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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

III. Ethics, Doubt and Wit

The High, the Low, and the Comic in Donne

Richard Hillman

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1This paper proposes to refine the widely accepted function of "wit" in Donne's poetry -- I leave it to others, if they like, to extend the point to his prose -- by heuristically positing that category of intellectual sleightof-hand (the germ responsible for rampant epidemics of paradoxes [Colie, 1966]) as an effect of generic distortion, whereby an essentially dramatic structure is compressed into what Donne tellingly identifies, in "The Ecstasy", as a "dialogue of one" (74). Of course, we are in the habit of discussing situations in Donne as if they were dramatic, while Bakhtin has taught us that dialogism is by no means confined to, if indeed it does not end with, dialogue (Bakhtin, 1981). I would simply suggest that in Donne's case, the result -- that is, the illusion -- of compression is such that, when we allow ourselves to give ear to "other" voices incorporated within the speaker's, whether by way of varying narrative stances or the implicit echoes returned by persons addressed, frameworks of situation and character tend imaginatively to spring into place and claim recognition as specifically theatrical. The (re) distribution of subject-positions becomes a distribution des rôles, and what passes on the page for the intricate artifice of laboured conceit, the tracing of tortuous giving and misgiving, takes to the stage of the reader's mind with the refreshing dynamism of give-and-take.

2Liberated by this shift of perspective from the prison-house of wit -- or rather, perhaps, made sufficiently visible that we perceive its perpetual imprisonment -- is the quality of the comic, which (re) translates to the imagined stage, in terms of active incongruity, what the page preserves in the passive mode, as incompatibility. The tendency of laughter, even of the nervous kind, is to dissolve, if not to resolve, tension, and it tends to do so, if we allow it, at both quasi-blasphemous extremes of Donne's extremity — equally when he makes God a rapist ("... Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me" [Divine Meditations 14, l. 14]), as when he assimilates erection to resurrection: "We die and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love" ("The Canonization", 26-27). The intensity of such moments, indeed, is arguably enhanced by the reader's sneaking impulse to snicker. And in the broad middle ground that Donne stakes out between his extremes, such snickering may be taken as inflecting high seriousness in a variety of forms: sexual urgency, religious longing, fear and hope, anger and charity, scorn and compassion, the impulses to debase and to exalt, cosmic angst: the New Philosophy hardly seems a laughing matter, but surely it threatens to become one when "The element of fire is quite put out" (An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversarie, 206).

3As this example suggests, the comic infiltrates language itself at the level of the play on words, that staple of stage humour, to which it backhandedly lends authority through an implicit reassurance that semantic knots need not be untied: to set off in a routine interpretative direction -- "When thou hast done..." ("A Hymne to God the Father", l. 5 and 11) -- that veers abruptly off the beaten track ("thou has not done" [l. 5 and 11]) is to find meaning by losing it; misunderstanding is understanding after all. This last effect underscores the role of the comic as undercutting absolute or simple knowledge, a posture that ultimately abets the intertwining of terrestrial and spiritual love by keeping each variety -- "Variety" itself being, we recall from "The Indifferent", "love's sweetest part" (20) -- off-balance in relation to the other: "a love, so much refined / That our selves know not what it is" ("A Valediction: forbidding Mourning", ll. 17-18); "Nor thou nor thy religion dost control, / The amorousness of an harmonious soul..." ("A Hymn to Christ, at the Author's last going into Germany", 15-16). From his earliest to his latest work, and from his most trivial to his most serious, the comedy of voices in Donne may be taken consistently to sustain, as its ultimate mystery, the principle that "all several souls contain / Mixture of things, they know not what" ("The Ecstasy", ll. 33-34).

4At the same time, however, that mixture is consistently polarized between categories that may be figured as the high and the low-this time with the encouragement of the Rabelaisian Bakhtin, though without necessarily reducing a dramatic conception of comedy to that critic's socioanthropological model of the carnivalesque (Bakhtin, 1968). The comic effect of incongruity, after all, works through juxtaposition and simultaneity, not through alternation -- hence the untenability of that over-roasted critical chestnut, "comic relief" -- and on juxtaposition equally depends what seems to me an important implication of the mechanism in Donne's case: the notion of interdependence or interpenetration, hence of inclusiveness.

  • 1 Quotations from Shakespeare's works are taken from Shakespeare, 1997, and referenced by act, scene (...)

5Wit, as typically inferred from Donne's texts and reapplied in analyzing them, remains presumptively exclusive: it implies the essential incompatibility of high and low by assigning to quintessential rationality the challenge of yoking them. And when Donne's wit self-consciously exhausts itself in a vain effort of persuasion, whether directed at a terrestrial or a divine object of seduction, we habitually detect a concession of defeat -- and the end of the poem: it is upon artifacts that we confer the privilege of consuming themselves (Fish, 1972), on the understanding that a thing is naturally either fish or fowl; it requires the artifice of wit to locate "indifference" in difference ("both fair and brown..." ["The Indifferent", 1]), love's truth in falseness. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (Macbeth, I. i. 11)1 belongs to the subversive witchcraft of drama: "'Ay', and 'no' too" is "no good divinity" (King Lear, IV. vi. 99-100); to try humanly to divine true from false ("Cannot be good ill; cannot be good" [Macbeth, I. iii. 131]; "'Tis a lie, I am not ague proof" [King Lear, IV. vi. 105]) is "to consider too curiously" (Hamlet, V. i. 206), and breeds tragic consequences, as Hamlet does when he reverts, Donne-like, from comic give-and-take with the comic grave-digging Clown to his real "continual practice" (V. ii. 211) of witty misgiving in dialogues of one.

6The comic, by contrast, tends to accept, with whatever mixed feelings, the collapse of artificial structures as a condition of an existence "always already" provisional, hence of their renewal according to a cyclic pattern. I am conscious here, not just of pushing Donne towards Neoplatonism -- a direction in which he is widely considered willing enough to go -- but of pushing his Neoplatonism well beyond Petrarch (or the latter's still more popular relation, anti-Petrarch) and some distance along the particular direction of Paracelsus, though there is a lost world of difference between Donne's discordant variations on the swan-song and the rhapsodic bird's-eye view of the mystic:

Decay is the midwife of very great things! It causes many things to rot, that a noble fruit may be born; for it is the reversal, the death and destruction of the original essence of all natural things. It brings about the birth and rebirth of forms a thousand times improved.... And this is the highest and greatest mysterium of God, the deepest mystery that He has revealed to mortal man.

7Donne sometimes seems to be Paracelsian, as he seems to be most things, despite himself. The witty Donne may posit "Loves Alchemy" as "imposture all" (l. 6), but the language of "that hidden mystery" (l. 5) holds him in its grasp and finally turns his very scorn against him -- close to comically:

That loving wretch that swears,
'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
Which he in her angelic finds,
Would swear as justly, that he hears,
In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
(ll. 18-22)

8So his frank faith in mystery elsewhere amply attests:

Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name ;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame.
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped bee.
("Aire and Angels", ll. 1-4)

9I have elsewhere (Hillman, 1992, 218) brought Paracelsus' formulation to bear on the notable mixture of high and low that is Shakespeare's Cleopatra, particularly on the contribution to her tragedy, as registered by an audience, that is made by the extraordinary comic intervention, in the liminal and ludic space between life and death, of the Clown who carries "the pretty worm of Nilus... / That kills and pains not" (Antony and Cleopatra, V. ii. 243-44), in Cleopatra's words, and whose "biting is immortal" (246-47), in the peasant's own. The instance of Cleopatra is perhaps surprisingly to the point here, given the insistent question in that play of the relation between sex and love and the nature of Antony's fatal attraction. It is a. question that notoriously fails to stand up to the witty scorn of rational Romans, for whom the transcendental claim of Enobarbus on Cleopatra's behalf, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety" (II. ii. 234-35), declines automatically into versions of Donne's would-be dismissal (complete with an Orientalism, even an Oedipalism, that I take to be aleatory): "Hope not for mind in women; at their best / Sweetness and wit, they are but mummy, possessed" ("Loves Alchemy", 24). By contrast, the Clown's puns on women's dying and lying "in the way of honesty" (V. ii. 253) intimate the blessing to which Enobarbus alludes: "for vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish" (II. ii. 237-39). The "Egyptian dish" (II. vi. 126), which "makes hungry / Where most she satisfies" (II. ii. 236-37), is truly served up by the Clown's comic sauciness, when she ought to be nothing but leftovers, as a "dish for the gods" (V. ii. 273).

10The fact remains that such comedy is literally dramatic, and it may be useful to take one step closer to Donne generically at the risk of taking some cultural sidesteps. During the early years of the seventeenth century, in all probability -- though the date of this text (first published in 1644), is as problematic as its authorship -- a comic prose piece of several pages was composed in France entitled La Ruelle mal assortie (I like to translate this as Mismatch Alley) and variously labelled, according to the surviving manuscripts, "Dialogue -- Satyre" or "dialogue satyrique". Long considered a composition of Marguerite de Valois (better known as "La Reine Margot"), the divorced wife of Henri IV, who at this period presided over a literary salon in Paris, La Ruelle has at last been exposed convincingly, by Éliane Viennot (1992), as falsely attributed to her. The dialogue chronicles the encounter of a lady of high rank, clearly a stand-in for Marguerite, with her so-called bête de somme -- a physically attractive lover pointedly lacking either the taste or the capacity for the Neoplatonic concept of spiritual love propounded by the lady. (In fact, Marguerite was a serious and learned devotee of Neoplatonism, having commissioned a translation of Ficino's commentary on the Symposium as early as 1578 [Viennot, 1992, 85], even if she was also widely known for a series of quasipublic sexual basons, including one with Bussy d'Amboise). Over the course of the dialogue, the lady's efforts to get her lover to consider love metaphysically are successively thwarted, and she finally invites him to make physical love to her, only to conclude, somewhat ruefully,

Ha! j'en suis hors d'aleine et ne m'en puis ravoir; et me faut, n'en deplaise à la parole, à la fin advouer que, pour si beau que soit le discours, cet ebatement le surpasse; et peut on bien dire, sans se tromper rien de si doux, s'il n'estoit si court. (Valois, 1986, 181)

11Why put this now-obscure (but apparently very popular) little work into intertextual relation with Donne's poetry? Not simply because it represents a frankly comic negotiation between high and low eroticism in Neoplatonic terms, but also because it was susceptible of being widely read as the work of the very woman understood to be its satirical target. So to read it is to credit it, whether erroneously or not, with an underlying intellectual seriousness. The key to that seriousness involves taking the voices of the speakers to represent divergent aspects of the author herself in the process of competing for her allegiance. Comic dialogue becomes comically dialogized monologue, as in Donne, to the point where one might be tempted to praise the author's wit. To do so, however, again as in Donne, would be to undervalue the open-ended and inclusive nature of the dialogue, together with a corollary that is more apparent in La Ruelle because of the difference in genre. For despite her power to command the body of her lover and the absence of the usual cultural obstacles to seduction encountered by men dealing with women, the lady has a considerable stake in undertaking the attempted intellectual seduction of her lover, and his obstinacy in some measure renders her -- as Viennot (1992) indignantly registers -- ridiculous. As might equally be said of the Queen of Egypt in dialogue with a bawdytalking peasant, to acknowledge the constant claims of lower humanity -- immortal biting, indeed -- puts at risk the trappings of dignity in which we dress ourselves: "Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me" (Antony and Cleopatra, V. ii. 280-81). Undoubtedly, the risk is diminished for an outwardly confident male seducer, but there is a vulnerability, not to say silliness, suspended even in Donne's final posture of physical exposure to his confirmed mistress: "To teach thee, I am naked first, why then / What needst thou have more covering than a man?" ("Elegy 9: To his Mistress Going to Bed", 47-48). And when it comes to the judge before whom all are naked, the last sin "of fear" bespeaks an empty wardrobe: "... that when I have spun / My last thread, I shall perish on the shore" ("A Hymn to God the Father", 13-14).

12Finally, La Ruelle also portrays, by means even more graphically incongruous, not to say obscene, than any in Donne or Antony and Cleopatra, the mystery that Paracelsus insists upon as mediating God to the natural world: that death is a means to new life. As her sexual excitement builds, the lady exclaims, "Mais il en faut mourir", and finally declares, "Eh bien! vous voilà enfin dans vostre element où vous paroissés plus qu'en chaire" (Valois, 1986, 181). It was precisely in order to try to get him to transcend the flesh that she had urged the claims of higher love She was, she might seem to be conceding, looking for ecstasy in the wrong place. Yet even when Donne presents bodily ecstasy as the natural extension and counterpart of another, that of the mutually produced "new soul" ("The Ecstasy", l 45), there is a comic sense that the sexual urge is interrupting philosophy, demanding attention in a way that requires the rationalizing services of wit: "But Ο alas, so long, so far / Our bodies why do we forbear?" (ll. 49-50). And the claim that a properly sighted lover "shall see / Small change, when we'are to bodies gone" (ll. 75-76) undercuts itself, in spite of the speaker's witty wishful thinking, by gesturing towards the same down-toearth dramatic situation staged in La Ruelle·. "Ο! vous excédés vostre commission, et quelqu'un s'en apercevra de cette porte" (Valois, 1986, 181).

13I have so far avoided the terms "body" and "soul" because the Bakhtinian categories of "high" and "low" are at once more inclusive and less laden with specifically religious significance; "body" and "soul" are consistently Donne's terms, however, and they pointedly evoke such significance. More particularly, they constitute a generic marker that helps to define Donne's dialogism -- again, more clearly in the sultry light of La Ruelle. Insofar as the Neoplatonic lady and her bête de somme speak with interior voices, advancing competing claims for dominance and negotiating a position vis-à-vis the exterior world, they too enact Donne's perennial debate between the soul and the body, but a blatantly subversive version of it that comically throws into relief, by deconstructing it, a relation of uneasy inextricability. A case might be made, and arguably for the religious as well as the erotic poems, that Donne's recurrent tropings of soul-body relations reflect, at the remove imposed by witty monologue, a similar impulse, however truncated, to recast that form subversively. Certainly, subverted in his texts, as in La Ruelle, are the traditional Medieval premises of the absolute value of the soul, as opposed to the body, and the irreconcilable nature of their differences, whose consequence is divorce by death. And yet death, of course, however doomed itself to die, remains for Donne omnipresent.

14In at least one notable such instance, moreover, the comic and dramatic tendencies come close to the surface, thanks to their prominence in the classical model Donne is overtly imitating: the satires of Horace, Juvenal, and Persius. In yoking these elements, with revealing unease, to a structure based on the Christian dichotomy between soul and body, the first Satire may perhaps carry greater weight as a generic paradigm manqué than it is generally accorded. The poem, though narrated by the soul, gives direct speech at several points to the body. More importantly, its premise, treated comically, is the former's perennially futile efforts to chastise and keep control of the latter. That comedy plays out in the street, where the wayward but temporarily chastened body has persuaded the soul, which would rather remain solitary, confined, and eventually "coffined" ("Satire 1", 4) in its room with improving religious books, to let it take a stroll, as it cannot do without the soul's consent and, needless to say, company:

But since thou like a contrite penitent,
Charitably warned of thy sins, dost repent
These vanities, and giddinesses , lo
I shut my chamber door, and come, let's go.
(ll. 49-52)

15What follows evokes, intentionally or not -- and it would be useful to have more information about pet-owner practices in late-Elizabethan London — an impatient master walking an unruly dog, which, to the soul's chagrin, takes off after human follies in all directions, as if picking up random scents, and finally, "Violently ravished to his lechery" (108), chases after a female ("his love" [106]), only to get into a scrap with a crew of rivals and come off bleeding.

  • 2 Cf. Hamlet on "man": "... what to me is this quintessence of dust?" (II ii. 308).

16The canine subtext concludes with a tail-between-his-legs retreat -- "Directly came to me hanging the head, / And constantly a while must keep his bed" (111-12) -- but it is clear that this dog's-body is as incorrigible as the lady's bête de somme, and that the master, no less than the mistress, has no choice but to laugh at his own lack of self-mastery, doomed to prolongation until his room becomes a coffin indeed; he himself is the only selfconsuming artifact. The laughter in both texts is different from that inspired, say, by the identity-politics dialogized between Launce and his unhousebreakable dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "I am the dog -- no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog -- O! the dog is me, and I am myself" (II. iii. 22). "[S] ee how I lay the dust with my tears" (32) is Launce's rueful conclusion, and the dust in question is ultimately the "quintessence" of Hamlet,2 unable to lay his father's ghost and precisely seeking him "for ever... / ... in the dust" (Hamlet, I. ii. 71). Laughter in Donne must be poignantly, if not tragically, rueful, precisely at the fact that the ruelle in which the universal human scene is inexorably staged -- it might as well be the bedroom space shared with a mistress or the spiritual space shared with God, and it is quintessentially dusty -- is so mal assortie. That laughter echoes, as the trace of impossible consummations more or less devoutly wished, behind those scenes where Donne, with wit's decorum, relentlessly shows high and low in infinite postures of fraught negotiation but finally incapable of "mingling" -- to adapt another non-dramatist's condemnation of dramatic indecorum -- like "kings [or queens] and clowns" (Sidney, 1973, 135).


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail, 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

— , 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: M. I. T. Press.

Colie, Rosalie L.. 1966. Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Donne, John. 1996. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books.

Fish, Stanley E. 1972. Self-consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hillman, Richard. 1992. Shakespearean Subversions: The Trickster and the Play-text. London and New York: Routledge.

Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim), 1958. Selected Writings. Ed. Jolande Jacobi. Trans. Norbert Guterman. Bollingen Series 28.2nd ed. New York: Pantheon for Bollingen Foundation.

Shakespeare, William. 1997. The Riverside Shakespeare. Gen. eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sidney, Philip. 1973. An Apology for Poetry. Ed. Geoffrey Shepherd. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Valois, Marguerite de (attrib.). 1986. La Ruelle mal assortie: Dialogue d'amour entre Marguerite de Valois et sa bête de somme. In Mémoires et autres écrits de Marguerite de Valois, la reine Margot. Ed. Yves Cazaux. Paris: Mercure de France.

Viennot, Éliane. 1992. "Marguerite de Valois et La Ruelle mal assortie: une attribution erronée". Nouvelle Revue du Seizième Siècle 10: 81-98.


1 Quotations from Shakespeare's works are taken from Shakespeare, 1997, and referenced by act, scene, and line numbers.

2 Cf. Hamlet on "man": "... what to me is this quintessence of dust?" (II ii. 308).


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