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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

I. Modalities of Passing

"If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it": John Donne’s Dunning Letters

Marie-Dominique Garnier

Texte intégral

1The phrase “dunning letters” is an attempt to render the rather illdefined cluster of associations which links writing and money-matters, poems and payments, or more generally literature and the gift-in French, "donner" and don. A dunning letter is a letter which asks for payment, in a rather insistent way, so that to "dun" has come to mean to "pester", to "plague", and in a sense this is the closest one can come to defining the experience of reading and teaching a poem by Donne-a taxing text, always asking for more, for extra-payment, begging for re-readings and reinterpretations. One need only remember J. B. Leishman’s open questions posed to the monarchy of Donne’s wit: "Is the intelligibility of Donne’s poems an advantage or a disadvantage? Is their argumentative logic, their analysability into prose, an impurity and a defect? Has their undeniable shapeliness and continuity been too dearly bought?" (1951, 227).

2A considerable number of Donne’s poems clearly belong to the logic of exchange, give and take, debit and credit, within a well-identified coterie or circle of patrons in and around the Inns of Court. There, as Arthur F. Marotti has put it, “difficulty, even magnificently unnecessary difficulty, was a valued commodity” (1986, 70). Whether as answer-poems, or as poems of compliment, whether written to order or in the tradition of amorous verse, they operate as presentation pieces, structured around the use of the present tense: “When that rich soul which to her heaven is gone”. “The First Anniversary” text written in commemoration of the death of Elizabeth Drury functions as a present, not only in the funereal sense but also as a birthday present:

Accept this tribute, and his first year’s rent,
Who till his dark short taper’s end be spent
As oft as thy feast sees this widowed earth,
Will yearly celebrate thy second birth,
That is, thy death. (ll. 447-451)

1. The give-and-take of poetry

3Among the most frequently recurring verbs in Donne, after the come/go pair, is the give and take combination. The act of giving entails giving back, returning, entering the field of transaction and economy:

Love, any devil else but you,
Would for a given soul give something too.
(“Love’s Exchange”, ll. 1-2)

... Whoever gives, takes liberty
(“A Hymn to Christ, At the Author’ s last
Going into Germany”, l. 22)

If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it
(“Lovers’Infiniteness”, l. 28)

Heaven gives little, and the earth takes less
(“The First Anniversary”, l. 397)

4“Elegy 11: The Bracelet” concludes that gold is “restorative” (112), a term which implies medicinal as well as financial efficacy-profitable returns, for which the first lines of the shorter poem “A Jet Ring Sent” offer a visual, circular equivalent. “Death” itself is part of the general transaction, -the paying of a “debt”, its homophone.

5Every poem is a gift, or a “pawn”, from a gifted poet, but there is again a price to be paid. In a sonnet letter to Thomas Woodward, Donne asks the recipient to: “accept these lines, and if in them there be: Merit of Love, bestow that love on me” (209). In the next letter one reads:

Haste thee hash verse as fast as thy lame measure
Will give thee leave, to him, my pain and pleasure.
I have given thee, and yet thou art too weak,
Feet, and a reasoning soul and tongue to speak.
Plead for me (209)

6As James Baumlin has convincingly argued, Donne describes letterwriting as a transaction, what he calls a complex unity of “deeds and words”, a phrase borrowed from one of Donne’s letters to Henry Goodyer, in which he explains letters are of a mixed nature and “partake both of the deed and the word” (Baumlin, 1991,114). The same logic can be extended to the poetic letter. Poems are pawns in the world of literary transactions.

7This is the kind of definition Donne gives of what it is like to write a poem – resorting to the metaphor of coin-making, comparing the poem to a piece of gold, and suggesting a link between metrics and meretrix:

In all metricall compositions [...] the force of the whole piece is for the most part left to the shutting up; the whole frame of the Poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is it that makes it currant. (Sermons VI: 41)

8Christ also is at the business end, since in “Sermon 7, vol. 10”, Donne explains that “all things should be transacted by Christ”, if man is to be saved, redeemed.

9One could actually sum up the life and works of John Donne in crude monetary terms, by reformulating the two most prominent moments of his career as cash-related operations: in the professional sphere, he sold his Catholic soul for a position in the Anglican church; in the private one, he married someone called “more”, of all names.

2. Circulation

10The privately circulated texts of the songs and sonnets operate like the many gifts exchanged between the lovers: a jet ring, a bracelet of hair, pictures, a graffiti on a window, a token, a few angels – the word can refer to a coin –, and a couple of patterns, a word which radiates into a variety of semantic paths, hovering between the Platonic meaning attached to the word – the ideal model, the perfection of a Platonic idea, possibly linked, phonetically, to the perfection of things paternal, a “pater-n” – and, on the other hand, the debased but proliferating meanings attached to the endlessly reproducible series of copies: patterns are meant to be copied out and reproduced, forged and multiplied; a pattern is a coin; a pattern also points to the prosody, the poetry itself – a verse pattern, to be “beg [ged] from above” (“The Canonization”, l. 44)

11Within the frame of each poem, words and syllables become negotiable in a phonemic stock-exchange, such as the syllable "air" in “Air and Angels”, many times melted and re-stamped into new word formations, new coinages, so that it becomes current in every other word of the poem-in “her”, in “hair”, in “inhere”, in “wear” and “wares”, as also in the inconclusive “disparity” which one ought probably to pronounce “disp[air]ity”, with the effect that the word no longer does what it says: it not longer erects a difference, but operates as an added joke at the end of a series of overloaded, overfraught plays on words: if one begins to overhear an “air” in “disp/air/rity”, contamination sets in, devaluation and forgery. The disparity, there, as elsewhere, vanishes into thin air, like the gold “to aery thinness beat” in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (l. 24).

3. The “present” tense

12Donne’s poems all somehow bring up the question of the date, dating in every sense of the word: though very few provide actual dates (“A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day” is a crux for critics in terms of identifying the proper calendar; “Good Friday 1613” remains vague, when one relies on the second half of the title, “Riding Westward”) most provide a transparent autobiographic frame which brings a crystal clear image of a present, given situation. Whether tossed at sea, in bed, or in a grave, Donne’s speaker generates a sense of place, a realistic frame, which is all the easier to visualize because it provides little actual description. Donne’s poems, written in or around the present tense, operate as presents, gifts: their nature as gifts, or presents, is enhanced by the “date” they implicitly put across (date being akin to datum from dare: “to give”). A date is something given, yet almost immediately something taken back, erased, silenced, refined out of existence, with the effect that what remains is the elusive and fragile presence of a meta-text, a poem which signals its own status as poem-in-the-making.

13In the same way as to give implies the opposite gesture, to take, the “now” of full temporal presence calls for its opposite, a “no” (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”: “The breath goes now, and some say, no”, l. 4)). The pulse at the heart of the poem, the “beat” of poetry, is what “The Ecstasy” rephrases as “the subtle knot which makes us man” (l. 64), at once a presentation package, a bow, and a “not”, a pre-Keatsian form of negative capability.

14This undoing of the name, this deconstructive or self-consuming logic is at work in the “proper” name of Donne, itself less a property than a pass-word, a skeleton-key, a term which is one way of entering a complex semantic network, translatable at least into three European languages Donne was familiar with: as “donner”, in French, but also as “donna” in Italian, and of course “do” in English. Much has been written already on doings and undoings, but little on the way donation or the gift operates, in connection with writing. As Benvéniste explains, in the wake of Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le don (1950), the Indo-european root of the verb “donner” means to give as well as to take: “Il semble donc que le verbe le plus caractéristique pour donner ait été marqué d’une curieuse ambivalence sémantique”. [It seems then that the most characteristic verb for give bears traces of a curious semantic ambivalence] (Benvéniste, 1966,317).

4. Of gold and poison

15"Gift" means "poison" in German, a reversal similar to that of the Pharmakon, the name given to writing in Phaedrus. Jacques Derrida takes up the term again in Donner le temps (1991), where he explains that a gift is precisely what cannot belong to a monetary circuit of exchange. A gift does not avail-in a market economy, based on exchange and usury:

Pour qu’il y ait don, il faut qu’il n’y ait pas de réciprocité, de retour, d’échange, de contre-don ni de dette. [For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocating, no return, no exchange, no counter-gift and no debt], (24)

16The moment a gift imposes an obligation to return on someone, it turns into a "Gift" in the sense of poison, "empoisonnant" -in other words dunning. Derrida concludes that the circular logic attached to the act of giving is a double-bind, which translates into Donne’s words as a paradox: “pour qu’il y ait don, il faut que le don n’apparaisse même pas, qu’il ne soit pas perçu comme don.... Nous parlons donc ici d’un oubli absolu, d’un oubli qui absout, qui délie absolument.” [For there to be a gift, the gift itself must not so much as be apparent, it must not be perceived as such.... What we mean thereby is absolute forgetting, a forgetting which absolves, which absolutely unbinds]. (Derrida, 1991, 29-30)

17Forgetting is what the speaker in Divine Meditation 9 paradoxically asks for:

of thine own worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin’s black memory ;
That thou remember them, some claim as debt,
I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget. (ll. 10-14)

18“Forget” is a displacement of and replacement for the more expected term “forgive”. Similar displacements affect other poems about giving, where the gift is offered and forgotten at the same time, placed under erasure or “crossed” to borrow Donne’s closest equivalent of erasure. When the speaker in "Elegy V" says “Here take my picture” (l. 1), the reader never gets to see the picture, the present given as a love token which also happens to be a presentation of a present lover in the present tense; the only actual gift of the poem is the picture of a sea-adventurer coming home, after he has suffered a sea-change – a present, in other words, which has no representative value, since it pictures forth something which is relegated to a distant future.

19The same act of forgetting is at work in “A Jet Ring Sent”, where each stanza concludes on the idea of breaking the circle of the ring: “nothing sooner broke (l. 4);"fling me away" (l. 8);"would soon break thee"(l. 12). Although the present, the ring, is apparently kept and domed, it remains is a “jet” ring, a word, A. J. Smith comments, as possibly punning on the French "jeter": “to jet something was to throw it” (note 8, 380) –.

20What is given in Donne belongs to the intermediary realm of litter, things discarded or thrown away, small debris, flotsam and jetsam which hover in the margin of property, on the edge of the material world, between being and non-being, like the trembling name on the windowpane of “A Valediction: Of My Name In The Window”. The here and now dematerialises into air (as in “Air and Angels”), and “now” becomes rewritten as “no” (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, l. 4). The engraved name operates as a gift which brings about “superscribing” and “forgetting”: “So, in forgetting thou rememberest right,/And unaware to me shalt write” (l. 60). This is very close to what Derrida suggests by linking giving and forgetting.

  • 1 In the lively discussion following the talks, Margaret Llasera pointed out the lighter aspects of (...)

21Such a binding together of opposites can be inferred from the name of Donne, from the subject of the poem, a phrase which collapses the poet and the poem, the giver and the gift, the topic and the speaker. “Donner” in French, is a word “overfraught” with a load of semantic poisoning, by being strongly correlated to suicide on the one hand, ("se donner la wort") and betrayal on the other "donner" means to betray, to give away). These negative polarities, the temptation of suicide and the act of betrayal, Biathanatos and the apostasy, literally provide a frame to the many other versions of gift and giving in the poems. Within such a frame, beaten to airy thinness, the poems are suspended and stamped according to a logic best described as the “middle nature of verse” in “The First Anniversary”, itself a form of gift or birthday present:1

Which when I saw that a strict grave could do,
I saw not why verse might not do so too.
Verse hath a middle nature: heaven keeps souls,
The grave keeps bodies, verse the fame enrols. (ll. 471-474)

4. Small Change

22To keep, and to enrol, operate in connection with evanescent syntactic objects: neither soul nor dead bodies nor fame are good candidates for containment, especially if one reads "same" instead of "fame", as some manuscripts render it, or if one thinks of "fame" as a pun on femme, or again if one wonders whose fame the speaker is interested in, Elizabeth Drury’s or his own. The "verse" is so fashioned as to be composed entirely of monosyllables, semantic dust, comparable to the little "atomies" the firmament has "crumbled out" into (l. 212). The many mite-sized monosyllables the poetry crumbles out into seem to operate as Donne’s way of giving his mite to the new philosophy, whether it be understood as the deconstruction of Ptolemaic spheres or as Western metaphysics. The numerous connectives and disjunctives and outcasts of poetry such as the unpoetic “it”, as in the atomised prosody of such a line as “By us: we two, being one, are it” (“The Canonization”, l. 24), or the numerous linguistic atomies the lines are peppered with usually in the most prominent prosodic places, Donne recirculates as the “small change” of his poems. They are gifts in the paradoxical sense Derrida has defined, at once given and soon forgotten, made present and absent in the same gesture, written as presents or gifts, in the past or in the future tense. One could conclude and not conclude by saying that Donne’s avoidance of the gift takes effect in the form of a series of poetic suppressions, suicides and betrayals, second thoughts, or misgivings. This becomes rephrased in “Holy Sonnet 8” as “my mind’s white truth”(l. 8), a phrase which places Donne in the immediate poetic vicinity of Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet of whiteness, hymens and hymnals.


Works cited

Baumlin, James. 1991. John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Benvéniste, Emile. 1966. Problèmes de linguistique générale. Vol. I, Paris: Gallimard.

Derrida, Jacques. 1991. Donner le temps. Paris: Galilée.

—. 1999. Donner la mort. Paris: Galilée.

Donne, John. Biathanatos. 2001. Trans. Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Leishman, J. B. 1951. The Monarch of Wit. London: Hutchinson’s University Library.

Marotti, Arthur F. 1986. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1950. Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Potter, George R. and Evelyn M. Simpson Eds. 1953. Sermons. 10 volumes. Berkeley: University of California Press.


1 In the lively discussion following the talks, Margaret Llasera pointed out the lighter aspects of this text, which involves, in proto-Joycean fashion, "fun" in the funereal protocol of writing. This would seem to corroborate the present reading of the text, which I see as tuned equally to the mournful celebration of departed youth as to the making of a facetious artefact or "birthday" present for another "ann" (-iversary).


Université de Paris VIII

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