The poetic close-talking of John Donne

Somewhere CS Lewis says that, as poets, Donne and Robert Browning share a tendency to “buttonhole” their readers - or, as we might say, “get in their face.” This is the same quality Lewis's near contemporary, Virginia Woolf, praised in Donne and what, for her, made him modern. Here's Woolf, in The Common Reader (1925, 1935):

“But the first quality that attracts us is not his meaning, charged with meaning as his poetry is, but something much more unmixed and immediate; it is the explosion with which he bursts into speech. All preface, all parleying have been consumed; he leaps into poetry the shortest way.”

Some first lines come to mind: “Death be not proud”...“Stand still, and I will read to thee”...“For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love.” He’s a consummately bossy poet, always forestalling argument or dissent, his finger on the lapel, or on the lips, of his hearer. Much of his poetry reads like Browning's dramatic monologues, but there's no assumed persona. It's Donne bursting from the poem, exploding in your face. And not only does he explode in your face, he cuts off your escape. 

“The world, a moment before, cheerful, humdrum, bursting with character and variety, is consumed. We are in Donne’s world now. All other views are sharply cut off. In this power of suddenly surprising and subjugating the reader, Donne excels most poets. It is his characteristic quality; it is thus that he lays hold upon us”.

This massive poetic egotism - the eclipse of other worlds, the drowning out of argument, the importunate seduction - is what made Donne's verses leap out of the seventeenth century into modernity, and makes Donne himself burst out of his verses, into our faces.


All the air things wear

Here's some more Hopkins, one I found by accident looking for something else. It's called In the Valley of the Elwy.The comforting smell...fetched some sweet woodis redolent to me of childhood winters, our own valley filled with fragrant woodsmoke. It also reminds me of Herbert: Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back...”; and of Heber: “every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” I like the congruence of household imagery with nature and with supernature. The first two lines of the second stanza are as good as anything else Hopkins wrote.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.


Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

Winter's here, but there's time for one final autumn poem before the last leaves fall. This is Hopkins: “Spring and Fall - To a Young Child.” It's deep and dense, as Hopkins is wont to be. It gets at the guts of autumn - that it's about being mortal, that, in life and in leaf, it's the shadow of spring.
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older        
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:        
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Unvisited tomes

I mentioned Mary “Mrs Humphry” Ward a while back. I’d never read any of her books, and she doesn’t seem to rank now alongside her Victorian or Edwardian peers, but according to this Guardian piece, at the end of the nineteenth century she was the highest-earning novelist writing in England, and in the early twentieth, her books were bestsellers in America too. Between 1880 and 1920 she wrote 26 novels and published regularly in journals. She was the niece of Matthew Arnold, and the aunt of Aldous Huxley. She was as much a household name as Dickens or Eliot had been. So what happened to her? Why are her books now gathering dust?

The main reason seems to be her politics. Though she otherwise did a great deal of good for women and children, she was a very visible and voluble campaigner against women’s suffrage. Heading the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, “Ma Hump” became known as a reactionary and a crank, the purveyor of all kinds of kooky pro-empire poppycock; through her husband (a journalist at The Times), and her son (an MP), she effectively held up legislation on the extension of suffrage for years. The price she’s paid is her own posterity.

So what of the books themselves? Do they deserve to be retrieved from their author’s obscurity? I think so. I’ve read Lady Rose’s Daughter and have begun to read Eleanor, and they strike me as eminently readable, and retrievable. Akin to George Eliot, though not as broad, and to Henry James, though not as deep, her books are nonetheless perfectly respectable turn-of-the-century social realism, with a flair for lyric description. Here, for instance, is Julie Le Breton, the heroine of Lady Rose’s Daughter:

They were approaching a woman whose tall slenderness, combined with a remarkable physiognomy, arrested the old man's attention. She was not handsome–that, surely, was his first impression? The cheek-bones were too evident, the chin and mouth too strong. And yet the fine pallor of the skin, the subtle black-and-white, in which, so to speak, the head and face were drawn, the life, the animation of the whole–were these not beauty, or more than beauty? As for the eyes, the carriage of the head, the rich magnificence of hair, arranged with an artful eighteenth-century freedom, as Madame Vigée Le Brun might have worn it – with the second glance the effect of them was such that Sir Wilfrid could not cease from looking at the lady they adorned. It was an effect as of something over-living, over-brilliant – an animation, an intensity, so strong that, at first beholding, a by-stander could scarcely tell whether it pleased him or no.

And here is an Italian sunset, near the beginning of Eleanor:

The sunset was rushing to its height through every possible phase of violence and splendour. From the Mediterranean, storm-clouds were rising fast to the assault and conquest of the upper sky, which still above the hills shone blue and tranquil. [...] Below these [...] the heaven was at peace, shining in delicate greens and yellows, infinitely translucent and serene, above the dazzling lines of water. Over Rome itself there was a strange massing and curving of the clouds. Between their blackness and the deep purple of the Campagna, rose the city—pale phantom—upholding one great dome, and one only, to the view of night and the world.

Maybe it’s not as good as the best things of its period, which have survived much better, but it’s still very satisfying to the reader who likes that period, and likes to think it’s not exhausted by its few survivors. It’s a live question whether repellant personalities who happened to write great books should be forgiven. The other question this raises for me is who among our present writers will be forgotten? Which opinions or political acts will in time be seen as unforgivable?


Where storms and stars come from

This poem has been sitting in my drafts folder for ages; I've been waiting for a reason to post it. I don't really have one now, except that it's a fine poem and deserves an airing, with or without a pretext.

Carl Sandburg, I've learned, grew up poor, the American child of Swedish immigrants. He left school at thirteen and became a drifter, then a soldier. He eventually made his way to college, where an encouraging teacher drew out his poetic gift. He went on to publish six books and eleven poetry collections, and to win three Pulitzers. He wrote books about Abraham Lincoln, and about the photographer Edward Steichen, who was his brother-in-law. He also played the banjo.

This poem, “The Young Sea,” is 99 years old. Here the sea, earth's most ancient thing, is recast as young and restless - stormy as youth, and yet the progenitor of stars. 

The sea is never still.
It pounds on the shore
Restless as a young heart,

The sea speaks
And only the stormy hearts
Know what it says:
It is the face
        of a rough mother speaking.

The sea is young.
One storm cleans all the hoar
And loosens the age of it.
I hear it laughing, reckless.

They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it

Let only the young come,
       Says the sea.
Let them kiss my face
   And hear me.
I am the last word
   And I tell
Where storms and stars come from.