WITHIN THE LIMITS he set himself, John Carey has written an interesting and controversial book. He cannot spread himself through Donne's biography as does R.C. Bald in John Donne: A Life, and there is not room for the detailed commentary given by Helen Gardner and Wesley Milgate in their editions of the poems. This volume is, however, useful both to generalist and student, and idiosyncratic enough to be provocative.
Carey starts with two chapters on Donne's apostasy from the Roman Catholic Church, and follows with two on the ambition and drive which ultimately led him to high place as an Anglican divine. The next chapters deal with the poet's preoccupations; the physical universe and the human body; change as it works in the world and in himself, and death. The author then looks at Donne's use of reason, not as an instrument for discovering the truth, but as a "flexible poetic accessory." The last chapter deals with Donne's fondness for callida junctura (things "yoked by violence together," as Samuel Johnson put it), in which, in quite un-Horatian fashion, Donne joins ideas as well as words and images.
All through these chapters Carey spins out a running commentary on Donne's lyrics, with skill and insight. I am sorry, though he does not take a few pages for the acute metrical and structural analysis at which he is so very good, nor does he let us share his grasp of the rhythms and subtleties of Donne's prose.
When he deals with Donne as an apostate Catholic and as an Anglican, Carey's predispositions get in the way. He seems to be at something of a private war with Christianity, announcing rather grandly that religious doctrines are "imaginative choices." While in these chapters he does clearly demonstrate that Donne's "religious poems and his love poems are not as remote from each other as they might appear," his basic hostility toward religion keeps getting in the way. He overdoes the importance of the Jesuits in Donne's early life, and Donne's opposition to them later on. He plucks out of Donne's sermons moments that argue to Calvinism or at least to restlessness within the Anglican Church. To say that "love fills the crater left by apostasy" goes too far. The Anglican Church ultimately filled the void in Donne's life left by his abandonment of the Roman one. When we compare him to Thomas More we misread both time and place. In the first decade of the 17th century, it was far easier than in the 1530s for an honest searcher to accept in peace the religion of his nation and king.
In his next two chapters Carey is on surer gorund as he relates the grinding struggle that Donne, married to a dowerless woman and with an increasing family, waged just to keep his head above water. The humiliation, constant begging, sycophancy toward titled idiots, good work ground out for insignificant occasions, all are set down fully. Carey deals engagingly with the consequent egotism in many of Donne's poems; his lyrics are self-absorbed (as are Wordsworth's), but they are not self-admiring; "Complacency could not survive his urgent intricacies." He goes on to say that power is the shaping principle in Donne's verse. "It communicates itself through the dictatorial attitudes the poet adopts, through the unrelenting argumentativeness of his manner, and through the manipulation and violent combination of the objects of the sensed world in his imagery. The reader has a sensation of pressure gathered behind the poems, impelling them and subduing their recalcitrant materials." He talks of Donne's erotic poems with both insight and humor; "they resemble monodramas, in which the figure of Donne, cajoling, demanding, enunciating, occupies so much of the foreground that we only occasionally catch a glimpse, over his shoulder or under his arm, of some anonymous figure at whom the flow of language is being directed."
There are several places where this new book attacks some of the ancient myths about John Donne. Carey shows the distinction between "Jack Donne" and "Dr. Donne" to be a subterfuge of Donne's own quest for respectability. He also attacks the usual comment that the poet has no sensitivity to the visual or physical world. "The shallowness of mere vision is what his poems struggle to supervene. Whether he is writing about the human body, or animals, or plants, or inanimate objects, his effort is to engage us on other, and deeper, levels than the visual; to sensitize us, rather than to please our e;yes; and to enhance our awareness both of organic life and of the solid, intransigent materials in which it inheres." He also denies that Donne is unhealthily preoccupied with death and claims he treats death only to "vivify it by giving it an active role in poems which are passionately concerned with living." Carey points out that Donne's passion for science was essentially that of a collector. Donne "belongs . . . to a dying tradition, not to the brave new Baconian world. A medieval sense of the futility of human endeavor wasalways at hand, and sutied his aloof, sceptical temperament. He regarded scientific inquiry as, as best, an absorbing diversion: it would never solve or change anything."
The final chapter is probably the best in the book. Carey corrects Eliot, by showing that Donne "cultivated disjunction and junction equally and at the same time." He gives a list of these odd blends, including the duality of angels, life and death as imaged in "mummy," mandrakes which combine the vegetable and the human, and maps where east touches west. Carey can be seen at his best in his treatment of the oft anthologized comparison of lovers' souls to a compass. If they be two, they are two so As stiffe twin compasses are two, Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show To move, but doth, if the' other doe. And though it in the center sit, Yet when the other far doth rome, It leanes, and hearkens after it, And grows erect, as it come home.
"The delicacy with which the compasses are imagined, nd animated, is the really remarkable thing. It is achieved by Donne's verbs. The fixed foot 'leanes and hearkens,' as if bending its ear yearningly to catch some news of its companion. The moving foot 'far doth rome' and the verb makes it sound as if it is travelling trackless wastes, rather than drawing a circle on a sheet of paper. The dimensions swell; the gestures grow fluid and human. Donne feels with the compasses, and endues them with feeling. There is nothing of this in . . . the other poets who employ the compass image before Donne. They offer neat, inert comparisons. He interfuses and animates."
Carey's touch on the poems is sure and delicate. When he can stop arguing theology with Donne, both the poet and the preacher, he is a first-class critic and explicator of his poetry.