Originality, hidden meanings and the canon: Reading Donne, Góngora and the critics in their days and ours

Download Originality, hidden meanings and the canon: Reading Donne, Góngora and the critics in their days and ours

Post on 14-Aug-2016




1 download




    The poetries of John Donne and Luis de G6ngora no longer excite controversy; they are today universally accepted as repre- sentative of the highest manifestations of Baroque sensibility. A century ago, of course, this was not so; the same lyrics, far from sparking critical acclaim, were in fact reviled. "Sobre gustos no hay nada escrito", goes the Spanish proverb: the final word on taste has not been written. Yet the criterion of "taste" hardly provides a satisfactory explanation for the wholesale rejection, and then reha- bilitation, of an entire aesthetic. The key lies rather, I believe, in the unspoken criteria which govern canon-making, which have less to do with taste than with fundamental attitudes toward the world, toward life, and toward the works which express such attitudes. Thus this study of the canonical status of poets like Donne and Grngora will investigate the ontology implicated in the creation, refashioning and indeed interpretation(s) of the canon.

    In a provocative 1988 article, Mafia Rosa Menocal challenged the uncanonical status of rock music by pointing out both that it follows the Petrarchan phenomenon of utilizing the disdained "vul- gar" tongue and that its connections to the "great tradition" - - be- ginning with the troubadour trobar clus tradition - - are explicit and frequent. Although her often witty attack reflects a personal appreciation for rock, the issues Menocal raises are of course rel- evant not only to this particular form but also to the way in which the canon is created and the criteria for admission to it.

    Menocal's assumption that rock lyrics have canonical status because their central subject is love is, however, problematic. It is

    Neohelicon XXD2 Akad~mial Kiad6, Budapest John Benjarnins K V,, Amsterdam


    surely true that the canon in poetry is thematically weighted heavi- ly on the side of what is generally called love. Yet if we look to T. S. Eliot's 1945 essay, "What is a Classic?", as representing his model for canonical status, we note that the only two works he allows to qualify - - The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy - - present love not as theme but as anti-theme: of Agape, not of Eros; of duty over love. If we use Eliot's standard, then, the true canon will ad- mit reason and not passion; or it will admit "love" for qualities other than those usually associated with the theme. In fact, it is not original to argue that Petrarch's Canzoniere is not about love, de- sire, passion, the adoration of the other, but solipsistically about the self; and that it derives from a tradition (the courtly love which also forms the heart of troubadour poetry) which is likewise ana- lytical and self-(specifically male self-)centered.

    Like the poets of the trobar clus tradition, both John Donne in England and his near contemporary in Spain, Luis de G6ngora, wrote lyrics which consciously riddle. When Donne's secular po- etry was censured, one of the central arguments against it was its imbalance or unreason, along with the inappropriateness of its "sci- entific" language to the presumed subject, love. Similarly, the at- tacks on G6ngora, even though he hardly ever made love his overt theme, center on his "excesses": the tortured syntax, obscurity and willful inventiveness and, on the other hand, his lack of moral sub- stance.

    Thus Donne's love poetry is attacked because it isn't proper love poetry; G6ngora's poetry is attacked as if it were love poetry - - of the same improper sort: unreasonable, unbalanced, incom- prehensible, selfish. To their early critics the poetry is, in a word, indecorous. But behind "buzz" words like "proper" and "indeco- rous" lies a more profound and significant attitude, whose source ultimately is the Platonic view of art and life, the stance which separates, makes distinctions, classifies and, inevitably, excludes, and which prefers answers to questions. Erich Auerbach in the first chapter of Mimesis divides narrative into a Greek model and its counter, the Hebraic, according to whether its attitude toward real-


    ity is classificatory, rational and problem-solving or historical, skeptical, interpretive and problematizing. The division can serve, I think, for poetry as well, and it helps us to understand the unspo- ken criteria which govern canon-making. ~

    Of course, one might well object that Eliot w or Vergil and Dante - - and Plato don't need to be the only sources for a canoni- cal model; yet in one unequivocal sense, they in fact are. Since the canonical classical model presents a world without secrets or sur- prises, a world ultimately knowable, it shows a world that seeks models, because the assumption of coherence presupposes re- peatability (and excludes idiosyncrasy, whether as originality or as "hidden" meanings)? Yet this acceptable model refuses to acknowl- edge fundamental ontological concerns which the unacceptable "model" foregrounds; for the knowable, repeatable world - - like Lacan's "imaginary", or like the psychological dynamic of meta- phor - is a closed system, and what it excludes are time and death. The skeptical, problematizing posture, by definition historical, is rooted precisely in a recognition of temporality.

    Eliot himself obliquely acknowledges this connection in "The Social Function of Poetry", which argues poetry's civilizing pur- pose, and therefore its necessity, when toward the very end of the essay he says: "But what I am apprehensive of is death." What he wants to say, as the essay's next and final sentence explains, is "the death of poetry"; but what he has actually articulated permits another explanation. Eliot's contemporary, Pedro Salinas, in a book on tradition and originality in medieval literature, says that this literature represents a struggle against death. The implication of

    i Lawrence Lipking makes a similar point about what he calls the love poetry of abandonment (which would, of course, be Dido's poem, rather than Aeneas') when he explains that it is not canonizable: "... it moves freely from high to low [style], from winner's point of view to loser's[, and] by refusing to accept such distinctions [it] erode[s] the authority of the canon" (6).

    2 Johnson himself recognizes this in his essay on Cowley when he describes Donne's meatphysical wit in terms of"a discordia concors .... or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike". Johnson's attitude to such a stance is, of course, critical.


    Eliot's sentence is that poetry in general has this function (as Lacan would argue all language does). That Eliot, who champions the civilized and rational in his prose, should produce a problematic, fragmented, idiosyncratic poetry, is itself less enigmatic if lyric poetry's dynamic is understood in this way.

    My contention, then, is that Metaphysical/Baroque poetry and all endeavors like it, from the trobar clus to hermetic rock, are always in a sense outside the canon, because they are outside any canonical mode of thought. It follows that in periods of instability - - or perhaps rather in periods which acknowledge and indeed privi- lege instability (the Baroque and our own are examples) - - a ba- roque art form will emerge?

    In this paper I will look first at some of the major critical state- ments made during or just after the lifetimes of two poets who, for much of the time since their deaths, were marginal to the canon: England's Donne (1572-1631) and Spain's G6ngora (1561-1627); my purpose will be to see how the Auerbachian taxonomy of "He- braic" and "Greek" can account for the bases of these poets' ac- ceptance or rejection. Then I will turn to the criticism which ush- ered in and followed their re-admission to the canon, early in this century, to illustrate how, within the modernist revival of the Ba- roque itself, these distinctions resurface and influence the reading and the canonical judgment of this poetry. The last portion of the paper is devoted to two twentieth-century readings of two stanzas

    3 I use the term Baroque in Frank Warnke's sense: as "a generic designation for the style of the whole period which falls between the Renaissance and the neoclassi- cal era; most modern readers agree in finding a period quality in the literature of the late sixteenth century and the first two-thirds of the seventeenth..." (European 3). But I agree with Alexander A. Parker that the essence of Baroque style is wit, whose basis is metaphor in its Aristotelian definition as "an intuitive perception of the simi- larity in dissimilars" (Parker 11, 14); hence, unlike Warnke, I make no distinction between Baroque and Metaphysical styles of poetry.

    I have also idiosyncratically extended the term "modernism" to cover the Span- ish contemporaries of the English modernists. Spain's poets of the 'twenties are never called "modernists" because the word "modernista" had already been applied to an earlier generation of Spanish-American poets.


    from a long poem by G6ngora, demonstrating that, as one might expect, the taxonomy may apply not only to the poet being read but also to the one doing the reading.

    With the exception of Ben Jonson's isolated remarks, both in favor ("Donne is the first poet in the world for some things") and opposed ("for not keeping accent, [he] deserved hanging"),* the only available source of contemporary comment on Donne is that in the fourteen English (and one Latin) elegies reprinted by Herbert Grierson in 1912; the rest of the "criticism" consists of general statements on poetics. Some of these support the kind of poetry Donne wrote; some do not. The elegies, of course, are highly favorable, but an occasional verse makes clear that not all Donne's poetry was appreciated by all his readers. Specifically, a few of the elegists record their own or others' hesitations about the amorous verse; and it is also possible that for these "critics" the religious work includes the sermons as well as the poetry. In any case the question for the elegists does not seem to be - - as it is for the theorists - - whether poetry should be valued for its wit or its wis- dom, but rather whether love, or at least wittily treated love, is a fit subject.

    Of the theorists, Peacham (1622), Alexander (1634) and Rey- nolds (1633?) may be said to line up in the metaphysical camp, but only Reynolds does so unreservedly. 5 Peacham judges Horace ap- provingly as "most acute and artificial.., wittie ... sentences ... illustrated with sundrie and rare figures", and refers to Martial's "divine wit", although he also criticizes Perseus' obscurity and Lucan's "conceits unbounded". Alexander argues that although lan- guage "is but the apparel" of poetry, its beauty but not its strength, of the three most admired elements "a wittie conceit doth harmoni-

    4 Recorded in William Drummond's Conversations (1619), reprinted as a post script to Johnson's Timber in J. E. Spingam, Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, 1908.

    s The essays, also collected in Spingam, are: Henry Peacham, "Of Poetry", from The Compleat Gentleman; Sir William Alexander, "Anacrisis"; Henry Reynolds, "Mythomystes".


    ously delight the spirits"; but he reproves Scaliger for his "aggra- vated" hyperbole. In other words, the delight in conceit of both theorists is tempered by a sense of decorum and governed by a belief in the ultimate usefulness of poetry in telling what the world is like.

    Reynolds, however, writes from a truly Baroque perspective, and berates those poets who simply "peddle trivial [philosophical] wares" adorned by "fabulous rhymes"; for although poetry should be philosophical, if a poem is only that, it might as well be written in prose: poetry should be "difficult to be found out". And Reynolds' approval of riddling and obscurity is based, as we might expect, on a belief not in a rationally knowable world but in a world of hidden correspondences; as he says, the "greatest defect of modem poets" is their ignorance of the "mysteries and hidden properties of Na- ture". But among the English theorists Reynolds is an apparently minor voice. At least with respect to their later reputations, it is Jonson's voice that survives, assuring us that poetry must be clear and not riddling, that it must weave, not ravel or knot, that the study of poetry must provide a "pattemes for living well and hap- pily", and that farfetched metaphors or unfit comparisons or too much latinizing do not serve this purpose. (Likewise Hobbes, al- though he is somewhat later, tells us that "the subject of poetry is the manners of men" and that poems should not offer needless dif- ficulty or virtuosity [such as Herbert's picture poems] or obscure correspondences and rhyme.) 6

    Reading these essays, one might wonder where Donne (or Herbert or Marvell, for that matter) found their audience. 7 But the theorists do not refer specifically to their contemporaries (except for Hobbes on Herbert) and it is not clear whether in fact they considered Donne obscure or "knotted", his metaphors "farfet" and his subject not providing a "patterne for living well". The elegists,

    6 See Thomas Hobbes, "Answer to Davenant's Preface to Gondibert", 1650. 7 Suckling, in his 1637 "Session of the Poets", mentions Jonson, but none of

    the "Metaphysicals".


    on the other hand, are writing about Donne's poetry and although the occasion fairly well assures approbation and even panegyric, still the very quantity of those gathered (Grierson calls them "an impressive collection") suggests that they are not isolated voices. For these elegists Donne is the examplepar excellence of wit, which, now that he is dead is, in the words of fully half of them, "wid- dowed", "witlesse", "speechlesse", "dumbe". Only a single elegist remarks on his breadth of knowledge. Several mention his reli- gious poetry, usually in preference to the secular, though only one, Chudleigh, limits his praise to it (saying that Donne "brought wit home to pietie"); only one sees fit to single out the earlier love poetry for specific praise. None mentions obscurity or clarity; none, hidden realms of knowledge. Virtually all the praise is directed to the language as wit, invention, fancy. Two set Donne's art over that of nature; two make allusions to specific Donne poems; sev- eral attempt conceits themselves (none more "farfet" than Thomas Browne's description of the amorous verse, Donne's "looser rap- tures", as the uncircumcised "foreskinne of the phansie"); but only one actually suggests that Donne be imitated. Several are, rather, at pains to tell us, directly or indirectly, that such an enterprise is futile: Donne is dead and with him, wit; Donne is inimitable.

    Plainly, Donne did not seem obscure to these writers, and one might...