Political and Social Criticism in “The Calme” by John Donne

Political and Social Criticism in “The Calme” by John Donne

John DeStefano

          John Donne’s poem “The Calme,” though well known as a literary piece, may also be considered as a historical document. The poem, in addition to another of Donne’s works entitled “The Storm,” recounts his personal perspective on his involvement in England’s naval expeditions against the Spanish in 1597 (“Notes to the Text,” page 766). In contrast to its predecessor “The Storm,” which relays Donne’s own account of battle, “The Calme” describes the time of peace that often follows war. However, though the conception of peacetime would generally dictate a sense of relaxation as well as a relishing of accomplishment, Donne’s speaker finds no content in this “calme.” In fact, the poem’s narration seems buried in images of discomfort and despair with this current peaceful situation. While the poem conveys this sense of uneasiness in the “calme” itself on a physical level, one may notice that many references to political, religious, and social commentaries litter the poem as well. Thus, although Donne’s description of the “calme” as an entity in itself stands well on its own under analysis, it is crucial that its function as a metaphor for these social criticisms be recognized as well.

          Once enlightened with this insight, the reader can easily extricate these metaphors from their physical representations in the poem. The symbols of the storm and “the calme” themselves are certainly the most ubiquitous examples of this theme of multilevel commentary. In line 4, Donne’s speaker claims “Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us,” which, when interpreted literally, might imply a “storm” in a physical sense, as in a torrent at sea that might “chafe” a ship, or in a more metaphorical implication, supporting the reading of the storm as a military force that could “wear out” an opponent. In either case, this storm is an indisputably destructive force, though the former type is omnipotent, being a force of Nature, while the latter represents an ostentation of power among human beings. However, on a more implicit level, this “storm” could intimate a political body, such as Parliament or a system of courts, that, by extensive abuse of power, might oppress the public with excessive expectations, including irrational tariffs and laws. In this way, the “storms” would certainly possess the capabilities to “wear out themselves, or us” (4).

          This symbolism continues in the next line of the poem, though the importance of the metaphor is now transferred to the insecurities following the trauma of the storm: “In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus” (5). The oppression and stress of the storm are followed quickly by a period of peace, here interpreted as more of an emptiness than a time of rest. And here looms heavy religious symbolism, in which the embodiment of religion “laughs” at the foolish tendency of human beings to relax their collective guard and allow themselves to “languish” as a race, both physically and morally. This negative religious representation becomes all the more paradoxical and ironic as one considers some of Donne’s more pious works, such as his “Holy Sonnets” and “The Litanie.” The images in these other poems, when compared with the metaphors prominent in “The Calme,” provide quite a contrast. Nonetheless, these unmistakable images pervade the poem, supplying an ominous, hopeless tone.

          This religious theme appears in lines 11 and 12 of “The Calme,” in which the speaker claims: “As water did in storms, now pitch runs out;/ As lead, when a fir’d church becomes one spout.” These lines combine the religious metaphor with the physical images of storm and calm to sustain a feeling of despondency with a sense of some sort of impending doom. The speaker claims the time of the storm corresponds with a kind of fluidity not present in its aftermath, comparing the flow of water during the storm with the running of “pitch” having the consistency of “lead,” for which the church itself serves as a “spout,” naming religion as a chief agent of this idleness attributed to “the calme.” These repeated images display an unmistakable discontent with society and, especially, one of its key defining elements: the church.

          Donne combines this theme of religious discontent with a feeling of social despair and hopelessness evident in the following lines:

Only the calenture together draws
Dear friends, which meet dead in great fishes’ jaws,
And on the hatches, as on alters, lies
Each one, his own priest, and own sacrifice. (23-26)

Here the speaker makes the grim claim that the only way to reunite oneself with loved ones is through death, and a ghastly one at that, being driven mad by the sense of isolation and hopelessness caused by the raging waves of the sea, and casting oneself into the jaws of “great fishes.” One could even argue the point of sacrilege against Catholicism from these lines, using as evidence the images of sacrificing oneself at the “alter” of the sea, as well as the concept of one being “his own priest,” both of which directly conflict with the sacred Catholic house of worship and the need for tutelage and confession for acheivement in religion (25-26). These lines also suggest that Catholicism has become decentralized, even isolating, and, ultimately, a futile effort in weathering “the calme.”

          As the poem approaches its conclusion, the speaker presents the reader with one of the most potent religious images of the entire work, comprehensively summarizing this theme in a few lines:

Fate grudges us all, and doth subtly lay
A scourge, ‘gainst which we all forget to pray.
He that at sea prays for more wind, as well
Under the poles may beg cold, heat in hell. (47-51)

Here again Donne’s narrator combines religious imagery with reality to achieve his goal: a metaphor for hopelessness. “Fate” in this case might imply some force of Nature, but more likely suggests the supernatural, namely the Catholic Divinity. Nevertheless, this force “grudges” all of humanity. The phrase “doth subtly lay/ A scourge” itself conjures up images of contrast between the words “subtly” and “scourge,” thus remaining consistent with the thematic content of the poem (48-49). The depiction of hopeless, scurrilous prayer suggested by the desire for wind, or action, at sea comparing to wishes for cold at the North and South Poles, and “heat in hell,” pursue this cohesion as well by presenting the institution of religion as worthless as far as its contribution to the alleviation of this sense of despondency (49-50). Donne combines this harsh religious imagery with political commentary in an interesting recitation of a list of historical and mythical figures. Lines 33-36 site the misfortunes of characters such as Christopher Marlowe’s Bajazet, the Biblical Sampson, and Emperor Tiberius, all of whom possess a common theme in a loss of power through treachery and deceit, to which the speaker compares his ships that “languish” now without power nor purpose (35). Ironically enough, there is an achievement in these hopeless prayers, as they cannot help but be answered with the results for which they sarcastically parley.

          This idea of “the calme” paradoxically symbolizing a chaotic void of despair is not limited solely to the political and religious realms of Donne’s speaker; the social world is catastrophically affected as well. In the following lines, the narrator combines physical and social aspects in order to achieve this end:

Earth’s hollowness, which the world’s lungs are,
Have no more wind than the upper vault of air.
We can nor lost friends nor sought foes recover,
But meteor-like, save that we move not, hover. (19-22)

Here the speaker extends this feeling of despair to include even the entity of Earth itself, depicting it as being lifeless and without air or breath. Again, the motionless, languid imagery of the calm dominates the social aspect of the poem, as the speaker compares himself and his cohorts to meteors, “save that we move not,” leaving them nothing to do but “hover” idly (22). This concept of a physical-to-social comparison of immobility is repeated several times, including in line 10, where the speaker claims “our ships rooted be,” much like the islands he used to seek. The speaker generalizes this sense of social despair: “How little more, alas,/ Is man now, than before he was? He was/ Nothing; for us, we are nothing fit” (53).

          Finally, the social aspect is centralized to focus upon the individual in the form of the speaker himself. He sees no moral difference in being in “a rotten state” with “hope of gain,” than from that of longing for love, honor, or valor, as all are based on some level of personal greed and are, therefore, forms of corruption (39-42). There is no decipherable difference between living the remainder of life as a “despirate,” or dying a coward, nor between predator and prey, as both are eventually rewarded with the same end: death (43-46).

          Through the use of these metaphors, Donne is able to achieve multiple themes in “The Calme.” He accomplishes the incredible feat of combining historical, physical, political, religious, social, and individual images in a single work to achieve a single goal: the expression of despair in his surroundings in just as many aspects; the articulation of dismay in finding oneself in “the calme” of life’s aftermath and discovering the decay of all elements of one’s life. Yet, with all his imagery and parallels, Donne’s speaker cannot express these concepts any more clearly than he does in the poem’s final lines, ultimately declaring the paradox of human nature and its inability to rationalize what is beyond comprehension, hinting that the lack of which is, perhaps, the cause of its own discontent: “We have no power, no will, no sense; I lie,/ I should not then thus feel this misery” (55-56).

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