Saturday, July 17, 2010

Undoing Donne

As we noted last time, Donne's poems often take the form of arguments, playing upon wit, logic, and verbal fireworks to make a case to a petitioned recipient.

It's also noteworthy that his poems often spring to life with a command:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God...

Death, be not proud...

For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love...

Mark but this flea, and mark in this...

The imperative launches the poem, but after reading the entirety of the poem's argument, one understands that the poem must begin there because the poet is under pressure from some predicament which is becoming more and more intolerable - the girl won't sleep with him; the world won't let them love, etc.

That is, the poet knows he's right, he sees, more clearly than others, how much his cause has reason -- it is the reason of superior love, of the rightness of two matched souls, of the need to have defenses broken. There is a "pent-upness" to the poetic energy -- it begins, like the BP oil pipe, by bursting -- steam is rising and expanding, and must be released.

Donne more than any other poet made the expostulation one of his signature opening gambits -- all the feeling of the poem is present at the beginning - the stanzas unpack it, turn it into a rhetorical performance, but they don't really add anything to that initial thrust - the totality of the feeling, and of the poet's feeling, is there before he opens his mouth.

Underlying this head of steam is the poet's vision of perfect love, ideal desire. There would be little point in begging three-personed God to batter his heart if Donne did not believe something lies between him and a more perfect union. The poet's seeming impatience with things can come into play because the obstacles he encounters are, he is sure, neither immovable, nor infinite.

In the case of The Flea, the obstacle is the lover's will - her crushing the life out of the insect merely opens another avenue of rhetorical assault; in Batter my heart, the situation is perhaps more complex, since the obstacle is Donne himself - he's confronting his will, his unsusceptibility to the force and logic and wit of any argument, including his own poem. Here he's sort of at his wit's end - demanding brutal relief from his own intransigence -- relief that a multi-personed divine entity can -- no, must -- bring, if it is to come at all.

And that's again part of the motive for the expostulatory opening: for Donne, the defenses his art must overcome are less in the addressee than in the one demanding relief. He begs to be delivered of the very defenses that occasion the address he's giving. If relief were ever to come, would it then relieve him of the poetic impetus? If the poem were truly to persuade its destined auditor (we readers are never that recipient - we're simply allowed in as spectators) it would undo the occasion of its own outburst.

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