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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

III. Ethics, Doubt and Wit

John Donne, New Philosophy, and Doubt

Peter Vernon

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1Thomas Healy has just been talking about ‘Credo Ergo sum’; I reply with ‘Incredulum Ergo Sum’ (I doubt therefore I am). In this paper I shall first of all problematise the title ‘John Donne, New Philosophy and Doubt’. As will soon be apparent, I am taking new philosophy in two ways: obviously, the New Philosophy of the Early Modern Period, and then the new philosophy of Wittgenstein’s De la Certitude. I trust this will appear as neither arbitrary nor anachronistic; for I want to use Wittgenstein’s insights to show how Donne had often predicted him, and that, once more, one can emphasise how modern Donne’s Poetry is. Second I will briefly revisit some of the evident causes for Donne’s doubt. And, finally, I would like to consider Donne’s doubt as seen in himself, the subject of his own poetry. I would like to begin with two citations:

‘There lives more faith in honest doubt,/Believe me, than in half the creeds’. (Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H., Canto 96)
‘Qui voudrait douter de tout n’irait pas même jusqu’au doute. Le jeu du doute lui-même présuppose la certitude’. (Wittgenstein, De la Certitude, proposition 115)

2I should preface these remarks by saying that any conclusions are extremely doubtful! Except perhaps the existence of Donne’s doubt. Whether this be on the nature of true religion, whether his latest girl will remain faithful to him, or even more urgently who or what is he.

3My title is of course taken from The Anniversaries:

And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out ;
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it. (Anniversaries, I, 205-08)

4We need not long follow Manley’s learned notes with reference to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy II, ii, 3, nor yet Donne’s Sermons VII, 184, where Donne comments that the Heracliteian fire has lost its pre-eminent place since, and I quote, ‘new Philosophers have made this an argument, that it is improbable, and impertinent, to admit an Element that produceth no Creatures...’ (Manley, notes, 144). What is significant in the lines quoted, is that the stress in the last two lines falls on ‘wit’ and ‘it’, and that the lines are end stressed as so often in Donne. But further one can say that the stress patterns create an equilibrium between continuity and discontinuity, and here I am following Veronica Forest-Thomson: ‘Car la métrique, la rime, l’espacement des vers, les éléments linguistiques ne dépendent pas des fins de la communication tandis que le sens des mots et des expressions organisés en phrases en relève’ (Forest-Thomson, 1983, 217). I shall have more to say about stress patterns later on when considering ‘Satire ΙΙI’.

5Having considered the title, without further ado, then, let us briefly note why Donne should so embody, in his poetry and other writings, such a state of doubt.

  1. He apostasised from Catholicism to Protestantism for reasons of ambition in the court.
  2. His impetuous marriage caused the downfall of his worldly ambitions.
  3. In his times the collapse of mediaeval thought (particularly as embodied in the works of Aquinas) which believed that the human mind was capable of knowing reality, was put in doubt by the rediscovery of the ancient Greek sceptical tradition as expressed by Sextus Empiricus, and reformulated by Montaigne, whom Donne had read in 1603-04 (Carey, pp. 232-34). Reason is worthless because it depends on subjective sense data, which we have no way of checking in reality.
  4. This overthrow of ancient learning is reflected in the replacement of the Ptolomaic Spheres by the Copernican and Galilean system which removes both Earth and Man from the centre of the Universe.

6Donne, in himself, it seems, is a microcosm of the sceptical, inquiring world in which he found himself. A world, for many reasons, which found itself in an unstable condition. The instability of the times reaches its apotheosis in the thwarted, anguished genius of John Donne. Perhaps most famously the instability of truth is expressed in ‘Satire III’:

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely, in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray ;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. (‘Satire III’, 76-79)

7The primary sense of this is to say that both Protestants and Catholics may be both wrong and right, it depends how one approaches things. But behind the doctrinal relativism lies something more deeply ontological. What puts Man in the wrong is first, not to be alert, not to be busy (one must be busy to seek truth, he has said a little earlier (1.74), nor to sin or go astray, ‘to runne wrong’. Truth is merely the slightly elder twin of falsehood (ll. 72-73). The traditional way to find truth in the Protestant Church is to search for the narrow and straight path which leads directly up the hill to Truth and the New Jerusalem. The way to destruction, in contrast, is traditionally wide and meandering. (Matthew 7, 13-14; Luke 13, 24). Donne, perhaps inevitably, reverses this traditional imagery:

On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go ;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so ;
Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night,
To will, implies delay, therefore now do. (ll. 79-84)

8Just as he reverses traditional Christian imagery, so he utilises unexpected rhythms. The energetic irregular rhythms composed of numerous spondees and amphybrachs (for example ‘Reach her, about must, and about must go’), avoid any possibility of monotony engendered by the couplets, and further give a sense of strain and struggle. To return to the New Philosophy of Wittgenstein for a moment: I have already quoted from proposition 115 ‘Le jeu du doute lui-même présuppose la certitude’. Donne it seems to me is exceptionally modern in the nature of the doubt that he expresses; to ‘doubt wisely’ is to shift the emphasis from what is being doubted onto the nature of doubt itself. He would seem to be moving the object of inquiry on to the nature of inquiry itself This modern questioning seems aptly summed up by Wittgenstein in Proposition 221 ‘Puis-je douter de ce dont je veux douter?’ Doubt for both Dornte and Wittgenstein presupposes belief. As we all know Donne had a belief in Catholicism, which he rejected. As I have tried to point out earlier, this is probably not the sole cause of his doubt, but it certainly forms part of his embattled stance, and certainly acts as the authority which he overthrew. In Proposition 160 Wittgenstein is again apposite: ‘L’enfant apprend en croyant l’adulte. Le doute vient après la croyance’. Donne as a child had been certain of the truth of the authority of Catholicism; doubt followed. But there is more at stake when one doubts within a Protestant Doctrine. Under Catholicism Good Works can save you, but under Protestantism only Faith, and Faith alone can save. Therefore Doubt becomes not only an anguish, but also a damnable anguish.

9Al. Alvarez and others (see, for example, Alvarez, p. 23), have pointed out Donne’s argumentative stance and have drawn our attention to those copulas of reason and rational argument: ‘so, still, but, therefore, since, thus, yet’ etc. that one finds all through his work from ‘Songs and Sonnets’ right through to the end of the last stanza of ‘Hymn to God in my sickness’, which, according to Walton, was written just before his death. Here, as you know, Donne plays with another kind of strait not the straight and narrow way, but the ‘straits’ of both fever and geography: he is in dire straits both literally and figuratively. He plays with the usual Christian paradox of Death and Resurrection (l. 15), and above all the trope of Felix Culpa: ‘Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down’ (l. 30). But, above all, whatever he is doing, Donne is arguing, from the first line ‘Since I am coming to that Holy room (l. 1), to the last line just quoted: ‘Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down’. J. B. Leishman has categorised Donne as an argumentative poet (Leishman, 1969, 21), but I am more convinced by Carey’s analysis that Donne does not use reason and argument for the discovery of truth, but rather he uses it as a poetic accessory. Donne’s reason is, to quote Carey, ‘an agitated façade’ (Carey, 1981, 231), in which rational argument and logic are used to serve appetite and ambition. In considering the nature of doubt, both Donne and Wittgenstein, action precedes reflection. (Proposition 148: ‘Pourquoi ne m’assuré-je pas que j’ai encore deux pieds lorsque je me lève de mon siège ? Il n’y a pas de pourquoi. Simplement, c’est ainsi que j’agis’).

10I turn now to the third part of this paper: Donne’s doubt as seen in himself, his Identity, and Egotistical Self-Consciousness. The true subject of Donne’s poetry is not his various lovers, nor his courtly acquaintances and patrons, nor yet is it Christ. On the contrary, Donne’s America, his Newfoundland is in fact Donne himself in all his spectacular complexity. Like Shakespeare’s ‘Will’ he plays on his own name. In ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, for example, we might take the last stanza:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I fear no more. (ll. 13-18)

11Punning on his name, Donne blackmails and bargains with God throughout the poem: He [God] has not finished ‘done’, nor will He be able to take John Donne into heaven until He swears that He will forgive Donne’s sins, from the original sin ‘Which was my sin, though it were done before’ (l. 2), until the very end of the poem where God must swear and that the sun will shine in the future, in the present, and as it has always shone. Only when this deal, this transaction is concluded can Donne be saved by God’s Son, Christ, who ‘Was in the beginning, Now and Ever Shall be, World without end’ (Book of Common Prayer, last verse to Canticles and Psalms in Matins and Evensong). Donne cannot give anything of himself up. He can separate himself, to observe more closely, various aspects of his own personality, but in the end ‘Nothing less than all Donnes is Donne’ (Carey, 1981, 225). Further play of this nature is to be found in the famous statement on his marriage ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done’, but also in the Sermons, for example in the ‘Gunpowder Sermon’, the only known autograph MS Sermon by Donne, on things donne, to be donne, or will be donne, etc (MS Royal 17. B. XX, Shami Ed., ll. 38-45).

12Donne’s obsession with himself can be found in the various paintings of himself as for example a fashionable, sensual courtier, to finally regarding himself as dead body in shroud and winding sheet. It is as though he has thrown his mind forward to imagine the impossible: himself, looking at his own dead body. Though he does not use it, the tense imagined by Donne is the Future Anterior (what will have been the case — a concluded act in the future), it is perhaps not coincidental to consider that this tense is almost entirely used in the interpretation of dreams. Donne’s logical position is rather like that of Poe, who, in ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, impossibly, has M. Valdemar utter the words ‘I am dead’ (Poe, 1982, 201). The obsession with himself and the rational expression of this obsession, is manifest in ‘The Paradox’ where every word and phrase underlines instability and doubt:

No Lover saith, I love, nor any other
Can judge a perfect Lover ;
He thinks that else none can, nor will agree
That any loves but he :
I cannot say I loved, for who can say
He was killed yesterday ?
Love with excess of heat, more young than old,
Death kills with too much cold ;
We die but once, and who loved last did die,
He that saith twice, doth lie :
For though he seem to move, and stir a while,
It doth the sense beguile.
Such life is like the light which bideth yet
When the light’s life is set, Or like the heat, when fire in solid matter
Leaves behind, two hours after.

Once I loved and died; and am now become
Mine epitaph and tomb.
Here dead men speak their last, and so do I ;
Love-slain, lo, here I lye.

13This short, twenty line poem is seemingly simple. The vocabulary is mostly monosyllabic; the couplets bind the poem perfectly as often seen in ‘Songs and Sonnets’ (the only quibble might be at lines 15 and 16 with ‘matter’ and ‘after’, but, as Tony Harrison said, of Wordsworth ‘Matter and Water are full rhymes’ so here matter imposes after, no matter what our elocution teachers might say. The rhythm of the poem is also regular, with a mostly iambic five and three stress pattern. But the moment we enter the poem, as the title indicates, we are faced with all kinds of paradox. If no lover ‘saith I love’, what does he say, if anything? — Maybe he does not need to say anything. He simply loves, he acts (‘For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love’, etc.). What is the identity of ‘any other’? Any other lover? And then who is ‘He’ in line 3? Is he to be identified with the perfect lover of line 2?

14The present tense of the first four lines gives way to a consideration of the past; just as the abstract, generalised lover makes way for ‘I’; and precisely as this occurs, so Love and Death are brought into relation, of course with the usual sexual play on ‘dying’: ‘We die but once, and who loved last did die’ (l. 9). As the poem reaches the end of its first movement more complex questions seem to be addressed. In spite of the fact that ‘no lover saith I love’ (l. 1), yet in line 10 it obviously is possible to say not once but twice. Admitted he that saith it twice doth lie. But is he lying on a bed in a state of sexual satiation; lying in a tomb; or simply lying in his teeth? The sense of the verse would seem to include all three. But in whatever sense ‘He’ is lying, he still seems to move and stir awhile. Meanwhile ‘It’, whatever that is (the lover in the state of lying?), ‘It doth our sense beguile’. With sense operating both as intelligence and sensory experience. This marks the end of the first stage of the argument signalled by ‘For’ in line 11.

15The second movement of the poem, from lines 13-16, has a more complex and richer image pattern which is noticeable through the strongly marked internal rhyme of line 13: life, like, light, bideth. The rhyme is continued into the next line: ‘light’s life’, but now bracketed between another internal rhyme: ‘when, set’. More interestingly, ‘Such life’ (and again we have to struggle to complete that indeterminacy — presumably it is the life of the lover who said I love twice, and who is now in a state of living death : lying yet seeming to move). We could approach this indeterminacy more theoretically by considering how it affects the reader. In linguistic terms the anaphoric blurring compels the reader to share the doubt and thus become more urgently involved with the philosophical anguish of the subject. To continue with our argument: Such life is like the light, and then those separated elements are thrust together in line 14 as ‘life’s light’ which is now ‘set’. In a very Shakespearean movement, Donne makes a transition from the dying light to the dying fire. I am thinking of course of Sonnet 73 where the aged lover is first seen as the dying season, then as the dying light , and finally as the dying fire:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by (ll. 9-12).

16As in the Shakespeare Sonnet, so Donne’s fire has been dead for two hours, but still has the vestige of heat. In the first section of the poem where we moved from abstract lover to I; so now in the last section (11.17-20), we move from ‘such life’ back to ‘I’. The ‘I’ voice now contradicts the premise of the first movement of the poem by saying what he had previously said it was impossible to say: ‘Once I loved and died and am now become my epitaph and Tomb’. Here then we have a voice from that ‘bourne from which no traveller returns’; a voice from the grave, speaking its own punning epitaph. Slain by love he points to himself ‘lο’ and simultaneously remarks on his low condition, where he is of course lying flat, but also self-admittedly caught in telling a lie, since manifestly he cannot logically say what he has just said. In so writing his own death, and death in love, Donne has pointed to the central doubt as to one’s appreciation of the nature of things, and the slipperiness of words in so telling them.

17I have tried to show that Donne’s doubt derives from certitude ; that his subject is himself; that by figuring forth the nature of his loves, life and death in his poetry, and that Donne is utilising the verse as a hinge in the constant debate and argument between his own subjective experience and the world about him. In so concentrating on the medium, and in constantly undercutting its stability, he seems to have an extraordinary modern sensibility.

  • 1 I am grateful to Pierre Gault for drawing my attention to Wittgenstein on Certitude.

18For me it is all done, thank you very much.1


Works Cited

Carey, John, 1981. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber and Faber.

Duncan-Jones. Katherine. 1997. Ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Thomas Nelson.

Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. 1983. ‘La planète séparée: John Donne et William Empson’ in John Donne Ed. Jean-Marie Benoist. Les Dossiers H, L’Age d’Homme. Herissey, 213-44.

Leishman, J. B. 1969 [1951], The Monarch of Wit. London: Hutchinson and Co.

Manley, Frank. 1968. Ed. John Donne: The Anniversaries. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Poe, Edgar Allen. 1982. ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allen Poe. Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin Books.

Shami, Jeanne. Ed. John Donne’s 1622 Gunpowder Plot Sermon. Pittsburgh, PA.: Duquesne University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2000. De la Certitude. Collection Tel, n° 121. Paris: Gallimard.


1 I am grateful to Pierre Gault for drawing my attention to Wittgenstein on Certitude.


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