Those heavenly Poets which did see Thy will, and it expresse In rythmique feet, in common pray for mee, That I by them excuse not my excesse In seeking secrets, or Poetiquenesse. --John Donne, "The Litanie" (1)
A secret history is by definition a coterie history, just as Donne is by definition a coterie poet who writes for a select circle of initiates. (2) Yet because such circles are never hermetically sealed--because their work circulates in manuscripts that can be copied, miscopied, or otherwise circulated among the uninitiated--poetry of this kind often bears an inner seal that blocks or conceals its hidden sense from outside readers. As Sears Jayne points out in his introduction to Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, esoteric writing of this kind especially flourishes during periods when old hierarchies of birth begin to be replaced by new hierarchies of merit, and when old orthodoxies begin to give way to new and potentially heretical doctrines. In the most extreme cases, esoteric ideas (particularly those bordering upon, if not actually crossing, the frontier of heresy) will appear to the exoteric reader as versified ravings or nonsense rhymes rather than as riddles to be unraveled by discovering the hidden key to their inner sense. (3) In less extreme cases, the presence of a meaningful paradox or riddle will be obvious, but the quest for a solution will appear either impossible or unsuitable; the former when the poem must be taken seriously but its key is irretrievably lost, and the latter when it can simply be passed off as a jest. Donne's erotology typically combines the former with the latter kinds of obscurity, which, as this essay will argue, helps to explain the long controversy not only over major love lyrics such as "The Extasie," but also over what would later be known as the metaphysical style.
From this perspective, Samuel Johnson's insight that metaphysical poetry violently "yoked together" disparate ideas or images is at once nearly right and entirely wrong. Even the most disharmonious imagery (like for instance that found in such poems as Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle") may lack true metaphysical violence if its paradoxes are not "contaminated" with a riddling logic that produces metaphysical doubt. (4) So long as their allegorical mystery remains safely insoluble or transcendental, such poems produce complacent wonder instead of violent controversies over their missing or nonexistent keys. In contrast, Donne's Songs and Sonets provoke such controversies by playing with glaring inconsistencies--verbal, musical, or intellectual--that challenge both the speaking voice and his readers to critique or explain his practice. These resulting tensions have long prevented the libertine "Jack Donne" from being fully separated from the devoutly or despairingly questioning "Dr. Donne" who first emerges in the early Satyres and never completely disappears in either the Holy Sonnets or the sermons. For all these works "contaminate" spiritual and rational arguments with sensual analogies that continue to perplex, astonish, or even outrage their readers. (5) Yet Donne himself is openly unapologetic about the metaphysical obscurity into which this technique so often plunges his meaning and intentions. As in the prefatory epistle to Metempsycosis, which demands "no such Readers as I can teach," he consistently appeals to an audience as excessive in seeking out secrets as he is. (6) He has not always found that audience; recent readers have been as ready as Johnson was to dismiss his metaphysics (particularly in "seduction" poems such as "The Extasie") as violently elitist, egoistic, insincere, neurotic, or all of the above. (7) At least in part, this dismissal seems linked to his obvious learning, for while no one denies his intimate acquaintance with the new philosophy that called all in doubt, few seem to recall the perplexities involved in trying to synthesize it with the semiheretical "pagan mysteries" of his beloved "old philosophy. …