The act of reading is, for me, a spiritual one – almost the unfashionable word to use, perhaps – but reading, and in particular reading poetry, is a transformative exercise. I am a writer, and perhaps I can only say that for me reading poetry can rend and rebuild. In an essay on Yeats, Daniel Albright notes that Auden (who regarded the job of poetry as ‘disintoxication’) reviled and feared Yeats’ poetry because what runs through his work is an awareness of the its power to penetrate deep, uncertain and undetermined regions of the self, an awareness of poetry’s roots in magic and shadow. But what I am concerned with is not only rhyming doggerel as magical affect, but the power of poetry to say things we did not know that we knew, yet strike some deep well inside of us.
In much of my meditation and self-examination, I refer to literary texts or visual art or music… having no sacred book, I have no choice but to take the history of human expression as my mirror, cracked and uneven though it is (and perhaps, for that, its cracks throw up strange reflections and angles denied by the unbroken surface.) And in such reflections, which are inevitably delvings into my small soul, I prepare for some inconsequentialities – with a bag half-stocked with all sorts of incomplete knowledge, and no interest in the vagaries of production, or even the corpse of aggressive literary historicism.
I have been reading a lot of Donne of late, who interests me not simply because of his frank sexuality and earthiness, but because he was a man of deep sensuality with an equal urge towards asceticism and deep religious conviction. Rather than his early poetry – which is witty and rakish, and tends to be the more anthologised – I am interested in the poetry he wrote while closer to death, and in particular the sequence known as the Holy Sonnets. In criticism and analysis, they are usually characterised as embodying particular reformation struggles over the meanings of grace, but that really doesn’t much matter in the act of reading. One of my favourites:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
One of the reasons I find so much resonance in the poetry of the English renaissance and the reformation is the sense in which everything is at stake – that the stable order of reality is uncertain, that grace might be inaccessible if one falls from belief for one minute, a terror that provokes unrest and novelty. And perhaps more so, the belief in the power of words to alter things – one of the reasons I find the morally upright and censorious interesting is because of the implicit belief in one’s own weakness and deviancy that frequently accompanies such rectitude. To read antitheatrical literature of the sixteenth century is to discover a world in which public performance and the crafting of words can move and profoundly alter the audience, to the point of risking their damnation.
But the poem itself: Batter my heart… how extraordinary, how plangent? And in a sonnet of all places, it seems a misshapen sentiment to find. The sonnet, after all, is supposed to be the unequalled vehicle for the anatomising of love – especially in its unattainability, coldness, slippery impossibility. Hence Petrarch’s Laura, hence Dante, hence even Shakespeare. But Donne’s cold-hearted lover, the object of his jealousy from which he wishes to wring a sign, is God. Just as woman, in the earlier elegies is a treacherous whirlpool or a polymorphous devourer, God’s love should, for Donne, be brutal, annihilating, transforming. The extremities of Love are totalising, they are not easy or safe, they are absolute: Batter my heart.
Is this pathological? Is it masochistic, or simply erotic? Does it matter? To begin to answer this question, we must turn to the sense of self that pervades Donne, which is not unitive but fractured and multiple. Look at his choice of conceit in the poem above: the self as usurped town, the habitude of many different voices – and more so, usurped, full of alien things, unwanted things, dissenting voices. Elsewhere in the holy sonnets, Donne writes:
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite…
This sense of the uncertain space of the interior and of a vast, cavernous self of almost-autonomous parts, that rebel in echoes and evoke the unexpected, that horrify the small speaking self because it recognises that they are somehow the same being, is what I find so profoundly compelling. Donne’s solution to this is to demand purgation, a pentecost that involves a fire more complete and horrific than the apostles received – burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal/Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal. The hints, dropped mysteries and intimations are not enough for Donne –you as knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend. The idea of mending is not enough, there is nothing worth patching up, what Donne wants is a single sign that in destroying him renders him whole, and thus erases everything uncertain and multiple. But there is another sense in which the ardent desire for union isn’t simply pious but eroticised, a divine supplication in which all is risked (an echo of Sappho, πάν τόλματον, ‘all is to be dared’) because to keep something back is impossible in the force of that love.
Yet there is something still, isn’t there? The other strain in the holy sonnets, where the tension comes, is the obstinate self, the self that speaks… the writing self, which is never totally eaten up, which returns from drowning in the Lethean flood. And more, the demand for the sign is here, is now. The concern with annihilation also tells another truth: that there is a self of such significance to be humbled, that the passions are of greater intensity and significance than those of every other man. Except you ravish me, nothing else is capable of encompassing me, except you… Elsewhere in the sequence:
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattered bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.
And this demonstrates Donne’s sense of his own significance, his own deeply-felt personal relationship with the divine that exceeds the bounds of propriety and even normality: on that last busie day all the infinities of souls should be stopped, and all attention should be diverted to him, and against this cosmic picture he pins the single demand of his own redemption, which demands profound disruption: not only his spiritual elevation, but for God to descend to the ‘lowly ground’ for him, even that the dispensation of the Christian sacrifice is not enough for him – the subjunctive on the final line dismisses it as almost an irrelevancy, only important as it relates to his redemption.
(It is, I think, sometimes interesting to speculate on the obsessive image, the primal scene of a writer: Milton’s, for instance is the fall, not only in Paradise Lost but throughout his work, Donne’s perhaps is the incarnation, insofar as it represents the irruption of difference into order – as Yeats put it:
…their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
So this reading of Donne, this desire for totalisation, this demand for a sign, the anxious question what is this speaking thing – what is this act of reading for me? I am not a follower of the Christian God, but the idea of grace as an evanescent, mercurial quality interests me. And the rage, the passion, the urgent demand: come down, come down, come down. There are moments, too, when I feel the absence of something torn from me, of the fractures and echoes and doubts that demand purgation and can never be purged. The sense that writing is always an exercise in distance, in writing of my beloved I weave myself a lattice of words which becomes a fence. In staring, gape-mouthed at the face of God one knows that words fail, as a human being, on this lowly ground, I know equally that words (which escape us and exceed us, being both infinitely meaningful and infinitely fragile) are all we have.
What have I left out? That there are times when I long for the clarity of the desert. Where do we go to see truth? Into the desert, up to a high place, away into simplicity. Where the sun is strong and the lines are clear. Here is shadow. Here is sun. Make a choice. Where words can be graven into tablets and laws are made. Or equally to sew my mouth shut, to say nothing, gouge out my eyes and see nothing, to bear witness to the blank, pitiless desert. Batter my heart, O Lord, until I am made perfect, unmoving and ambitionless as death. The desire tears me in two. Because we do not live in the desert, we live in a world where our hearts are in our mouths and our silence always on the brink of speaking. We live in a world where I can desire two things at one time, where my desire is not pure but vacillates, that my body speaks with a thousand voices.
And this, finally, what I have not said: the angel and the lover, the lover and the angel, for me, in my foolishness, I cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends. What do we search for from body to body and bed to bed? When I say plant your hand in my heart and when my lover holds the candle or the look in his eyes, open, looking up under the chain or yielding to sharpness… that moment of terror and love in the eyes where both are intermingled at once: those are my best days, when I shake with fear