Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Stillness and Noise: The Ambiences of John Donne's Lyrics

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Stillness and Noise: The Ambiences of John Donne's Lyrics

Article excerpt

JOHN DONNE seems to have remained wonderfully and ruefully attuned to the inevitable power of the external world to distract us from our own thoughts. In a striking example from a funeral sermon preached in 1626, Donne admits the insistence with which the world around him impresses itself on his imagination, even while he prays: "I throw my selfe downe in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore." (1) While the moral import of such distraction might be easily adduced, the recreation of this scenario for his auditors admits the abiding pull of the ephemeral to the human mind. It is a pull that I would argue had a hold on Donne's imagination throughout his writing life. In the particularly public self-reflection above, he gestures toward the variegated soundscape of the city, the aural minutiae that draw the mind away from the spiritual and toward the sensual and sensory. The evocation of these sounds reminds us that Donne's poems, and particularly his love lyrics, also often ask us to slow down to dwell on the minutiae of the external world, to contemplate the scratching on a pane of glass, the reflection of a teardrop, the blossom of a flower. They ask us, that is, to consider the poetic imagination's encounter with and transformation of the ephemera of existence.

To a large extent, previous studies of Donne's poetry have obscured this encounter by turning our attention away from the physical details of early modern London. (2) In this essay, I wish to turn toward the social as well as the seemingly private spaces of London in order to ground Donne's poetry, and more broadly, the creative act, in the lived realities of the metropolis, rather than in the literary traditions, or even the political or intellectual developments, of early modern London. Granted, these realms are not mutually exclusive, or even easily separable. However, underlying my focus on the spaces in which Donne's poetry was created is a desire to reconnect these

"flights" of the imagination with the physical world, with the individual's encounter with his or her everyday surroundings. In his seminal work on social space, Henri Lefebvre has argued that "each work"--and here he means creative work--"occupies a space; it also engenders and fashions that space." With this statement Lefebvre is interested in troubling the distinction between creative work and labor, between the production of knowledge and its material realities. And, as much as works of the imagination emerge from social space, from practice, they also elaborate on and formalize the experience of these spaces. (3) While Lefebvre's argument here is decidedly rooted in economic history, in the changing modes of production and labor and how these changes transform urban spaces, he is also making a claim about our tendency to separate the conceptual and the imaginative from the practical and the mundane. My essay takes up this line of thought, situating poetry, and particularly lyric in the second half of the essay, amidst the complex, often messy experiences of life in early modern London. In doing so, I seek to comprehend the manifold yet elusive encounters between the individual imagination and the external world, between subjectivity and materiality, between poetry and the quotidian.

As recent historical and literary scholarship has made clear, the spatial realities of London, the external world of its inhabitants, underwent a remarkable transformation in the second half of the sixteenth century; as the population grew rapidly and moved more frequently, the city expanded in all directions even as its existing structures were renovated, added to, or impinged upon in order to meet demographic demands. (4) While this transformation has been extensively and astutely detailed, here I wish to take a more fine-grained look at the lived environments of Donne's metropolis in an attempt to identify the traffic between these environments and the poetic imagination. …

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