There was a time I read too many nineteenth century novels. It placed me in danger of writing tortuously long sentences, that, whilst resembling the metaphorical labyrinth they may have been attempting to convey, provided little in the way of illumination or hope for the hapless traveller who found his or her self trapped in the midst of such a dense text, and which, in terms of narrative style, became, dear reader, a little self-conscious and over-indulgently introspective … Phew! Glad I got that off my chest. These days, I read modern literature by choice.
Except when I don’t.
Recently I’ve been revisiting the literature of Elizabethan and Jacobean England---love the bawdiness and the cloak-and-dagger thriller stuff---but can go there safely it seems. There are no disastrous side-effects.
One of many favourites is John Donne (1573-1631), playboy and priest. Whilst his life story is fascinating in itself, it’s the cleverness of his conceits (those extended metaphors, developed at several levels to pursue a logical, but sometimes fatuous, argument), coupled with his ability to achieve a flawless fluency in meeting the technical demands of each poem, that really knocks my socks off.
So, taking a leaf from Alina Sharon’s blog and her regular feature Respect The Classics!, here’s a seductive John Donne poem:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true, then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
PS. Does John Donne look a bit like Errol Flynn or what?
PPS. To add to the Elizabethan ambience, and to underscore the power of logic and rhetoric for this period, here’s a very short Black Adder sketch.