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Donne’s poetry isn’t so easy to master. His near contemporary Ben Jonson and his later advocate William Hazlitt both seem to have formed the same view, namely that Donne was a brilliant man, a poetic genius. But he expressed himself in a fashion so obscure that few even among the well educated would invest the time and energy necessary to crack his code. Of course, you can read the love poetry and accept it as that, as something surprisingly erotic for a man whose intellect moves quickly towards the divine. But it’s clear enough in most of these works that there’s a vastly more complex game going on under the surface, something profoundly esoteric. A game that requires patience and forensic skill to master. And after a while you give up, thinking that you don’t have the time to do the dissertation in Elizabethan metaphysical thought that would be necessary to unlock all of this.
Having recently discovered Donne’s sermon against the abomination of torture, from Easter 1625, I went back to one of his poems, “Love’s Exchange.” The exact date of this work is uncertain, though Donne seems to have generally discontinued his profane poetry after he took holy orders in 1615, and his most active period as an erotic poet is roughly a decade earlier. “Love’s Exchange,” taken from the Songs and Sonets, would, surely be reckoned among the dozen or two most important of Donne poems. It’s typical of the more complex love poems, and it blends both conventional, even classical imagery with the late Elizabethan/early Stuart metaphysical conceit—the practice of pairing and contrasting two quite disparate things. In “The Flea” he paired a flea and profane physical love, for instance; but perhaps the single most powerful example is in Meditation 17 in which a completed life is made the chapter of a great book.
I had understood this poem before as a fairly conventional love poem driven by the classical model of Amor and Psyche, Mars and Venus. That’s still there, of course. The poem is an extended dialogue between the poet and Love, which assumes several different aspects, in the first “any devill,” and later as a temporal leader of some sort—but again, Donne paints him darkly, as a blood-thirsty, cruel and warlike tyrant. The poet is bowed to this Love (“give me thy weakness, make me blind”), but he faces it with dread.
There is a distinctly Faustian aspect to this—not Goethe’s Faust, but Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. We tend of course to associate the first decade of the seventeenth century with Shakespeare, but to his contemporaries, Shakespeare stood in the shadow of Marlowe. Faustus was wildly popular and Donne would have been well acquainted with it. Faustus was out in a new edition and widely circulated in 1604; it was the London bestseller of the period. And “Love’s Exchange” could be from just about this time.
There are a great number of parallels. In “Love’s Exchange” Donne writes “This face, by which he could command…” and in Faustus the protagonist conjures Helen of Troy saying “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,…” Donne speaks of conjuring the dead (“call vow’d men from cloisters”), he travels the earth in inexplicable ways, and ventures, like Faustus, even to its innermost recesses. But most importantly, Donne is driven by the concept of a morally doubtful pact—the essence of the Faustian bargain. The word “exchange” from the title reflects this sense, common to the early seventeenth century, namely: a bargain.
But what is the Faustian bargain in the recesses of this poem? It is a state which has defiled itself and its concept of justice by the acceptance and use of torture.
Love is being used as a metaphor for something very unusual for this genre: it stands for the profane. Not so surprising. But it also stands for temporal authority.
And guided by the Easter Sermon of 1625, we can develop this still further. Just under the surface of this poem lies a metaphysical conceit in which love is paired with torture. And this converts the poem into something radical and dramatic. As with the sermon, it plainly is a cry against the injustice and ethical folly of torture.
Not coincidentally, there is no other Donne poem which is so rife with legalisms (“non obstante,” “natures law,” references to trial and evidentiary process). He links it to tyrannical government waging unjust war (“by warres law condition not”).
Donne’s complaint goes to the mistreatment of humans to whom he feels emotional attachment. “By which he could command/And change the Idolatrie of any land.” What could he possibly mean by this? Isn’t it obvious? It refers to the great trauma of Donne’s own lifetime and that of his harshly suffering parents, the suppression of the Catholic Church in England, the establishment of the Anglican Church—more ultimately a political choice than a moral and religious one. Just as Donne’s own decision to foreswear the Catholic faith in which he was raised to accept the benefices offered to him, provided that he convert. As he writes “Love’s Exchange,” Donne is still a Catholic; but the Donne of the Easter Sermon is arguably the most influential Protestant cleric in England, and also the least reformed. Donne has changed his shell perhaps, but not his soul.
Not all Catholics had such an easy time accommodating the new religion. Donne is moved by compassion for those who suffered cruel persecution for faith. Very many of them would be Catholics he knew, some perhaps members of his own family. That, I sense is the “Love enrag’d with me,/Yet kills not.” And read this way, the final, most powerful and mysterious lines of the poem open up.
“To future Rebells; If th’ unborne/Must learne, by my being cut up, and torne:/Kill and dissect me, Love; for this/Torture against thine owne end is,/Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies.” He invokes the powerful image of the torture and passion of Christ, and he musters the message of redemption—as arguments against the practice of torture. The theological premises of this passage are fully stated in the Easter Sermon of 1625, but their essence is here. And at its center: “Torture against thine owne end is”: he professes torture to be a mortal sin.
Donne also denounces the usefulness of it for any reason. “Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies”—a gory and vivid image. In Donne’s time the body would be put upon a rack and extended following a judicial writ that authorized this. The rack would be applied to secure a confession, in the view of the time, the pain of the rack would force “the body to speak.” The sense of this line is also revealed by the sermon and his citations of Augustine and Ulpian—the rack will reveal no truths; it works only a blasphemy. And the final image of carcass and anatomy echoes this. The body is deformed and defiled. Truth is mocked.
The ultimate message of this poem is bitter defiance of a system that is riven with brutality and injustice. It is also a proclamation of faith in a higher truth. It is a gospel against torture.
Donne’s times were not so unlike our own. They were rocked by religious hatred and warfare. Terrorist tactics were used by religious fanatics to attempt to bring down the state. Donne himself was several times suspected of connections to Catholic plotters. Provoked by them, the English state resorted to measures of extreme repression. Sweeping detentions, summary executions and torture were the order of the day. Donne was a sort of bridge figure for the time: a Catholic who reconciled and converted, on the surface at least. But his admonition couldn’t be clearer. It’s not the label of religious allegiance that one adopts that matters, but one’s conduct–adherence to the true values of faith. And that forms the basis for his stunning denunciation of the state-authorized practice of torture.
Donne may have written greater poems than this, though I’m not convinced of it. But he certainly wrote no poem that speaks more forcefully to us today. He addresses the issue that has insinuated moral rot and decrepitude into the body of our nation: the reintroduction of torture.
Break of Day
To balance the ponderous moral weight of “Love’s Exchange,” consider “Break of Day.” In its essence, this is a song, not a poem. The lyrical qualities abound. And in fact it was composed as a song many times, proving that in Donne’s day it was very popular. One version has survived and is now in the discography, namely John Dowland’s. Somehow I often confuse Dowland and Donne–they are almost exact contemporaries, they were both Catholic (notwithstanding Donne’s supposed conversion), they both spent a good part of their lives abroad and mastered many foreign languages. There is an undeniably somber mixture of the erotic, the divine and the melancholy in their works. Dowland’s setting of this poem is quite beautiful, though fairly obscure (it was unearthed very recently and performed at St Paul’s by Emma Kirby in 2005). Very much like the love songs in the First and Second Books of Songs, several of which, though with both texts and music by Dowland, could very easily pass for Donne. But this is the other John Donne: simple, sonic and easily approachable.
More from Scott Horton:
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”