Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John Donne Conquers the Universe!

Dear Everyone:

Well, I’m off to Russia, and won’t be able to provide you with poems for another two weeks. So I”m leaving y’all with John Donne, a good man with serious emotional and intellectual content alike. For your convenience, I’ve modernized the spelling a bit, so that, for example, “soules” and “goe” become “souls” and “go.” Cheap and modern of me, I know. But I don’t think it will hurt the poem much.


A Valediction: forbidding mourning
by John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls, to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say,

The breath goes now, and some say, no:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,

'Twere prophanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did and meant,

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin'd

That we ourselves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the'other do.

And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as it comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th'other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end, where I begun.

Here, ripp’d untimely from a website, is a quick gloss on the vocabulary of the poem:

Valediction - a farewell, but a stronger meaning than that: Valedictions for people are read at funerals, etc, and ties in with the first stanza.

Prophanation - sacreligious

Laity - common people.

Trepidation - Not fear, in this sense, but movement. It also implies (a) cautious, silent movement, and (b) an irregularity of movement.

Elemented - instigated, started, constructed.

And I hope you guys are familiar with compasses, despite not being allowed to bring them to school. If not, for Pete’s sake, look it up. Otherwise this poem will be incomprehensible to you.

So here’s a poem Donne wrote for his wife, when he had to go away on a trip. First he compares their parting to the death of a virtuous man. Quiet, without show of emotion because if one lover showed too much emotion that would upset the other. Also, like the man putting his faith in God, the separation is not really a tragedy.

When the Earth moves (he means earthquakes here), that’s bad; but when planets move, that’s natural and serene. We’re like the planets, celestial, above worldly cares.

“Dull sublunary lovers” (mundane or worldly, as opposed to spiritual; this world, existing beneath the lunar orbit, is made up of four elements - fire, air, water, earth - and the fifth spiritual element, the quintessence is not to be found sub lunae; there is neither sin nor pain in the heavens) are made miserable when they’re parted because their love is merely physical. True lovers, however, do not miss each other’s eyes, hands, touch, but their spirit, their essence.

You and I, he says, are like the two legs of a compass. The one wanders widely while the other barely moves. Yet they are never truly separated because ultimately they are one thing. Which being so, their coming together again is inevitable. When the circle is completed and he comes home (he does not even have to say), the two halves of the compass are joined together as close as two bodies can be.

You guys, being young, got the smutty bits, that one half of the compass grows erect as it approaches home, the praise of the other’s firmness. Donne was very explicitly appreciative of the physical joys of love. Here he joins them seamlessly with the spiritual joys. Which is easier to achieve in life than it is in words. He’s achieved an alchemical marriage, the union of opposites which in alchemy is the spiritual aspect of the Great Work, whose physical expression consists of turning lead into gold. Which is why he worked the beating of gold (which is both malleable and pure; so the beating, while painful, does it no harm) into the poem.

Got all that? It’s only a beginning. This is one complex word-machine. And a brilliant one. I could go on and on about this poem for days, without once wandering into dubious territory. I didn’t like it much when I was in high school, but I was wrong.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s emotionally true? You’ll learn.

All best,


No comments: