Sunday, April 5, 2009

NPM 3: "Oh God, Ravish Me," by John Donne

You remember I made a funny Star Trek vid out of John Donne's "To His Mistress Going to Bed." (It's a hit on youTube, too: 4,343 views in 9 months! I get such a kick out of this.)
There's nothing funny in this anguished poem, following, by the older John Donne, but it makes me laugh wryly in recognition.
If you ever struggle with what we moderns call addiction (and Saint Augustine called habit), you might recognize it too. It's like, "Oh God! Please don't let me eat this pan of brownies/drink this quart of booze/make eye contact with that pick-up artist/[fill in your own Test of Free Will I Always Flunk here]. This gentle, reasonable approach of yours? It ain't working."

Where "Oh God, Fuck Me" (previous post) is an easy poem, a happy poem of praise, this sonnet of Donne's, which could be called, "Oh God, Rape Me" (from the Latin rapere, to seize, ravish, carry off), is difficult and disturbing. Asking God to take away your free will, to force you to be good and true--it's so weird, so undoctrinal, so ...familiar, it's high on my list of favorites.
This guy, I swear, he could be me.

Holy Sonnet, XIV

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,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved 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.

--From the Works of John Donne.

An Idea for a Story about the Transmigration of Souls
Manuscript of first verse of "A valediction forbidding mourning," by John Donne, from Chetham's Library MS A.4.15

I feel with John Donne what I feel with Saint Augustine--a recognition of my own mind. It's peculiar, like coming across your brain leading another life. Of course we recognize ourselves in writers of the past all the time, but sometimes--rarely, in my life--it goes beyond "Hey! I'm like that too!" and into "This could be me speaking." (If only I could speak like that.)

If I wrote fiction, I would turn this feeling into a story about the transmigration of souls--the sort of thing Connie Willis writes.
It would start with me sitting here at my computer on a Sunday morning, eating baby dill pickles (yes, I am), and... And what? I don't know, I am a nonstarter at fiction.

Recognizing one's own mind in someone else's life doesn't mean you always agree with or like the way they say everything. I want to argue with these guys sometimes (especially Augustine): "No, no, think again--we wouldn't say that!" I want to say; or, "Hold it, hold it, you're really going off the track here."

"Batter my heart" is one of a series of "holy sonnets" Donne (1572-1631) wrote in 1618 (when he was about my age) that includes the more famous Death, be not proud. More famous? I'm not sure, but that's the one we had to read in high school English anyway.
But why?
"Death" is a remote poem, an intellectual exercise. Of course most of his poems are twisty mind games, but usually there's something of the living man in them.
Did Donne really believe that death doesn't win in the end? I suppose so, because he usually says what he thinks, and he refers to heaven as a fact elsewhere, as in Sonnet 17, on the death of his wife. More convincingly there, because set against his real grief. But Donne's not put himself in "Death be not proud" and I think it's a bore, like someone telling you "they're in a better place" when you're grieving, and you just want to tell them to fuck off.

I don't know, though. I wonder if "Death be not proud" was sort of like the World War I soldiers' song "Death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?" Whistling in the dark, you know. That I recognize.
I guess I'd find out if I'd write that novel.

Hm. It occurs to me to mention that I've never studied Donne in any formal sense, the way I studied Augustine. It makes a huge difference of course--I don't know, for instance, who he is writing for--or against. So, you know, don't go quoting me in your term paper. : )

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