JOHN DONNE

 

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1 Criticism of John Donne has traditionally been male territory. Of the eighteen studies of the poet recommended by Stevie Davies in her bibliography, all are by men. Donne boasted of 'the masculine persuasive force' of his verse, and after his death he was commended in Thomas Carew's 'Elegy' for his 'line of masculine expression'. Among recent critics, John Carey celebrated Donne for his triumphant masculinity in his influential book John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Stevie Davies marches onto this field like an Amazon determined to put the cohorts of Donne's male supporters to flight. She reminds the reader, particularly the male reader, what it is like to be a woman experiencing the aggressive thrust of Donne's poetry. From place after place in the so-called love poems she picks out examples of Donne's contempt for women, his cynical exploitation of their bodies and disregard of their minds, and his coarse delight in their weakness. He dehumanizes the mistress-figures:
'She becomes an edible commodity; usable goods which, when sampled, are rendered worthless; game to be flushed out and killed; a mindless piece of flesh without individuality, whose feelings are expressly not to be taken into account'.
Davies draws attention to the frequency of unpleasant voyeurism in the love poems, and to the vindictiveness with which Donne's lovers treat their mistresses. She observes too a certain uneasiness and insecurity behind all the bluster. Passages of scabrous eroticism are paraded before the reader along with the more repellent descriptions of female sexuality, to remind us not only that there is a good deal of this kind of writing in Donne's verse, but also that he evidently enjoyed titillating with these near-obscenities. The early 'Elegies' contain more of these passages than the 'Songs and Sonets', and Stevie Davies is inclined to regard the 'Elegies' as the 'foundation-stones for his mature poetry', indicating that the dismissive attitudes towards women continued into the later poetry, even though softened and sometimes overlaid with a spurious affection. While never denying the immense expressiveness and power of Donne's verse, she forcefully insists on the distasteful character of so many of the poems for a feminist reader of today. Her point of view has to be acknowledged, and may well prove to be influential, for it is probably true to say that the majority of serious readers of Donne these days are women, given the fact that women form the majority of students of English in our time. Yet perhaps it is inevitable that the corrective view of Donne offered here is too extreme. What is most obviously missing is a recognition that along with the male agressiveness comes the most compelling love poetry ever written in English, in which a depth of emotion and intensity of passion are registered with incomparable skill, and where the delicacies of feeling as well as the subtleties of thought are rendered in such a memorable way that they often seem more real than our own experience. Stevie Davies gives the impression that Donne's poetry is less an expression of love than a record of rape; yet although an accumulation of selected passages can convey that impression, that is not the effect produced by a random reading in the 'Songs and Sonets'. At least, not to a male reader. One would indeed like to know if feminist criticism is producing a lasting alteration in the way female readers respond to traditionally admired love poets. On the evidence of current student essays, I would guess that the old enthusiasm for Donne persists, and that intelligent and sensitive readers are not alienated from the young Elizabethan philanderer. It is, however, apparent that there is a greatly heightened awareness of his predatory nature and of his fantasies of power and domination over women's bodies. There is also a much franker recognition that 'the right true end of love' is sexual conquest (something, for example, that Helen Gardner even in the 1960s would scarcely admit) and that love poetry, no matter how delicately scented, almost always conceals strategies of seduction.

The opening section of the book is devoted to Donne's life, career and personality, all briskly addressed in the vigorous, pungent and economical style that is characteristic of the author's approach. We are in familiar territory here, but the material is well delivered in ways that bear steadily on the poetry and on the self-presentation of the poet in his verse. His theatricality is given much prominence, with the suggestion that he had as many selves as a Shakespearean play has characters. Attempts to identify the 'real' John Donne are about as futile as attempts to detect Shakespeare behind the gallery of characters he created. There is also a sense in which Donne was never so intensely himself as when he was acting, whether he was playing the ingenious lover or presenting himself as a dying man preaching his own funeral sermon to his congregation at St. Paul's. To dramatize his grief, or his hopes and fears, in poetry or in the pulpit was not to falsify them: 'the theatrical production of emotion was its sincerest expression'. We are reminded of Donne's affinity to Montaigne, who was also aware that he possessed a multiplicity of selves that seemed to take shape in response to the varied and ambiguous nature of experience. Davies perceptively relates this multiform personality to Donne's fondness for puns: 'he lived in pun, as a natural element. Two-faced, three-angled and self-multiplying ambiguity of meaning was paradoxically the only place where he felt safe. Double meaning was his sanctuary or fastness'. This observation rings true, for in a world where new information was always coming in, where religious 'truth' was always being contested by churches and sects, and where forthright statements of opinion could be dangerous, ambiguity could indeed be protective.

Though the secular self might take many forms, and the existence of a central self be debatable, there was no question about the soul. That was one and indivisible, and constantly at risk. Although the adventures of the soul might also be theatrical and spectacular, they were in earnest. Wit might give the impression that Donne's soul was a sportive spirit, but terror of damnation allied to an uncertain hope of salvation drove that soul distractedly around 'the world's imagined corners', and through time from the Creation to the Last Judgement, searching desperately for a sign of grace. In connection with these vertiginous spiritual flights Stevie Davies likes to invoke Baroque or Mannerist analogies, but these links with contemporary pictorial or architectural taste are not entirely convincing, for Donne seems to have had little interest in the visual arts of his time, even though he had travelled on the continent and seen Counter-Reformation works of art. He lived in an almost entirely verbal world. But such analogies are helpful in placing Donne in the aesthetic context of his time, and carefully constructed verbal bridges do manage to connect Donne's poetic practice to the illusionist world of the Counter-Reformation arts: 'Mannerism's insistence that reality is not as we normally see it; its commitment to aberration and the pulling of the viewer's lazy eye along vistas of extension; its relentless invitation to us to admire and be amazed, are reflected in Donne's literary pyrotechnics'.

There is much here about Donne's searching after power through the exercise of his eloquence and in the assumed relationships within the poems. John Carey made this a dominant theme of his own book, but it is sounded again here with great effect. 'Self empowering wit' is rightly seen as a feature of Donne's careers as a lover and as a priest. He can adopt commanding positions as a prince or potentate or as a saint of love in the 'Songs and Sonets', and when he turned churchman he exploited the sermon as an authoritarian medium to the utmost. In one sermon, for example, he was able to throw his congregation into confusion by announcing his conclusion first, 'in case today turns out to be the Last Day and he has no time to finish it'. Other sermons caused his listeners to groan and weep and stagger with anxiety, a distress only he could mend by his concluding consolations. Davies observes that one of the most satisfying moments in his career must have been when the King knelt in his presence, while he remained standing to conduct the service. This must have been a dream situation for Donne.

This is a short book, but it is highly readable and rewardingly provocative. It does make one want to go back to the poetry and check if the assertions made here, especially about Donne's contempt for women, hold up when one rereads the verse. My sense is that the articulate intelligence so evident in the love poems, their assuredness, and the conviction that the lover will never run out of arguments to persuade, retaliate or seduce, will always make them compelling, whatever reservations one may have about the taste or character of their inventor.
  In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism V, II, Sept. 1996

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies