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Milton & the 17th Century



Preface to "The Paradox"

John Donne's Songs and Sonnets, written over a decade beginning about 1596, and including about 55 poems, circulated in selections of 5 to 30 or more in manuscripts copied by friends, poets, and scribes. The first reasonably complete and well-edited printing of most of Donne's poems was issued in 1633. The title for this group of love poems was not provided in 1633, but inverted as Sonnetts and Songs by the 1635 editor. This traditional title refers to an assortment of love songs. Donne's lyrics were private poems intended, I have come to think, for limited and infrequent circulation, for the collection was not conducive to furthering Donne's search for state or Church employment. The Elegies, many of which are earlier poems than those in Songs and Sonnets, may be more racy and cynical, on the whole, but the wit of Songs and Sonnets hardly breathes the kind of gravity associated with public service. Critics and editors argue about he role of these lyrics in Donne's professional life. Donne was in no danger in imitating well known Greek, Latin, and Italian models, which he transmuted and made his own, but he seems not to have promoted the publication of Songs and Sonnets. Helen Gardner's edition, cited in my discussion and notes beneath Donne's "The Paradox," provides an excellent General Introduction which surveys the importance, the tradition, the uniqueness, and the controversies surrounding Donne's love poems.

S. Gottlieb (2/15/98)

The Paradox

No Lover saith, I love, nor any other

       Can judge a perfect Lover;

He thinks that else none can nor will agree,

       That any loves but hee:

I cannot say I lov'd, for who can say                     5

       Hee was kill'd yesterday? 1

Love with excesses of heat, more yong than old, 2

       Death kills with too much cold;

Wee dye but once, and who lov'd last did die,

       Hee that saith twice, doth lye: 3                        10

For though hee seeme to move, and stirre a while,

       It doth the sense beguile.

Such life is like the light which bideth yet

       When the lights life is set, 4

Or like the heat, which fire in solid matter              15

       Leaves behinde, two hours after.

Once 5 I lov'd and dyed; and am now become 6

       Mine Epitaph and Tombe. 7

Here dead men speake their last, and so do I;

       Love-slaine, loe, here I lye. 8                               20


Included with this title by the editor of the 1633 edition. I follow the collation and orthography of Helen Gardner's edition of the Songs and Sonnets. According to Helen Gardner (The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. London: Oxford UP, 1965. Commentary, 161), this poem, and a related poem possibly also by Donne, appear near one another in several manuscripts of Donne's poems and anthologies that include poems by Donne and others. The 1633 editor printed only "The Paradox," which belongs in the genre of poems about the futility of understanding love. "Negative Love" also fits into this genre. In his serious treatment of love possibly written to his wife, though spoken as by a lover to his mistress, Donne wrote the lines, "... we by'a love, so much refin'd, / That our selves know not what it is" ("A Valediction: forbidding Mourning" ll. 17-18). The tone of "The Paradox" is, however, more ambivalent about love than is the "Valediction." Nor can one presume that the riddler within the poem speaks with Donne's voice and authority. The paradox was a genre throughout the Seventeenth Century, and Donne wrote prose paradoxes as well as poetry based on logical contradictions highlighted by verbal wit and irony.

"The Paradox" alternates ten and six syllable lines. Frequently, Donne's typical musical lyricism exists in either of the line types, but not both together. The duality of the music and the plain speech embodies, to my mind, Donne's usual division between cynicism and feeling in poems of this kind. One also finds Donne's usual display of compacted grammar (l. 9) and complex phrase order (ll. 7-8).

1  ll. 1-6. Love cannot be judged by a lover or anyone else. Nor can a lover allow that anyone can love as perfectly as he or she. Presumably because love kills, one cannot, or dare not, express the idea that one has loved. The close relation of love and death is a renaissance and seventeenth-century commonplace. One could speculate about the prominence, in "The Paradox," of words having to do with perfection, agreement, and death. Elsewhere in Donne's poems, notably several times in "The Sunne Rising," love leads to an exclusion of the outside world due to the impact of love. Here, however, the poetic action appears as much to mock the poor lover as well while it extols love's mystery, or at least love's deadly power. Even in a less mocking poem like "The Sunne Rising," the exclusivity of love may to some readers seem to be a quality with questionable value or, at least, to carry psychological complexity. For example, the lover's flight into the refuge of the past tense is feasibly a form of denial.

2  l. 7. More yong than olde. These highly compressed lines invite close scrutiny. Does the phrase refer to young lovers as the object of the verb kills (l. 8) or does it modify the noun Love (l. 7)?

3  l. 10. Lye. Like die ('make love' and 'expire') the word lie in context suggests the activity of love as well as a fabrication. Such puns attest possibly to the lover's attempt to control the meaning of his life, or possibly to his/her critique of serious love. Since the conceit in lines 9-10 equates loving with dying, presumably one would lie by claiming two deaths.

4  l. 14. Lights life. Such is the reading in two manuscripts. The 1633 publication of Songs and Sonnets as well as three manuscripts read lifes light. The differences in meaning and meter are perhaps inconsequential, though the line reads more smoothly with lights life. This reader prefers the transition life ... light ... lights life, a pattern which stresses the abiding presence of the light. But it may be that the existence of variant readings merely gives special pause for reflection concerning the complex verbal patterns that appear in any Donne poem. The "light's life" is the sun, but the phrase carries a veiled, or perhaps a sub-textual reference to the source of the lover's love, the other lover.

5  ll. 16-20. Once I lov'd and dyed ... here I lye. In his edition, The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (London, Methuen, 1959, p. 127), Theodore Redpath detects a double paradox in lines 16-20 of this poem. The first turns on the denial that love can exist or its quality assessed at any time. The second is dependent on the pun of the poet's final lie, or lying dead, killed by love.

6  l. 17. Once I lov'd and dyed. If the reader appraises Donne the poet's tone -- not the speaker's tone -- as critical of this perfect lover, then at this point our perfect lover appears to equivocate. Just how often has he or she loved? Note also the final appearance of the word "lye," whose ambiguity might be seen to reinforce either the probity or the untrustworthiness of this lover. One ponders whether, at this point in his pre-clerical life, Donne finds secular love untrustworthy. As elsewhere in Donne's lyrics, it is difficult to identify the precise tone, and possibly the tone may change with renewed readings.

7  ll. 17-18. ... am now become / Mine Epitaph and Tombe. The lover, having loved and written about love, becomes subject and object at once. This conceit appears traditionally in love poems that express the lover's state of mind.

8  ll. 19-20. Here dead men speake their last, and so do I; / Love-slaine, loe, here I lye. This dead man has hardly spoken his last line, which follows. Moreover, in l. 20, he lies. Some manuscripts and the 1633 edition read dye, a reasonable but less intriguing choice. The melodious quality of l. 19 conrasts with the coarse sound and syncopation of l. 20. Within l. 19, "...men speake their last, and so [speaking my last] do I" is a rhetorical figure known from the Greek and Latin classics as chiasmus, or "A crossing parallelism, where the second part of a grammatical construction is balanced or paralleled by the first part, only in reverse order" (see Chiasmus). By contrast, l. 20 may be read with accents on every monosyllable, but it's possible to place more emphasis on the words "Love," "loe," "here, and "lye," thus causing a lurching or unstable rhythm. Is it pressing too far to suggest that the gracefulness of the chiasmic l. 19 expresses a lyrical regret concerning death, while the harshly syncopated l. 20, with its mocking pun on lying, presents a stark and fatalistic acceptance of death?

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