It is entirely reasonable that when it comes to poetic taste the circle of admiration should be far more encompassing than the circle of love, and while for me John Donne (1572-1631) certainly falls well within the former circle, I cannot quite bring myself to place him in the latter. This week’s poem has so much going for it: wit, dexterity, a lively conversational idiom, and for some a pleasing element of intellectual challenge in its references and conceits, though others may feel that in the last verse in particular Donne loses his way in a maze of metaphors. So what does it lack? For me, I suppose, the conviction that Donne is concerned with real love for another human being, rather than using a slightly simulated extravagance of passion as a vehicle for a bit of poetry. This is poetry that stimulates the intellect but does not engage the emotions, and I want a poem to do both.
I compare it with poems like William Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’ (see week 31) and ‘The Wife A-lost’ (see week 176). Now these for me hit you in the solar plexus and knock the wind out of you, and with Donne’s poem I feel no such impact. I am not saying that Barnes is a greater poet than Donne – there are other factors to be considered, like influence and centrality. And anyway who cares about labels and precedences, there are just poems, and maybe our reactions to them are, and indeed should be, far more personal and circumstantial than any attempt to impose a formal discipline of ‘poetry appreciation’ on the matter can allow for.
Note: The Seven Sleepers: in mediaeval legend, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus were Christian youths who hid in a cave to escape the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius (250 CE) and fell into a miraculous sleep. There is an implicit comparison between their wonder on waking and Donne’s own as he progresses from mere carnal love to the ‘agapic’ or spiritual love felt by their ‘waking souls’.
The Good Morrow
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snored we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be:
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.
And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our twoloves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.