Friday, August 10, 2007

On a huge hill, cragg'd and steep, Truth stands

I've written before about John Donne's "Meditation XVII," and about how Donne's most famous line, "No man is an island," from that Meditation, is a far more interesting thought when considered as part of the passage that surrounds it:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Similarly, John Stubbs's John Donne: The Reformed Soul (2006) adds interest and nuance to Donne's work by putting it in the context of a skilled reconstruction of his life. Though Donne is often viewed as a complicated, even paradoxical man--a writer of erotic love poems, raised a Catholic, who later became one of the foremost ministers of the Church of England--Stubbs does a convincing job of drawing a line of emotional and spiritual consistency throughout a life of outward change.

Donne lived in the chaotic period between two of the greatest upheavals of English history (Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church and the English Civil War) and watching him tack back and forth as needed to navigate the political, social, and religious difficulties of the era is fascinating. A Catholic in a Protestant society, he converted when it became necessary--and, Stubbs argues convincingly, found a way (in his deep-rooted ecumenicalism) to fully embrace the change. Exiled from society due to his elopement with the daughter of his first patron, he assiduously courted friends and connections until he was restored to the court's good graces. Eventually, as his prospects of landing a government position (which he badly needed to feed his large family) dimmed, he completed his journey from his Catholic upbringing by heeding King Charles's suggestion that he become a minister. From then on, Donne put all of his intellectual and emotional powers at the Church of England's disposal, developing a more somber and strongly moral tone and becoming in the process one of the most-loved writers in the Christian tradition.

Through all of these changes, however, Stubbs argues, Donne continued to be driven by the same search for truth that can be seen in his earliest satires and even his love poetry, which each in their way aim to strip away hypocrisy to reveal underlying realities and desires. Stubbs returns regularly to the following passage from Donne's "Satire III":
On a huge hill,
Cragg'd, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe,
And what the hills suddenness resists, winne so;
Yet strive so, that before age, deaths twilight,
Thy Soule rest, for none can work in that night.
Stubbs isn't always able to convince, of course. It seems important to accept that Donne was often simply having to make the best of a bad situation--his sycophantic letters to his court patrons, in particular, come across as full of the very lies the younger Donne would have enjoyed puncturing in verse.

The portrait of Donne we're left with is appealing nonetheless: a man refusing to be defeated by any setback and unwilling to ever settle for a received idea, instead perpetually sifting, considering, and reconsidering. That very process animates the best of Donne's metaphysical verse, as he strings thought upon thought, forever pushing for a deeper understanding; it's even present, in a different form, in his lighter work, where he subjects image and metaphor to that same sort of intellectual pressure. I also find Donne congenial because even in his later years, he appears never to have denied his possibly embarrassing past of love affairs and youthful abandon--in other words, to the Christian eye, sin; rather, he seems to have accepted that the God he knew knew him also, both his sins and his goodness, and would accept him as a whole.

Reading about Donne's life, I couldn't help thinking about a couple of fascinating what-ifs. At one point, Donne was angling for a secretarial position with a colonial expedition to Virginia, which leads me to marvel at the thought of Donne's poetic impressions of the American wilderness and the hardships of colonial life. (Peter Ackroyd wrote a novel about the same idea as applied to John Milton, whom he sends to Massachusetts with the Pilgrims--anyone read it?) There's also the question of what side Donne would have taken in the Civil War had he lived another couple of decades. It's hard to imagine him not disdaining the Puritans' harsh intolerance, but at the same time it's impossible to know what he would have made of the Church's increasing crackdown on Puritanism in the years leading up to the war. Which way would Donne the mutable survivor have jumped?

From what we can't know, I'll return to what we do know: the poetry. Which Donne I like best depends on my mood, on whether I feel like following his wanders through metaphor to a truth about humanity or to a simple tryst. Tonight, because it's a lovely summer evening, I'll choose the love poetry to close, one of my favorites because of its ingenious conception, from which Donne wrings every drop of meaning.
The Flea

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.

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