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There Is No Penance Due to Innocence’: An Exchange

In response to:

'There Is No Penance Due to Innocence' from the December 3, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I do not propose to exhaust your readers with a reply of equivalent length to William Empson’s plunge into textual criticism in his review of John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art [NYR, December 3]. But may I say that I should not stand alone in the pillory for rejecting, unlike Grierson, the reading in the first printing of “Going to Bed” in the edition of 1669: “There is no penance due to innocence.” Hayward followed Grierson in his Nonesuch edition of 1929; but in the selection he made for the old Penguin Poets he adopted the manuscript reading which I print: “Here is no penance, much less innocence.” (As he thanked me for help in his preface it might be thought that I had corrupted him; but in 1950, when this appeared, I was occupied with Donne’s Divine Poems and had not begun work on the Love Poems.) R.E. Bennett (Complete Poems, 1942) had anticipated him and Charles Coffin followed them in his widely used Complete Poetry and Selected Prose in 1952. Since my edition of the Elegies and Songs and Sonnets (1965). A.J. Smith has made the same choice of reading in his complete edition of Donne’s poems for the New Penguin Poets in 1971.

Although Empson cherishes Grierson’s choice of reading here, he cannot claim Grierson’s support for his view of the relation of the two readings. Grierson thought that the version of the line that I and the majority of modern editors print was the original version. He thought that the line Empson argues for as the original was “a softening of the original to make it compatible with the suggestion that the poem could be read as an epithalamium.” He did not commit himself to saying that it was Donne himself who made this “softer” version, and I suspect that his retention of the reading of 1669 was against his better judgement and was motivated by the same uneasiness he expressed over a line in another of the Elegies, which he owned was in Donne’s manner but asked to be excused from printing; see vol. II, p. 87 of Grierson’s edition, note to line 37.

I am glad to find that Empson agrees with me in taking it that the woman addressed is married. (I cannot understand why he takes what he calls my “allusive note” to imply that she is a prostitute. I now see that I was wrong in taking it for granted that readers of a scholarly edition would not need to have the use of the term “Madam” at this period explained to them.) I think it is better to think of her as a rich citizen’s wife rather than as a could lady because the ambience of similar Elegies is rather that of the city than of the court. The “suggestion” that Grierson refers to, that the poet was writing his own epithalamium was made by whoever added the poem at the close of the Bridgewater manuscript. Against the line containing the words “to enter in these bonds,” he wrote “why may a man not write his owne Epithalamion if he can doe it so modestly.” If we were to imagine this poem, with its continual sexual innuendoes, being addressed to a frightened and inexperienced young girl by her husband on their wedding night, it would deserve all that Carey says about it. But the suggestion is absurd and the unknown commentator’s praise of the poem’s “modesty” hardly suggests he meant to be taken seriously. What could be the point of this display of brilliantly improper wit unless the person addressed could understand, appreciate and enjoy it. It is a kind of linguistic foreplay aiming to excite the mind as his “roving hands” excite her body. The line I print does not read to me a sneer or an insult or as any denigration of what has gone before. A white garment symbolizes either penitence or virginity: it is not called for on either ground here. She has not come to him as a penitent or in ignorance of the “right true end of love.” I will not go into the question of the underwear of Elizabethan women on which Empson makes some original remarks, but would just like to say that if the woman were wearing the Elizabethan equivalent of “briefs,” I do not understand line 32. I think she does not finally discard her shift until the poem ends and both man and woman are ready to enjoy “love’s war,” which “th’experienc’d love.”

Helen Gardner

Eynsham, Oxford, England

To the Editors:

In Professor Empson’s otherwise convincing vindication of Donne as an evangelist of the broad-minded there is an uncharacteristic misinterpretation of the first stanza of Carew’s elegy. In this particular passage

Tis a sad truth. The pulpit may her plain
And sober Christian precepts still retain;
Doctrines it may, and wholesome uses,
Grave homilies and lectures, but the flame
Of thy brave soul (that shot such heat and light
As burnt our earth, and made our darkness bright,
Committed holy rapes upon our will,
Did through the eye the melting heart distil,
And the deep knowledge of dark truths so teach
As sense might judge, what fancy could not reach)
Must be desired forever.

Carew does not say “that what Donne taught from the pulpit is now secure, but what he taught earlier is lost” but rather contrasts the survival of precepts and doctrines (the usually arid matter of sermons) with the loss of their exponent’s comet-like manner of illuminating them. The “dark truths” are the mysteries of religion (with which, unembellished, Carew is perhaps impatient) and not the subversive message of the Elegies and the early Songs and Sonnets.

I submit this correction with some misgiving, as of one who in a certain sense has taught me to read.

Mark Justin

New Haven, Connecticut

William Empson replies:

I am glad that Dame Helen agrees with me on various points, such as that the girl is supposed to be already married. She would be quite as much justified in taking a lover if her parents had forced her to marry a millionaire, instead of a lord, but then it would be misleading for the poet to put her in a coronet. What I find peculiar is that none of the people cited by Dame Helen as agreeing with her seems to realize the point at issue: that it would be heretical, not merely shocking, to call an adultery innocent. Maybe Grierson did realize it later on, when he expressed “uneasiness.”

As I understand, he wanted to print the best version of a poem, whether first or last, but was inclined to follow the first of the editions that printed it, as these editions (if one knew some of the manuscripts) had clearly been thoroughly combed. When he justified his choice of “due to innocence” in the words reported by Dame Helen; he felt that, though probably a later version and though not certainly written by the poet, it made the poem much better—ringing, decisive, and sincere. He had a very pure literary judgment.

But all this about what other people thought is off the point. Dame Helen is the expert on the text of Donne because she sacrificed herself collating all those beastly manuscripts, and she speaks in her edition, with the voice of science itself. Her letter does not attempt any defense of her impossible textual argument for the line she prefers. That her feelings were all right, about the poem, I had already agreed in my article.

What Mr. Justin says is right, and I should have explained my position. The language of Carew can be interpreted entirely respectably as meaning that the way Donne delivered his sermons has now been lost. But surely he did not ogle from the pulpit (“through the eye the melting heart distil”), and had hardly room to “teach sense to judge, what fancy could not reach”—sense here would very easily call up “sensuality” Ronald Firbank is good at giving glimpses of the technique of south-European baroque preachers, ecstatic about their love affairs with God; but Donne did not preach like that; as Mr. Justin says, he was more like a comet. Many of the first readers of this passage would recognize it as an adroit piece of double talk.

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