An Essay on John Donne and his Poetry
John Donne wrote that poetry 'makes things that are not, as if they were'. Discuss in relation to poems of memory.
At its heart, John Donne’s sermon of Easter Day 1622 and, especially the quotation alluded to here, concerns itself with the artifice of poetry when compared to the eternal truths of God, the church and faith. Donne draws attention to the phantasmatic nature of art and rhetoric, by claiming that its “counterfeit Creation” (Donne, 1929: 615) makes real that which is not; it invents and deludes through persuasion and duplicity, through subjectivity and artistic conceit.
In this essay I would like to look at this notion with reference to the poetry of memory. I will, firstly, outline what could be seen as the two main categories of poetic remembrance: the personal and the collective, then go on to examine how each both uphold and negate Donne’s notions before concluding with a brief discussion of the work of philosopher Henri Bergson and how it relates to the topic in question.
Memory, as it appears in poetry can be grouped loosely into two main areas: that which deals with a personal memory such as Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abby’ (Wordsworth, 1999: 205-208), Dylan Thomas’ ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ (Thomas, 1996: 80), or Thomas Hardy’s later poetry (Hardy, 1976) and that which deals with the collective, historical and commemorative memory such as Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1923: 282-284), Mayakovsky’s ‘An October Poem’ (Mayakovsky, 1965: 364-372) or Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s ‘Babii Yar’ (Yevtushenko, 1991: 102-105).
It is easy to see how poems of autobiographical memory such as Wordsworth’s or Thomas’ could be considered artificial and counterfeit; as Wordsworth himself says, it is only through the “many recognitions dim and faint” that the poets’ “mind revives again” (Wordsworth, 1998: 206) and so creates art. In other words, the dividing line between the actual memory and the poetic imagination is always unclear, as the latter obfuscates and perhaps even obliterates the former. In fact in an article by Beth Lau she equates Wordsworth’s notions with current research on memory and cognitive processes:
“One of Wordsworth's innovations…was to turn "remembered incident" into "poetic event”. Even the briefest survey of Wordsworth's oeuvre will document the importance of memory for this writer. Many of his best-known poems, such as "Tintern Abbey" and the "Intimations Ode," directly explore the workings of memory as the speaker in each compares his present self to an earlier self and struggles to come to terms with what has been lost and what gained with the passage of time.” (Lau, 2002: 1)
This could easily been seen as not only offering an insight into the creation of personal poetic memory but also mirroring the notions of Donne; we need only exchange the words “poetic event” into “poetic artifice” to reflect Donne’s thinking that poetry taints the truth with imagination and creativity.
Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ begins with a rather prosaic and, we could say, unaffected evocation of a personal memory:
“The hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between the trees and water…” (Thomas, 1995: 80)
However, as the poem progresses, this actual event is eroded and taken over by an artificial manifestation of the poet’s imagination:
“And the old dog sleeper
Along between nurses and swans
While the boys among the willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors.” (Thomas, 1995: 80)
Here, the real has been superceded by the false and artifice has replaced true memory. We could say, indeed, that Thomas has made things that “are not” appear “as they were”.
In the latter poetry of Thomas Hardy, that echoes with the memory and the ghost of his wife, reality and invention mix so much that it is difficult to discern the one from the other. Hardy, like Wordsworth and Thomas creates an intentional fiction out of a personal memory and in doing so blurs the line between what is false and what is real.
Conversely, the poetic commemoration carries the weight of historical memory, lending to it a far more objective, concrete veneer. This entire field is studied by Campbell, Labbe and Shuttleworth in their Memory and Memorials (2000) who equate the commemorative work of art with the rise in the desire for a more objective “historical memory” (Campbell, Labbe and Shuttleworth, 2000: 15) sometime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In Mayakovsky’s ‘An October Poem’, for instance, that celebrates the memory of the 1917 October revolution by the Soviets, there is a deliberate attempt to bypass the kinds of individual poetic memory that we saw in Wordsworth and that distorts and fictionalizes, and instead evoke an objective memory that is based in empirical, historical fact :
Out of petty
Should march again
(Mayakovsky, 1965: 364)
Here the poet attempts to create a poetry that is as real as machine gun fire, as concrete as apartment blocks, as communal as the marching feet of the revolutionaries and as objective a fact as the revolution itself. It is difficult here, to see how we could argue that the poet is creating the event he is describing, enshrined as it is in history.
The same could be said of Yevtushenko’s poem ‘Babii Yar’ that commemorates the mass slaughter of Russian Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War (Ragsdale, 1996: 241):
“No Monument stands over Babii Yar
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
As all the Jewish people.”
(Yevtushenko, 1991: 102)
Yevtushenko evokes an event in time that can be verified and is quite clearly not created merely by the poetic imagination. In a mimetic reflection of this point, the poet suggests that his work become a monument to the collective history and that, in almost the exact opposite of Donne’s thinking, it reveals the truth and the eternal rather than obfuscating it; poetry, in other words, seals the memory and makes it concrete.
These two poles of poems that deal with memory both uphold and negate Donne’s view. On the one hand, we have seen how poetry aims at a personal transmutation of subjective experience through the creative imagination such as in Wordsworth or Hardy and on the other, how it attempts to assert political and historical truths - bypassing the creative fiction of the artist altogether. The former, here, obviously upholds Donne’s view, the latter negates it.
However, in his work Matter and Memory (2004), Henri Bergson deconstructs the notion of what it is to remember; finding in it not a pure recollection of thoughts and experiences but a whole network of perceptual and cognitive elements that form an “aggregate” (Bergson, 2004: 14):
“That which I call my present is my attitude with regarding the immediate future; it is my impending action. My present is, then, sensori-motor. Of my past that alone becomes image and consequently sensation, at least nascent, which can collaborate in that action, insert itself in that attitude, in a word make itself useful; but from the moment that it becomes image, the past leaves a state of pure memory and coincides with a certain part of my present.” (Bergson, 2004: 180-181)
In Bergonsian terms, memory can never be divorced from the act of remembrance itself neither can it be separated from the mind that remembers. So, in Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko, Tennyson or any other work of so called historical commemoration there is always an element of the subjective, an element of poetic creation, a connection between the memory of the poet and the collective memory of the country or the race. In other words, even an historical fact such as the October revolution has to be isolated, given meanings and expressed by a subjective consciousness.
However, as we can see from the passage above, Bergson also shows that memory is never wholly subjective as we might assume from Wordsworth, Hardy or Thomas, instead it is a process of extension that connects the personal past with a perceptual present image. In other words, the poet of subjective memory is never wholly subjective; they are always reliant on some objective correlate that sets the imagination in motion.
Of course, all this means that Donne was only partially right in his assertion that poetry (and especially the poetry of memory) “makes things that are not, as if they were” because this misses the extent that memory is itself a creative act born of both an objective event and a subjective translation. Bergson allows us to deconstruct our notion of memory and suggest that, like poetry, it founded in both the subjective and the objective, both the real and the false both that which is there and that is which we create ourselves.
- Alexander, Ian (1957), Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection, (London: Bowes and Bowes)
- Bailey, J.O (1970), The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina)
- Bergson, Henri (2004), Matter and Memory, (London: Dover)
- Blunden, Edmund (1941), Thomas Hardy, (London: Macmillan)
- Campbell, Mathew, Labbe, Jacqueline and Shuttleworth, Sally (2000), their Memory and Memorials: 1789-1914: Literary Culture and Perspectives, (London: Routledge)
- Donne, John (1929), The Complete Poems and Selected Prose, (London: Nonesuch)
- Emery, Clarke (1962), The World of Dylan Thomas, (Florida: University of Miami)
- Hardy, Thomas (1976), The Complete Poems, (London: Macmillan)
- Lau, Beth (2002), ‘Wordsworth and Current Memory Research’, published in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 42,
- Mayakovsky, Vladimir (1965), Mayakovsky, (London: Dobson)
- Ragsdale, Hugh (1996), The Russian Tragedy: The Burden of History, (London: M.E. Sharpe)
- Tennyson, Lord Alfred (1923), The Collected Poems, (London: Collins)
- Thomas, Dylan (1995), The Dylan Thomas Omnibus, (London: Phoenix)
- Wordsworth, William (1998), The Collected Poems, (London: Wordsworth)
- Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (1991), The Collected Poems 1952-1990, (London: Mainstream)
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