Love, Poetry, and John Donne in the Love Poetry of John Donne(1)

Article excerpt

TAKEN together, John Donne's Songs and Sonets, along with many of the erotic elegies, constitute a varied, even sporadic meditation on the experience and significance of love. Despite the apparent contradictions in the collection--the outbursts of bawdiness, arrogance, and cynicism among the reiterated, if often problematic, assertions of love's transcendence of what is base and banal--these poems finally evoke a unified vision of what Monsignor Martin C. D'Arcy calls "the mind and heart of love." In fact, it is precisely the candid acknowledgment of the contradictions in human attitudes that enables the complex irony of Donne's witty eloquence to dramatize the approach to that "decisive moment" when a man genuinely recognizes the common human identity of the desired other, and" `love' now takes on its proper meaning" (244). As D'Arcy also says, "It is always, we must remember, a full human person who is loving, and in that love there are sure to be many different strands" (69). Love is an arresting exemplar of the paradoxical structure of reality as it is perceived by men and women; and poetry, understood broadly as a creative literary fiction (a "golden world," if you will), is our most compelling means of manifesting that perception for the contemplation of "a full human person." Few poets have achieved more in this line than John Donne.

Amid the current atmosphere of ideological intimidation, which looms like a menacing gray mist, spawned by some academic El Nino, over the once temperate vale of Donne scholarship, these must seem quixotic assertions. This is, after all, the same John Donne who has been accused of apostasy (Carey 15-36), phallocentrism (Mueller 148), servile submissiveness to an absurdly repellent embodiment of patriarchal royal absolutism (Goldberg 111-12), and even bulimia (Fish 223).(2) The most ambitious twelve-step program may seem hardly sufficient to restore to a man of such vicious compulsions his former status as the most persuasive love poet in English literature. These gloomy assessments of Donne and his work arise, however, from a misconception both of love and of poetry. Both of these vital human activities have been "defined down" in this therapeutic age: judged as something less than the sum of their parts. The vital abundance and mysterious subtlety of love have been subjected to a diminished appraisal in a fashion analogous to the "demystification" of the inventive copia and wit of Donne's poetry. The recovery can be managed only by the constructive work of literary criticism and scholarship--a kind of joint operation seeking to rescue meaning from a wind-swept sea of floating signifiers.

The interpretation of Donne's love poetry offered here depends upon a vision of human love as an experience fraught with tension. D'Arcy refers to "the twofold character of love, in which respect it is compared to the struggle of opposites in nature" (222). At the heart of this "struggle" is the tension between Eros and Agape--in the simplest terms, possessive and and self-sacrificing love, desire and charity. The great value of D'Arcy's work lies in his insistence that simply to favor agape over eros will not suffice: perfect agape is possible only for God whose fund of benevolence is infinite and inexhaustible. A man or a woman cannot give absolutely because we are finite creatures: a measure of self-assertive egotism, of possessive eros, is (literally) essential for us in order to retain an identity to be sacrificed or surrendered. Herein the paradox of the human situation: our most transcendent aspirations are as limitless and insatiable as our most sulphurous desires, while our capacity for each alternative is strictly limited. What is more, our divergent longings often seem not merely simultaneous, but even indistinguishable. The swoon of ecstatic self-immolation is whirled about in the slaver of predatory anticipation. The resolution of this dilemma by means of supernatural grace is matter for another essay. …