Thursday, June 14, 2012
John Donne (1572-1631) is credited with the honour of being the poet who broke the Petrarchan tradition in England and created a new mode of poetry. Rather than a complete breach, Donne's poetry is a widening of the scope of the Elizabethan tradition. He implements already existing modes in every aspect: new metrical schemes (although he will return to the sonnet in his last works), a rich and original imagery, a colloquial, conversational tone, and a mingling of intellect and passion which disconcerted his contemporaries: he and his followers were labeled as "metaphysical poets." Not that Donne's poems have any philosophical intention: his themes are the traditional ones, although renewed by a new attitude: love, religious feeling and satire. The love poems correspond roughly to the early period of his career. He abandons the rigid Elizabethan conventions, which sprung from Petrarchism, and adds realism, sincerity, psychological penetration and a great variety of moods enhanced with images taken from every field of experience. Some of his love poems are harsh and cynical; others are nearly ecstatic, and celebrate love as the supreme thing in the world. The most famous among these are "The Sun Rising," "The Dreame" and "The Good-Morrow". Love as the supreme experience suggests to Donne connections between it and other aspects of reality: everything can be used to try to describe an ineffable feeling. His imagery ranges from the vulgar to the sublime, from daily activities to old scientific theories; it may be of a deplorable bad taste or combine sheer originality with beauty and accuracy. It is never ornamental: the poet seems to think that sensation must be subordinated to thought. Much the same happens with the sound pattern of his poems, which is very far away from the smoothness of previous poets. Rhythm is secondary; at its best, it merely helps to underline ideas.
I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov'd? Were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?
T'was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd, and got, 'twas but a dreame of thee.
And now good morrow to our waking soules,
Which watch not one another out of feare;
For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
Let us possesse one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appeares,
And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest,
Where can we finde two better hemispheares
Without sharpe North, without declining West?
What ever dyes, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.
This is one of Donne's best known poems, and a perfect sample of his way. The subject is love, love seen as an intense, absolute experience, which isolates the lovers from reality, but gives them a different kind of awareness; a simultaneous narrowing and widening of reality.
The poem is divided in three stanzas. In the first one, the lover rejects the life he led until he met his present love. He describes it as childish ("were we not weaned," "childishly") and unconscious, a kind of sleep ("Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den"?). His past loves must not be considered as serious, since he was not completely aware of himself at the time. So, they are rejected:
. . . But this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
The second stanza is, in contrast, a celebration of the present. Each soul has "awakened" to the other, and has discovered a whole world in it. The union is self-sufficient; the "little room" where they are is all the world, "an everywhere." Consequently, the outer world is rejected, under the symbols of maps and discoverers. Up to now, the poet has cut off his superfluous experience; past time (the first stanza), external space (2nd stanza). He seems to be saying "Here and now."
The third stanza shows the perfect sincerity and adequation of both lovers, and it adds a hope for the future to that assertion of the present we have met in the first stanza. This perfect love is not only immortal: it makes the lovers immortal, too:
If our two love be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.