THE counterpoise to the necessity of 'examining the genius of his age and the opinions of his contemporaries', if we are to arrive at 'a just estimate' of a writer's quality and to understand his meaning, is the necessity of learning the author's own personal language, the idiom of his thought. The discipline of imaginative intercourse is not wholly different from the discipline of social intercourse. We learn to know our friends so that we do not misunderstand them, or put a wrong construction on their actions. We can say with certainty, 'He can't have meant that', because we know the kind of person 'he' is. In the same kind of way we can arrive at a similar conviction about a poem because we know the habit of an author's mind and are familiar with his associations of ideas and have come to sympathize with his moral temper. It is possible, in the light of this knowledge, to check our own habits and associations and feel some assurance that one interpretation is better, because more characteristic, than another.
Like the historical sense, this sense of a writer's individual habit of mind is no infallible guide. We cannot tie an author down to repeating himself any more than we can tie him to saying what his contemporaries say. Within the range of a temperament we often meet with surprises. If an author is prevailingly serious, we must not insist that he can never be jocose, and because we cannot find any parallel in his works we cannot, therefore, insist that he cannot mean in one work what he must mean there, if the work is to make sense. If it is a passage which we are interpreting, the final test is always the consistency of the interpretation of the passage with the interpretation of the work as a whole. If we are attempting the interpretation of a single complete work, the test is the reverse of this: does our interpretation of the whole make sense of all the parts?
A good example of the necessity of disciplining our imaginations and our responses by asking what associations the poet had in mind, rather than using the author's words as a starting-point for associations of our own, is a passage in Macbeth which was interpreted at some length by Professor Cleanth Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn(1947). It can be shown that the critic has distorted the sense of the passage to make it an example of his general theory of the nature of poetry as distinct from prose. The interpretation he gives is shallower and less in keeping with the play as a whole than the interpretation we can arrive at by using Shakespeare to comment on Shakespeare. He isolates for discussion the lines where Macbeth 'compares the pity for his victim-to-be, Duncan', to
a naked new born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air ...
and he comments as follows:
The comparison is odd, to say the least. Is the babe natural or supernaturalan ordinary helpless baby, who, as newborn, could not, of course, even toddle, much less stride the blast? Or is it some infant Hercules; quite capable of striding the blast, but, since it is powerful and not helpless, hardly the typical pitiable object?
Shakespeare seems bent upon having it both ways — and, if we read on through the passage — bent upon having the best of both worlds; for he proceeds to give us the option: pity is like the babe ,or heaven's cherubim' who quite appropriately, of course, do ride the blast. Yet, even if we waive the question of the legitimacy of the alternative . .. is the cherubim comparison really any more successful than is the babe comparison? Would not one of the great warrior archangels be more appropriate to the scene than the cherub? Does Shakespeare mean for pity or for fear of retribution to be dominant in Macbeth's mind?
Or was it possible that Shakespeare could not make up his own mind? Was he merely writing hastily and loosely, letting the word 'pity' suggest the typically pitiable object, the babe naked in the blast, and then, stirred by the vague notion that some threat to Macbeth should be hinted, using 'heaven's cherubim' — already suggested by 'babe' — to convey the hint?
We know what the answer will be to all this puzzlement. Shakespeare 'meant for both'. The passage is an example of the ambiguity, irony, paradox — the terms are roughly inter-changeable — which Professor Brooks holds to be the differentiating quality of poetic speech. Later in the same essay the meaning is revealed:
Pity is like the naked babe, the most sensitive and helpless thing, yet almost as soon as the comparison is announced, the symbol of weakness begins to turn into a symbol of strength; for the babe, though newborn, is pictured as 'Striding the blast' like an elemental force — like 'heaven's cherubim'. . . . We can give an answer to the question put earlier: is Pity like the human and helpless babe, or powerful as the angel that rides the winds? It is both.... The final and climactic appearance of the babe symbol merges all the contradictory elements of the symbol. For, with Macduff's statement about his birth, the naked babe rises before Macbeth as not only the future that eludes calculation but as avenging angel as well.
But why does Professor Brooks think that 'heaven's cherubim' 'quite appropriately ride the blast'? Why are they any more suitably imagined as 'horsed' than the naked babe as 'striding'? Why is it to be assumed that they imply 'some threat to Macbeth'? Are cherubim to be thought of as powerful? Have we any reason to suppose that they should at once suggest to us the cliché 'avenging angel'?
Most editors rightly cite here Psalm xviii, where the Lord is described descending in judgement:
'He bowed the heavens also and came down: and it was dark under his feet. He rode upon the cherubims and did fly: he came flying upon the wings of the wind.'
Similarly, in Ezekiel's vision the cherubim are between the wheels of the chariot of the Lord; for the cherubim, in the visions of the Old Testament, are the glory of the Lord, the signs of his presence. I do not doubt that the association 'cherubims' — 'wings of the wind' helped to create Shakespeare's lines. But there is no suggestion in the psalm, although it is a psalm of judgement, that cherubim are avenging angels. It is the Lord who is borne up by the cherubim; it is he that flies on the wings of the wind. The cherubim are among the higher orders of angels — the ministers who stand about the throne. They are not the executors of God's purposes. They are with the Lord, whether he comes in mercy or in judgement:
'The Lord is King be the people never so unpatient; he sitteth between the cherubims be the earth never so unquiet.'
The cherubim, all gold and gilded over, carved at the two ends of the mercy-seat, in the description of the covenant in Exodus, are the tokens of the presence of the Lord among his people.
These are the cherubim of the Old Testament. Dionysius the Areopagite, who established the hierarchy of the angels, the source of the popular angelology of the Middle Ages, which the Elizabethans inherited, ranked the cherubim among the higher orders, as angels of the presence. They stood about the throne, contemplating the glory of God, not active, as were the lower orders, to fulfil his will on earth. The cherubim glowed with knowledge, as the seraphim burned with love. Hamlet, a scholarly character, glances at this learned conception of the cherubim in his retort to Claudius:
Claudius. So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.
Hamlet. I see a cherub that sees them.
Elsewhere, apart from two references to the gilded carvings of cherubim, Shakespeare appears to use the word in its popular sense, to signify primarily beauty, particularly the radiant and innocent beauty of youth. Thus we may have the word used, as in Sonnet 114, for a simple opposite to the hideous:
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble.
Or the idea of youthfulness is stressed, as in The Merchant of Venice:
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins
or the idea of innocence, as in Timon of Athens:
This fell whore of thine
Hath in her more destruction than thy sword
For all her cherubin look.
But in two plays, one written just before, the other some time after Macbeth, Shakespeare gives this innocent youthful beauty a certain moral colouring which is, as far as I know, his own; at least I have not met with it in another writer. In the late play, The Tempest, Prospero tells Miranda how he was set adrift with her when she was a baby, and she exclaims
Alack! what trouble
Was I then to you.
But he answers:
O, a cherubin
Thou wast, that did preserve me! Thou didst smile,
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck'd the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.
Because Prospero sees the three-year-old Miranda as a cherub, smiling and giving him patience to bear up, I find no difficulty in taking Othello's cry 'Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin!' as an apostrophe to a virtue which Shakespeare elsewhere pictures as radiantly young and beautiful. In the recognition scene of Pericles, Pericles, gazing on his exquisite young daughter, who claims that she has endured 'a grief might equal yours', wonders at her endurance, for, he exclaims,
thou dost look
Like Patience gazing on kings' graves, and smiling
Extremity out of act.
Although Viola's description of her sister, 'like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief', is often cited to prove that Shakespeare could not have thought of Patience as 'young and rose-lipped', since Viola's sister had lost her damask cheek and had pined in thought ,, the passage in Pericles admits of no doubt: It plainly implies a beauty untouched by care. In Othello then, written just before Macbeth, and in The Tempest, written some time after, a cherub is thought of as not only young, beautiful, and innocent, but as associated with the virtue of patience, conceived of as an endurance which is not grim, but heavenly, smiling, and serene. It could, however, be objected at this point that because Shakespeare elsewhere invariably sees the cherubim as young and beautiful, and conceives them as particularly associated with the bearing of wrong rather than with the avenging of it, we cannot assume that he never saw them otherwise. Although there is no support for the idea in Scripture or in popular angelology, and no parallel elsewhere in his works, he might, in this passage, because of a confused memory of Psalm 18, conceive of cherubim as avengers threatening Macbeth; for there is apocalyptic imagery just before in the simile of the accusing 'angels trumpet-tongu'd'.
The context is our final test. Macbeth, having acknowledged the certainty of retribution in this life, that 'we still have judgement here', goes on to give the reasons which make the deed which he is meditating peculiarly base. It is the murder of a kinsman and a king, who is also a guest who trusts his host to protect him:
Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongu'd against
The deep damnation of his taking off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
The final image of the wind dropping as the rain begins is the termination of the whole sequence of ideas and images. It is to this close that they hurry. The passage ends with tears stilling the blast. The final condemnation of the deed is not that it will meet with punishment, not even that the doer of it will stand condemned; but that even indignation at the murder will be swallowed up in universal pity for the victim. The whole world will know, and knowing it will not curse but weep: The babe, naked and new-born, the most helpless of all things, the cherubim, innocent and beautiful, call out the pity and the love by which Macbeth is judged. It is not terror of heaven's vengeance which makes him pause; but the terror of moral isolation. He ends by seeing himself alone in a sudden silence, where nothing can be heard but weeping, as, when a storm has blown itself out, the wind drops and we hear the steady falling of the rain, which sounds as if it would go on for ever. The naked babe 'strides the blast' because pity is to Shakespeare the strongest and profoundest of human emotions, the distinctively human emotion. It rises above and masters indignation. The cherubim are borne with incredible swiftness about the world because the virtues of Duncan are of such heavenly beauty that they command universal love and reverence. He has 'borne his faculties so meek' and been 'so clear in his great office'. The word 'clear' is a radiant word, used by Shakespeare elsewhere of the Gods. The helplessness of the king who has trusted him, his gentle virtues, and patient goodness are transformed in Macbeth's mind into the most helpless of all things, what most demands our protection, and then into what awake tenderness, love, and reverence. The babe merges into the cherubim, not because Shakespeare means Macbeth to be feeling both pity and fear of retribution at the same time, but because Shakespeare, like Keats, believes in 'the holiness of the heart's affections'.
In a very early play, in a savage scene full of curses and cries for vengeance, Shakespeare uses the same natural image as he does here. In Henry VI, part 3, Margaret, having crowned York with a paper crown, hands him a napkin dipped in his little son's blood, and York exclaims
Biddest thou me rage? why, now thou hast thy wish;
Would'st have me weep? why, now thou hast thy will;
For raging wind blows up incessant showers,
And when the rage allays, the rain begins.
And in his next speech he prophesies that Margaret's deed will have the same condemnation as Macbeth forsees for his:
Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
And if thou tell'st the heavy story right,
Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears;
Yea, even my foes will shed fast-falling tears,
And say, 'Alas! it was a piteous deed.'
This seems feeble enough, and yet it holds the characteristic Shakespearian appeal to our deepest moral feelings. The worst suffering is to suffer alone; it is more comfort to York in his agony to think that common humanity will make even his enemies weep with him than to think of vengeance on the murderess of his son. Professor Brooks has sacrificed this Shakespearian depth of human feeling, visible even in this crude early play, by attempting to interpret an image by the aid of what associations it happens to arouse in him, and by being more interested in making symbols of babes fit each other than in listening to what Macbeth is saying. Macbeth is a tragedy and not a melodrama or a symbolic drama of retribution. The reappearance of 'the babe symbol' in the apparition scene and in Macduff's revelation of his birth has distracted the critic's attention from what deeply moves the imagination and the conscience in this vision of a whole world weeping at the inhumanity of helplessness betrayed and innocence and beauty destroyed. It is the judgement of the human heart that Macbeth fears here, and the punishment which the speech foreshadows is not that he will be cut down by Macduff, but that having murdered his own humanity he will enter into a world of appalling loneliness, of meaningless activity, unloved himself, and unable to love.
Asking the relevant historical questions and trying to learn a writer's language are means to an end. They subserve the aim of discovering the peculiar virtue of the individual work, play, poem, or novel. This means recognizing its true subject, or imaginative centre, the source of the work's unity and of its whole tone. If we do not thus recognize the subject, feel the unity, and respond to the tone, we have not understood what we have read, or else the work is unsatisfying in itself; but this is a decision we cannot come to quickly. We need to be certain that the fault is not in our eyes, but is in the writer's failure to achieve a fully coherent and expressive work of art: I am going to show what I mean negatively by discussing a poem whose peculiar virtue I do not feel certain that I have grasped, although the relevant historical questions are easily answered and I have some familiarity with the author's habits of mind and language: the poem of Donne's which goes under the title of 'Air and Angels'.
The obsolete idea which Donne makes use of in this poem is easily explained. The Schoolmen, holding angels to be spiritual beings, but believing, on the testimony of Scripture, that angels had on many occasions appeared in visible form to men, had to explain what it was that men saw when they saw angels, what 'bodies' angels wore, or assumed, when they appeared on earth. All matter consisted of the four elements. Since angels appeared suddenly, and as suddenly vanished, without leaving a trace, their bodies could not be framed of earth or water. Nor could they make use of the element of fire, since if they did they would burn all they touched; nor could they use air, since air is invisible: The way out of this logical impasse was to postulate that the bodies which angels assumed were of air, but air condensed to cloud, which could at will be uncondensed and vanish. The difficulty of the poem does not lie here. Nor is there any real difficulty in following its argument, once we recognize the theological flavour of the language and if we use other poems by Donne to help us, particularly a song called 'Negative Love' and the more famous 'Love's Deity'.
In 'Negative Love' Donne declares that he does not know what it is that he loves:
I never stooped so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheeke, lip; can prey,
Seldome to them, which soare no higher
Then virtue or the mind to admire,
For sense, and understanding may
Know, what gives fuell to their fire:
My love, though silly, is more brave,
For may I misse, when ere I crave,
If I know yet, what I would have.
If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be exprest.
But Negatives, my love is so.
To All, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best
What we know not, our selves, can know,
Let him teach mee that nothing; This
As yet my ease, and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot misse. — The Poems of John Donne, edited by H. J. C. Grierson, 2 vols., 1912,Grierson, i. 66.
In this poem, one of the most purely delightful of Donne's lyrics, theological ideas, of course, are lurking: the doctrine that God, the absolute perfection, cannot be known and can only be described negatively, since to attempt to define him by attributes is to limit his perfection, and the mystical doctrine that the way to know God is to know our own souls, the soul being a mirror in which we can see God spiritually. But these ideas are lightly touched on, not laboured, in a poem that makes its point perfectly. As in many of his poems, Donne declares that he is a special case. He distinguishes himself from the sensual lover and then from the spiritual; with a characteristic turn of wit he declares that he aims higher than these latter high-minded persons. What he loves is something divine and inexpressible, beyond what either the senses or the understanding can apprehend. If he could learn to know his own soul, he might know the 'nothing' which he loves; but anyhow he is saved from the disappointments of those who know what they want.
'Air and Angels' appears to be setting out to answer the question which 'Negative Love' so gaily declares to be unanswerable: what is it we love when we say we love another person? It is, unlike 'Negative Love', spoken to someone. But, unlike most of Donne's poems spoken to a woman, it is not spoken in a particular situation. It is a lecture in love's philosophy, not a dramatic lyric, or a persuasion. As we read the first stanza we are aware that we are not listening to the tone of song or the tone of drama, but to thet one of reflection and meditation:
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapelesse flame,
Angells affect us oft, and worship'd bee;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.
But since my soule, whose child love is,
Takes limmes of flesh, and else could nothing doe,
More subtile then the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too,
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love aske, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fixe it selfe in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Donne opens his poem with a bold absurdity, a more startling way of saying what he says in 'The Good-Morrow':
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd, and got, t'was but a dreame of thee.
When he first saw his mistress he felt 'This is the person I have loved before.' When he loved thus he did not know what it was that he loved; he was conscious, that is to say, only of a feeling of response in himself, as a man might respond to the power of an unbodied angel, felt in a voice heard or a flash of glory. A 'shapelesse flame' is exact; he means not a steady flame, but a sudden diffusion of fire and light, which comes and goes in a flash and raises sensations of awe and worship of an unknown power. A bitter poem, 'Farewell to Love', provides a comment on this ignorant awe:
Whilst yet to prove,
I thought there was some Deitie in love,
So did I reverence, and gave
Worship; as Atheists at their dying houre
Call, what they cannot name, an unknowne power,
As ignorantly did I crave. — The Poems of John Donne, edited by H. J. C. Grierson, 2 vols., 1912,Grierson, i. 70.
He was conscious only of an effect, but could not define its cause. And when he first met her it was the same. He saw only 'some lovely glorious nothing'. This is love at first sight, or falling in love. It is one thing to fall in love; but what is it to 'be' in love? If love is to exist on earth, to 'be' in this world, it must accept the laws of natural existence. Being is the union of form and matter. As the human soul needs a body — for it is the union of soul and body which makes a man — so love, the child of the soul, must find a body, must incarnate itself, if it is to exist as an inhabitant of this earth. It cannot be more subtle and refined than its parent the soul, and operate as pure spirit. When love, a feeling in him, finds its proper object in her, then it will become something constant and take on a real existence in this world. The union of his love with what he loves in her he thinks of as something as close as the union of soul and body in a man. But what is love's proper object? He begins by recognizing a personality. He bids his love inquire 'what thou art and who'; and, because personality is known to us by physical accidents, he allows that his love should find its object first in her beauty of face. The first verse comes to a beautiful close as his desire anchors itself here. My love — the worship called out by the unknown cause — has become my love, the woman whom I love as a beautiful creature. He can now say, 'She is my love.'
But the next stanza rejects this conclusion. Without its final three lines, it runs to another close:
Whilst thus to ballast love, I thought,
And so more steddily to have gone,
With wares which would sinke admiration,
I saw I had loves pinnace over fraught,
Every thy haire for love to worke upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere;
Then as an Angel, face, and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear
So thy love may be my loves spheare.. . .
Changing his metaphor he thinks of his love now as a ship loaded to make it sail more steadily; but he declares that he has overloaded it. His little pinnace staggers and lurches; wonder or admiration, which should be the beginning of knowledge, sinks beneath too much to admire and is destroyed. Love is the child of the soul and it must find a body like to itself, something which it does not assume but in which it can inhere. Both words are theological in colour. The word 'assume' is common for the taking of flesh by the Son; but the word 'inhere' expresses another kind of relation, the relation of spirit to spirit. It is used to express the relation of the Persons of the Trinity within the Unity of the God-head, or the relation of the saved to their Saviour. Love cannot inhere in nothing, nor in things, however beautiful. And so he takes up again his first notion of angels affecting men, and remembering the old debate on the nature of angelic appearances finds in that the analogy he needs. An angel, if it wishes to appear on earth, finds for its body the material substance nearest to itself: the 'pure and serene air' of the regions beyond the moon, the purest of material substances, though not as pure as itself, since it is still material, not spiritual. Man's love, also, must find for its body what is nearest to it, the love of woman. When love finds love, then love truly is. For, as Donne says in 'Love's Deity'
It cannot bee
Love, till I love her, that loves mee. — The Poems of John Donne, edited by H. J. C. Grierson, 2 vols., 1912,Grierson, i. 54.
Love is neither worship, nor love of the beloved's beauty, although these are, perhaps, necessary stages. If it is to be real it must be a relation between two persons loving, born of both. In this analogy Donne finds the 'Correspondencie' (the word he uses in 'Love's Deity'), the 'something fitter' which he has been seeking. Active here finds passive, form matter, soul body, and intelligence sphere. As the angel takes to itself a body of air, so man's love takes to itself woman's love; here it finds the sphere which, like an intelligence, or angel, it may direct and move.
So thy love may be my loves spheare.
And then Donne adds
just such disparitie
As is twixt Aire and Angells puritie,
'Twixt womens love, and mens will ever bee.
Here is the problem for the critic. Up to this point the poem has seemed to be a serious and uncynical, even idealistic, inquiry into the nature of love between men and women; and the woman has been paid hyperbolic compliments. Now, suddenly, the point seems to be that women are inferior to men. Are we to think that we have been conducted through these labyrinths to receive this slap in the face at the end? Many critics have taken the view that the end of the poem is an intended anti-climax, and an attempt to justify it artistically has been made by Mr. Leonard Unger:
The lover addresses the woman he loves in terms of praise, until almost the end of the poem. And then it develops that this discussion leads to a statement that the woman is in a respect lower than the lover. With this surprising reversal, seemingly unprepared for, the poem ends. The reversal is surprising, and a calculated surprise is witty. Moreover, the reversal makes for irony: one attitude is apparently prepared for, and then its opposite is given. Hence the poem is not a straightforward development of a single attitude, but provides a complexity of attitudes.'— Donne's Poetry and Modern Criticism, Chicago, 1950, p. 44.
This seems to me a desperate position. We are asked to accept that Donne has written so tenderly, with such refinement of language, in order to deceive us and to shock us by a turn, which we have had no reason to anticipate, at the end. If this is a joke, it is a bad one. Calculated surprises are not necessarily witty. This sounds like the intellectual equivalent of pulling away a chair from under a person about to sit down, which has never been regarded as a very witty stroke. And it is no use pointing to other poems with shock endings, such as 'Woman's Constancy', because here the tone of calculated roughness at the beginning prepares us for the insult at the end. In 'Air and Angels' the tone of impassioned reverie and intellectual seriousness requires something better than a point scored off women. A surprise is only justified in art if, when it comes, we see that we should have expected it, and if it puts what has gone before in a fresh light. If Mr. Unger's interpretation is right and we are to accept the disappointment which many critics have felt in the last three lines as intended, then the poem is artistically trivial.
Another explanation might be that Donne has failed to solve a formal difficulty. Professor Pierre Legouis pointed out long ago that Donne was often hard put to it, having created a complex opening stanza, to write a second stanza on the same model. 'Air and Angels' is a good example of a poem whose first stanza is a finer musical whole than its second. Is the truth of the matter that Donne, having written a beautiful verse paragraph for his first stanza, finds himself at the end of his argument before he has come to the end of his stanza, and has been forced to fill up his self-created frame by adding three lines, which are really a kind of footnote to the argument? If this is so, we must regard the poem as not wholly successful, and this judgement on it would be a judgement by Donne's own standards. Although he is famous for his fine openings, he himself thought that a poem's force lay in its close, as he says in an aside in one of his sermons:
In all Metricall compositions, of which kind the book of Psalms is, the force of the whole piece is for the most part left to the shutting up; the whole frame of the Poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is it that makes it current. — LXXX Sermons, 1640, no. 55, P. 549.
This warns us that in interpreting a poem by Donne we should pay special attention to its final clause, and if, as here, we find it to be a disappointment, then we must judge the poem to be imperfect.
But before deciding that the poem is a failure, we ought to be sure that we have not got it in some way out of focus. It does not sound as if it were spoken directly to a woman, who is first to feel flattered and then to find herself put in her place. It sounds more like a meditation on love, not necessarily spoken in the mistress's presence. We are not aware, as we read, of the implied presence and implied reaction of another person, as we are in such poems as the lively, argumentative 'The Flea' or the impassioned 'A Valediction of Weeping'. Mr. Unger's interpretation asks us to regard this poem as semi-dramatic. Is it, on the contrary, not a dramatic poem, embodying a certain attitude, but a metaphysical poem in the proper sense of the term, an attempt to consider the nature of the relations of men and women in love. The ethereal body of an angel, however rarified its substance may be, is still material. It has not the absolute purity of spirit, which alone is incorruptible and indestructible, absolutely simple and unmixed. Perhaps Donne feels that the truth of his analogy is confirmed by its congruence with his general conception of woman as unlike man and, since she is not superior, inferior. It is possible that there is no shock at all in the last three lines and that Donne is, on the contrary, appealing to a generally accepted idea to prove that he has found a fit comparison.
One has only to turn to such an impeccably orthodox source as the Homily 'Of the State of Matrimonie', first published in the Second Book of Homilies in 1563, to see that the idea of woman as the 'weaker vessel' was not held only by satirists:
For the woman is a weake creature, not indued with like strength and constancy of minde, therefore they bee the sooner disquieted, and they bee the more prone to all weake affections and dispositions of minde, more than men bee, and lighter they bee, and more vain in their fantasies and opinions.
This is the orthodox view of women, put kindly. Duke Orsino explains more candidly what is meant by the Homily's references to women's 'frail hearts'.
There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart: no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
Alas! their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffers surfeit, cloyment and revolt.
Shakespeare, by the light of his uncommon common sense, not so well read in Aristotle and scholastic philosophy as Donne, allows Viola by the story of her sister and by her own example to rebut this piece of male complacency. But Shakespeare is a much more original writer than Donne. Still, Donne is not being nearly as insulting to women's love as Duke Orsino. He is saying that there is only so much difference between man's and woman's love as there is between pure spirit and the thing which is nearest to it, the pure air of the heavens. And we are not asked, in Donne's context, to give 'pure' an ethical connotation. We are being asked to see the love of woman as 'not pure spirit', but mixed. And we may agree that there is some sense in this. Woman has more reason to feel fear in love than man has, and can never, perhaps, be so single-minded. When the lady in 'The Dream' rises to go, her disappointed lover exclaims:
That love is weak, where fear's as strong as he;
'Tis not all spirit, pure, and brave,
If mixture it of Fear, Shame, Honor, have. — The Poems of John Donne, edited by H. J. C. Grierson, 2 vols., 1912,Grierson, i. 37.
Some mixture of feeling is perhaps always present in a woman. However this may be, even the most ardent Platonists were forced, if they tried to relate their doctrine to current conceptions of the nature of things, to face the implication of the unquestioned assumption that the active, or masculine principle is superior to the passive, or feminine. Thus the lover, Philo, speaking to his mistress, Sophia, in Leone Ebreo's , Dialoghi d'Amore a book which I am convinced Donne knew well, has to apologize to her for making this very point.
'Which is the truer and more unalloyed love,' asks Sophia, 'that of superior for inferior or that of inferior for superior?'
And Philo replies:
That of superior for inferior and of spirit for matter.... Because the one is of receiving, the other of giving. The superior spirit loves the inferior as a father his child, and the inferior loves the superior as a child its father: and you know how much more perfect is paternal love than filial. Again the spiritual loves the corporeal world as a man loves a woman, and the corporeal loves the spiritual world as woman loves man.... Suffer me to say, O Sophia, that the love of man, who gives, is more perfect than that of woman, who receives.
In the light of the all-pervading belief that the word 'masculine' means 'perfect', and the word 'feminine' means 'imperfect', Donne's closing statement loses its sting. We should then perhaps take it as rounding off the argument, and see the whole poem as based on the conception of male initiative, and of men and women as unequal partners in the creation of love: man the active, woman the passive, man's love the soul of their union and woman's the body.
I am prepared to put this forward as the most probable interpretation of this poem; but I do not do so with any firm conviction. With a great poem, its centre, its unity of moral tone or feeling, should be self-evident. But there are poems, and I think this is one, where there is an uncertainty as to the central conception which no amount of argument can settle with finality. There is a wobble in the line of thought in the second verse; and the last three lines are grammatically and metrically isolated in a way which suggests that they are making a special point. If we read the poem one way, the point seems a cheap one: if we read it the other, it does not seem sufficiently important to warrant its position as the poem's final statement. This is the kind of occasion on which biographical information could be of help. Here I cry out for some dates. If I could date this poem, and date Donne's other lyrics, I might be able to support one or other reading by reference to the poems which Donne was writing at about the same time. Or if I knew how old he was when he wrote it and whether he wrote it to any particular person, I might use this information to argue that this or that reading is the more likely in the circumstances in which the poem was written. Or, if we had Donne's notebooks and could see from drafts how he had begun and worked at the poem, we might find a clue. If we saw how the poem began we might feel more certainty about the intention of the poet. For it is the poet's intention which is not clear in the poem. For that reason I have to decide that it is not a wholly successful poem. The amount of ink that has been spent on its twenty-eight lines suggests that it has had at any rate many unsuccessful readers, of whom I am one.
I take this poem because my sense of failure with it tells me what I mean by success as a critic: the recognition of the poem's intention, which leaves me free to enjoy the poem. If this is to be guilty of 'the intentionalist heresy' I am quite content to be excommunicated for it. A poem is not whatever I choose to make of it. It is something which its author made with deliberation, choosing that it should say this and not that. Whether he made it with ease, so that it 'came right', or with great labour, rejecting this phrase, or altering that, changing his plan in mid-stream, enlarging the scope of the work, or contracting it, he made it, as far as he was able, to his own satisfaction, recognizing, when it was finished: 'This is what I meant to say.' He may not have known all that he meant to say when he began; but some conception, either clearly formed before he began to write, or growing as he wrote, governed his creation, so that the final poem had unity of thought, feeling, rhythm, and diction. The power to recognize this conception, which is the source of the poem's life in all its parts, and to read the poem in its light, is what I mean by true judgement in a critic.
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