Tuesday, August 18, 2009

some legacies

The Will, by John Donne

BEFORE I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe,
    Great Love, some legacies; I here bequeath
    Mine eyes to Argus, if mine eyes can see;
    If they be blind, then, Love, I give them thee;
    My tongue to Fame; to ambassadors mine ears;
        To women, or the sea, my tears;
        Thou, Love, hast taught me heretofore
    By making me serve her who had twenty more,
That I should give to none, but such as had too much before.

    My constancy I to the planets give;
    My truth to them who at the court do live;
    My ingenuity and openness,
    To Jesuits; to buffoons my pensiveness;
    My silence to any, who abroad hath been;
        My money to a Capuchin:
        Thou, Love, taught`st me, by appointing me
    To love there, where no love received can be,
Only to give to such as have an incapacity.

    My faith I give to Roman Catholics;
    All my good works unto the Schismatics
    Of Amsterdam; my best civility
    And courtship to an University;
    My modesty I give to soldiers bare;
        My patience let gamesters share:
        Thou, Love, taught`st me, by making me
    Love her that holds my love disparity,
Only to give to those that count my gifts indignity.

    I give my reputation to those
    Which were my friends; mine industry to foes;
    To schoolmen I bequeath my doubtfulness;
    My sickness to physicians, or excess;
    To nature all that I in rhyme have writ;
        And to my company my wit:
        Thou, Love, by making me adore
    Her, who begot this love in me before,
Taught`st me to make, as though I gave, when I do but restore.

    To him for whom the passing-bell next tolls,
    I give my physic books; my written rolls
    Of moral counsels I to Bedlam give;
    My brazen medals unto them which live
    In want of bread; to them which pass among
        All foreigners, mine English tongue:
        Though, Love, by making me love one
    Who thinks her friendship a fit portion
For younger lovers, dost my gifts thus disproportion.

    Therefore I`ll give no more, but I`ll undo
    The world by dying, because love dies too.
    Then all your beauties will be no more worth
    Than gold in mines, where none doth draw it forth;
    And all your graces no more use shall have,
        Than a sun-dial in a grave:
        Thou, Love, taught`st me by making me
    Love her who doth neglect both me and thee,
To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.

This poem shows a skill credited to Donne by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Donne, he said, could "Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots".* If the iron pokers are the constraints of poetic convention, all poets could be said to strive for this. Coleridge meant something more: as well as these constraints, Donne bound himself with high conceit, a provocative wit that distances the poet from his audience and seems to seek applause for brittle intellectual virtues rather than deeply felt emotional ones. Coleridge says Donne's genius lay in his ability to deliver genuine poetry via "fancy's maze."

This particular iron-wreathed true-love knot is a very satisfying one to me. Donne directs the poem to Love itself, which he says has taught him hard lessons: that to his mistress his affections are superfluous, that she is incapable of appreciating them, that she has no regard for them, that he is merely reflecting back what she provoked from him, and that she really cares more for younger lovers than he is. He concludes by complaining that Love has defeated itself by attaching his affections to one who cares for neither him nor his love.

Donne packages these observations in a petition drawn up as a will — legacies that he asks Love's permission to bequeath: "Before I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe, great Love, some legacies; I here bequeath . . ." They are both witty and moving.

{John Donne, by Isaac Oliver; source: wikipedia}

{detail from a painting of John Donne; source: Reuters photo in telegraph.co}

{Argus Panoptes is a figure from Greek mythology. Argus "the all-seeing" is sometimes depicted as a monster, other times, a hero. Hera enlisted him to guard the maiden, Io, from the intentions of her unfaithful husband. Zeus countered her tactic by sending his messenger, Hermes, to deal with Argus. Hermes told Argus one inane story after another until the last of his hundred eyes went to sleep at which point Hermes dispatched him with one blow. Hera felt so badly for Argus that she set his eyes in the tail of the peacock. Source: argusproof.com }

{Goddess of fame; wikipedia: "In Greek mythology, Pheme (pronounced /?fe?me?/ FAY-may; Greek: ????, Roman equivalent: Fama) was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notablity, her wrath being scandalous rumors." Source: wikipedia }

{Capuchin: member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin: "The Capuchins, whose origins date from 1525, began as a reform Order of the Observants. The Capuchins desired to follow more closely the Rule and Testament handed down by St. Francis. In particular they sought a more contemplative life-style coupled with a stricter observance of poverty in accordance with the earliest traditions of the Order." Source: www.capuchins.org}

{Fourteenth century image of schoolmen}

{From a book by Mary Gentle: 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (in US A Sundial in a Grave: 1610). London: Gollancz, 2003.}

Some definitions from OED:
1. Want of capacity . . . 1611 FLORIO: Incapacita, incapacity, vncapablenesse.

2. The quality of being unlike or different; unlikeness, dissimilarity, difference, incongruity. . . c1555 HARPSFIELD: There is a great disparity and odds between them.

1. The quality or condition of being unworthy . . . 1589 NASHE: Let my vnschooled indignities conuert themselves to your courtesie. a1618 SYLVESTER: Accept my Zeale, and pardon mine Indignitie.

3. One engaged in scholastic pursuits; a professional teacher or student. 1651 HOBBES: The frivolous Distinctions, barbarous Terms, and obscure Language of the Schoolmen.

1. a bell tolled to announce a death; also houseling-bell, lich-bell, sacring-bell, sanctus- or saunce-bell; death-bell. c1620 Z. BOYD: Thou a passing bell, 'Gainst their transgressions did so loudly knell.

1. trans. To render or make out of due proportion.
1593 SHAKESPEARE: Shee did corrupt frayle Nature with some Bribe..To shape my Legges of an vnequall size, To dis-proportion me in euery part. a1631 DONNE Nothing disproportions us..as murmuring.

An internet search will turn up many sources for the text of this poem. I first found it in Immortal poems of the English language: an anthology, compiled by Oscar Williams (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1968 printing of a 1952 edition). I picked up this handy anthology on the sale rack at my local public library — one dollar well spent.
{image source: librarything}

{This fragment contains at top the lines:
    To nature all that I in rhyme have writ;
        And to my company my wit:
        Thou, Love, by making me adore
    Her, who begot this love in me before,
Taught`st me to make, as though I gave, when I do but restore.
Burlington, Richard Boyle, earl of, 1612–1698. A book of verses collected by me R. Dungarvan, ca. 1630; source: folger.edu}


With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots,
Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots;
Rhyme's sturdy cripple, fancy's maze and clue,
Wit's forge and fire-blast, meaning's press and screw.

Poems of Coleridge, Selected and Arranged with an Introduction and Notes by Arthur Symons (London: Methuen, 1905)

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