Friday, May 26, 2017

John Donne at Lincoln's Inn again.

[Image source:]

Donne's three Epithalamions are some of the most entertaining of his lesser-known poems. The one titled only "Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne" is a slightly uncomfortable joyride from its very first stanza:

The Sun-beames in the East are spred,
Leave, leave, faire Bride, your solitary bed,
No more shall you returne to it alone,
It nourseth sadnesse, and your bodies print,
Like to a grave, the yielding downe doth dint;
You and your other you meet there anon;
Put forth, put forth that warme balme-breathing thigh,
Which when next time you in these sheets wil smother
There it must meet another,
Which never was, but must be, oft, more nigh;
Come glad from thence, goe gladder then you came,
To day put on perfection, and a womans name.

 We are guessing here, but I like the idea that this is one of Donne's very early poems, written when he was a student at Lincoln's Inn, probably not long after its obvious model, Spenser's Epithalamion, was published in 1595 (when Donne was 23). That guess is confirmed by the poem's presence in the Westmoreland manuscript.

(Donne may have already moved out of the Inn by this time. The unequivocal evidence for Donne's residence only takes us to late 1593, perhaps 1594. His close connection with Lincoln's Inn, however, persisted all through his life. He was appointed the Preacher of Lincoln's Inn in 1616, soon after his ordination.)

[Information from ]

It's further been speculated that the poem was not commissioned for any real-life wedding, but either referred to some obscure student high-jinks,  a burlesque marriage with students in drag, or was just a playful literary exercise. 

"Lincoln's Inn" in the title  isn't just a passing note about where the poem was written. In Stanza two the balm-thighed Bride is described as a wealthy City bride who brings a nice big bag of Angels along with her. In Stanza 3 the Bridegroom is said to be a strange hermaphrodite of study and play... i.e a student at Lincoln's Inn. Stanza 4 specifies the Temple church, though the "two-leav'd gates" may be a sexual reference (as per Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller) as much as to the gates of Babylon in Isaiah 45:1.

In further outrage, Donne manages to turn the unexceptionable wish that the bride and bridegroom will live long, into May the hungry maw of this church fatten on your parents before it devours you.. topping off the whole performance with a comparison in Stanza 8 of the bride

Like an appointed lamb, when tenderly
   The priest comes on his knees t'embowell her; ...


The thing is, for all of these infelicities and the uncertain occasion of the poem, there's still a freshness and joyousness about the poem. Donne's poetry somehow remains a sexy celebration of marriage at the same time as it contains these burlesque and satirical elements. Perhaps for Donne's age this was not a contradiction.

(Others have pointed out that Donne's Epithalamia have tended to be negatively judged by commentators who want to keep the image of heteronormal marriage free from any complications... thus Victorian disgust at the 26th December Epithalamion not just because the bride was a future assassinator but also homophobically because the groom had been one of James' "minions". Donne's celebration of love has seemed distasteful in this "tainted" context.)

Possibly there's a parallel here with Shakespeare's celebration... you might almost say his creation .... of Victorian ideals of heteronormal courtship, love and marriage -- within a theatrical medium where the actors were all male and the women were played by boys, and alongside his own sonnets which celebrate an idealized same-sex love.


I can't make up my mind if the final line is a straightforward Alexandrine or if "-tion" is mean to be disyllabic, breaking the line into a chiasmic fourteener.  What do others think?




At 10:10 pm, Blogger Robin said...

I'd read it as right on the edge of Iambic Pentameter -- three (loosely) iambic feet, followed (after a strong pause) with a Lesser Ionic Ascending Foot ( X X / / ) substituting for two iambic feet:

To DAY put ON perFECTion, and a WOMANS NAME

(That reading depends on the metre forcing ictus onto "ON", against the natural speech stress, and a slurring of "WOMANS" as a single metrical syllable.)


At 8:37 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thanks Robin. Yes, that's a reasonable reading too. And Laura agreed with your analysis, much to my chagrin!

But I suppose I think that the collocation "(pause), and" does service for a metrical stress, which is as it were registered by the listener though not voiced.

Thus "Of Man's first disovedience, and the fruit" counts as a pentameter, and
"Today put on perfection, and a woman's name" counts as an Alexandrine, even though in both cases no syllable is sounded precisely on the fourth beat in the line.

At 6:59 pm, Blogger Robin said...

I think my main problem with your reading, Michael, is that I simply can't get my tongue around "per-fec-ti-on" -- it seems to rumble on and on and ...

Also, if we take the overall metrical pattern of the poem as (with exceptions) iambic pentameter, then a plausible iambic pentameter line should be allowed.

I can't off-hand think of occasions where Donne uses an Alexandrine as part of a basically iambic pentameter structure -- more Pope's style (and the eighteenth century generally?) than Donne's. Or Jonson's? Again, I'd be put to it to find an Alexandrine in his work.

Not to say that they may not be there, just that I can't call any to mind off-hand.

At 11:31 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Elsewhere in his poetry that's quite true but the repeated "refrain" line in the Epithalamion's is a different matter.

The refrain line in Spenser's Epithalamion is an Alexandrine. In Donne's "Valentine" Epithalamion (Elizabeth / Count Palatine) it's an Alexandrine. In his "December 26th" Epithalamion (Robert Carr and the ill-fated Frances Howard) the refrain is a fourteener. So from that perspective I'd say the choice here is between a six-stress line or a seven-stress line (the latter pronouncing "-tion" as disyllabic, as is usual in Shakespeare etc.

At 11:14 pm, Blogger Robin said...

Just looked at all the final two lines in each of the stanzas, and overall, I'd say what we have, in each case, is an iambic pentameter couplet.

Are we into apples and oranges here? My oranges are the bulk of the other poems written about the time that it probably dates from -- satires, elegies, verse letters, etc. Your oranges are other (later) epithalamia.

I'd agree that "-ion" can be a disyllable -- but wouldn't this be commoner at the end of a line? Dunno, and can't think offhand of a way to check.

Completely off-topic -- where do you stand on the Z-text? I finally forked-out for Schmidt's 3 volume edition of all four of the texts in parallel. Gorgeous! Perfect-bound paperback, unfortunately, but it looks as if it won't fall apart. I've had it sitting beside me on the dining room table ever since it arrived, much to Judy's bemusement.

Only thing is, I can't find a collation line. Not there, or am I simply missing it? Should I go back to Skeat for variants of the (accepted) "ruyfler" in C: VI, 315?

At 11:44 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I haven't kept up with Piers Plowman scholarship since I finished my thesis in 1987, but at the time I was (against my initial expectation) strongly persuaded of the Z text being Langland's first version, and I supposed this would rapidly become the orthodox view. I was surprised to read somewhere recently that the Z hypothesis doesn't seem to have gained the acceptance I anticipated.

I was a great admirer, too, of Schmidt's B-text, mainly against the background of Kane/Kane-Donaldson's problematic editions. I don't know his Z-A-B-C edition.

In my day B was generally the preferred version, and it was certainly mine. I found a lot of C's rehandling to be fussy and not really coherent. Another surprise, thirty years later, was to learn that many now regard B as unfinished, its final two passus (as I considered them) being seen as C additions that were tacked on to B at a very early stage in its manuscript history.

At 11:58 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Your point about dissylabic -tion occurring principally at line endings is valid and something I overlooked. I found it confirmed in Bridget Cusack's essay "Shakespeare and the Tune of the Time" in Shakespeare Survey 23.


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