Monday, March 27, 2017

The style at Lincoln's Inn

Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentti) in Kingsmead Square, Bath (March 26, 2017)

To Mr R. W.

Kindly I envy thy song's perfection,
Built of all th' elements as our bodies are:
That little of earth that's in it, is a fair
Delicious garden where all sweets are sown.
In it is cherishing fire which dries in me
Grief which did drown me: and half quenched by it
Are satiric fires which urged me to have writ
In scorn of all: for now I admire thee.
And as air doth fulfil the hollowness
Of rotten walls, so it mine emptiness,
Where lost and mov'd it did beget this sound,
Which as a lame echo of thine doth rebound.
Oh I was dead, but since thy song new life did give,
I, recreated even by thy creature, live.


The young Donne's sonnet (rhyming abbacddceeffgg) already sounds like himself and no-one else. Weird to think that Donne might have written this in the year of Daniel's Delia and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And in fact I do catch a faint hint of Shakespeare's sonnet-style in that final line, but of course that isn't what holds my attention.

I'm listening, instead, to the Donne style; for instance, the speed of transformation at the third line. The first two lines have promised an enumeration of the four traditional elements (earth, air, fire and water). Donne duly goes on to mention the first (earth), but even now, before the first item in his catalogue, he's begun to subvert this framework by parenthetically prefixing "earth" with "little of". Then fire and water get all mixed up with each other... (in fact water never even gets named, but is implicit in the word "quenched"). The air, finally,  arrives as an analogy, filling a cavity in a rotten wall, before its connection with Woodward's song is established.  (The sonnet depends on us tracking the word "it" like a flying tennis-ball across a court.)

So the promise of the second line is actually kept, but in a breakneck, vivid, lose-your-bearings kind of way that's far more interesting than we might have expected. The strange thing is that this excellence can't be satisfactorily described as artful, i.e. as a game of arrangement and variation, of symmetry with a difference. It's something more instinctive than that, a personal style, a kind of chat where the thought is racing ahead and often switches direction in mid-sentence.

Michelle O'Callaghan suggests that it was Donne's manuscript community of friends, the absence of print's public audience, that made his kind of writing possible.

It makes startling poetry, not only the smart turn of  "little of earth" but "fulfil", the "hollowness / Of rotten walls", "lame echo"...


In Donne's time the scheme of the four elements would have been valid and commonplace. (True understanding of elements, though given a theoretical push by Robert Boyle's corpuscularism in 1661, only really came along with Lavoisier in 1789.) Donne's demonstration of the four elements in his friend's song could be regarded as a fancy piece of pseudo-argument,  but there is a real question in it: How comes it that a poem, though just paper and ink, can affect us emotionally like a real person? A poem is not a body, but Donne's "demonstration" of the four elements in the poem does makes us wonder about what sort of amazing thing a poem is. How can it be fertile in sweets (flowers), how can it dry our tears and quench our rage, how can it breathe new life into us?


Rowland Woodward went up to Lincoln's Inn in 1591 at the age of 17.  John Donne (a year older than Woodward) joined him in May 1592. Along with others such as the "abysmal" satirist Everard Guilpin, they formed a coterie of wits who encouraged each other's writing. That's the context of Donne's epistles to "Mr R.W." They were seven years together at Lincoln's Inn and afterwards Donne and Woodward remained pals; for example, they crossed paths in Venice in 1608. By then Woodward was leading quite an adventurous life.  He was imprisoned by the Inquisition for spying in Milan, attacked by bandits in France and left for dead. But anyhow, the epistles to "Mr R.W." were written during those early Lincoln's Inn days, round about the mid 1590s. Like Donne's other poems of that period, it appears in the Westmoreland ms (f. 31) in Woodward's own handwriting (which is surprisingly easy to read).

In line 7, Woodward wrote "hate", instead of "have".  You can see how "hate" might seem to follow on naturally from "satiric fires" but the resulting sentence stubbornly refuses to make sense. So "have" it must be.

Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentti) in Kingsmead Square, Bath (March 26, 2017)



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