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.