John Carey’s description of Donne’s “power” is laudable, and to a certain extent, accurate. Carey captures the masculine nature of Donne’s tone; the vividness of Donne’s imagery; the subtle coercion of Donne’s metaphor. Carey also notes Donne’s application of syntax and rhythms, writing that Donne’s words, “are packed into the poems like boulders… Inversions and interjections fracture the run of the lines, necessitating a strenuous advance. ” Carey is right to recognize Donne’s “powerful” manipulation of the language – not only the wit of his diction, but the sounds, and for lack of a better term, the flow of his poetry.
However, Carey is wrong in his description of the overall manner of Donne’s poetry. Carey uses harsh language to describe Donne’s work, words and phrases such as, “dictatorial attitudes,” “unrelenting argumentativeness,” and “violent,” as if he feels that Donne grabs his readers by the wrist and drags them into submission. This is hardly the case. Donne does not rape his audience; he seduces them. Donne does not demand; he persuades, and in the process, empowers his reader with tangible emotion. Such empowerment might feel like a “sensation of pressure” if misunderstood or denied.
But there-in lies Donne’s power: his ability to convey the matter of his poetry and invoke feeling in his reader by applying a masterful combination of diction, imagery, metaphor, and perhaps most importantly, pace and sound. Donne’s orchestration of language, or his “power,” is audible in the poem, “Air and Angels,” in which Donne explores the connection between two of his favorite subjects, love and the divine. Twice or thrice had I love thee, Before I knew thy face or name; Already in the first two lines, Donne sets the general tone of the poem.
There is a sense of modesty in the notion of loving some nameless, faceless being. The humility that Donne immediately establishes might strike one as similar to that of a devout Christian readying for prayer. The parallel is subtle but intentional, as Donne wants to convey his feeling of awe regarding matters of love and spirituality – a stark contrast in personality compared to the villain depicted by Carey in his critique. So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame, Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be; Still when, to where thou wert, I came;
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see. Although Carey claimed that, “Inversions and interjections fracture the run of the lines, necessitating a strenuous advance,” in the lines listed above, an advance hardly seems appropriate. The commas between the lines, in this case, do not represent interjections to trample upon but spaces at which to pause and allow the words to glide forward. The comma usage in the first two lines (“So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame”) affects the gradual descent of heavenly influence, like an angel that gently flutters towards earth.
The pauses in the third line (Still when, to where thou wert, I came;”) are even more compelling, as these commas convey not only hesitance, but also anticipation, as the writer approaches something mystical and unknown. Furthermore, the pauses cause the line to lengthen, adding subliminal meaning by indicating that the writer steadily searched for love, and did not merely stumble upon it. Of course, all the anticipation and curiosity resolves in one of Donne’s signature paradoxes, as what the writer finally does see is “some lovely glorious nothing,” meaning that love, although found, was not visible in a physical or material form.
This final line also sheds light on Donne’s tremendous touch for human feelings, even those which are hard to describe in words, like the feeling that one gets upon seeing “some lovely glorious nothing” in one’s soul mate. Donne’s use of sound and metaphor is also important to note. Having established a calm tone in the first two lines of the poem, Donne takes the next four lines to gently reinforce the kindness in his voice. He does so by utilizing “s” sounds frequently to convey a sense of softness, and employing a wonderfully quiet metaphor of a “shapeless flame” to describe the passion of love brought about by angels.
But since my soul, whose child love is, Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do, More subtle than the parent is Love must not be, but take a body too, And therefore what thou wert, and who I bid love ask, and now That it assumes thy body, I allow And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow. One must not misunderstand Donne’s use of harsher sounding verbs for “vehement” or “heavy” articulation of his ideas. Donne’s employment of “effortful” verbs in the lines above – words and phrases such as “Takes,” “must not be,” “I bid,” and “fix” – are deliberate, as most of Donne’s diction is.
However, Donne’s genius and “power” lay in his deep understanding of words’ capacity to affect meaning and their ability to shape the flow of language to capture emotion. By using verbs more frequently in the lines above, Donne’s intention is not to seize his reader with action. He merely wants to increase the flow of language, and perhaps invite a subtle sense of divine power, so as to develop some tension and instill a more meaningful resolve. Immediately, with the use of “But” in the beginning of the first line of the segment above, Donne changes the tone of the poem. He signals to the reader that stormy seas lie ahead.
Indeed, the lines listed above become more choppy, but not without purpose. The roughness of the rhythms and the inconsistent flow of the poetry serve to contrast the difference between the soul and love. In the first two lines of the segment above, Donne describes the soul: the parent of love. Donne inserts commas between the lines that once again to create pause, which in this case perhaps conveys the patience of an elder parent. The last phrase of the second line, “else could nothing do,” reads passively, as if taking “limbs of flesh” is a burdensome act for the aging soul.
However, in the next two lines of the poem, the pace shifts. Donne begins to describe the child of the soul, love. He hastens the flow of the poem with a line that reads quickly (“More subtle than the parent is”) followed by the enjambment of the next line (“Love must not be”). Then the poem, with newfound energy, moves to imperatives combined with more enjambments (“And…ask”), resulting in a forceful surge, as if the youth of love is driving the writer forward. One could see how Carey might interpret these lines as a display of Donne’s power, or as an example of one of Donne’s “strenuous advances. But Donne’s mastery of language, or his “power,” is such that he does not lose his reins on the poem. While he continues to use enjambment in the last three lines of the poem, the verbs in these lines have a softer feel (“assumes,” “allow”). Furthermore, the rhyming of the “ow” sound necessitates a steady decrescendo of pace, as the tension in the poem reduces to an almost angelic resolve: calm waters, and love in the lip, eye and brow of a lover. While thus to ballast love I thought And so more steadily to have gone, With wares which would sink admiration I saw, I had love’s pinnace overfraught
Comprehending the matter of these four lines allows one to understand the effect that the manner of the poetry provides. In these lines, the writer retracts slightly from his stance in the previous stanza, noting that he has attributed too many words and thoughts to the idea of love. Using a ship in metaphor as a vehicle for love, the writer admits that he tried to understand love “…so more steadily to have gone,” but instead “overfraught” the idea of love with descriptions, “…which would sink admiration. ” Donne is arguing that love should maintain its purity and weightlessness, lest it be anchored to one’s misguided words or understanding.
The rhythm within which Donne introduces his metaphor is yet another example of Donne’s mastery of the sound and language. In the first three lines, Donne strictly adheres to the meter, while limiting his usage of commas in order to convey a smooth sail. He presents the ship metaphor to the subconscious of the reader by establishing a rhythm that reads much like a ship that rocks gently back and forth. However, with the enjambment of the words “I saw,” in the final line, two words which contain long sounding vowels, Donne disrupts this steady rhythm and overloads the beginning of the line, conveying a sense of heaviness to the reader.
Such an ability to add additional meaning to a metaphor simply by using rhythm enhances one’s admiration of Donne’s power. Every thy hair for love to work upon Is much too much; some fitter must be sought. Donne’s enjambment of “Is much too much;” indicates the emphasis these words bear. Even using the smallest physical details to describe love is to “overfraught,” the ship. Indeed, “some fitter,” or some higher source of greater skill should handle the task instead. Once again, one might note the humility in Donne’s voice throughout the poem.
Donne’s regard for the complexity of love and spirituality does not seem to reflect the “dictatorial attitudes,” which Carey ascribes to the poet. For, nor in nothing, nor in things Extreme, and scattering bright, can love inhere; Then as an angel, face and wings Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear, Once again, Donne attempts to increase the pace of the poem. The anaphora of “nor” causes the poem to read louder, while the enjambment of “Extreme,” and the utilization of consonant heavy words (“Extreme,” “scattering) further increases the volume.
Yet, with the insertion of a semicolon after “inhere,” Donne signals for a pause, as he readies the reader for the climax of the poem, the subject of a search that started at the beginning of the poem: an angel. With the appearance of the word angel, the volume of the poem begins to descend, as if influenced by the heavenly figure’s presence. While these lines (“Then…wear”) mirror their counterpart, the previous two lines, in rhythm, the feel of the former is undeniably that of a decrescendo, as the writer calms his voice to deliver a gentle statement of reassurance:
So thy love may be my love’s sphere; Just such disparity As is ‘twixt air and angels’ purity ‘Twixt women’s love and men’s will ever be. The poem concludes with Donne conveying his idea of love – the sharing of worlds. In “Air and Angels,” Donne tries to explain that a search to attribute physical or tangible details to love will end in vain, until one accepts upon faith love as the masculine spirituality and woman’s purity joining together, a concept best embodied by the image of an angel – man’s spirit – wearing the face and wings of air – woman’s purity.
While Donne, in “Air and Poetry,” does not read like the brutish figure described by Carey, nevertheless, the reader comes away from the poem with a full appreciation for Donne’s “power. ” Without using much “masculine persuasive force” at all, Donne conveys meaning and invokes feeling by orchestrating language to his will – that is, by applying his full understanding of rhythm, grammar, diction, and sound to the construction of the poem.