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.
There may be a minor objection. I have read somewhere that no woman wore this second white undergarment till the reign of Victoria, because there is no record of any name for it. But its name is still very fleeting, and used coyly. The current term is “briefs,” but that is so new that an old man using it would sound affected. It is thus inherently likely that the first Elizabeth wore such a garment, and that her name for it has long been forgotten. But if this opinion were disproved the poem would be the same. The speaker, though he refuses to be surprised, has no idea what will come next, and does not name either of the garments. Donne may have invented knickers, as a final obstacle on the overdressed lady.
After so much clearance it should be possible to answer the question “Why?”—why did Carey go so wrong? Because he was using a bad text, that of Dame Helen Gardner, to whom he expressed gratitude in a foreword. My quotations are from the Grierson text (1912).* She makes the climax of the poem say:
Here is no penance, much less in- nocence.
But the whole point of all the previous arguments has been to imply that the action will be innocent. To make sense of this reading, Donne has to roll over on his back like a spaniel before his masters, and say: “Of course, I knew I was only talking nonsense. Of course, I know it is a sin really.” Donne is tenacious of an argument in a poem, and would not rat on it like this. Still, if the girl is a prostitute, as Dame Helen appears to tell us in an allusive footnote, there is nothing to rat on; both the characters were only pretending, and it is a comfort to them not to have to bother with holy scruples.
Thus, on Dame Helen’s view, the poem is deflated but still good humored. On Carey’s view, the man seduces an innocent girl by arguments purporting to prove that yielding will not be sinful, and then triumphs over her, at the very moment of penetration, by telling her she will go to hell for it. This is sadistic pornography, a very evil thing which Carey is right to be indignant about, but it has emerged from his own mind. Maybe Carey believes that all pornography is sadistic, and maybe in recent years that has almost become true; the bad money drives out the good. His book does at least show that the Gardner reading no longer serves any purpose, and had better be abandoned.
Carey may answer with the standard delinquent cry, “No, I never.” It would be hard to prove that he “reads in” this cruel story, though nothing else would justify his language; but then, he does not admit that a poem can tell any story. Donne, he says,
contrives to sound, provokingly, high-minded and dissolute at the same time. Similarly he exhibits his command of religious language while flaunting his disregard for religion. He alludes to the doctrine that the soul must be separated from the body to experience “whole joys,” and to the Protestant belief that it was Christ’s imputed grace (that is, Christ’s righteousness, transfered to man) which made salvation for humankind possible. These theological niceties, thrust into a bawdy poem, typify that defensive and derisive treatment of religion which, as we have seen, Donne’s apostasy prompted.
Always the same blurry jargon; he “alludes.” He doesn’t; he argues. And how can we rely on Carey’s judgments about the poem, if he refuses ever to attend to the arguments? The assumptions by which he ignores them are plainly false. “My love is like a red, red rose” is not taken to mean that Burns despised his love, because roses are contemptible. Donne really did feel reverence for young ladies, and indignation at having the moral character of God besmirched by fatuous theologians. He considered it fair to be playful about the doctrine of imputed grace because that was the other side of an insult to God. He was said to have created a tiny remnant of mankind predestined to heaven, and to have predestined the immense majority of mankind to eternal torment; this was done by his mere whim, however they behaved. Carey knows he is being sanctimonious here because later on, when he gets to Donne’s sermons, he blames him for preaching doctrines such as this one; but by that time Donne had to preach the required doctrines, or his wife and children would starve. Of course Carey also jeers at Donne for being snobbish, thus admitting that he really did prefer aristocratic girls.
One needs a bit of recent literary history to understand how this confusion arose. Around 1910, there had been a growth of interest in Donne sufficient to justify the labor and expense of the grand Grierson edition, and these readers had considered him enlightened—he had plainly heard of the recent discoveries, which most poets of his time had not. When the edition came out, T.S. Eliot was won over to Donne, which was large-minded of him, because as a disciple of the French symbolists he had to consider arguing in verse merely vulgar. Something about the relation of thought to feeling was what he admired here. Then he discovered he had got into queer company; rather surprisingly late, as there had been many signs of it. He may have read a sentence in F.W. Payne’s book on Donne (1926):
His correct interpretation of the dark beginnings of modern science places him on a level with H.G. Wells for piercing insight.
This was too awful, and something would have to be done about it. (It is literally true.) The symposium A Garland for John Donne (1931) took a bit of time to arrange, but was a thorough crown of thorns when it arrived. Eliot for once almost lost his cool and wrote: “Donne was, I insist, no sceptic.” He never reprinted the essay. The Donne he wanted to obliterate was obviously not a skeptic but believed in too much; for example, life on other planets, each with its own avatar of the Redeemer, and a relation between soul and body so intimate as to make them inseparable. Eliot’s reply had to be that Donne was merely picking up bright scraps of the new sciences, decorating his nest like a jackdaw; in short, he was a tedious fribble.
Helen Gardner’s edition (1965) supported the Eliot tradition loyally, adding a quiet but fierce support from women’s lib. She distinguishes “Songs and Sonnets I,” early poems in which he is greedy and empty-headed, from an equal group of philosophical poems, cooked up (without adultery) because he was bored with his wife. He had married for ambition and turned nasty when he found himself ruined. This theory is disgusting and the evidence for it is absurdly forced. However, it is consistent (and somehow fitted the demands of the neo-Christian movement); therefore Donne could not have made a defiant general assertion in one of the elegies, which are admittedly early. I must next consider the textual obstacles that faced Dame Helen in her defense of her choice.
The text of Donne’s poetry provides a unique situation, and one needs to understand how it arose. Donne was one of a number of authors who refused to print their verse but were well known through manuscripts that were copied—sometimes by professional copyists—and circulated widely. But Donne alone had changed his opinons so startlingly since he wrote his love poems that he was suspected of falsifying them, so that the diverse manuscripts record a prolonged struggle by certain of his readers, during his lifetime, to recover the originals. By the way, this could not happen if he were considered a mere fribble. The poet W.H. Auden would make a close parallel, if he had not published early and often. Reading Auden now, I find it hard to believe that these words are what used to mean so much. Also, he really did spoil some of his best poems by slashing them uselessly about, and rumor would exaggerate the extent of this; one would believe that a lot of the real message had gone. Actually, Donne made only a few changes for safety, and those very slight ones except for the case now in hand. His message had told little; he had the gift of phrasing what was in the air, the undefined aspirations of his young friends. No wonder they put up a struggle for the text thirty years later.
We owe a great debt to Dame Helen, and to Grierson before her, for much tiresome slogging through the surviving manuscripts, which they treated by the techniques worked out for classical manuscripts. Group I is probably derived from a collection made by Donne in 1614, when his criminal patron Somerset demanded publication before he took orders; we know of this because of a letter from Donne asking for the return of one of the poems. He felt very sour about it, but having made the collection presumably held onto it after the plan fell through. Group II includes some later poems (of course the Divine Poems were collected, too) and was presumably made by Donne’s permission, but without his help, after he had become dean. Both these groups derive from professional copyists, scrupulous and tidy, but content to copy any nonsense they find.
There is some evidence that the source of Group II had already been told to ignore corrections that Donne had written above the line, and copy what he had erased in the line itself; he does something like this in “The Curse,” where Donne had thought of an evidently more funny or shocking curse for three lines of his joke, which Group II ignores.
In early and long scarceness may he rot,
For land which had been his, if he had not
Himself incestuously an heir begot.
This would show attention to his instructions, without doing any harm (he might think the intended trick beneath the standards of his own profession, as well as unfair to the dean). It is hard to invent any other reason for such an absurd step.
Group III contains only four manuscripts, and they are editorial; they look round for the best reading, and make a conjecture where they find none. Dame Helen does not suggest that they are based on a further examination of Donne’s own script. Group IV is only one manuscript, written by Woodward, a pious friend of Donne who would gladly accept any bowdlerization; Donne never allowed him to copy the “Songs and Sonnets,” and he does not deserve so much elevation.
Group V is large and controversial; it is probably not from one source, decides Dame Helen, though all its members sometimes agree. Yet none of them can be shown to be early, and the writers are not professional scribes, but make slovenly errors. Dame Helen says they give bad readings, but her labor in collating so many of them was not wasted, for quite often she follows them, while ignoring their support in her notes. I think the answer about Group V is quite plain, but it had better be delayed for a moment, since it is a conjecture, and in the case of this one line a decisive answer can be made without it.
She selects the line:
Here is no penance, much less in- nocence.
But this has the least support of three alternatives. It is found nowhere but in two of the editorial manuscripts (Group III) and one from Group V. The other two of Group III and all the rest of Group V give the real line:
There is no penance due to in- nocence.
But all the reliable authorities, as she considers them, Groups I, II, and IV, say:
There is no penance, much less in- nocence.
She is right to reject this line, because till now the speaker has been close enough to fumble the girl, but suddenly he is pointing a finger at her from the far end of the room. Group III appreciated this, and found one way out or the other. But, if Dame Helen’s line is the one that Donne first wrote, how could the two mistakes have arisen? She says in her note:
The agreement of Groups, I, II and III (less Lut, O’F) with W establishes “much lesse” as the true reading, and I cannot regard the variant as anything but scribal in origin.
Presumably “the variant” means the point where they don’t agree, and to put “There” for Here might well be a slip in copying. But how can Groups I and II both have it, if they are derived independently from Donne’s own handwriting? Donne could not have made the slip himself, because its absurdity would be so clear to him. Then we must suppose half the Group III copyists to make use of this’ accident, which allows them to take “There” as introducing not an inept indication of place but a general assertion, majestic and probably heretical. “Due to” for much less could not possibly be an unconscious slip; it would be a bold contradiction of the original meaning of the lines, effected with witty simplicity. Who would be likely to do this? And how could the original line only survive in two of the late editorial manuscripts, with one supporter from the forbidden Group V? Dame Helen was right to defend her position so obscurely, because otherwise it could not have survived.
Whereas, if we look at the matter the other way round, every step is intelligible. One evening around 1600 Donne’s boss, the lord keeper, was giving a dinner party for some other top legal figures and invited his secretary to read them a few of his poems afterward, before the music. Donne felt that this poem, put among some more romantic ones, would suit the old buffers very well, so long as the point of it was left out; as a porner they would like it, but they would feel positively insulted if told that the affair was innocent. So, while dressing for dinner and considering what to read, he drew a line through due to and wrote “much less” over the top, merely to remind himself on the occasion. He could speak these words so as to sound encouraging and conniving, though they might look bad to a reader; he had no intention of altering his poem permanently. Maybe he crossed out the addition next morning, leaving a complete bafflement for the copyists. The sheet of paper survived, and before long he was refusing to look at it again, though also unwilling to destroy it. Dame Helen would be harder to refute if she had claimed that the poet’s final correction ought to be respected (as perhaps the source of Group II had thought); but her scheme could not allow the poet to be intelligent at the earlier date.
This argument, I think, is already sufficient, but it becomes conclusive when Group V is understood. The aboveboard plan had failed; that is, getting a professional copyist did not do what was wanted. But there were eager young admirers of the poems, and patrons who would pay for a smuggled genuine text; surely some way could be found.
Dame Helen found ten Group V manuscripts worth collating, out of many others, and puts them into three groups with one over; probably then, at least three successful raids were made upon the locked cupboard of the dean. (Of course the reason why they all say the same, on various important occasions, is just that their sources were made on the same principle.) His inflexibly upright housekeeper might decide that there could be no good in hiding the worst, so long as the dean was not troubled; she might allow a properly recommended person to go over the papers, for a proper consideration, while the dean was away (perhaps giving a token sermon in one of the parishes for which he drew the stipend). Or some visiting grandee, put up in London by the dean, might ask to take the collection to bed with him, and then hand it to an accomplice out of the small window on the stairs. These copyists would be amateur in the sense of untrained, and would need to work fast; no wonder the result was slovenly; but they do not write down nonsense so placidly as the professionals. They are bound by a strict undertaking to their patron, who will pay for the manuscript, always to give the text as it was before correction.
These bold efforts were a failure in the main, though they had good results on the side; the poet had not done what was expected. It is very rare for him to change a line out of fear; nearly all the changes are improvements, and some are part of the act of composition, so that the poem never existed without them. I can give one case of change through fear, and it is remarkably trivial. In “The Dream” he and his young lady are sleeping in a mansion, and she comes to his room for one act of sex, but it is so late that the housemaids will soon be about (at first, he confesses, he mistook her for a mere angel), so for the time she leaves him. Because she knew how to come just when she was most needed, excess of joy waking him from a dream of her, she has a knowledge beyond that of angels and peculiar to God; unless indeed she is better than God:
I must confess, I could not choose but be
Profane, to think thee anything but thee.
This was changed to “It could not choose but be Profaneness,” leaving the real blasphemy untouched; all the Group V texts, they only, triumphantly report the original. (One Group III text is corrected to join Group V.) As secretary to Egerton, Donne would sometimes have to be present in law courts, and the manners of prosecuting counsel were then very savage; he could imagine such a man shouting, “Do you deny that you wrote down…,” etc. From a civilized opponent he was in no danger; he could say, for instance, that he was satirizing the blasphemies used by other poets. But he suddenly felt afraid of these brutes; and surely no one else would have imagined that there was any safety in the change.
Interesting cases often leave room for various interpretations, and to win solid respect for Group V it may be best to take simple ones. In the song “Go and catch a falling star,” Groups I and II read “Things invisible see,” nonsense which does not even scan, and Group III suggests “go see,” which is sensible but not wanted. The song had aimed at being gay and flippant but turned out rather heavy and cross; it does not need another thudding imperative. All the Group V texts have “to see,” except one which was seduced by Group III; and the first edition agrees with them. The easy unobtrusiveness of “to” would be hard to reinvent. In “Love’s Progress” the professional texts give another case of nonsense which does not even scan, and only one of the Group III texts has accepted the answer from Group V. Donne is explaining that if you want to get to the center of a woman, the best way is to start at her feet, not her head:
The hair a forest is of ambushes,
Of springes, snares, fetters and manacles.
They had all copied it as “springs.” Probably, in both cases, the handwriting was rather hard to read, but not too hard for anyone in sympathy with the poet, who knew what to look for. So three or four different pirates, having managed to look at the old document, could read off the same answer independently.
Correction during composition is well illustrated by the elegy “Nature’s Lay Idiot,” which also clears up Donne’s attitude to working-class girls. She seems to have been behind the counter in a shop, if there were really no barmaids. One might plausibly suspect that he got such girls in trouble and then cast them off; but he regards it as normal that his attentions to this dull girl have taught her how to catch a rich husband. He hears later that the husband tries to keep her in seclusion, and he is sure that the fool will have his reasons; obviously she has a sheer platoon of lovers, and why is Donne not one of them, after making this paradise for her? A creator has more right than a husband:
Thy graces and good works my creatures be.
He first wrote “good words,” and then paused for the clinching other half of the couplet. But he had already mentioned the subservient politeness that she was practicing before he came:
Remember since, all thy words used to be,
To every suitor, ay, if my friends
Her good works, her new capacity for pleasing men, in or out of bed, have been the decisive factor. A Calvinist held very specific views about “good works”; they were never enough to deserve paradise but might be a sign of God’s election to it; and Donne had elected this stupid girl, as God does, for a mere whim. Many further details of the first temptation occurred to him; he wrote works above the erased but still easily legible “words,” and then the next line at once:
I planted knowledge and life’s tree in thee.
He still thought the joke funny, although a bit hackneyed, when he used it at the start of a later elegy, “Change”:
Although thy hand and faith, and good works too,
Have sealed thy love which nothing should undo,…
He did not use it again. This detail proves that he knew it was a joke; Dame Helen assumes that he could not have done, but that three independent copyists, accustomed to theological controversy, made the mistake unconsciously.
The situation was exasperating for the Group V men; they understood the joke, but they were forbidden to copy it by their contract, and had to leave it to the dull men. The Restoration editor could see the joke, so for once he rejected the Group V texts, his usual standby. Dame Helen, to do her justice, could see it too, otherwise she would not have been so determined to shoo it out. The social comedy is worked out to the end, as a playwright would do. I find this very convincing, though perhaps a simpler proof deserves more attention. The layout of manuscripts for “The Curse” is very plain. All but one give the dull first version, and all the dull manuscripts give the shocking second one, except that the copyist who founded Group II chose for once to follow his instructions.
Looking at the joke on “good works” in a larger way, one should realize that the objection to Calvinist predestination which it implies, as do many other theological jokes in these poems, does not prove that Donne was a secret papist. Most of the higher Anglican clergy in 1590-1600 were Calvinists, but there was much resistance to it, both among the people and the scholars, which became decisive during the next century. Donne had nothing to fear from these little blasphemies; he might from some others, but they would be called “atheist,” not papist. Also, a bad attitude to women would surely betray itself when he has a low-class, stupid, and unprotected girl whom he may torment. He still regards her as an independent power. He speaks gruffly, indeed, but this is part of the process of bargaining; he still desires her, and has to present his case. (Presumably he talked like the poem but did not show it to her.) He was famous for a revolt in poetry against Spenser and Petrarch and suchlike, and for presenting coarse reality; such was his program; but that does not make him “macho,” as Carey presumes.
Given this amount of background, it is certain that due to was written first on the manuscript and “much less” written above it. We should remember, I think, that Carey had all this evidence scrupulously laid out before him in the edition he was using, which he admires; surely, however bluff and manly he is, he might have consulted it about the text of this one line before deriving from it such startling conclusions, far from those implied by Dame Helen herself.
It seemed natural to consider the love poems first, since they are what make Donne memorable; but the first two chapters in Carey are called “Apostasy” and “The Art of Apostasy.” He considers that the character of Donne, though bad to start with, got steadily worse because he felt intense shame at not having become a martyr. That is, he was always a papist and only denied it for ambition. Carey gives all the evidence that refuses this belief (so far as I know; there is little on either side), and merely ignores it. Perhaps he feels that there must have been something rotten within to make the man write Metaphysical Poetry, well known to be inherently in bad taste; but he cannot just take this for granted. He does snuff around in the poetry for proofs of the horror within, as for example in “The Perfume,” where the poet is creeping at night to the bed of the daughter of the house. It was bad luck the family smelt his expensive scent, after he had just taken all reasonable precautions:
I taught my silks, their whistling to forbear;
Even my opprest shoes, dumb and speechless were.
He pressed on his shoes because he was moving slowly (with Tarquin’s ravishing strides), and perhaps they felt this as an unkindness, but the poet himself seems thoroughly good-tempered about the disaster; so much so that one doubts whether it really happened. Carey describes in some detail the peine forte et dure, which though horrible is quite foreign to the mood of the story. Nor was it primarily directed against Roman Catholics. You might say the poem as a whole is forced, making a pretense of experience and toughness; but the lines picked upon are entirely gay, agreeing that he was absurd, expecting to give pleasure by it. Carey’s obsession is not literary criticism.
He is more interesting about Satire III, the chief obstacle in his path. Its most famous passage describes the long labor of climbing the hill of truth, of finding which sect of Christianity is the true one, and this is presented as a duty; but the idea is incompatible, says Carey, with the rather undirected pietism of most of the poem, which says, “Ask your father.” No wonder he complains; the charm of Donne is to be large-minded, and Carey cannot imagine anyone being large-minded.
The poem says: (a) the differences between sects are not an adequate reason for murdering and torturing whole populations, who had better stick to their local traditions, and (b) a man placed like himself, with a strongly papist family tradition and several martyrs among his ancestors, also a thorough training in one side of the argument, has a duty to search it in depth—his honor must not be exposed to ignorant insults such as those of Carey. His own father died when he was four years old, and no man so elaborately educated is expected to decide a question by asking his father; the attempt of Carey to draw a sweet picture of a revering tot is outside his range. Donne was not cowardly when he mocked the idea of accepting the belief of some queen or pope; it could not be any help at the judgment seat, he says:
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this.
Their homely names act as a proof that they have no divine right, and this is said more firmly as he goes on (it could be claimed of course that Elizabeth did not persecute mere beliefs). His conclusion from the deep study of ecclesiastical historians gets a passing mention in Satire IV, where an opponent, as a hyperbole, is said to be a greater liar than either of two, one papist and one Anglican. (This seems to provide the only other case where Donne fudged for caution; his boss Egerton liked the satires, and for him Donne made it two papist ecclesiastical historians.) It was a settled conviction. Shortly before he took Anglican orders, he wrote to his friend Goodyer that both the queen and the pope had no divine right. This was again a reckless thing to do; if the letter had leaked out it would have destroyed his prospects. The cheat who is described by Carey would not have dared to do it, even if some mental contortion made him want to; but Donne considered that, among friends, his view would appear merely enlightened.
In the year when Donne came of age, his younger brother was arrested for harboring a priest and died in Newgate of the plague. Under threat of torture, he had admitted that the man was a priest. Carey reports some horrible things that Prots had done to Cats, and argues that this incident excited in Donne a sickened loathing for Prots, combined with a terrified compulsion to suck up to them. I agree that keeping the boy in jail during a plague year would be regarded as practically a death sentence, and that the affair was sure to influence the mind of the poet (they did not know that lice carried the plague, but cleanliness was often recommended as a precaution, and it would be almost impossible to keep clean in Newgate. The expected death rate would be found there).
But an entirely different reaction from the poet is inherently more likely and is actually found. He was not brought up in seclusion—he was sent to college early, even for that time, so that he need not sign the Articles; his mind therefore would be stuffed with reports of equally horrible things that Cats had done to Prots. And this, as he was often to say in prose, could become a positive temptation to a young man eager for fame, like an athletic competition.
But his brother had failed the test; the grim tutors and uncles of Donne would be pointing out to him that he too would become despised if he rejected the chance of martyrdom. Now Donne was very persuasive, so his younger brother is likely to have accepted his latitudinarian views. They would recognize a human duty to try to save anyone from the monstrous persecutors, but a priest once caught could not be saved; demanding evidence from Donne’s brother was hardly more than a way of punishing him. He had behaved like a man, bravely and sensibly, and the reward was not merely death but intense contempt from both sides. This was a healthy cold douche for such aspirations toward martyrdom as might have stirred in the young Donne; from now on he felt what was by no means a unique reaction: “A plague on both your houses.”
Probably then the early research into the controversy, of which he was inclined to boast in later years, was inspired by a hope of getting the load off his back. What lie was he so gleeful at finding the historians tell? The point was likely to be a technical one, and not very remote. The Roman canon law lays down strict conditions which a pope must satisfy if he is to be genuine; and he must derive from an unbroken line of genuine popes, all of them elected by genuine cardinals, appointed by previous genuine popes. If not genuine, he cannot inherit from St. Peter the magical power of the keys. In the long history of the papacy, there are several periods when it is hard to argue that these conditions were achieved. As for the magical claims of the Tudors, who said that being Welsh gave them descent from King Arthur, that was much flimsier stuff, but Donne would regard it as the same kind of propaganda. Rejecting magic, it becomes natural to say that a sufficiently good man holding any belief may go to heaven, without requiring a special miracle (the idea already crops up in Satire III, though only as a speculation). Donne belongs to the Enlightenment here.
This of course did not prevent him from having strong religious feelings, and after a revolt against the sectarians it would be a relief to go back to the Gospels. The contrast would be sharp. In the baffling words of Jesus, “love” becomes the clue to the betterment of human affairs; and, granting that sexual activity was not what he meant, that is the most effective way to get love started. It had been peculiarly absurd to make such doctrines an excuse for the orgy of hatred, murder, and torture which Donne found all around him; whereas it was not at all clear that they forbade fun with the girls. That would be part of Donne’s education. Having kicked off the donkey’s burden of a duty to be burnt alive, and acquired his brother’s patrimony as well as his own, Donne felt he had better spend it on gaining wide experience, which would ensure him secular employment when it was gone. Hence there is no horror behind his accounts of the life of pleasure and its quarrels, not even the secular one of the rake’s progress; and the theological jokes are against particular doctrines, not against all forms of Christianity. So T.S. Eliot was right to say he was “no sceptic,” though the effect was misleading.
Having to inform himself about theologies in the course of clearing his honor, and having much curiosity, Donne would be sure to learn the opinions of the radical reformers of his time, unlike plain bluff Carey (a conference of Anabaptists in Venice in 1550 had listed their essential tenets); and perhaps he ought to have joined the Family of Love, which was already established and no secret in London. But this would have excluded him from all worldly advancement, and the company would have been too low-class to be comfortable for him; besides, he could be more effective in a larger world if he spoke merely as an ex-papist, and only by hints.
It was plain to him that the love poets, whether behaving like sleepwalkers or not, had been calling love divine ever since the troubadours; here as elsewhere, he merely treated a convention as a literal truth. After he had ruined himself, though unintentionally, by his runaway marriage, he found himself in a situation for which his poetry was well prepared; several poems prophesy that, after long ages, when the religion of love is established, he and his lady will be recognized as early martyrs to it (most of these are probably addressed to his wife, though not all). One poem claims in effect that Donne colonizes with his lady one of the New Worlds recently shown to be habitable, thus demonstrating that the views of the queen and the pope, and some other persons, are merely local aberrations. Several poems make a similar use of the new astronomy, though in slighter ways, and it is all a closed book to Carey; except that he notices Donne’s tendency to fly up, and says that it proves him to be conceited. But then why was “The Good-Morrow,” the one that awakens the lovers on a new planet, put first of the Songs and Sonnets in the first edition? No one thinks it was written first, though the song that follows it is light in tone and perhaps really early. Surely this is done for the reason that put The Tempest first in the Folio: that a prospective buyer, as he turned to the first page, found something he particularly wanted.
It may be argued, though wrongly I think, that a critic ought to ignore the literary judgments made when the poems were new; but the same can hardly be said of the moral judgments with which Carey is so free. It was plucky of Donne to insinuate dangerous thoughts in this very readable form, but as Carey has no idea how the poems would be interpreted he thinks Donne was merely showing off. The Family of Love believed that any man might become Christ, because Christ is the name of a function and state of being, rare but “begotten before all worlds”; the idea became increasingly influential during the next two centuries as the basis of Deism, ,held secretly by Locke and Newton. So it was not footling for Donne to say in “The Relic” that he and his lady would be worshiped if their bones happened to be discovered at the same time as the tenets of the true religion:
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalene, and I A Jesus Christ thereby.
Of course he wrote “A something else,” and his defending counsel could have argued, as Dame Helen does nowadays, that the obvious meaning of the line had never occurred to him; but this would not have been likely to save his life if the case came to trial. One might agree that Metaphysical Poetry is always liable to be in bad taste except when it risks persecution. And Donne is not being vain if he is saying: “Absurd though it would be if they worshiped us, it could not be worse than what they do now, worshiping hell.”
No other view of Donne explains his long and intense resistance to becoming a parson. When it was first proposed he wrote saying that there were passages in his past life which made him very unfit. Surely his sexual freedom when young had been ordinary, and his repentence for it now was sufficient. This phrase could be taken to mean something much worse. It is a hint at the heretical hints in his secular poems. The unpublished works could easily be laughed off as only fashionable nonsense; but to Donne the taking of orders would mean a real apostasy, a sin he had never committed before, a betrayal of any disciples he had made by his apparently flippant poems. If he did it, his extravagant sense of honor would at least require a startling rejection of his previous character.
This crisis arose because Donne had been successful in making friends with the king, so far as anyone could; James was interested and charmed by his talk and decided that he would make an excellent preacher. All Donne’s attempts to become ambassador to Venice or secretary to the Virginia Company at once became hopeless; the king could prevent him from getting any other employment except that of preacher. He was in humiliating difficulties, having a child every year, and getting near the point where his family would starve. The snooty Carey says:
King James, however, though he admired Donne’s talents, maintained that he had shown himself, by his rash marriage, unfit for confidential employment; and, with what may seem to us rather curious logic, he accordingly urged him to enter the Church.
Who on earth are “we”? An applauding claque is presumed to attend upon Carey, as upon a radio comedian. If he disagrees with all previous biographers here, why does he not give us a reason? If he feels puzzled, why does he not look for an answer? He merely wants to insinuate that something dirty was going on, into which he will not bother to inquire. But some biographers have seriously maintained that Donne’s marriage was considered, by the top people who made appointments, a breach of trust that proved him “unfit.” This can hardly survive a reading of the letters from his boss Egerton and his wife’s father Sir George More.
More is furious, because he had hoped she would marry money, and demands to have Donne sacked; but this is while he still hopes to break the marriage; when he finds he can’t he tells Egerton to take Donne back again. Egerton’s reply is very cold, to the effect that enough fuss has been made about the matter already; it would be ridiculous to chop and change. There is no need to resist the obvious impression, that Egerton feels irritated by More and hardly notices Donne.
King James, though in some ways a disaster, was quite capable of recognizing that Donne would make a good preacher, and of ruthlessly forcing him to take the job; the talk about unfitness was merely part of his plan. All the same, he probably did feel that Donne might do something idealistic in Venice or Virginia, whereas a London preacher could be called to heel at once (and Charles I was still doing it). He would not realize that Donne felt himself driven into a trap, where a frightful betrayal, obvious to his admirers, became a duty to his revered wife and all those fatuous children who would never become able to feed themselves.
His sermons, almost from the start, were tremendous performances before a crowded audience, apparently spontaneous and without notes. Next, we are told, he would decide on a sermon for next week, its theme only, leaving that to ripen in his mind; then he would proceed to write out the whole sermon he had just given, with additions probably, for publication after his death, to feed his children. He was contriving to live in a kind of hallucination, not incompatible with angling for more money, but quite incompatible with answering questions about the text of his early love poems. His wife died in yet another childbirth about two years after his taking orders, but he had already regarded a virtual separation from her as part of the bargain; he must leave no room for doubt that he had made a total change. He is perhaps the greatest known martyr to domestic duty. There is no need to disagree with Carey that some of the work he did for it was sordid.
Also this partly explains the rather odd attitude of the older man toward the poems. He does not want to destroy them, only to avoid being bothered about them. It might be because he wanted them to earn money after his death for his flabby children and because worse things would be printed under his name if he left no check. But he does not regard the poems merely as provocatives to sin, certainly not the ones defending his reckless marriage; they express heretical views which may yet retain some partial truth. “Whiles yet to prove, I thought, there was some deity in love.”
When Donne was twenty, and a younger brother of his pious friend Roland Woodward, called Tom, was seventeen, Donne wrote him four love poems, in the last saying that at least the sheet of paper will get to him:
My verse, the strict Map of my misery,
Should live to see that, for whose want I die.
Tom wrote a poem in answer, so Donne did once raise what Carey demands; it is in the notes to Grierson’s edition. The copyists admired it; two of them give it twice, under different heads. He asks:
The nimble fire that in thy brain doth dwell,
Is it a fire from Heaven or fire from Hell?
Already, then, the wooing procedure of Donne employed what an opponent would call religiosity. The sermons continue to struggle to reconcile a few of the beliefs usual among radical reformers with orthodoxy, for example the idea that the soul after death dissolves into God as the raindrop returns to the sea (“I shall be made thy music”). Donne kept on producing wire-drawn arguments to prove that it both does and does not, which of course had no effect. The Holy Sonnet beginning “Show me, dear Christ,” not published till 1894, admits that he had remained uncertain which sect was in the right. It is a gratuitous confession made secretly to Woodward, impossible for a secret adherent of the pope. The evidence is bound to be scrappy, but it is consistent.
The laudatory poems printed in the first edition of Donne’s Poems, shortly after his death, need also to be considered. The authors deserve credit for making a good show in an embarrassing situation, but they cannot be regarded as merely “covering up.” Perhaps Isaac Walton can, when he asks:
Did his youth scatter poetry, wherein
Was all philosophy?
and answers “Yes,” already in his twentieth year. Still, even Walton realized that he could not treat the love poems with the contempt of Carey. The poet Thomas Carew, a devoted supporter of Charles I who had learned a good deal from Donne’s poetry but remained very unseraphical, is perhaps a bit too warm in its defense. He says that what Donne taught from the pulpit is now secure, but what he taught earlier is lost:
But the flame
Of thy grave 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 for ever.
It is a little greasy, but he is as earnest as any disciple of Blake or D.H. Lawrence. I think the best contribution is by Sidney Godolphin, who seems to have read Donne’s poetry very thoroughly, and nothing else. He says “first by thee our passions hallowed were,” an astounding claim. Not only did he “consecrate our tears” (perhaps in his sermons),
But even our joys had learned an innocence;
Thou didst from gladness separate offence.
All minds at once sucked grace from thee, as where
(The curse revok’d) the nations had one ear.
This man is remembering the line
There is no penance due to inno- cence,
confident that it is the correct text, although no text of the poem would be printed for another third of a century. Then it was given rightly. He would be astonished to find Carey, a third of a millennium later, taking for granted a bowdlerized text which turns the poem into malignant jeering.
It is a fine thing, of course, to make oneself king of the Vandals, with all the opponents trying to hide themselves under their bedclothes; and, in the mysterious processes of history, it may even work out for good. Dame Helen has weathered some enemies, in her time, but who could thrive with Carey as a friend? A general return to the Grierson edition is overdue.
December 3, 1981