Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It Tolls for Donne

Over the last week or so, I’ve been puzzling over John Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” Each figure and image works powerfully, but it seems to me the poem has too many figures and images. Only about twice as long as a sonnet, Donne’s hymn has four times as many leading metaphors, which is to say, it has four, since a sonnet, such as one of Donne’s, typically has only one.

In the first stanza, Donne talks of death as a door to the choir room of Heaven. But rather than speaking of participating in the music, he looks forward to the time when “I shall be made thy music.” God is making an orchestra, and Donne himself is one of the instruments. One might fuss about Donne combining “choir” and “instrument,” but a group of instruments from the same family is sometimes called a choir. And in any case, I wouldn’t want to lose the line about tuning the instrument at the door.

The next three stanzas pursue a metaphor of geography. Maybe the extent of this section is what has me puzzled. If Donne could carry out the conceit for fifteen lines, why not all thirty? Or why not write a poem of only fifteen lines? Why pick up the image of maps suddenly in line 6 only to drop it again near the end? Disjointed or not, though, this section makes the poem great. Who has not lain helpless and naked and felt that doctors are treating him as a mere object? In Donne’s case, perhaps the physicians were drawing on his skin and measuring distances, or perhaps he had recently seen a flat map of the round earth and thought of its relation to his flat position. Either way, the doctors struck him as cartographers, and from there come all the wonderful, punning uses of the word “straits.” All this world’s most beautiful, most heavenly places are reached by straits, he points out, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the next world, too, lies beyond a strait, a strait through which the waters flow only one way. The best part of this best section compares the meeting of the western egde and eastern edge on a map of the world to the identity of death and birth in the experience he’s about to undergo.

The third figure, the comparison of Christ and Adam, has a geographical connection: Donne begins stanza 5 with the odd assertion that Eden and Calvary occupied the same place on earth, despite Jerusalem being nowhere near the source of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2. But Donne puts the idea to good use invoking allusions to I Corinthians, linking biblical trees, and comparing sweat and blood. And it isn’t his only geographical inaccuracy in the poem: apparently the “Anyan” strait of stanza 4 refers to the mythical Northwest Passage.

In the last stanza, Donne returns to the idea of making the transition to Heaven: the Lord raises him, receives him, gives him a crown. Maybe the form of the whole poem mimics the flat map of the globe: just as east touches west, the first and last stanzas both treat of Heaven, while those in between talk about Earth. Or maybe the poem is meant to wander the way the mind of a very sick person wanders. Or maybe Donne wrote the “Hymn to My God” during the sickness that actually killed him, and he just never got the opportunity to tighten it up.

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