gall and gumption

Monday, October 16, 2006

Satire III

I've been thinking about Donne's Satire III since it came up a few days ago. Really you should just spend some time with it, it is such a remarkable poem.

This professor at the University of Maryland has put Satire III up with glosses that pop up when you roll your mouse over them, which is handy. And if you prefer yours offline then the edition of Donne's poems to get is the Penguin Books one edited by Elizabeth Story Donno.

The same prof reads it out loud here, which is also nice. I listened to about half of it and mostly heard how hard it is to read Donne out loud. When I say it's hard I mean you should try. I've been taking it to bed with me every night trying to read just this poem. I get the sense of it of course, in detail, but what I'm after is what it is supposed to sound like, how you are supposed to speak it. It was written to be spoken.

It's a little harder to scan Donne's lines than it is to scan, say, Pope. In fact Pope did rewrites of Donne's Satires because he recognized that the content was so good, but he believed that the meter needed to be modernized. They were both writing iambic pentameter couplets, but what a world of difference between the two. If you can track that difference over the two centuries that separate them, you will know a lot about the history of English poetry at its most interesting period.

But ultimately you can know all that, and still, when you sit down with a writer like Donne you simply have to get the poem to speak to you. I can read this poem for the sense of course, and I can scan it, but these poems were meant to be spoken out loud, to be heard. And with Donne, it's really difficult.

Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honor was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end? and shall they father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught such easy ways and near
To follow, damn'd? O, if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage and high valor is.

You try to arrive at the second line of this passage without allowing undue stress to fall on the word "Lusts." You find that this is almost impossible, but you try to subdue that word anyway, I mean, in spite of the fact that it is a subtituted trochaic foot. If you aren't careful you will hurry through the rest of that line. But slow down, start at the beginning again, and you'll find that to balance the rest of the line against that first emphatic syllable, you've got to turn up the volume on all of it, you've got to notice that the speaker is asking questions. The relations among the syllables stay the same but you've turned up the overall volume, you are giving extra stress to it.

And that increased stress keeps raising the volume of the whole passage. You also have to slow down. From "Alas" the voice builds up again. You have that rhyme between "spirit" and "merit" and it's so odd, somehow, but you could lose the line that follows it, again, if you don't raise the stress on all of it and slow down.

Which all sets you up for the enjambment that sets you up for the bomb at the end of this figure: "Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near/To follow, damn'd?" If you can hear the voice that the meter creates, if you can hear those rises and falls, those increases and decreases of speed you will see that he's doing about three things simultaneously. He's imitating the sound of natural speech, but it's passionate, argumentative, intimate, insinuating natural speech, that has laid hold of the reader/listener with irresistible emotional force. By infusing it with all this warmth he has taken the question from being merely theoretical or abstract; he has made it personal, reminding you that passion belongs in these matters, must find its place there. He knows you; he knows all your dodges. That's the effect. It looks rough and crude, but it's actually very sophisticated; he is already pushing the boundaries of the form as far as anyone can go and still hold the meter, but he's doing it in order so that you hear this voice.

It is the opposite of what Pope does. Pope is the master of making speech fit into his favorite form, the heroic couplet. You can almost believe that people naturally speak in heroic couplets. This is because Pope's facility with that particular use of verse was simply unmatched. You are really responding to how easy it is and to the incredible polish of the surface.

Instead of making speech fit into verse, Donne is forcing verse to sound like speech, as far as he can go without breaking the form. The aim is not simply to show off, but to get that voice.

It is probably the closest thing to Donne's preaching voice that you will ever get to experience, and as such it's pretty great.

Update: I fixed a couple of typos and added a couple of small things that I meant to add earlier. I had it saved in draft form and accidentally published it, now it's more like what I meant to publish.


At 5:33 PM, Blogger Mizaar said...

Where you go I will follow. (just let me find that damned copy of Pope's Collected Poems. Donne's in the garage.)


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