Donne as an Aid to Teenage Angst

Giulio Romano, Two Lovers

Well, the semester is underway.  Yesterday I began teaching one of my favorite classes, the early British Literature survey (Literature in History I).  Along with Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Wife of Bath, Doctor Faustus, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Paradise Lost, I will be teaching the poetry of John Donne.  I will teach Donne differently than Vivian Bearing teaches him in Margaret Edson’s play W;t. I will teach him differently than I myself was taught the poet in high school and college.

I first encountered Donne as a sophomore in high school. Will Solie, my English teacher at Sewanee Military Academy, was singing the praises of “Good Morrow.” Here it is:

I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean’d till then ?
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den ?
‘Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

I was intrigued but confused.  I remember getting bollixed up in the first stanza, which seemed terribly convoluted. “Sucked on country’s pleasures, childishly”? “Snorted we in the seven sleepers’s den”? The lines don’t exactly come tripping off the tongue, and what the hell do they mean anyway? The first one seems to be something to do with not being grown up yet and the second one needs a footnote that then confuses as much as it enlightens: “Cave in Ephesus where, according to legend, seven Christian youths hid from pagan persecutors and slept for 187 years” (Norton Anthology of British Literature, volume I). Okay…

Then again, maybe the lines are meant to sound cumbersome and awkward. Maybe that’s what life feels like before he meets the love of his life. Because once he does, then the poem begins to soar: “If ever any beauty I did see,/Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.”

The rest of the poem is about waking up in bed with his love and the two looking into each others eyes (they have to be real close to see their reflections) and realizing that they don’t need anything else. There’s even an ejaculation image (see my last post on this) once one realizes that dying was a Renaissance pun for sexual spending. The alchemical balance is so perfect between the lovers that there will be no let-down. New global discoveries may be riveting the age, but all he needs is what’s-her-name.

You’d think that a poem about sexual awakening would engage a 16-year-old, but that’s not how I ended up seeing it.Rather, I saw reading Donne as a way to show that I was smart and to give me an identity apart from the jocks and other students that made me feel small.I felt superior in understanding him when they didn’t.(I think that is why I liked the elitist T. S. Eliot at this age as well.)In short, I was a nerdy little snot.

But this is not what I now regret. Adolescence, after all, is a perpetual identity crisis where all careen between arrogance and insecurity, and it is understandable that teens grab for any lifelines that can give them a shred of self respect. I can forgive myself for my behavior then.  No, what I regret is that my defensiveness kept me from opening myself up to what Donne could have taught me.  And my defensiveness carried over to Carleton College, where I studied Donne in Davis Taylor’s early British Literature survey.

Literature in those days was not taught in a way that would help a student break through adolescent insecurities.  For many English faculty at Carleton, literary interpretation was guided by the New Criticism, which taught that there were secret readings to works that only the initiated could ferret out. This was mostly a cerebral approach, and if one talked about how literature made one feel, one was guilty of “the affective fallacy.”  Literature circumvented mushy sentimentality through the use of “objective correlatives” (Eliot’s phrase).  Poetry was supposed to take one away from the world, not plunge one more deeply into it. The idea that literature could actually help one live one’s life better was seen with scorn by some at Carleton.

Given that there was a war going on in my college days (1969-73) and that I had a low draft number that would kick in once my student deferment ran out (#51), the English faculty’s approach just made literature seem irrelevant. So I majored in history, even though literature is what I really loved. I switched back to literature in grad school.

Taught with an eye towards my life concerns, Donne would have been very useful to me. For instance, I felt very vulnerable around women and Donne has powerful poems that reveal his own insecurities. Sometimes he’s crowing about a new sexual conquest (as in “Sun Rising”), at other times he’s lambasting women (as in “Song”). What if I had had a teacher with whom I could have shared my anxieties about relationships or my discomfort with guys who posture and who lash out against women. Through Donne, I could have gotten a better sense of what such posturing and lashing out means. It would have been nice to have a teacher who both understood Donne and who listened as closely to my concerns as I try to listen to those of my students.

Incidentally, I taught my “Couples Comedy in the British Restoration and 18th Century” course with an eye to such concerns.   I share some of my students’ responses to works in the course here, here, and here.

I know there are some who would say that, in the approach I am advocating here, I am reducing poetry to therapy.  Certainly Vivian Bearing would accuse me of such, at least before she gets cancer. I believe, however, that the poetry we respond to the deepest is always about our own concerns and that, if we pretend it isn’t, we are just hiding out. Vivian, I think, is drawn to Donne’s passion for life and to his deep self-doubts because she shares them. But because she’s not willing to acknowledge this, even to herself, she has found an elaborate and convoluted way to express her feelings.  Her means of expression is traditional academic criticism.

Here’s an example. At one point she remembers a student asking, “if [Donne] is trying to figure out God, and the meaning of life, and big stuff like that, why does he keep running away?” The reason Vivian recalls this conversation, I think, is because she herself has been running away. It is only when she is dying that she learns to stop running and finds a final peace.

In short, all literary criticism is autobiography.  The question is whether or not we acknowledge it as such. I think teachers can become invaluable guides if they listen very hard to the interactions their students have with literature (not to mention how they themselves interact). It takes sensitivity and it takes time and we can help some students more than others, but the potential is always there.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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