The Dramatic Element in Donne’s Poetry
by Pierre Legouis
That Donne possessed dramatic power has generally been acknowledged. 1 Indeed, one of the generation that came to manhood in the last decade of the sixteenth century might be credited with some measure of the instinct at work in Shakespeare and so many lesser playwrights, even before he had given evidence of it. In his fervid youth Donne was “a great Frequenter of Plays,” 2 though the theaters probably found in him
“The Dramatic Element in Donne’s Poetry.” From Donne the Craftsman, by Pierre Legouis ( Paris, 1928). Reprinted by permission of the author. [The pages reprinted (pp. 47 - 61 and 71 -9) form the third section of Professor Legouis' defence of Donne as an artist. They omit his interpretation of "The Ecstasy" as a dramatic poem. This has, given rise to so much controversy that to reprint it would have necessitated printing rebuttals. For a summary of the debate, see my article "The Argument about 'The Ecstasy,'" Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies, edited by Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner ( Oxford, 1959). Professor Legouis approves this omission and has also kindly supplied me with some corrections and minor alterations of the text for this reprint. Ed.]
Edward Dowden, New Studies in Literature ( London, 1895), p. 103, goes near to denying it: “Touches of dramatic power are rare in Donne, whose genius was lyrical and meditative, not that of a dramatist; but in this Elegy ["By our first strange and fatall interview . . ."] there is one touch which might seem of triumphant power even if it had occurred in a tragedy of Webster.” The remark applies to ll. 50-54; when I am gone on my continental journey, the lover says to his mistress, do not
in bed fright thy Nurse
With midnight startings, crying out, oh oh,
Nurse, ô my love is slaine, I saw him goe
O’r the white Alps alone; I saw him I,
Assail’d, fight, taken, stabb’d, bleed, fall and die.
The passage is very beautiful and moving but it is not strictly dramatic since the lover merely conjures up a vision of the future as in “The Apparition” (see infra).
Sir Richard Baker, Chronicle of the Kings of England ( 1730), p. 424, quoted in Grierson, Poems, ii. 172. Grierson also quotes a verse letter, addressed to Donne c. 1600 by “William Cornwaleys,” which contains the lines:
If then for change of howers you seem careles,
Agree with me to lose them at the playes.
a hard patron to please; and even in his sermons he will not boggle at comparisons drawn from play-acting. 3
Still that general agreement upon the epithet “dramatic” rather tends to confusion than enlightenment because no two critics seem to understand it in the same sense, and it may well be applied in Donne’s poetry in more than one. If by “dramatic” you mean what stirs the emotions through the sight, especially, of attitudes and gestures, “The Apparition” will answer that definition best of all the “Songs and Sonnets.” Here we have a sordid but striking mise-en-scène: the lovers in bed, the man pretending to sleep, the woman pinching him in vain, the “sicke taper” that begins “to winke” at the entrance of the ghost. Yet there is no touch of the melodrama in “The Apparition,” as there is in those pictures of Greuze that Diderot admired so much for their emotional intensity and that we cannot help smiling at to-day, “La Malédiction paternelle” and “Le fils puni.” But, with a difference in quality, there is the same method, the same composition. Such art is less akin to the drama than to the tableau vivant, be it said without a sneer. Action there is none; the poet even refuses to tell his false mistress now what his ghost will say to her then, an artifice that reminds us of Timanthes hiding Agamemnon’s face
“. . . those transitory and interlocutory prayers, which out of custome and fashion we make and still proceed in our sins; when we pretend to speake to God, but like Comedians upon a stage, turne over our shoulder, and whisper to the Devill . . .” ( Donne’s Sermons: Selected Passages . . ., by Logan Pearsall Smith, Oxford, 1920, p. 123).
There are several theatrical metaphors or comparisons in the poems:
Men of France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the tightest company
Of Players, which upon the worlds stage be,
( Elegy XVI, “On his Mistris,”33-36).
And Courts are Theaters, where some men play
Princes, some slaves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
( “To Sr Henry Wotton” [ Grierson, Poems, i. 188], 23-24).
Beleeve me Sir, in my youths giddiest dayes,
When to be like the Court, was a playes praise,
Playes were not so like Courts, as Courts’ are like playes.
( “To Sr Henry Wotton” [ Grierson, Poem, i. 188], 19-21).
This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimages last mile . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
( “Holy Sonnets,” VI [ Grierson, Poems, i. 324], 1-2).
Evelyn M. Simpson, in A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne ( Oxford, 1924), pp. 61-62, says that in later life “he denounced comedies, wine, and women as ‘Job’s miserable comforters’ to the down-cast soul.” Yet, she adds, “his friendship with Ben Jonson shows that he did not dislike the serious drama, while in his sermon he took up the position, in contrast to the Puritans, of a champion of all innocent amusements.”
in his picture of lphigenia’s sacrifice. As the extreme of pity, so the extreme of terror is produced by suppression rather than expression.
Directly opposed to this pictorial conception of the dramatic is the purely psychological one. Mr. Massingham, for instance, thus praises, apropos of “The Relic,” the fitness of the style in the “Songs and Sonnets”: “It is impossible to conceive those tremendous adventures of soul, mind, and sense expressed by dainty, tripping lines, by smooth, ambling lines or even by the majestic sounding-board line of Milton, which expresses the reposeful sweep of the mind rather than its dramatic stress and conflict.”4 This amounts to saying that the soul of Donne in his lyrics divides against itself as, for instance, that of Othello in Shakespeare’s play. But owing to the assumed identity of author and character, this is just a roundabout way of stating the theory of the poet’s unqualified earnestness. Art, if it exists at all in the eyes of such criticism, is strictly subordinate to thought and feeling, feeling instinct with thought, or thought quickened by feeling.
I shall take the word dramatic in a third sense: 5 in many of the “Songs and Sonnets” there are two characters; the second is indeed a mute; or rather his words are not written down; but we are enabled to guess how he acts and what he would say if he were granted utterance. The way in which Donne gives us those hints is both very clever and very modern. More important still for us here is the effect produced on the speaking character by the presence of a listening one, whom he tries to persuade and win over. What seemed at first disinterested dialectics, indulged in for truth’s sake, or at least as “evaporations” of wit, sounds quite differently when the reader realizes this dumb presence.
Of downright dialogue I find no instance in Donne, unless it be the “eclogue” which serves as a prelude (and also a postlude) to the Somerset epithalamium: it is chiefly a device for heaping additional flattery upon the bride and bridegroom, and a courtly apology for absence at the wedding. In his Satires Donne sometimes gives the words of his victims in the direct style, not without liveliness. But in the “Songs and Sonnets” we have no such carmen amoebaeum as, say, Horace’s with Lydia: “Donec gratus eram tibi. . . .”Donne’s manner is at once more refined
H. J. Massingham, A Treasury of Seventeenth-Centuiy English Verse ( London, 1919), p. 335.
Perhaps this is the sense adopted by Professor Grierson ( Poem, vol. ii, pp. xxxiv and xlii), but he does not explicitly distinguish it from the other senses; he seems to use “passionate” and “vivid” as equivalents to “dramatic”; yet the comparisons between Donne and Browning in the first passage, between Donne and Drayton in the second, lead directly to a definition of the dramatic lyric. The famous sonnet:
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part . . .
is indeed the dramatic lyric par excellence. (See Emile Legouis, Dans les sentiers de la Renaissance anglaise. Les Belles-Lettres [ Paris. 1925], pp. 43-45.) It was published only in the 1619 edition of Idea.
and more abrupt: it taxes the reader’s imagination more severely; it lacks the ease of the Latin poet’s dramatic lyric and has not such a wide appeal; but it grows upon the imagination and repays minute study.
The four pieces that go by the common title of “Valediction” are dramas of the simplest kind. In one of them at least, possibly in others, the mistress from whom the poet-lover parts is weeping. But the interest centers on the symbol that provides three of the pieces with their subtitles: “of my Name, in the Window,” “of the Book,” “of Weeping”; and though Donne called the fourth “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” the reader will be sure to remember it as the piece in which the parted lovers are compared to “stiffe twin compasses. “–The song “Sweetest love, I do not goe” is to all intents and purposes a valediction, though Donne did not choose to entitle it so, perhaps because there was no symbol in it to emphasize its difference in sameness; but it is all the more touching for the directness of its appeal, since attention is not withdrawn from the characters and the scene to a mere term of comparison. “Break of day” also is a valediction, more precisely a descendant of the medieval aube as Professor Grierson points out. Here, for once in the “Songs and Sonnets,” the woman speaks, and so well that this piece alone would suffice to prove Donne’s ability to express the feelings of others, and allow us to surmise that even when the speaker is a man he need not be the poet’s own self. “Break of day” stands not unworthy of comparison with the parting scene in Romeo and Juliet. True we hear in it no lark’s song, which the lovers would persuade themselves to be the nightingale’s; no “jocund day/Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.” The language is as naked as can be, but its very nakedness speaks passion:
‘Tis true, ’tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because ’tis light?
Did we lie downe, because ’twas night?
Love which in spight of darknesse brought us hether,
Should in despight of light keepe us together.
This is the reading of the editions; some of the manuscripts, Professor Grierson tells us, heighten the dialogue suggestion by punctuating line 3 thus:
Why should we rise? Because ’tis light?
The first note of interrogation makes the symmetry with the next line less perfect, which may turn the scale in favor of the comma substituted for it by the editions; yet I cannot help preferring the more impassioned address, the short, panting questions, eagerly gasped out. The man’s excuse, though unexpressed, is anticipated by the woman. Similarly, in
the last stanza he pleads, or is supposed to be ready to plead, the call of his professional duties:
Must businesse thee from hence remove?
The woman’s anger against that bloodless rival sounds natural and sincere in its exaggeration:
Oh, that’s the worst disease of love,
The poore, the foule, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
Yet the final couplet smacks of epigrammatic wit:
He which hath businesse, and makes love, doth doe
Such wrong, as when a maryed man doth wooe.
The piece ends less dramatically than it began. But in Shakespeare also, at least in the earlier plays, do not the characters often parade their (or rather the playwright’s) ingenuity after crying out what their hearts feel? The mixture is distinctly Elizabethan.
In “The Sun Rising” we find the same situation and a similar feeling; but here the lover addresses the sun, and his tailings sound more rhetorical than dramatic. Yet the scenery, sketched in a few skilful strokes, redeems the piece from the fault of ranting in cold blood: the sunrays peer through windows and drawn curtains into the bed, a property only alluded to in “Break of day” but here brazenly mentioned in the concluding lines of the last two stanzas, so as to leave us in no doubt of its paramount importance:
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.
“The Good-morrow” seems related to the foregoing group of poems, but the connexion is merely metaphorical. The lovers are not parting, neither does the sun remind them it were time to part. Their souls, not their bodies, have just awakened. Their happiness is for the nonce unalloyed; they wonder how they lived before they loved. Therefore the dramatic element appears less vividly than in those pieces where there is fear, or at least a sense that joy is ephemeral. Yet “The Good-morrow” is no madrigal indited in the closet to a distant mistress; it is the report of an impassioned dialogue in that “little room” where the lovers have met
and which has become to them “an every where.” The woman remains silent, or rather her words are not given; but her presence is felt: “her face in his eye, his in hers appeares.”–Let no one misunderstand me: this piece was written by Donne in his closet, and with much care; it was revised by him (see Professor Grierson’s note on the various readings of the manuscripts and editions) at leisure: what I mean is that it succeeds in creating a voluptuous atmosphere and calling up in it two flesh-and-blood human beings who act in relation to each other. The impression of passionate reality made upon the reader results partly from the poet’s artfully concealed art, an art that is nothing if not dramatic.
However, against the applying of this epithet to “The Good-morrow,” as indeed to almost every one of the pieces we have considered so far, it might be objected that they lack progression; the situation and even the feelings are at the end what they were at the beginning. But there remain for study a few of the “Songs and Sonnets” in which Donne’s technique shows itself more complex: the initial situation evolves more or less, there are episodes and vicissitudes, or at least development.
The song “Sweetest Love, I do not goe . . .” differs, as we have noted, from the “Valedictions” in that it appeals to the heart, not through the medium of a symbol, but directly. It also gives more importance to the woman’s part. The poet really speaks to her, not above her head, and he alters his tone according to the effect produced upon her by what he has just said. In the first stanza he tries to make her smile; but we see that he fails, since the second stanza more seriously attempts to comfort her by promising a speedy return. Yet this also proves unavailing, and he, feeling helpless at the sight of her redoubling grief, gives vent in the third stanza to his own despondency. Man, he generalizes, “cannot add another houre” to his good fortune, “nor a lost houre recall”; but we know how to assist misery when it comes and “teach it art and length,/ It selfe o’er us to’advance.” Such somber wisdom rather justifies the woman’s grief as being consonant to human nature. So in the fourth stanza he returns to their own sad plight and entreats her to spare him; her grief is his death:
When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not winde,
But sigh’st my soule away,
When thou weep’st, unkindly kinde,
My lifes blood cloth decay.
Besides, adds the first half of the fifth stanza, foreseeing of evil will bring it to pass. Pity, with a touch of superstition in it, succeeds where wit, sense, philosophy, have been of no avail. And now she listens, outwardly quieter, to his renewed invitation to make light of his absence, and to his assurance that no separation ever takes place between those “who one another keepe/Alive.” Thus interpreted dramatically, this beautiful piece achieves a unity that was not apparent when one considered it as a lyric of the
ordinary kind. The reader must fill the logical gaps with kisses and embraces, sighs and sobs, weeping and the wiping away of tears, and gazings into the woman’s eyes to read her thoughts; he must also realize the failure of the lover’s first efforts in order to understand the crescendo of pathos, and the relative success that ensues so as to appreciate the more subdued and pacified tone of the conclusion.
“The Canonization” stands alone among the “Songs and Sonnets” because the person addressed in it is a male friend, but love is still the theme. The character who is speaking rejects the worldly-wise advice offered to him and vindicates his own abandonment to passion. The motif had been treated a few years before by Sir Philip Sidney in sonnet XIV of Astrophel and Stella:
Alas, have I not paine enough my friend,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But with your rubarbe wordes you must contend,
To greeve me worse in saying, that desier
Doth plunge my well form’d soule, even in the mier
Of sinfull thoughtes, which doe in ruine end?
The sestet defiantly repudiates the charge:
If that be sinne which cloth the manners frame,
Well stayed with trueth in worde and faith of deede,
Readie of wit, and fearing nought but shame;
If that be sin which in fixt hartes cloth breede,
A loathing of all loose unchastitie;
Then love is sin, and let me sinfull bee.
Sidney resumes the debate in sonnet XXI:
Your words my friend (right healthful causticks) blame
My young minde marde whom Love doth windlase so:
That my owne writings like bad servants shew
My wits, quick in vaine thoughts, in vertue lame; . . .
And after repeating the arguments of his well-meaning critics he concludes:
Sure you say well, your wisedomes golden myne
Dig deepe with learnings spade: now tell me this,
Hath this world ought so faire as Stella is?
The difference between the two sonnets appears at once: in the former the poet glories in his love as an incitement to virtue; in the latter he
pleads guilty 6 and merely excuses himself on the strength of the temptation (though we may suspect his acknowledgement of “decline” from youthful promise to be ironical). But either sonnet expresses one mood only, as it should do, while “The Canonization” appears almost incoherent at the first reading, so much does the tone (not the theme) change in the course of its five stanzas. Of these the title fits only the last two: the first three having nothing to do with the admitting of the lovers to the calendar of saints. To discover the essential unity of the piece one must analyze it in detail.
The famous opening line:
For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,
shows us Donne at his best in the brusque familiar style. In the rest of the stanza he makes fun of himself:
Or chide my palsie, or my gout,
My five gray haires, or ruin’d fortune flout,
and then of his friend:
Observe his honour, or his grace,
Or the Kings reall, or his stamped face
Contemplate, what you will, approve,
but shows all the strength of his passion in the appeal: do anything
So you will let me love.
The satirical note reappears in the second stanza, where it sounds still more clearly. The first line states the simple thought in simple terms:
At least in the text of 1598, which I have adopted in the quotations. The first edition ( 1591) not unfrequently prints downright nonsense (as in 1. 13 of sonnet XIV), but its reading in 1. 1 of sonnet XXI is not impossible:
Your words my freende me causelessly doe blame.
If Sidney wrote that, he no more pleaded guilty in this sonnet than in the preceding one; but without the initial admission the final tercet loses much of its point:
Well said, your wit in vertues golden myne
Digs deepe. . . .
(the rest as in the 1598 text quoted above). Apart from that, the dramatic movement appears as clearly in the earlier edition, published when Donne was eighteen, as in the later, published when he had written most of his “Songs and Sonnets,” if Ben Jonson is to be trusted.
Alas, alas, who’s injur’d by my love?
The next lines are a rhetorical amplification of that thought. The poet here parodies the hyperbolical metaphors of the Petrarchists, used elsewhere by himself more seriously:
What merchants ships have my sighs drown’d?
Who saies my teares have overflow’d his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veines fill
Adde one more to the plaguie Bill?
In the last three lines satire becomes more stinging; it still hits the love poets who have exaggerated the influence of their heartbeats upon the world at large, but it also exposes the selfishness of the professional man:
Soldiers finde warres, and Lawyers finde out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Among the accusations from which the lover pretends to be particularly anxious to clear himself, he places last, as the most heinous, that of having stopped all wars and law-suits, which would have brought upon him the just anger of two dangerous and vindictive kinds of men.
After this ironical outburst the lover pauses awhile to catch his breath, and the friend tries to get a word in. He upbraids the passionate couple with lack of sense: they are night-moths dazzled by a light. This speech, which takes place, if we may coin the word, in the interstanza, turns the lover’s ardor from satire to self-glorification. So far he has told others to mind their own business and proved the harmlessness of his own allengrossing pursuit; that strain recurs in the third stanza:
Call her one, mee another flye,
We’are Tapers too, and at our owne cost die,
which means: nobody suffers a loss by our death. But the main idea now is that of justification by love:
Call us what you will, wee are made such by love,
–nay, more than justification, ennoblement:
And wee in us finde the Eagle and the Dove.
Probably the metaphor of the birds was suggested by that of the insects, and corrects it; in the erotic-mystical language of the time “eagle” stands for “strength” and “dove” for “tenderness and purity”; let us remember Crashaw’s rapturous appeal to Saint Theresa:
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove. 7
But the metaphor of the Phoenix, which comes up in the next line and proceeds from that of the self-burning night-moth, makes it likely that the eagle and the dove also arise from fire. When Joan of Are died, a dove was seen ascending to Heaven (the same miracle probably happened at many another martyr’s burning); and the Romans would let fly an eagle from near the pyre of their emperors: Dryden, at that time very much a disciple of Donne, recalls that rite in the first of his “Heroic Stanzas” on the death of Oliver Cromwell. 8 Anyhow, with the Phoenix Donne openly reverts to the type of traditional hyperbole he has just ridiculed, but he wears the hackneyed symbol with a difference:
The Phoenix ridle hath more wit
By us, we two being one, are it.
The fabulous bird, being unique of its kind, united in himself both sexes; the two lovers, having combined into one “neutral” (not a very happy substitute for “hermaphrodite”) thing, have also acquired this other property of the phoenix: they “dye and rise the same” as before.
Here the friend once more gets a chance and must be understood prosaically to object that, unless the poet means the metaphorical deaths and resurrections of parting and meeting again, he is straying very far from the truth: their love may well destroy the lovers, but not call them back to this nether world, not even provide them with a living while they are in it. The fourth stanza admits the hard fact, but answers defiantly:
Wee can dye by it, if not live by love.
It then proceeds to improve upon a hint given in the last line of the third stanza: the love of the pair is a mystery; therefore they will have a
“The Flaming Heart,”ad finem.
And now ’tis time, for their officious haste,
Who would before have borne him to the sky,
Like eager Romans, ere all rites were past,
Did let too soon the sacred eagle fly.
The Stanzas were written after the funeral.
“legend,” i.e., their marvellous but true story will be written for the edification of the faithful in after ages; their fame will rest safely, if not in a “Chronicle,” at least in “hymnes.” This last word, with its religious import, leads up naturally to the announcement that the poet and his mistress will be “Canonz’d for love,” on which the fourth stanza ends. The friend this time probably opens his mouth to remonstrate against pride amounting to blasphemy, if he is a Roman Catholic, or idolatry if he is a Protestant; but no word of his can be even overheard, for the fourth stanza runs into the fifth, without a period. The new-made saints are already “invoked” by lovers who come after them; their intercession is prayed for in the most approved papistical style; the repetition of the words “You whom,” “You to whom . . .; who . . .” suggests a litany. Here Donne the lover turns to good account the learning of Donne the schoolman, and, in the impassioned subtleties of that imaginary address, the reader may well forget the friend who was the occasion of the piece. Yet without him, and unless we fill in his interruptions, we do not thoroughly realize why the lover-poet gradually warms himself up and passes from jesting impatience to an almost ecstatic vision. . . . *
Signor Mario Praz has excellently shown that the scholastic propositions in Donne’s verse are but a barrister’s special pleadings; mediaeval philosophy he regards not as a complete explanation of the universe but as “an arsenal” of arguments; his reason for choosing some and neglecting others is “practical rather than speculative.” The Italian critic adds: “And the practical reason of Donne is an intellectual diversion,” which consists in “the exercise of wit”; in other words the poet aims at using and showing his dialectical skill. 9 This last statement requires correction: in not a few of the “Songs and Sonnets” the barrister pleads, disingenuously indeed, but earnestly enough, because he pleads for himself, not before an academic jury of literary connoisseurs, but with the one woman whom he loves for the nonce. Persuading her to yield is the practical reason that decides upon the lover’s choice of arguments and manner of presenting them. Seen in this light, even such a symmetrical piece of work as “The Prohibition” reveals a dramatic aspect that had so far escaped us. We took it for granted that the lover twice changed his mind: between the first and the second stanzas, then between the second and the third; if we read the piece again we begin to suspect that, here as in “The Ecstasy,” he knew from the start where he wanted to go: he tacked twice in the road the more surely to enter the haven of his mistress’s love when he put about the third time. We disbelieve the abnegation with which he pretends to regard only his mistress’s interest, not his own. And in the final line:
To let mee live, O love and hate mee too,
[An interpretation of "The Ecstasy" as a dramatic poem has been omitted here. Ed.]
Secentismo e Marinismo in Inghilterra ( Florence, 1925), p. 100.
we surmise that the admixture of hate is intended only to salve the woman’s conscience. The tone differs much, but the object little, from those of “The Damp,” where the lover tells her who kills him with the help of “th’enormous Gyant, her Disdaine,” and “th’enchantress Honor”:
Kill mee as Woman, let mee die
As a meere man; doe you but try
Your passive valor, and you shall finde than [i.e., then],
In that you have odds enough of any man.
And one finds the same suit again in the two pieces that exhibit Donne’s dramatic art in its most complex form, and which therefore I have kept for the end of this study, “The Flea” and “The Dream.”
Extravagantly admired in the seventeenth century, not only by the erratic English but by the staid Dutch, “The Flea” has been pilloried again and again since good taste set in, as Donne’s worst offense against literary, if not against moral, propriety. But it seems that both those who praised and those who censured the piece thought only of the hyperbolical conceits: in the second stanza the mingling of the lovers’ blood in the flea’s belly is said to be almost a marriage, yea more than that; the insect becomes at once woman, man, nuptial bed, and wedding church; in killing it the poet’s mistress would commit, not only murder on him, a crime she is inured to, but suicide and sacrilege. Yet there is cleverness of another, and less obsolete, kind in“The Flea”; the scene it describes has the liveliness of the animal that plays there such a prominent part. So far Donne has given us scenes with two characters in them; here we have a third, much more real and active than the imaginary spectator in “The Ecstasy.” And while a painter might represent “The Apparition” all on one canvas, it would take a suite of three pictures to reproduce the attitudes in “The Flea.” Number one, the man is pointing to the insect that jumped from him on to her:
Marke but this flea, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee.
Number two, the woman is hunting the flea, perhaps she has already caught it, and the man tries to dissuade her from putting it to death:
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare.
Number three, the woman has disregarded the man’s petition and crushed the once “living walls of Jet”; a vivid contrast of colors ensues:
Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
Whatever pity he may feel for the victim, the man does not forget his own plea. Indeed the woman seems to have killed the insect less out of revenge than to vindicate the moral law questioned by the man on the strength of the insect’s practice. He had told her:
marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.
By punishing the brute offender against her chastity the woman has answered the man’s sophism; but the latter does not accept his defeat and undertakes to clear the memory of the insect he has failed to save:
Wherein could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou
Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now;
the conclusion is so obvious that the logician scorns to complete his syllogism; from the flea’s innocency, so well established, he passes at once to the harmlessness of his own design upon the woman:
‘Tis true, then learne how false, feares be;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee.
This conclusion closely resembles that of “The Ecstasy,” “just so much honor” in the one corresponding to “small change” in the other. Technically exception might be taken to the reporting of the woman’s boast in the indirect style; that is undoubtedly a little awkward and, if the rule of the game forbids our hearing her, we would rather guess her retort than be told of it so bluntly. But apart from this fault, a small one in material extent, “The Flea” is good comedy, or, if one demurs to that word, good farce; its humor may appear rather low to the fastidious modern mind, but it did not transgress the rules of good breeding under Queen Elizabeth, of maiden fame.
Not less skilful in its technique, “The Dream” expresses, if not purer, at least more poetical feelings. The scene is a room, which we guess to be
but dimly lit; the man is lying, if not in bed, at least, it seems, on a couch. The woman comes in while he is dreaming of her, and sits by him. Her entrance wakes him and he thanks her for doing so: the dream was happy, but its theme suited reason, the capacity of a waking soul, better than fantasy, that of a sleeping soul. 10 Yet he goes on, this visit does not interrupt his dream, but continues it; and he seizes upon the opportunity to pay a highly metaphysical compliment to his mistress: in God being and intelligence are one; similarly
Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice,
To make dreames truths; and fables histories; 11
But the sensuous lover reappears at once, and we feel the kind of truth he prizes so much might be called more clearly by the name of reality:
Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best,
Not to dreame all my dreame, let’s act the rest.
The first stanza ends on this gesture of the man, one of gentle entreaty, arms held out, a fond smile on the lips and in the eyes.
The woman, it seems, remains seated, and out of reach. So the man tries to lure her forward; if he is not Donne himself, at least he resembles him like a twin brother in his use of scholastic theology. Here occurs the already-mentioned apology to the woman for thinking her at first sight to be an angel, and no more. But now we realize that the hyperbolical wit does not aim at pleasing any circle of fine gentlemen and ladies, except indirectly, as part of a dramatic action: while we read the second stanza we keep on seeing the stretched arms, and the couch; and the metaphysical subtleties reveal themselves as amorous blandishments.
Now comes the peripeteia: the woman rises, not to draw nearer but to go away. Is she afraid of her own boldness? Does she feel remorse already for jeopardizing her virtue? the lover asks himself; more likely she is a coquette and likes to play with fire. Perhaps, we may add, she thinks
It was a theame
For reason, much too strong for phantasie.
Cf. “Elegy X,”9-10:
When you are gone, and Reason gone with you,
Then Fantasie is Queene and Soule, and all.
The elegy, which had no title in the 1633 edition, received that of The Dreame in the 1635 edition, wrongly, Professor Grierson suggests. Yet the similarities between it and the piece in theSongs and Sonnets which bears the same title are curious; the elegy also might be interpreted dramatically.
See in Grierson’s note the quotation from Aquinas. One also remembers in this connection Saint Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence.
the man rather tame, and laughs in her sleeve at his too intellectual method of seduction:
Comming and staying show’d thee, thee,
But rising makes me doubt, that now,
That art not thou.
That love is weake, where feare’s as strong as hee;
‘Tis not all spirit, pure, and brave,
If mixture it of Feare, Shame, Honor, have.
Perchance as torches, which must ready bee,
Men light and put out, so thou deal’st with mee,
Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come; Then I
Will dreame that hope againe, but else would die.
The invective against honor recalls that in “The Damp,” but the tone is far more subdued. The lover’s morality has not improved, but the dreamy atmosphere pervades his speech; his fierceness has left him, at least temporarily; even the woman’s maneuver fails to rouse him. Yet, whatever estimate she may form of his softness, we see in it the proof of his genuine attachment, voluptuous indeed and not respectful, but tender and harmonizing well with the setting of the scene. In “The Dream” Donne’s dramatic art achieves its most delicate success.
Browning’s admiration for his metaphysical predecessor has often been noticed and commented upon. Yet no English critic, to my knowledge, has ever pointed out exactly this resemblance between them, due either to identity of temperament or conscious imitation on Browning’s part. Professor Grierson indeed puts into the same class of poetry “The Last Ride Together” or “Too Late” and “The Ecstasy”; but he adds to this “The Anniversary,” which is not at all dramatic, though very passionate, and he defines each of these pieces as “a record of intense, rapid thinking, expressed in the simplest, most appropriate language,” contrasting them with a poem like “Come into the garden, Maude” by which thought is suspended and the mind filled “with a succession of picturesque and voluptuous images in harmony with the dominant mood.” However true in itself, the remark seems to miss the chief point that “The Ecstasy” and “The Last Ride Together,” for instance, have in common: their being impassioned addresses spoken to interlocutors whose reactions we may guess. “Too Late” is more of a soliloquy pure and simple, the lover addressing only the memory of his beloved. But “My Last Duchess,” not mentioned by Professor Grierson, seems to me as good an instance as any of Browning’s likeness and unlikeness to Donne. Let us compare it with “The Canonization”: in both pieces we find a man telling his lovestory to another man whose questions or answers we are not allowed to know directly, but whose suppressed words, or gestures, or looks, we cannot leave out of account without misunderstanding the movement of
the scene entirely. On the other hand we see no touch in “The Canoniztion” of the local color that is so conspicuous in “My Last Duchess”: Donne’s lover might be himself, or one of his contemporaries; the Italian despot of the Renaissance, somber, jealous, and cruel, has nothing in common with the Mr. Browning who proved such a good husband to Miss Elizabeth Barrett. The older poet is modern, the later poet is historical. Or, if one objects that most of the Victorian’s dramatis personae stand for permanent characters and that we must look through their temporary trappings, let us say he makes the Elizabethan’s dramatic lyric more dramatic and less lyrical (I here take this last word in its meaning of “personal”: that expresses the author’s own thoughts and feelings). 12 The artistic imagination that could create some fifty Men and Women in one collection of verse certainly played a small part as yet in the “Songs and Sonnets,”where it seldom, if ever, appeared unmixed with sentimental or intellectual self-expression. Nevertheless the technique Donne used to such effect remained substantially unaltered when it was resumed, after a lapse of over two centuries, by Browning: the latter’s going out of himself only enabled him to apply it more variously. 13
One remembers that Browning’s comment upon Wordsworth’s famous definition of Shakespeare’s sonnets as the key with which the dramatist opened his heart: “If so the less Shakespeare he!” called forth Swinburne’s retort: “No whit the less like Shakespeare, but undoubtedly the less like Browning.”
Among the poets of today Paul Géraldy has used the dramatic lyric with great alertness in his verse-story, Toi et moi ( Paris: Stock, 1913). The short pieces of which it is composed are linked together as the “Songs and Sonnets” are not, but each piece may be read as a whole and compared to individual lyrics of Donne’s. In both poets we find the same emotional intensity (which, unlike Browning’s, is or seems to be the result of personal experience) and clever dramatic suggestion. The “Finale” of Toi et moi treats in a very modern and disillusioned way the theme of Drayton’s sixty-first sonnet.