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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 describes the greatest bit of luck in this kind that a male reader can imagine, and eggs him on to be pleased. But it is not sadistic—the girl has chosen to come to him; the speaker insists upon that at the end, and it is part of the story all along. It makes him triumphant, and he seems also to have converted her to his doctrine. The young Donne was eager to meet an aristocratic girl, hoping perhaps she would be educated enough to like his line of talk, but also expecting her to be almost supernatural. Probably he had spent most of his inheritance from his middle-class father before he was admitted to the presence of such girls, and they do appear to have answered his expectations. So this early poem must be expected to be fantasy; there are no hints that he is reporting, and he does not know what she would say.

Various critics, to make the poem less shocking, though still sordid, have explained that the girl is merely a prostitute. But nearly all the lines of the poem are spent in coaxing her to do what a professional would take for granted. Just possibly, the speaker makes a jolly pretense that the prostitute is an aristocrat, because she is dressed like one, and then throws it away at the end; but this makes quite impossible what panting bug-eyed Carey thinks, that he is tormenting her till she tries to hide under the bedclothes. Besides, the surprise is not apparent at the end, and we must accept the indications given. A young beauty would not usually be called “Madam” unless married. Some coronets would positively announce that she was married to a lord, but others not; in either case, a girl would only wear one for a grand occasion. She has (presumably) come on from a banquet or reception to the humble lodging of the speaker; somehow she has been released, maybe because her husband got drunk. Twenty pages after quoting the poem in full and launching his attack, Carey recalls that “we have observed” the craving of Donne to “insult, humiliate, and punish” her. But where? How does he know?

He says the speaker must be bullying the girl because he barks out orders and she dare not answer. Well, a love poet is seldom answered; Shakespeare cannot even report an answer from his earl, who would not be shy. Practically all invocations are in the imperative; Lord Byron told the deep blue ocean to keep on rolling, and it did, but no one said he was bullying it. This poem begins, “Come, Madam,” though plainly she has already arrived. The convention feels sufficiently natural here; the girl is acting boldly, but needs at once to be assured that she is welcome and that undressing is the correct thing to do. But he goes far beyond that, revering her as a goddess or Middle Spirit even more than the poets of chivalry had done. Carey seems to have some theory (imagism?) which forbids him to construe the words. As to her external decorations, the man need hardly say more than that she is prettier without them; but religious language is increasingly used as they approach and pass two white undergarments. The first is her “shift,” a large, loose cover for the whole torso, and Donne says that arriving at it is like having the sun come out over a landscape. Carey says this proves he took no interest in her body.

   Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new found land!

(His hands can move freely under the shift and he does not distinguish that from the other garment.)

Literary criticism is getting steadily more absurd, and I expect that no reader ever before has taken these lines as proof that Donne took no interest in a woman’s body. Sculptural rather than picturesque, no doubt, but that need not be a discredit. However, his first reaction to the white shift is that this is the dress of an angel; of course one of Mahomet’s angels, the houris intended to excite desire. Devils are liable to disguise themselves as angels, one should remember, but

Ill Spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these the flesh upright.

The joke is an argument that sexual pleasure is a part of heaven.

In the short paragraph about privateers and America he rejoices in the situation, and then another begins, “Full nakedness.” Carey argues from this that Donne does not even know when the shift came off. This is because he assumes nothing can happen without the speaker barking out an order; but the girl herself pulls the shift off, and the lover receives the act with hushed gratitude. Now one might reasonably complain that he does not praise her body, but his attention has been caught by an unexpected further obstacle, which all his resources of theology are needed to overcome. She wears a small white garment around her crotch, close-fitting enough to be self-supporting, and this she must also remove, showing herself, “liberally, as to a midwife” (surely this phrase is enough indication of where the garment comes). He might be blamed for not discovering the garment in his previous fumbling, but he was too reverent.

Then comes his finest moment: he says he has no claim to deserve such intimacy, except that she has already chosen him by her visit; her previous choice is like the predestination of God. It is perhaps overstrained, but the plain man at any date would find the basic argument a strong one. If she rejected him now, after so much encouragement, she would be trying his patience very high. Such is the human situation which carried off the religious trope; but to suppose it meant nothing more would be “reductive.” It presumes some belief about the value and hence the right to freedom of women, as do many of his later poems; surely it is absurd for Carey to deny that.

An extra factor needs considering here. Women, says Donne, are mystic books, which only we

(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then since that I may know,
As liberally, as to a midwife, show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to in- nocence. To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more cover- ing than a man.

The jolly remark at the end, after all is won, is still devoted to comforting and reassuring her; but the line which the whole poem has been designed to lead up to is a defiant general claim. Maybe he had no definite doctrine, but he complained more than once, saying in “The Relic”:

   Our hands ne’er touched the seals
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.

Around the turn of this century, when Donne was being revived, there was much talk of “free love,” and it would seem evident that Donne was advanced or progressive (whether he was copying Ovid or not). In Donne’s time, the line about innocence would seem normal enough, though bold, as one of the usual protests against the arranged marriage (usual in plays, at any rate); presumably the girl’s parents have forced her to marry a lord, so she may be expected to take a lover. The claim for Donne’s thought need not be pitched high; these poems chiefly record the happy time when he was cantering through his inheritance, confident that he would get official employment when it was gone. Still, he did have thoughts about a better world, and they had been shared by many other ambitious young men at the Inns of Court.

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