The following essay by Steven Schroeder was written for the RHINO Poetry Forum he led March 25, 2012. This version is based on a presentation prepared for a conference on “religion and fear” at Augustana College.
In his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx characterized religion as “the general theory of this world,” inverted, as he understood it, because the state in which we live is upside down. A general theory of a world is itself a product of that world, but it is also a vision of the whole of the world articulated by one acting in it as a theorist, inside standing as though out. In a time and place marked by a pervasive sense of impending danger identified with death and politics, Donne embraced poetry as a sacramental act affirming the real presence of love. At a time when those feelings are again most familiar, that is where I begin – with Donne as exemplar, essaying what can be done in poetry in medias res to nurture a res publica that is not twisted by fear toward violence.
Donne’s poetry is found in his sermons and prayers as well as his poems. He dances about architecture a month before his death in a sermon for Charles I that was published posthumously as “Death’s Duel.” He takes as his text a single clause from a single sentence in Psalm 68 – and it is telling. He works from Latin and English translations, with reference to the Hebrew text. And he makes the most of the play of translations, the play of words in which we live and in which we locate meaning. His text comes from verse 20 (verse 21 in the Hebrew text): “and unto God the Lord belong the issues of death (i.e. from death).”
The first part of the verse, he says, is the body of the building – in the English translation he uses, “He that is our God is the God of salvation.” Citing the translation ad salutes, he notes that “salvations” should be plural and rightly notes that the Hebrew text confirms this. The form is plural – (the) god to us is god of deliverances. This is the house we live in – god to us, god of deliverances. One cannot make too much of words in a poet reading a poet, and that is what we are reading in Donne reading this psalm. We live in a presence, god to us; and it is tempting to leap forward to Hegel saying without the world god would not be god. We are defined by how we stand vis-a-vis god, and, to the extent that god is included in the we, god is defined by how god stands vis-a-vis us. More to the point, every one in the we is defined by every other, the we by every one.
The second part, the text for Donne’s sermon, is the foundation of the house we live in, both the frame and the framing. The “issue of death,” the exitus mortis, is at the same time an introitus in vitam, an entrance into life. There is, then, an identity between escaping death and coming to live, and, more broadly, between death and life, which, together, define a boundary which we cross repeatedly both ways, coming and going. Donne plays through three readings of exitus mortis – as liberatio à morte, deliverance from death; as liberatio in morte, deliverance in death; and as liberatio per mortem, deliverance by death. These three readings correspond to three readings of how god stands vis-a-vis us: as a god of power (the Father), as a god of mercy (the Son), and as a god of comfort (the Holy Ghost).
Dancing about architecture, Donne describes the house we live in; but he expands this to the city that is our home, a city which he understands as pilgrimage: it is always necessarily on the way from death to death, and god to us is that which holds us up (“delivers” us). From the building to the city, Donne speaks of deaths, not death: we live from death to death in life – like dancing.
Donne dwells in loving detail on vermiculation, an undulating dance of death that moves the way the worms that devour our corpses move and is the body of love. “From my rotting corpse,” Edvard Munch wrote, “flowers grow. And that is eternity.”
It is no surprise that the metaphysics of an Anglican priest would be worked out in his encounter with scripture, in the reading of scripture that takes place in the sermon (though it can also take place in a poem, and the two genres are not radically distinct in a writer like Donne). It is important to bear in mind that this is a text with which we live (certainly a text with which poet-priests like Donne and Herbert lived). That is interesting in terms of the later observation of Benjamin Jowett, as conversant with Plato as with the Bible, that we read the Bible the way we read any other book. And how is that? With our lives, for our lives – reading as writing for our lives, always asking of ourselves as an other “What’s it to you?”
Nor is it a surprise that a poet would work this out in metaphor. We are the body. The body is present in this ritual reading (most decidedly in reading lives that takes place in the mass). This ritual is a presencing, living from dying to dying. Our “critical day,” the day of our dying, is “the whole course of our life.” When Augustine reads this text, he understands the god to us that is a god of deliverances as a god who must deliver us. There is no moment in which we are not face to face with god, and there is no moment in which god does not stand to us as deliverer.
And that is where Donne places love, in a variation on apokatastasis that is “Julian” and that anticipates both the Cambridge Platonists and Leibniz (explicitly connected via Anne Conway), who understood better than most philosophers who have followed them that Aristotle never stopped being Plato’s student and that Plato never escaped the influence of Socrates, who enacted an understanding of virtue embodied in one’s being to an other who is always wholly other. To the extent that metaphysics is theology (one of the terms Aristotle applied to the writing to which others gave the other name), its play is in the field of every other wholly other, which, as Aquinas might put it, is what all mean when we say “god.”
Donne’s poetry – in sermons and prayers as well as poems – is an experiment centered in love on the arc between dying and dying – where Doris Humphrey located dance. Poetry is language that calls attention to its own form (Roman Jakobson) – and form is always a matter of relation. All poetry is performance, whether on the stage or on the page; and the performance is the making of a place, perhaps best understood as space transformed by dwelling on it in the presence of an other always wholly other. The place Donne makes is love, which casts out fear – and he does it self-consciously (as he understands it) in the presence of God – a presence explored at length by Leibniz in correspondence and in the dialogue he constructed in response to Locke’s Essay On Human Understanding. Not surprisingly, Donne’s metaphysics draws on Christian sources – particularly Paul – and sources appropriated by Christianity – particularly Plato and the Psalms – understood in the setting of the life of the Church. The life of the Church is understood as an act of prayer (echoing the Psalms) that is primarily thanksgiving – eucharistic, deepened by the fact that it is incarnational (a Julian spirituality, as Urban Holmes suggested, drawing on John) and ecclesiastical in the sense of making space place in worship (drawing especially on Paul, especially on the hymn about kenosis that he borrowed or made in Philippians). Donne’s poetry exemplifies this by creating bounded spaces in which (to the extent that they are perfect) freedom is infinite: it is possible, possible, it must be possible.
Perfect love casts out fear, a claim rooted in the counsel of perfection spoken in the voice of god: be perfect as I the Lord your God am perfect. Donne’s poetry embraces the question of how god is perfect in a characteristically Anglican way that takes up the idea of theosis in tandem with the incarnational, Julian, language cited earlier. As god takes on human form, humanity is lifted up into god. As god is fully human, human form comes to be divine – and that locates perfection in embodiment, again anticipating Leibniz.
Donne does not proceed by means of argument, but by poetry, broken lines talking back with a sacramental turn. To the extent that he succeeds, the divine is fully present in the broken body of the poem; and that points to the ubiquity of god that underlies apokatastasis in Origen as in the Cambridge Platonists. It points to the “preestablished harmony” for which Leibniz is most often known and even more often misunderstood, and it points to the connection between justification and sanctification in some contemporary readings of Lutheran theology. What all mean by god is what we encounter in the wholly other – every other.
By way of example, broken lines talking back to Donne’s holy sonnets:
after Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners…”
Square the circle of the earth, make an end
of it, here, near as it has ever been,
as it ever shall be, as it was when,
as it is – sound reveille and souls beyond
counting will dance broken bodies some
flood washed away whole, bodies that will drown
in another, the one you think last – flood
of war of death of age of fire of blood
despair law chance. A chance their eyes will fall
on one god or another before they sample
death. But let them be. Mourn a space
for them to be where there was
none – in medias res, in common good
where knowing how to turn’s as good as blood.
after Donne’s “Death be not proud…”
As determined as falling to sleep as
rising to dream as coming to be as
coming to rest as waves on water –
imagine what you will, it dies
the way the power of a wave
rising is nothing if not water. Picture
the pleasure of rest rising to dream. Still,
imagine how much greater what rises
from dying dying as death dies
where dying has dominion as
it does, as it always does.
To sleep to dream to rise to fall
to come to be to come to rest, one
wave after another dying to be an ocean.
after Donne’s “What if this present were the world’s last night…”
Every last night’s the present of some world
filled with rough beasts slouching to one
Bethlehem or another to be born,
and every last love a sign.
Every world’s last night is a memory
the moment the sun rises, idolatry
a matter of what you do now
it’s at your back – turn
and back into morning gathering
gold to hold the memory, to catch
reflected light to keep what is not there
in mind, or put a foot down glad the sun
no more knows what it’s doing than you –
yet there it is, forgiven, and you see the light.
after Donne’s “Batter my heart…”
That something common as a battered heart
be thought divine is nothing if not a
sign of how far the need for god can go.
To fall so I can rise, to rise so I
can stand, to stand so I can bend, to bend
so I can break, to break so I can be
made new like a city under siege by
an army it would embrace but can’t – not
yet – unsure liberation’s the reason
for this war, no idea why this enemy
appears divine, why a city would think
a god, why think a wall against a siege
imagined, would mean freedom – no earthly
idea but reason broken, remnant of desire.
Donne’s poetry is an experiment with presence – a presencing. “Presence” as verb is a dance of death that is at the same time a dance of life – from death to death in life, dying. Like Leibniz, he is convinced that the world is full – and so a central philosophical/scientific problem is that of motion in a plenum. This points not only to Leibniz but also to Camus’ Sisyphus, James’s stream of consciousness, Bergson’s durée, and (as has already been suggested) Humphrey’s arc.
Death is a verb in Donne as surely as is presence, and this transforms stasis. It becomes a moment in motion, a limit through which the dance passes – the perching of a bird in flight (James), the vision of the whole at the top of the mountain for Sisyphus (Camus), the location of dance, not in the tension of the arc, but in the moment of release (Humphrey).
Freud’s dynamic tension between eros and thanatos looks more like philia and kenosis in Donne, and the shape of the city is a matter of making way: “the onlyes power is no power,” as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker put it.
Poetry has some experience of that kind of power. One of my students, undone in the reading of a Donne sonnet as so many of us are, said “I’m not sure this poem was meant to be read out loud” – to which all of us in the circle of that conversation, students of Donne every one of us, agreed. And yet we never doubted it was meant to be heard.
That we are aural beings means that one of the ways we perceive is via sound. So the world is, to us, a matter of sound from the beginning. We don’t take a silent world and fill it with sound. We take worlds full of sound and, by making silence in it, make music. We encounter language first as music (Ihde), and we never abandon that entirely. Poetry is on the edge of this experience. The pressure of poetry against the world pressing on it is through music toward silence in a plenum of sound. There, on that edge, Donne found himself letting go lifted by love. Finding nothing there to say, he said it, and that is poetry as we need it now.
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