of Donne’s to this reference: I am grateful indeed for the footnotes for directing me. But I am still at a loss on how these righteous angels, Book of Revelations or no, relate to the first eight lines. The footnotes also tell me that gold coins worth ten shillings had depicted on one side the angel Michael slaying the dragon. Fair enough – but how do I knit all of this together? Are we to assume that the chain he has lost consisted of twelve of these coins linked together? I can’t see any other way of linking this ninth line to the eight previous ones. And even if I were to make this connection – which may or may not be what Donne had intended – the significance of reference to the guardian angels of is not obvious: maybe the angels on the coins making up this chain are to be seen as guarding the poet from harm, much as the angels from the Book of Revelations had guarded Jerusalem from harm. A great many conjectures and wild guesses in all this, but let us go on:

No leaven of vile solder did admit;

I think that’s clear enough – the gold of this chain, or of the coins possibly making up this chain, was pure, and has not been debased by “vile solder”. But “leaven” is a curious word to choose here; it is clearly a Biblical word, and the footnotes guide me to various verses in the Bible where the word is used. I look them up, but I can’t say they help me come closer to Donne’s intent. And nor do the lines that follow:

Nor yet by any way have stray’d or gone
From the first state of their creation;
Angels, which heaven commanded to provide
All things to me, and be my faithful guide;
To gain new friends, to appease great enemies;
To comfort my soul, when I lie or rise;
Shall these twelve innocents, by thy severe
Sentence, dread judge, my sin’s great burden bear?
Shall they be damn’d, and in the furnace thrown,
And punish’d for offences not their own?
They save not me, they do not ease my pains,
When in that hell they’re burnt and tied in chains.

So I was right in thinking that those twelve angels are seen, figuratively at least, as the poet’s own guardian angels. But why the loss of this chain should condemn these innocent angels to eternal damnation I cannot imagine. And I don’t think Donne is joking here: he would surely have taken matters of the soul and of eternal damnation rather seriously. I am obviously missing much here, and it bothers me that I have not the faintest idea of what it is I am missing.

And so the poem continues, over 100 lines, making leaps from one thing to the next while leaving behind no traceable connection, forcing together recondite thoughts, spraying out Biblical references at every opportunity. It is, I admit, tempting to say at this point that Donne is not for me – that his sensitivity, his perspective on life and on the world, are too far removed from mine; but I am not giving up so easily. Familiarity breeds understanding, after all, and I am determined to carry on familiarising myself with this poetry so that, even if I myself never become an aficionado, I can at least understand why others are.

The Peace of God may well pass all understanding, but it’s worth making the effort to have a bit of it nonetheless.