Paraphrase used in a review of Empson on Donne

[What follows is the beginning of a review by Eric Griffiths, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and author of The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry  in the Times Literary Supplement  for July 30, 1993. He is reviewing William Empson's posthumous Essays on Renaissance Literature: vol. 1, Donne and New Philosophy  (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

Please note in this extract the engaging, informal style and tone, the closeness to specifics of the text which readers can check for themselves, and the incidental reliance on paraphrase to illuminate difficult or ambiguous bits of the poem. In all these way, the piece is a model of critical writing.]


Sleeping with someone is like nothing on earth; it renovates the planet:
I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov'd? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?
T'was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd, and got, t'was but a dreame of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking soules,
Which watch no one another out of feare;
For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.

As often in Donne, these lines ring, not untrue, but half-true; he has his arms wide open, he also has his fingers crossed. The poem begins by asking whether there is life before sex, and at once concludes there isn't. Virgins idle and doze in an infantile state of virtual reality; sex is where we grow up, "get real". He sounds bracingly decided until the fifth line: "T'was so; But . . ." Even this "but" means to have no real buts about it; it paraphrases as "except for this pleasure -- sharing a bed -- all pleasures are illusions". This construction is itself so elliptical that other possible senses start nudging at the mind: "True though it is that sex is the properly adult entertainment, just think about a single point I'd like to make ('But this'): as all pleasures are illusions, might not this new one, whose radiance now casts what went before into the shade, be later yet another let-down?"

Donne is not a newcomer to the sexual world. The stanza ends paying a great compliment to his bedfellow; he says she is the Form of all beautiful things. As William Empson remarks, this is "the only bit of metaphysics in Metaphysical Poetry. . . . The style is commonly used to praise a ruler or saint or mistress, who is told 'You are in person the Platonic Idea of Justice, Virtue, Beauty' or whatever quality is being praised." Charming. Yet because people say (and could say in Donne's English), for instance, "Look at that one over there, the one with the pearls; she's a beauty", the words "If ever any beauty . . ." start to mean that the women he has slept with before were just rehearsals for her. This might not be so gratefully received: he says she is the Girl of Girls, but then gives her reason to suspect he says the same to all the girls. Rather as in Hardy's The Well-Beloved , the Platonism can excuse philandering -- not so much "Oh, all the others mean nothing to me" as "Oh, all the others mean You to me". Whether she bridles at this or not, the second meaning makes trouble for "our waking soules" at the opening of the next stanza.

His point was they had both snored away their lives before sleeping together woke them up, but now he has, with oblique and awkward candour, mentioned his "dreame" of other women. He awakes from previous affairs as well as from the pre-sexual. Does she? We don't know, nor do we know whether Donne would have minded if she'd replied "I know what you mean: I feel exactly like that about all those ostlers", so it is inappropriate to get enraged about The Double Standard. The dawning "our" in "our waking soules" is still clouded by this thought. So too, the next line; it begins hideously ("Which watch"), but so careless an ear might be apt to suggest how blissful and carefree they both feel. The relaxation is only for a second, though; extreme care is needed with "watch not one another out of feare" to ensure it means: "we gaze on each other without that scanning which often informs attention to other living creatures (who might be predators)". These lovers are not on the look-out, they are looking for the fun of it. Alas, the words also mean, unless carefully steered by the voice, that they are afraid and can't meet each other's eyes. Donne did not want to say so at this time and in this place, but, Empson was right, "much of the haunting quality of Donne comes from writing about a total situation, without realising quite how much of it he was getting into his language or even what all his cross-currents of feeling about it were; he broods like a thunder-cloud, as well as flashing like one."

[Remainder omitted, but well worth reading.]


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