Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Wit of John Donne

What is wit
It is difficult to give a satisfactory definition of wit. The dictionary definition mentions a keen perception and cleverly apt expression of amusing words or ideas or of those connections between ideas which awaken amusement and pleasure. Wit is revealed in the unusual or ingenious use of words rather than in the subject-matter.

Inferior wit lies in the use of paradox, pun, oxymoron and word-play. Higher wit is the discovery of conceits and the assembly and synthesis of ideas which appear dissimilar or incongruous.
In a true piece of wit, all things must be
Yet all these things agree
As in the Ark join’d without force or strife
All creatures dwelt, all creatures that had life    (Cowley)
Donne is remarkable as much for his metaphysical element as for his wit. Hartley Coleridge, however, pokes fun at Donne’s wit:
Twist iron pokers into true love knots
Coining hard words not found in polyglots.
Peculiar wit
Donne has been called “the monarch of wit’. Dryden wrote: “If we are not so great wits as Donne, we are certainly better poets.” Pope echoed the same thought: “Donne had no imagination, but as much wit, I think, as any writer can possibly have.” Dr. Johnson felt that Donne’s wit lay in the discovery of hidden resemblances in dissimilar things.
Donne’s wit is deliberate and peculiar. It impresses us with its intellectual vigour and force and does not merely lie in the dexterous or ingenious use of words. Secondly, it comes naturally from the author’s expansive knowledge and deep scholarship. According to Leishman, Donne’s wit lies in his imprudent and shocking language. T.S. Eliot, however, finds his wit in the fusion of opposites—the blend of thought and feeling, what he calls ‘sensuous apprehension of thought’.
The wit of Donne stands in a class by itself. Though his wit has points in common with Caroline poets, it has certain points which are peculiarly its own. Moreover, there is a world of difference between the wit of Shakespeare and Pope and the wit of the metaphysical poets. T.S. Eliot remarks: “The wit of the Caroline poets is not the wit of Shakespeare, and it is not the wit of Dryden, the great master of contempt, or of Pope, the great master of disgust.” In Elizabethan poets, wit is decorative and ornamental. It is a result of light-hearted fancy or strange setting. In Donne, wit is the result of weighty thought and brooding imagination. It is a living image, and a subtle conceit, coloured with the quality of his thought:
I saw Eternity on the other night.
Donne’s wit is grave and full of significance and sometimes pregnant with strange ideas.
Its complexity
Donne’s wit is a compound of many similes extracted from many objects and sources. His wit has certain distinct qualities. Donne’s wit is scholastic or dialectical rather than metaphysical. He is fond of a logical sequence, ingenious and far-fetched analysis. In his poem entitled, The Anagram, Donne by a series of dialectical paradoxes defends the prepos­terous proposition that an old and ugly woman will make a better wife than a young and handsome one.
Similarly Donne defends his apparent gaiety during the absence of his beloved in his own paradoxical manner:
That Love’s a bitter sweet, I never conceive
Till the sour minute comes of taking leave
Another I taste it. But as men drink up
In haste the bottom of a next civned cup
And take some syrup after, so do I.
To put all relish from my memory
Of parting, drown it in the hope to meet
Shortly, again and make our absence sweet.
Variety of moods
Donne’s wit expresses all moods from the gay to the serious, and from the happy to the pessimistic. Sometimes he is flippant and irreverent. In the Flea, he deifies a flea and calls it a marriage temple. In many poems, the poet debunks the customary vows of lovers and the Petrarchan conventions. Sometimes there is self-mockery and the poet plunges from the sublime to the ludicrous. The variety of poems on love like Love’s War, Love’s Diet, Love’s Exchange, Love’s Usury, and Love’s Alchemy shows the range of his passion and wit.
Mental vigour
The secret of Donne’s wit lies in its mental strength and intellectual power. It is an expression of his rational outlook on life, an embodiment of his poetic sensibility, and a reflection of his vision of life. One critic observes in this connection that it is “the outward projection of his sense of the many-sidedness of things, of his manifold possibility, and ultimately a recognition of the multiplicity of experience.” Donne could afford to laugh at established practices and convictions because he disliked humbug and pretence. A critic remarks: “What one sees all the time are established certainties being crumbled, positive pretensions denied or mocked, the very affirmations of the poem doubted or discredited before it ends, and a few certitudes won by hard proof in the face of contingent circumstance”.
The secret of Donne’s wit lies in his use of irony. Irony is a literary device by which words express a meaning that is often the direct opposite of the intended meaning. In this manner, the poet by implication comments on the situation. Donne’s irony is noticed in his attitude to love which can, to an extent, be summed up in the phrase: “What fools these mortals be!” The indignation and mockery takes on a literary phraseology and the intention of the poet is obvious. A.J. Smith writes in this connection: “The outright mockery of people and sects, and the impugning of motives in general, certainly isn’t cynical. It expresses a perspective which takes the world’s activities as ludicrous feverishncss in respect of bedrock human certainties; not however occasion for despair but, diverting by their own zestful life. The overturning of accepted evaluations seems the more convincing because it is the reverse of solemn: and because it emphatically doesn’t imply any rejection of experience, but rather a delight in it.”
Donne’s analogies are apt and full-blooded. In Love’s War, Donne compares the qualities of a good lover and a good soldier; as for instance, the capacity to keep awake for nights together, the courage to face an enemy (rival) boldly, to besiege and take by storm, to elude watchmen and sentries. Donne’s analogies are compressed syllogisms. Just look at this syllogism:
All that is lovable is wonderful
The mistress is wonderful,
Therefore the mistress is lovable.
Donne compresses the above argument in the following two lines:
All love is wonder; if we justly do
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?
At times, Donne’s wit takes the form of epigram:
If things of sight such Heaven be   
What Heavens are those we cannot see.
Donne makes a sort of pattern of thought, of a mind moving from the contemplation of a fact to a deduction from a fact, and thence to a conclusion. Oliver Elton notes the endless ‘teasing of words and thoughts’. Prof. Croft observes: “Thus the brain-sick fancies are piled up, twaddle upon twaddle, until the whole thing explodes with a passionate contrary or a familiar image.” The notable thing about his comparisons is their novelty and freshness, their references to unlikely things and places. For example, the poet compares the two lovers to the Phoenix and to both the eagle and the dove. The lovers will be ressurected after death like the Phoenix. Joan Bennett observes: “They evoke severe sense memories of a literary heritage. If they evoke memories, they are of large draughts of intellectual drink, imbibed from science rather than poetry. ”Donne is in the habit of elaborating a figure to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it.
Exaggeration is an important element in Donne’s wit. This exaggeration appears to be outrageous in its high spiritedness:
Go and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root....
Donne being an anti-traditionalist, is keen on shocking people. His wit takes a kind of moral holiday by flouting traditional ideals and morals in several relationships. Dr. Johnson takes exception to Donne’s wit on two grounds, aesthetic and moral. Dr. Johnson is offended by its lack of proportion and decorum, its “fundamental unseriousness, its detachment, and its immorality”
To teach thee, I am naked first, why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man
Dr. Johnson applies Pope’s definition to the works of Donne:” That which had been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”. Donne does not conform to this concept of wit. According to Dr. Johnson, wit is both conventional and new, but the wit of Donne is a combination of dissimilar images, a discovery of the occult resemblances in things unlike. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together, nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises, but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. If they frequently threw their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck at unexpected truth; if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage.

Dr. Johnson compares Donne’s paradoxes to remarks made by epicurean deities on the actions of men, devoid of interest or emotion. T.S. Eliot is also struck by the “telescoping of images and multiplied associations, constantly amalgamating disparate experiences always forming new wholes out of matter so diverse as reading of Spinoza, falling in love and smelling the dinner cooking”. In one of his satires, Donne emphasises his companion’s inconsistency and absurdity in hating naked virtue, although he loves his naked whore. Leishman dwells on the outrageous hyperbole and perversity of Donne’s wit—”wit, often deliberately outrageous and impudent and coat-trailing, often breath-takingly ingenious in the discovery of comparisons and analogies, but nearly always, in one way or another, argumentative, sagacious, rigid, scholastically argumentative, whether in the defence of preposterous paradoxes or in the mock-serious devising of hyperbolical compliments.”
She is all States and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Countries, Towns, Camps, beg of from above
A pattern of your love.
What can be more dramatic and hypothetical than:
I wonder, by my troth what thou and I
Did, till we lov’d?
When the lover is dead on account of disappointment in love, ghost of the lover will haunt and harass the beloved.
Donne is not merely witty but passionately witty or wittily passionate, in the two poems entitled The Anagram and The Bracelet. The words in themselves are not difficult, but the structure of sentences is far from simple.
To some critics, Donne’s wit is one of the means of escape, an escape from boredom and depression which constantly afflicted him during the years of his creative activity. Through wit and intellectual ingenuity, Donne avoids both self-pity and Hamlet-like frustration. Drummond rightly calls him “the best epigrammatist we have found in English”.
In the ultimate reckoning, Donne’s wit may be regarded not only symbolic of his spirit of interrogation and discovery but also the embodiment of introspection and intellectualism, the rebellion and conflict in the mind of Donne.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!