The Rhetoric in the Poetry of John Donne

The Rhetoric in the Poetry of John Donne


THE TERMS which the New Critics have applied to Donne’s poetry would gladden the heart of any rhetorician in search of literary sanction: “discursive,” “argumentative,” “disputatious,” “dialectical,” “having the look of logic.” But the New Critics rarely, if ever, lose sight of the fact that the subject of their analysis is literary rather than oratorical in nature and that consequently it contains a range of potential experience beyond its rhetorical foundations. However, by focussing solely on the rhetoric in poetry, this discussion seeks to discover what value there may be in analyzing Donne’s poems by means of a specific Renaissance rhetorical theory. In New Criticism there are as many different approaches to literary analysis as there are schools of New Critics, so that it is easier to characterize New Criticism in terms of its attitude toward literature than it is to describe it in terms of its methods of analysis. And this attitude is that what is analyzable in a poem is its rhetoric: the analytical concern of New Criticism is a concern with the persuasion-situation, or dramatic situation, of a poem and with the poem’s modes of expression, its form. This search for the more-or-less objective principles of communication in a poem we would call a rhetorical concern if we permit rhetoric to have its traditional meaning, as the art of giving public form to private convictions. Although throughout its history rhetoric has at times absorbed the art of poetry and at other times vigorously excluded it, rhetoric nonetheless has an ancient claim on the process whereby ideas are made intelligible and attractive to experts and laymen alike. Furthermore, there is historical justification for a rhetoricalanalysis of Donne’s poetry. The popularity and the pervasiveness of rhetoric in the English Renaissance are well known. There is no need to review the history of Renaissance rhetoric or to explore in detail its close connection with logic.3 But it is necessary to note that the most important rhetorical system during Donne’s formative and productive years was little more than a reorganization of traditional theories of logic and rhetoric. Renaissance logic consisted of two procedures, invention and judgment (or, as it was sometimes called, dis- position), which closely resembled the first two of the five traditional divisions of rhetoric (invention, finding the thought; disposition, arranging material in a discourse; elocution, style; memory; and pronunciation, oral delivery). It was partly a con- cern with the overlapping and duplication of precepts in logic and rhetoric that caused Peter Ramus to attempt to separate the two disciplines, but Ramus and his followers separated them in a way that made logic and rhetoric inseparable: they merely took invention and disposition away from rhetoric and told poets and orators that they would henceforth find these two procedures in logic only; this left rhetoric with only elocution and pronunciation, since in the Ramist system memory was not seen as a distinct division. Ramist logic (invention and dis- position) was meant to be useful alike to poets, orators, his- toriographers, and philosophers, for to the Ramists the modes of proof were always actual, regardless of the type of discourse in which they were employed.4 When Ramist rhetoric (elocu- tion and pronunciation) is added to the logic, one has a sys- tematized treatment of four of the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. In their textbooks and in their treatises on pedagogical theory, the Ramists indicated that their newlysystem of invention, disposition, elocution, and pronunciation was intended for the “genesis” as well as for the “analysis” of all types of discourse.5 The system was designed to serve the functions both of a complete logic and of a complete rhetoric. Because of its emphasis on the “logical” part of the creative process (invention and disposition), the Ramist system accorded well with the late sixteenth-century anti-euphuistic spirit in Eng- land, which decried excesses of style and mannered speech, and with the growing humanist exaltation of “natural reason.”6 Moreover, because Ramist analysis tends to regard the poem or speech or treatise as an artifact independent of the sensibilities of either its creator or its hearer, concentrates on its form, and seeks to show forth its principles of composition, it is similar to much modern literary analysis. In short, the analysis of Donne’s poetry by means of Ramist invention, disposition, and elocution has historical justification and it could have modern meaningfulness. But what is involved in such an analysis? And what should one see when he uses these points of view? Rosemond Tuve has observed that in his poetry Donne makes use of many “places” of invention.7 But analyzing with the places of invention is very difficult, and after the analysis one would find he could do little more than observe that Donne uses many places of invention. However, the theory of in- vention does shed an interesting light on Donne’s poetry by bringing into account a seldom-discussed aspect of Donne’s mode of argumentation. Invention, according to Abraham Fraunce, is that art which “helpeth to inuent argumentes.”8 Noting that “‘Argument’ is a special, technical word in Ramist writings,” Rosemond Tuve states, “The best I can do with it is to say that it seems to indicate the relatableness of a word or thing; that aspect by which we conceive of it as relatable to another word or thing.”9 This meaning of “argument’5 is, of course, not pectuliarly Ramist; it is typical of a period in which the concepts of man as micro- cosm and of the great chain of being provided a pattern within which “natural reason” could evolve true relationships and correspondences. It is certainly the meaning of “Argument” in the following passage from Donne: In describing the illness which inspired his Devotions Donne wrote, I am up, and I seem to stand, and I goe round; and I am a new Argument of the new Philosophie, That the Earth moves round; why may I not beleeve, that the whole earth moves in a round motion, though that seeme to me to stand, when as I seeme to stand to my Company and yet am carried, in a giddy, and cir- cular motion, as I stand?l0 Invention was a means of systematic investigation by which arguments could be produced. Reason guided by the places of arguments could rapidly invent all the matters which each word or thing argues. For example, to form concepts of man one may consider that his efficient cause is God, his material cause is his body, his formal cause is his soul, his final cause is God’s glory, his effects are his actions, and so on.1″ Man argues all these, and all these are part of his true relationships within a known and knowable order. One may go almost so far as to state that Donne believed a proposition was established if it could be proved by means of similitudes-that is, if its existence could be tested or experienced by drawing conclusions from demonstrable relationships. If one thing is true or exists, a similar thing could be true or could exist; the construction of the demonstration requires axioms which relate the two things-the known with the unknown, or the familiar with the unfamiliar-in terms of their causes, effects, subjects, or adjuncts. But one may go only almost so far as to say that this process is true of Donne’s argumentation, for to state this categorically would be to as- sign to Donne’s argumentation the sort of cogency the modern reader would find in the following demonstration from Fran- cesco Sizzi’s Dianoia Astronomica (Venice, 1611): There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head . . . two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So in the heavens . . . there are two favourable stars, two unpropitious, two lumi- naries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent. From this and many other similarities in nature . . . we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.l3 Even though we may not expect poetry to meet strict rational requirements, we know that Donne’s argumentation is deeper, more complex, and usually more convincing than this. But the habits of thought underlying his argumentation and Sizzi’s are not at all dissimilar. Perhaps it was in jest that Donne made the following statement; perhaps at the same time it was also a justification for the logical seizures which he makes upon the mind with the armament of comparatives: If all things be in all, As I thinke, since all, which were, are, and shall Bee, be made of the same elements: Each thing, each thing implyes or represents. (Satyre V. 9-12) Thus, in The Dissolution one dissolution implies another, for the dead and the seeming dead are alike in material causes; the effect of one death and dissolution implies the effect of the other. Or the procedure may be employed for amusingly bitter purposes, as in Communitie, where because we may neither hate nor love all women, they therefore belong to the class “indifferent,” and a similitude between them and fruit is merely an exhibition of class characteristics. Or the procedure may be reversed, as in A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day, where the denial of the comparison between his “properties” and those of “all” (man, beast, plants, stones), and even between his properties and those of “an ordinary nothing,” proves his being “Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown.” As a concept underlying the use Donne makes of invention, relatability shares importance with a second concept: visibility. Actually, the belief in the persuasive efficacy of helping the mind apperceive thought by means of visual imagery united the factors of visibility and relatability, giving each determinant roles in the process of finding the thought. The importance of visual imagery in Renaissance argumentation and dialectic cannot be overestimated. As Ong has shown, the background in which Ramist invention and disposition appeared was one in which “the spatialized world apprehended by vision came to be more and more exploited to aid thinking.”13 In Donne’s poetry a proposition is frequently established by starkly visual means: vision brings an image of the proposition within the light of reason with sharp clarity, and reason agrees not only that the proposition implies the image but also that the image demonstrates the existence of those things stated in the prop- osition. Let us look at one striking example from The Second Anniversary (11. 207-213), where Donne describes the ascent of the soul from earth to heaven: And as these starres were but so many beads Strung on one string, speed undistinguish’d leads Her through those Spheares, as though the beads, a string, Whose quick succession makes it still one thing: As doth the pith, which, lest our bodies slacke, Strings fast the little bones of necke, and backe; So by the Soule doth death string Heaven and Earth; In these lines Donne uses twvo images as arguments of his proposition that death unites heaven and earth by means of the soul’s “quick succession” through the spheres. The mind’s assent to the truth of the proposition is won in two ways: first, vision presents to the mind two images which serve to make the ideas clear; and second, the mind will agree that the pas- sage of something through many things does not distinguish those things and can make those things one, as the images show. It is not simply the clarity of these arguments which makes them persuasive; it is also the fact that they indicate by means of similitude that there is such a thing as an un- distinguishing passage which makes one thing of many ilttle things. Relatability and visibility form the essence of the persuasiveness in these lines. But here, as usual, Donne’s argumentation is complex. The visually conceivable relation- ships between a string of beads and the backbone and the soul’s ascent through spheres, or those between beads and bones and spheres, or even those between the string and the pith and the soul, should not be ignored, for they heighten the demon- stration to reason that the proposition lends itself to a proving view from any angle of vision. Furthermore, the fact that one of the comparing subjects is from the world of artifice (beads) and the other from the natural world (backbone), their paral- lelism enhanced by the use of the wvords “string” and “Strings,”‘ gives the quality of completeness to the demonstration: if the phenomenon exists both artificially and naturally, there would be little cause to doubt that it could exist metaphysically as well. Thus, like those emblematic, often grotesque pictures in old logic books, the starkest, most visible realities can serve as simple spatial models of the most abstract propositions when- ever some aspects of one argue some aspects of the other. Reason is reached, and memory served, through the mind’s eye.’4 Visibility and relatability may have been important factors in Donne’s arrangement of material within his poems-a feature rhetoricians would study with the precepts of disposition. The epitome of visibility and relatability in arrangement is that device which the Ramists used for teaching and for analysis: the diagram, which by means of brackets could indicate the 14Another approach to these same theories is merely to consider those aspects which serve memory. Hickey’s discussion of Donne’s belief in the power of constructing sermons which could be lodged in the memory stops short of discuss- ing the means whereby memory was served; Robert L. Hickey, “Donne’s Art of Memory,” Tennessee Studies in Literature, III (1958), 29-36. To the Ramists, that discourse served memory best which was patterned after the operation of natural reason; of course, they also believed that the way to achieve this pattern- ing was through the Ramist system.
The diagram provides a pattern of relationships that can be seen by the mind-the mind of the poet, the reader, the listener, or the critic. To the Ramists, that discourse was most persuasive in which the thought was clear because it could be visually apperceived and in which the arrangement of the material was easy to follow, or even to memorize, because it could be reconstructed by means of a visible pattern. Because it progressively divides material into two parts, the bracketed diagram is in many ways a visual representation of “method,” the most famous part of the Ramist doctrine of dis- position. In its strictest terms, “method” demands that the discourse move from the general to the specific, or from the simple to the complex, by means of dichotomies or twofold divisions, although the Ramists allowed poets and orators to make certain prudential variations in order to please their audiences.l5 Something like the “method” can be seen in many of Donne’s poems. At least, he most frequently organizes his material on the basis of dichotomies or twofold divisions and carries his arguments to the point where further division is superfluous or impossible-as in The second Anniversary, where the discussion of “essentiall”‘ and “accidentall” joys comprises the last indivisible stage in the contemplation of (1) the in- commodities of the soul in the body and (2) the exaltation of the soul in heaven.’6 Employing the principles of “method,” or using the diagram, in analyzing a pem by Donne serves functions similar to those served by using the syllogism to examine a dialectical discourse: “5 “Method,” Fraunce states, “descendeth alwayes from the generall to the specials, euen to the most singular thing, which cannot bee diuided into any more parts” (fol. 113″). And the best division is that whose parts “be most repugnant, which can bee but two, therefore Dichotomia is most excellent, a diuision consisting onely of two partes” (fol. 57r). When these statements are juxtaposed, one has the doctrine of “method” in its simplest terms. ‘6It was the question of the disposition of material in the two Anniversaries which caused Louis L. Martz to make his significant study of English religious literature of the seventeenth century (The Poetry of Meditation, New Haven, 1954). Martz shows that there existed at the time of Donne an abundant stream of meditative literature which Donne assimilated and which lent form to Donne’s poetry. Martz’s comparisons between meditative procedure and Donne’s Anniversaries and Holy Sonnets are most convincing. However, the “methods of meditation,” he states, “are in themselves adaptations of ancient principles of logic and rhetoric” (p. 38). A view through rhetoric is no less justifiable, rhetoric being another vital aspect of that ancient and continuing philosophic tradition which gave the Renaissance mind its habits of thought.
“Method,” Fraunce states, is “the onely iudge of order or confusion” and “the chiefest helpe of memory.”17 For example, when the arrangement of material in The Undertaking is reconstructed on the basis of principles similar to those of “method,” as in the following discussion, the intricate lines of argument become clear and easy to follow.18 The Undertaking is in two parts. The first part speaks in general terms and consists of the first four stanzas; this first part has two sub-parts: statement and proof. Donne states (first stanza) that (1) he has done something braver than all the Worthies did and (2) by keeping that something hid, he thereby did something even braver than doing something braver than all the Worthies did. The proof takes two courses, the first of which is contained in the second and third stanzas, and the second of which is contained in the fourth stanza. In the first course of the proof, he examines the fact that he is keeping this something hid, and he makes this examination by means of similitude: uttering this would be as useful as teaching someone how to cut the specular stone. Although the full meaning of this argument depends on the second part of the poem, it will be useful here to examine the correspondences of the terms. “Prophane men” believe that it is just as im- possible to find “vertue” or “lovelinesse” in women as it is to find the specular stone. Thus, teaching a man to love only “lovelinesse within” is just as useless, so most men believe, as imparting the skill of cutting the specular stone. Therefore, even if the poet “should utter this,” men “would love but as before.” Donne’s use of the word “love” moves toward the specific argument involved in the second course of proving. The second course (the fourth stanza) relates to the first part of the statement (the one braver thing than all the Worthies did). The second course of proving has a double argument: the first is an implied contrast between the men who “love but as before” and the man “who lovelinesse within/ Hath found”; the second is a contrast between finding loveliness within and without. The diagram so far is the following:
lone braver thing /statement yet a braver fim?e stoucutting the specular first coure 4 stone first part (relates to uttering this second half of statement) profane love proof / loving loveIiness j ( within second course (relates to i finding loveliness first half wtithin of statement) indin jfinding loveliness t without As the poem moves toward the specific, the smoothness of the movement is aided by the subtle shift from “he who” to “you.95 The second part of the poem (the last three stanzas) is expressed in one sentence of the syntactic structure the Ramists called “conective axiom.” All connective axioms have two parts: condition and consequent. In this case, the condition (fifth and sixth stanzas) is in two parts: I. if you (a) see virtue attired in women (the metaphor “attir’d” is related to the metaphor “oldest clothes”-seeing virtue in women is related to finding the specular stone) and (b) dare loe that (related to the skill of cutting the specular stone) by (1) admiting it to yourself and (2) forgetting the “FHee” and “Shee (related to finding loveliness within and loathing “all outward”); and IL if you hide this from profane men who (a) would not believe you (for, to them, “no more/ Such stuffe t worke upon, there is3), or (b) if they do believe you, would place no value on what you’ve done and are doing (for they love “colour” and skinne5″). The consequent has two parts. You will then have done (1) a braver thing than the Worthies did, and (2) by keeping it hid, a braver thing than that-for you will be doing something the Worthies didn’t do (keeping their bravery hid). This last stanza has the effect of revealing the complete argument of the poem; its structural correspondence to the vague first stanza increases this effect. The diagram of the second part, without the subtle con- nections with the first part, follows: finding saying first condition )loving s 5 v ?forgetting lcondition \ .bestow no )\npr”” I second condition: keep- ) f. . ,., r ‘ < faith second part ing it hid from men, who deride (consequent braver thing than the Worthies did \ . ( t braver than that Finally, Donne used the third part of rhetoric, elocution, to intensify the visibility and relatability of all parts of a poem. In the Ramist scheme, elocution has two parts: figures and tropes. The figures are either repetitive, including such things as rime and meter, or dramatic, including such things as exclamations and questions. The figures give both emphasis and artistic proportion to a poem. Proportion in a poem can be very important to the Ramists; the figures of repetition, for example, can serve to make the various parts of a poem corre- spond, and such correspondence can in turn serve to make the arrangement of material conspicuous or even easy to cast in the form of a dichotomized diagram, particularly when the poem is being read aloud-like the repetition of “Shee, shee is dead; shee’s dead” in The first Anniversary, or of “so” and “goe” in The Expiration, or of “Little think’st thou” in The Blossome. The trope which the Ramists called allegory is most charac- teristic of Donne’s style. Unlike metaphor, which was “a similitude contracted into one word,’19 allegory was a simili- tude expanded through several words or even several sentences. Actually, both metaphor and allegory are concepts through which the analyst may view the relating and visualizing process integral to Ramist invention. In developing an allegory, Donne frequently does not hesitate to name, often by simile, the points of contact between a thought and its allegory, and in so doing he heightens the analogizing process to the point where a few sharply defined things which may be said concerning the allegory may also be said concerning the thought. In this process there is the real blending of “reasoning” and “orna- mentation”-even on the theoretical level, for to the Ramists the simile is part of a logical mode of proof, while the allegory belongs to rhetorical embellishment. For example, Donne’s compass image, his most famous “Metaphysical Conceit,” is a fusion of similes and allegory. In creating the image at the end of the poem, Donne states that if the union of his soul and his mistress’s soul has two parts, they are like the two parts of a compass. Then the simile shifts to allegory. Her soul is the fixed foot, which makes no move until the other foot does. And the motion that the fixed foot makes is a leaning and hearkening after the other and growing erect when the other comes “home.” Returning to simile, Donne states that he must “Like th’other foot, obliquely runne.” Then shifting again to allegory, he states that the “firmnes” of her soul makes his motion true and makes him end where he began. Again, the argument is the similitude; the thought expressed in terms of the compass becomes a virtual demonstration in which the points of contact are so carefully drawn by simile that any truth about the compass can become a truth about his relation- ship with his mistress.20 Donne employed the tropes catachresis and hyperbole also as means of intensifying his arguments. To paraphrase Hoskins’s statements regarding hyperbole, both catachresis and hyperbole extend the comparison far beyond rational bounds so that the mind may on its own discover the truth or the “unspeakableness” of the relation.21 The dead virgin who is father to the offspring produced by his muse, the heart that shivered like glass, the carcasses the lovers became when absences removed their souls -all these shock reason, and it is the reader himself who 200f course, the compass image has vital connections with the rest of the poem: it is directly related to the dual being of virtuous men (body and soul), the simile which begins the argument; it has a visual relationship with “gold” (see W. A. Murray, “Donne’s Gold-Leaf and his Compasses,” MLN, LXXII [1958], 329-330), which is logically related to the “refin’d” elements of their love, which contrasts with the “Dull sublunary lovers love,” and so on. Sijohn Hoskins, Directions for Speech and Style [ca. 1599], ed. Hoyt H. Hudson (Princeton, 1935), p. 29: “Sometimes [hyperbole] expresseth a thing in the highest degree of possibility, beyond the truth, that it descending thence may find the truth; sometimes in flat impossibility, that rather you may conceive the unspeakableness than the untruth of the relation.”

ultimately creates the true comparison by establishing a frame- work of relationships just this side of the logical distention marked by hyperbole and catachresis. What value is there in using rhetoric as a critical tool in analyzing Donne’s poetry? In the first place, the use of a spe- cific rhetorical system-particularly the Ramist system-gives an historical insight into the modes of proof and indicates the rhetorical efficacy of visibility and relatability. Second, rhetoric offers a method for studying that most important and most difficult aspect of Donne’s artistry: his arrangement of material. Finally, the nature of rhetoric lends a valuable perspective in which all critical problems may be ranged, for the objective of a full rhetorical analysis is to find out how well the proposition is stated and proved. The importance of all parts of the poem- arguments, arrangement, tropes, and figures-depends upon their role in demonstrating the truth of the proposition. Rosemond Tuve’s enthusiastic appraisal of the causal con- nections between Ramism and metaphysical poetry, particularly Donne’s, has become a matter of controversy.22 Though the aim of the present discussion is the construction of a critical viewv from the position of Renaissance rhetoric, the “new Petro- machia” cannot be sidestepped. The analysis of Donne’s poetry suggested in this discussion need not be seen as an attempt to assign Ramism an influential role in the creation of that poetry.23 The basic reason the Ramist theory is useful in analyz- ing Donne’s poetry is that Ramism accords with important intellectual developments in the sixteenth century and perhaps embodies a critical view held by the poet’s audience. But con- sidering the poet’s complex personality, Ramism could at best only reflect some of the undoubtedly many factors that gave his poetry those distinguishing features we recognize as peculiarly Donnesque. Moreover, it is also true that most of the Ramist theories were merely epitomes of traditional rhetorical theories; but when Ramism is defined solely in terms of those few char- acteristics which distinguish it from other rhetorical of the time Donne cannot be called a Ramist-for example, his complex, ambiguous procedures differ greatly from the “plain style” the Ramists considered important. But for that matter, any attempt to argue strong connections between Ramism and poetry is weakened by the Ramists’ notorious indifference to- ward poetry as a unique type of discourse.24 However, Ramism in both its innovative and its traditional features is unquestion- ably representative of Donne’s milieu, and it is therefore service- able for the analytical operations involved in studying the rhetorical foundations of Donne’s poetry. Consequently, the question most relevant to the present discussion is not whether Ramism caused this or that characteristic in Donne’s poetry, but whether employing Ramism in a rhetorical analysis of his poetry is meaningful. On the other hand, one cannot deny the validity of William Empson’s argument that analyzing Donne’s poetry by means of Renaissance rhetoric is at best partial, for rhetoric sets definite limits beyond which the reader’s experience of the poem is not allowed to go.25 But at the same time one cannot deny the historical fact that in the Renaissance poetry was analyzed by means of rhetoric. With the rhetorical analysis the modern reader may see some of those things which were probably im- portant both to Donne and to his readers-without having to rely solely upon the variable results of modem verbal analyses, which too often stress ambiguity at the expense of the cohesive- ness of the poem’s argument. With the rhetorical analysis the modem reader may see the rhetoric which Renaissance theorists, poets, and readers knew was in poetry.


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