Posts Tagged ‘Donne’

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.

On New Year resolutions, and a few other matters

After the festivities, the austerity. Several of my friends have committed themselves to going through the first month of the New Year without alcohol, penitent, it seems, for the sin of having enjoyed themselves earlier. Others have come up with New Year resolutions that seem designed to make life as unpleasant as possible: give up fried food, exercise more, go to the gym, and the like. (It never ceases to astonish me, incidentally, that those paying vast amounts for the privilege of exercising in a gym appear not to have figured out that taking a run round the park is free.) If Christmas was designed to brighten up the gloom of a bleak mid-winter, we seem intent upon returning to all that gloom and bleakness with a fanatic relish afterwards. As for myself, I must confess that, ageing sybarite that I am, all this mortifying the flesh to purify the spirit leaves me feeling distressingly alienated. For, in the words of Falstaff, he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; and who in their right senses would consider a life purged of all its pleasures, and laden with various self-imposed vicissitudes, to be a life worth having – even for the single penitential month of January? Give me life, says I! If I can have it, so; if not, the gym comes unlooked for, and there an end.

Not that I haven’t made a few New Year resolutions myself, of course. Not perhaps New Year resolutions, since they had been formulated log before the New Year, but, all the same, resolutions for this coming year. I want to devote myself to the arts and literatures of Shakespeare’s times. To this end, I have lined up for myself the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse – a large and forbidding tome with which I am determined to familiarise myself; the Longman edition (which is the most heavily annotated version I could find) of the poems of Donne, along with the Cambridge Companion to Donne, which, hopefully, will give me some critical insights that I could then pass off here as my own; various plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare – Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Dekker, Heywood, and the like; and the collected essays of Bacon and of Montaigne. (The latter died when Shakespeare was still a teenager, but Montaigne seems so important an intellectual influence on Shakespeare, that it seems ludicrous for any self-respecting Bardolator not to know his works well.) And I want to read Don Quixote in a modern translation: my preferred translation till now has been the one by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, but, lively and ebullient thought that version was and still is, the more recent translations are, I am told, more accurate; and since we already have John Rutherford’s highly rated Penguin translation on our shelves (it is a favourite book of my wife’s), there seemed little point getting another one. On top of all this, I would like to familiarise myself with the art and music of that period: the last few weeks have been spent listening to some of the choral music of William Byrd, including the three magnificent masses (which, in those days in Protestant England, had to be performed discreetly behind closed doors), and also to some of the songs of John Dowland. I really am not at all familiar with music of this era, but I suppose repeated listening is the best way to familiarise myself.

My resolution to immerse myself in all this has, admittedly, been put on hold for a while by a couple of books presented to me for Christmas by my brother: Think by Simon Blackburn, an introduction to laymen such as myself to some of the major concepts and arguments of Western philosophy; and The Soul of the World by philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author (and I am merely paraphrasing the blurb here on the jacket) argues for the importance in our lives of a sense of the sacred (a term, I presume, the author will define somewhere along the line), and, to anticipate somewhat, concludes that “despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world … the paths to transcendence remain open”. My brother presented this book to me with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment that he thought I would like it because I was “into all that mumbo-jumbo”. He was referring to my fascination with Dostoyevsky, a writer for whose irrationality and religious fervour my brother has little patience: and he is right: I am, indeed, into all that “mumbo-jumbo” – at least, up to a point. The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. So I would be very interested indeed to know what a philosopher such as Scruton has to say in defence of this idea, irrational though it may well be. Well, let’s not pre-judge: I’ll write about all that once I have read the book.

But the first two weeks of the January I have spent reading Blackburn’s book. I am still debating whether or not to write a blog post on it: of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters? Should I not merely restrict myself to saying that I found it illuminating and fascinating (and a few similar words looked up in the thesaurus) and leave it there? Anything more and I would merely be making a fool of myself! But this blog is as much a personal diary as it is a public platform, so perhaps a jotting down few words describing my own reactions to the book rather than presuming the critique the book may not be entirely amiss. I’ll see how confident I feel about it. And some time not too much later, I most certainly want to read Scruton’s book. And write something about that too, if I can pluck up the courage to do so.

But for now, I am going to immerse myself in Donne. By the end of the year, I want to count myself as one knowledgeable about this poet, of whose work I am currently aware only in a very haphazard manner. And may I wish everyone out there that your New Year resolutions – even if it is spending more time in the gym – brings you as much joy as mine promise to bring to me!

The finest decade: 1601-1610

Looking through the history of Western culture, has there ever, I wonder, been a decade quite as rich in achievement as the first ten years of the 17th century?

Shakespeare was, in this decade, at his very peak. Exact dating is difficult, but it appears that by 1601, the start of the decade, Shakespeare already had behind him Hamlet and Twelfth Night. What followed was every bit as remarkable – Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. In comparison with works of such order, even plays such as Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus – works that would be considered towering works of genius from any other writer – are often, in this context, regarded as “relatively minor”. By the time the decade ended, Shakespeare was engaged on his final trio of dramatic masterpieces – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. And amongst all this was the publication in 1609 of one hundred and fifty four sonnets – works that ensured that even if Shakespeare had never written a single play, we’d still be thinking of him as our greatest writer.

And also in this decade, over in Spain, Cervantes published the first of the two parts that make up Don Quixote, and began work on the second. If, as is said – I can’t remember by whom: indeed, I think I just made it up – that the four principal pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, it is surely remarkable that two of them were at their peak at the same time.

And let us not forget the King James Bible. It was published in 1611 – this year is the four hundredth anniversary of that momentous event – but much of the work on it would, I imagine, have been done in this decade. (And yes, I know, much of it is a rehash of Tyndale’s Bible, but still…)

In addition, Ben Jonson wrote in this decade some of his finest work – most notably, The Alchemist and Volpone. And towards the end of the decade, John Donne started work on his Holy Sonnets. (While his other poems are often hard to date, it is most likely that many of them were the products of these years.)

There was other fine writing as well – the Jacobean era was, after all, the most glorious period of English drama; and inSpain, there was the prolific Lope de Vega. It is an indication of the sheer stature of Shakespeare and Cervantes that literature even of this quality seems to be in their shadow.

Rubens: Descent from the Cross (Antwerp Cathedral)

Other areas of the arts were flourishing as well. The young Rubens was already well-established, and in the final years of this decade, was engaged on those two massive works now in Antwerp Cathedral – The Raising of the Cross, and the almost unbearably moving Descent from the Cross, in which the body of Christ seems to be falling and soaring at the same time. Meanwhile, inSpain, El Greco was putting on to canvas his very personal and idiosyncratic mystical visions. Equally idiosyncratic and personal were the late paintings of Caravaggio: having killed a man in 1606, Caravaggio spent the last few years of his brief life on the run, and found himself in Naples, Sicily, Malta, unable to settle anywhere for long. Before his untimely and mysterious death, his strange and violent death-haunted imagination put on canvas some of the most intensely tragic and powerful of visions.

Meanwhile, if we turn to music, Monteverdi composed Orfeo, among the earliest and greatest of all operas, and, in 1610, the monumental Vespers. In England,  William Byrd was composing at the height of his powers: his two books of Gradualia were published within these years.

Science was not left behind in this either. Just before the start of this decade, in 1610, William Gilbert published his astonishing discovery that the earth itself was a huge magnet; and the decade ended with Galileo observing with his new-fangled telescope the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. In between, Johannes Kepler formulated and published his ground-breaking Laws of Planetary Motion.

It seems unimaginable that all this could happen within the space of just a few years. Suddenly, the world seemed to cast off its old clothes, and enter a new phase. Was there something in the air? One tries to find connections between all these achievements, even though one knows that such connections are, at best, fanciful. Shakespeare and Jonson knew each other, and, one imagines, they would have known the other dramatists and poets in London at the time; but mostly, all these great men of genius were working independently. But fanciful or not, it’s hard not to see some of Shakespeare’s tragic spirit in those late paintings of Caravaggio. And, although the sun-baked plains of La Mancha are as far as can be imagined from the deep claustrophobic gloom of Glamis Castle, one can imagine Don Quixote agreeing with Macbeth that “Nothing is but what is not”.

At much the same time as Shakespeare was writing King Lear, El Greco was

El Greco: View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum New York)

painting Toledo during an apocalyptic storm. (Dating of this painting varies: some date it to the late 1590s rather than to the 1600s, but let’s not allow such little details to get in the way!) Storms of such elemental violence could, no doubt, occur inEngland as well: every time I read those storm scenes of Shakespeare’s play, I find it difficult to banish from my mind El Greco’s tempestuous vision.

And then I look at Carvaggio’s painting of the boy David holding Goliath’s head. The living David seems rather bland – a smug, self-satisfied lad, lacking much in the way of character. All the character is in Goliath’s head, which, though severed, seems

Caravaggio: David with the head of Goliath (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

still a living, sentient being. This decapitated head is Caravaggio’s self-portrait: here, he pictures himself conquered by a mere boy. (“To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head…”) And, though defeated, though decapitated, I can almost hear Caravaggio agreeing with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, that “’tis paltry to be Caesar”.

But of course, this is all mere fancy. The air of that decade was nothing special: it wasn’t so different from the air we breathe now. But when I think back on what was achieved in those few years, and I cannot help but be struck with wonder. It’s almost as if all the finest aspects of human genius were concentrated into that brief space of time.