‘There Is No Penance Due to Innocence’

John Donne: Life, Mind and Art

by John Carey
Oxford University Press, 303 pp., $19.95

This long, hammering book amounts to saying that no one need bother any more about Donne, because the admiration for his love poems was based on a delusion. The love poems are brief but very various and quite large in number, and they are much his best work; for most readers, they are the only memorable part of it. Carey argues that the motivation behind them is bad; once this is recognized, they can be seen to be bad poetry. The idea is not quite a novelty; an anti-Donne movement has been grumbling for some time, and this book is an explosion of it. I think it wrong, and think its causes and methods worth examining.

Not long ago Carey gave an inaugural lecture on becoming an Oxford professor and said that the previous generation of historical critics had all been Vandals, because they “read things into” old literary works, whereas he would be plain and straightforward. Surely, if a critic reads in nothing, he has nothing to say, though he might perhaps show himself to be a Philistine. Carey wrote very well about Marvell for the recent centenary, but he does seem to have some theoretical confusion which makes him easy to bamboozle.

As it is presented, his case against the love poems derives almost entirely from a misreading of one early elegy, “To his Mistress Going to Bed”; Donne’s intention here is found to be so bad that it poisons the later ones, though very different from it in their different ways. Carey says Donne had a craving to find someone he could master and bully, thus appeasing his secret shame. He took no interest in his girls, not even in their bodies; the chosen poem is “punitive,” “almost pathologically imperious,” and by the end of it the girl is trying to hide from him under the bed-clothes.

That it is natural to feel irritated by the young Donne I must not deny; the cad needs taking down a peg or two. Also he is too often resentful; he presents himself as a victim of bad women, though he could hardly expect them to be faithful. But even here he has a merit which a feminist ought to recognize: he always regards a woman, even a low-class one, as an equal power, even a potential danger. This gives an impression of reality which is rare in love poems. And there are poems such as “The Ecstasy” which inherently presume that the woman is at least equal to her lover; surely it is uninventive of Carey to keep mum about these breaches of his thesis. He might claim that Donne was merely imitating troubadours or neo-Platonists, but Donne says, and they do not, that sexual desire in such a woman is normal and welcome.

A reader of “Going to Bed” is expected to deduce the circumstances, as when reading a short story; even Carey pretends to do this. I agree that the poem he chose is pornographic; it…

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