The poetic close-talking of John Donne

Somewhere CS Lewis says that, as poets, Donne and Robert Browning share a tendency to “buttonhole” their readers - or, as we might say, “get in their face.” This is the same quality Lewis's near contemporary, Virginia Woolf, praised in Donne and what, for her, made him modern. Here's Woolf, in The Common Reader (1925, 1935):

“But the first quality that attracts us is not his meaning, charged with meaning as his poetry is, but something much more unmixed and immediate; it is the explosion with which he bursts into speech. All preface, all parleying have been consumed; he leaps into poetry the shortest way.”

Some first lines come to mind: “Death be not proud”...“Stand still, and I will read to thee”...“For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love.” He’s a consummately bossy poet, always forestalling argument or dissent, his finger on the lapel, or on the lips, of his hearer. Much of his poetry reads like Browning's dramatic monologues, but there's no assumed persona. It's Donne bursting from the poem, exploding in your face. And not only does he explode in your face, he cuts off your escape. 

“The world, a moment before, cheerful, humdrum, bursting with character and variety, is consumed. We are in Donne’s world now. All other views are sharply cut off. In this power of suddenly surprising and subjugating the reader, Donne excels most poets. It is his characteristic quality; it is thus that he lays hold upon us”.

This massive poetic egotism - the eclipse of other worlds, the drowning out of argument, the importunate seduction - is what made Donne's verses leap out of the seventeenth century into modernity, and makes Donne himself burst out of his verses, into our faces.

Kitchen classics

Here's a gorgeous taste of Mark Crick's Household tips of the great writers: recipes in the style of Virginia Woolf, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Raymond Chandler. The latter is particularly good:

"I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim's, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues."



Since posting about creativity versus health, I've been feeling some misgiving, deepened by reading Virginia Woolf. Because it's not exactly a choice, is it? Whether to be mad or not. And mental health and good behaviour are not always what they're cracked up to be.  They are guarantors of happiness only insofar as happiness is constituted in conformity, in treading the via media. I think as I get older I'm growing less tolerant of social transgression, more plaintive about disturbance of the peace. This happens, no doubt, when we get comfortable, when we become elder to the new generation. But when we become elder still, we face the final unravelling of everything we've woven so tightly, so decorously round ourselves.

Dementia, the long goodbye, is a horrible darkness, but in some cases that darkness is ever so slightly illuminated by creation. Dementia patients can find in themselves a sudden sensitivity to art, a sudden ability to paint or compose that they never had before. Ravel's Bolero is the notable example: a piece made by a demented mind that has a driving rhythm and a strange, lurching magnificence. We would be poorer without it. Oliver Sacks has been criticised for exploiting his patients' stories of neural anomaly, but I think he's added immeasurably to our stock of human experience. Experiences on the perilous edge of human consciousness, which we might never know except by reading about them, challenge our notions of what it means to be human, what it means to be healthy or happy or good, how much our notions of normal are constituted in perception. And Woolf, gifted and afflicted, lyrically afloat in the full-fed stream of her consciousness, wrote at a depth few of us reach. We would be poorer without her.

She's one of many artists - the ones Sonya Chung was harking back to - that embody Shakespeare's compounding of the lunatic, the lover and the poet. And of course, as the poets would testify, we would be poorer without a spectrum of experience that involves the unconforming, the unbodied, the inexplicable. Keats saw it in Shakespeare, but the coinage, ‘negative capability,' is his. “When man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." When experience of all kinds is welcome evidence of existence, and the fuel of creative fire. While I might personally fear an exile from the middle way, collectively we need the experience of these border rangers. We need the negatively capable to testify to the enduring mystery of existence. To find the hard shell of normal and crack it open.

What a lark! What a plunge!

Since we've had quite a bit of poetry this week, here's one of my favourite bits of prose: the opening words of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. If prose is to walking what poetry is to dancing, then this is prose cutting in.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it?—“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished — how strange it was!— a few sayings like this about cabbages.

A poetics of piety

I just came across an old lecture I gave on Christina Rossetti and found, besides this lovely sketch of her in coloured chalks by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this quote from Virginia Woolf, penned in 1918:

“…if I were bringing a case against God she is one of the first witnesses I should call…First she starved herself of love, which meant also life; then of poetry in deference to what she thought her religion demanded…Poetry was castrated too.  She would set herself to do the psalms into verse; & to make all her poetry subservient to the Christian doctrines.  Consequently, as I think, she starved into emaciation a very fine original gift, which only wanted licence to take to itself a far finer form than, shall we say, Mrs [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning’s …She has the natural singing power.  She thinks, too. She has fancy. She could, one is profane enough to guess, have been ribald & witty. And, as a reward for all her sacrifices, she died in terror, uncertain of salvation.”

I agree that often religious asceticism is at odds with creativity, but I don't think anyone could look at the canon of religious poetry in English, least of all at Rossetti's contribution, and conclude that religion had stifled the poetic imagination. Making poetry subservient to Christian doctrines may in some cases have produced some God awful poems, but I think in far more cases it has been a fusion or collision out of which has erupted great beauty. Some of the best English poetry has been hurled from the sheer cliff faces of religious faith, or whispered from the darkest corners of self-sacrifice. The tension in Rossetti, as in many others, between discipline and effusion, between revelation and imagination, is the magnetic force that draws us, century by century, back to the poets that forsake licence for the sake of piety.