Donne's Noughtiness


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I sometimes get asked why, on social networks, I tend to use the name @nothingelseis. This old essay from 2005 should go some way to explaining that.

Published in: Education, Spiritual
  • Hey Irmeii. The essay is something I wrote a few years ago about an Elizabethan poet named John Donne. The reason Googling 'Nelsky' landed you here is because I cite a book by a man called Martin Elsky (ironically titled 'Authorizing Words'). So, I'll keep that in if it's all the same to you. Of course the tragedy is that the more times we mention 'NELSKY', the higher this will rank continue to rank in Google. Apologies to all Nelsky fans out there.
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  • 28.1.2012
    What is this about? When I search in google for 'Nelsky' I ended on you page? Why? Who are you - someone I should know, some distant relative? If this doesn't suit you, please, remove the name 'Nelsky' from your connections or contact me.

    Thanks a lot and greetings,

    Irmeli Grunau
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Donne's Noughtiness

  1. 1. SynopsisIn 1628 Donne wrote, ‘How barren a thing is Arithmetique? . . . How empty a thing isRhetorique? . . . How weak a thing is Poetry?’, and yet many would agree Donne’s versesnumber among the most satisfying, fruitful and powerful in the English language. I arguethat in order to generate these positive qualities, Donne drew on an ever-increasinglysophisticated concept of ‘nothing’, going so far as to incorporate a mathematical ‘0’ into twoof his poems—‘A Jeat Ring Sent’ and ‘A Valediction: on Weeping’. I also consider how Donneviews the relation between words and objects; at first he seems to flit comfortably betweennominalist and essentialist theories of language, enjoying the paradox. When, however, evenDonne’s most pregnant nothing ‘dissolves’ in heart-break, we realise that a more appropriatelinguistic model would in fact be that of St. Augustine, with its secular ‘cupiditas’ andenlightened ‘caritas’.
  2. 2. “DONNE’S NOUGHTINESS”Three times in the extant sermons—once at Lincoln’s Inn, once at St. Dunstans,once at court—Donne guides his listeners through the ‘four words, by which manis called’ (S.10.197). For two of those names, Adam and Enosh, the interpretationoffered by Donne is consistent throughout because the words themselves, literallytranslated “blushing earth” and “calamity” respectively, come to the preacherwith an implied moral force already present. Translating the third of man’snames however, Gheber, Donne’s position is more apt to shift. At Lincoln’s Inn, where man is called Gheber, . . . which is derived from Greatness, man is but great so, as that word signifies; It signifies a Giant, an oppressour, Great in power, and in a delight to doe great mischiefs upon others, or Great, as he is a Great mark, and easily hit by others. (S.2.79)Delivering this sermon in 1618, it is highly unlikely Donne’s congregation wouldhave contained those same friends or former fellow law students whom Careyimagined welcoming ‘his satires and elegies . . . [with] their erotic conquests andlordly postures [that] reversed social reality.’1 But even if Donne wasn’t talkingat familiar faces per se, he would have recognised in his audience at least thatsame type of person who wouldn’t mind knocking authority figures a little. SinceDonne considers David the author of the text in question (Psalms 38.3) it iswithin this frame of mind that Gheber is made so readily identifiable withGoliath, ‘a Great mark . . . easily hit by others’ because of his great size. Elevenyears later, and nearing the end of his preaching career, Donne is at court and inthe presence of the King when he must again broach the name of Gheber. 1 John Carey (ed.), John Donne, The Major Works (Oxford, 2000), p. 7. 2
  3. 3. One name man hath, that hath some taste of greatnesse, and power in it, Gheber. And yet, I that am man, says the Prophet, (for there that name of Gheber is used) I am the man that hath seen affliction, by the rod of Gods wrath. . . . And man, that is Gheber, the greatest, and powerfullest of men, is yet but that man, that may possibly, nay that may justly see affliction by the rod of Gods wrath, and from Gheber be made Adam. (S.9.62) Given the change of setting one could hardly expect Donne to equate‘greatnesse’ with ‘giant . . . oppressours’ quite as before. In the earlier sermon—inthe earlier sermons in general—one has a sense of Donne trying to stamp hisown authority on the word and discover the truth of what it signified, in later agehe speaks more of detecting the ‘taste’ of a word. Donne’s message ultimately isthe same in both sermons, the powerful man brought back down to earth (here,in the phrase ‘from Gheber be made Adam’). The difference lies in the way Donneproceeds; no longer inviting his audience to take pot-shots, he affords insteadthose ‘powerfullest of men’ the opportunity (‘may possibly’) for grace to bowbefore the rod of God, making themselves ‘justly’ humble. In 1629, against abackdrop of violent political and theological unrest (the murder of Buckingham,the dissolution of Parliament, the appointment of Laud as Bishop of London,declarations against innovations in religion), it must be said that Donne’s work isartfully done—the original flavour of Gheber is preserved but in its newfoundsubtlety better suits the more sensitive palate of the King. Of course, Donne could sometimes go too far down this line of sedating anoriginally vital idea. In a sermon on Psalms 89.48, Gheber has lost so muchflavour as to become positively bland—‘Mi Gheber’, writes Donne, the word alwayes signifying a man accomplished in all excellencies, . . . good opinion justly conceived, keeps him from being Ishe, . . . innocency and integrity keepes him from being Adam, red earth, from bleeding, or blushing at any thing hee hath done; That holy and Religious Art of Arts . . . keeps him from being Enos, miserable or wretched in any fortune; Hee is Gheber, a great Man, and a 3
  4. 4. good Man, a happy Man, and a holy Man. (S.2.200-201)For precisely this kind of sermon writing Donne is roundly, and justly, chastisedby T.S. Eliot in his essay on Lancelot Andrewes; the ‘impure motives’ and huntfor ‘facile success’2 in words leaves Donne with a radically cheapened anddistorted version of his original translation, now turning a blind eye to thedownsides implicit in ‘greatnesse’. As Joan Webber observed, Donne habitually‘begins with the word, and lets doubling and piling up . . . runs represent[ing] themaking of a thought, the associative progress of a mind’s movement’3—ratherthan deliver the mot juste straight out Donne demonstrates a process ofrefinement move him from a grosser expression to one nearer the truth (e.g., ‘alimited, a determined, a circumscribed work’ [S.4.166]). The passage above lookedto have followed this scheme but in fact lacks clear-minded progression—‘good’ isless precise a word than ‘great’, ‘happy’ less interesting than ‘good’, ‘holy’ haslittle in common with ‘happy’ aside from alliteration. Defining Gheber in terms ofwhat it is not—non-Ish, non-Adam, non-Enos—and proceeding from thatdefinition to conclude that Gheber therefore must be ‘a holy Man’ is not aconvincing argument, its language lacks inner-conviction.4 In Donne’s defence,we know this sermon was delivered ‘to the Lords upon Easter-day [1619] TheKing being then dangerously sick at New-Market’; maybe he was just too eager toplease his powerful audience. Still one hopes he had integrity enough to blush alittle at his own inconstancy, beginning as he does with the word ‘alwayes’. Donne’s grasp of Latin was good-ish, his understanding of Hebrew lesssubstantial than he made it out to be, his Greek poor. The opinion of Don 2 For Lancelot Andrewes (London, 1928), p. 16. 3 Contrary Music (Madison, 1963), p. 42. 4 Compare the more satisfactory ‘Adam is Blushing, Ish is lamenting, Geber is oppressing, Enoshis all that.’ (S.2.79). 4
  5. 5. Cameron Allen5 was that Donne had ‘“small Hebrew and less Greek” . . . At notime does Donne seem to know as much Hebrew as Andrewes or even Hallalthough he is more ostentatious in his use of it than either of them’ (213). Inspite of a relatively limited grasp of these languages, perhaps even because of it,the act of translation held for Donne a certain fascination, as if the process wereitself possessed of a mystic power, the effect of which can be seen to operate evenon the pattern of a sermon’s metre—‘When [Donne] follows a Latin quotationwith the English version, he often introduces a new rhythm or tone to themovement of his paragraph.’6 Dean Donne’s particular interest was in Hebrew,and in the ‘Eastern tongues’ more generally, ‘where a perpetual perplexity in thewords cannot choose but cast a perplexity upon the things.’7 The East, inlanguage, as significant for him as East geographically, Christ’s name is Oriens, the East; . . . First we looke towards our East, the fountaine of light, and of life. There this world beganne; the Creation was in the east. And there our next world beganne too. (S.9.49-51) Approaching Eastern tongues as if they too were a ‘fountaine of light’, heenvisages the words ‘casting perplexity upon the things’ like a sun rising in theeast and casting its shadows over the land in the west. He frequently referred toChrist’s name of Oriens and, indeed, the final lines of his own epitaph were ‘Hiclicet in occiduo cinere aspicit eum / Cujus nomen est Oriens’, translated byArchdeacon Wrangham thus: ‘And here, though set in dust, he beholdeth Him,Whose name is the Rising.’ As he attempts to map ‘the language in which Godspake to man, the Hebrew’ (S.7.62) onto a Western grammar Donne almostinvariably will relate to his listeners some of the semantic differences betweenthe languages. Having established the precedence of verbum over res (the light 5 ‘Dean Donne Sets His Text’, ELH, 10 (1943), 208-29. 6 A.C. Partridge, John Donne: Language and Style (London, 1978), pp. 221-22. 7 Quoted by Simpson in The Sermons of John Donne (Berkeley, 1962), X, 307. 5
  6. 6. comes first and then the dust, perplexity in words before perplexity in things), henormally succeeds in finding a correlation between the nature of the Hebrewlanguage and the power of human thought. Take, for example, this passagediscussing the language of the Holy Ghost, God himselfe is eternall and cannot bee considered in the distinction of times, so hath that language in which God hath spoken in his written word, the Hebrew, the least consideration of Time of any other language. . . . it is an indifferent thing to the holy Ghost whether he speak in the present, or in the future, or in the time that is past . . . There is no fuisti, nor es, nor eris, That he was, or is, or will be so (S.9.335)Then place it side-by-side with these celebrated lines, I am not all here, I am here preaching upon this text, I am at home in my Library considering whether S. Gregory, or S. Hierome, have said best of this text, before. I am here speaking to you, and yet I consider . . . in the same instant, what is likely you will say to one another, when I have done. You are not all here neither; you are here now, hearing me, and yet you are thinking that you have heard a better Sermon somewhere else, of this text before. (S.3.110)We find a clear contrast, between indifference to tense on the one hand and amarked ‘hypersensitivity’8 to change on the other. In the latter passage, threeseemingly uncomplicated present tenses (‘I am’, ‘I am’, ‘I am’) are thrown intodisarray both by the physical impossibility of a man being in three places at thesame time—iam, “now”9—and ambiguity as to what ‘before’ actually refers backto. Is he at home in his Library before he delivers the sermon? He could just aseasily retreat there afterwards, having delivered the sermon before. Manconsiders the es present (‘what it is’), the eris future, (‘you will say’) and the fuistipast (‘I have done’), the last affording the listener another one of thoseDonne/done puns. The first passage is serious, but a slightly comical tone in the 8 John Carey, John Donne: Mind, Life, Art (London, 1981), p. 169. 9 Additional to this Latinate pun, Donne may be working a memory of Exodus 3.14, ‘I am that Iam’. Cf. Steiner, ‘Hebrew speech-consciousness, informs and is informed by the sovereign tautology“I am that I am” . . . the “present absence” . . . from which has sprung the current grammatology ofdeconstruction’ (After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd edn [Oxford, 1998], p. 164). 6
  7. 7. second does not necessarily mean that Donne’s point is frivolous; to read theselines merely as an aside—as Eliot and countless commentators have done since(Carey uses the phrase ‘distracted by his own distraction’)—is surely tounderestimate the severe and central importance Donne places on the process oftranslation and on the difficulty of imparting a message across several divides;the divide of language, the divide of time, the divide of geography. In anotherwise bewildered landscape, apparently constant names like Oriens andGheber have become useful signposts for those who would look closely at them. It is a declaration of apparent constancy, Antes muerto que mudado, adorns aportrait of Donne in 1591—‘Better dead than changed’. This line is, in fact,slightly adapted from one in the last stanza of the first song of Montemayor’sDiana:10 Sobre el arena sentada On the sand her did I see De aquel río la vi yo Sitting by yon river bright, Do con el dedo escribió: Where her finger this did wright “Antes muerta que mudada.” Rather dead then changed be. Mira el amor que ordena See how love beares us in hand, Que os viene hacer creer Making us beleeve the wordes, Cosas dichas por mujer That a womans wit affordes, Y escritas en el arena. And recorded in the sand.The French have a useful expression for such occasions: ‘traduire, c’est trahir’, “totranslate is to commit treason”. Put aside even the fact that Spain was a greatmilitary threat to England at the time—the effect of a Spanish slogan here,Empson proposed, something akin ‘to a [Cold War era] Englishman or Americandisplaying a motto in Russian’—and the motto on the portrait still stands as aparticularly fine example of traduction as trahison since Donne’s boast of fidelitywas originally the protestation of a fickle mistress. This raises interesting 10 T. Edward Terrill, ‘A Note on John Donne’s Early Reading’, MLN, 43 (1928), 318-19. 7
  8. 8. questions as to whether words have value solely within themselves, and how farthey are dependent on a truthful contextual framework in order to be efficient;one of the first serious airings those questions received was in the Platonicdialogue of Cratylus.11In it, Cratylus acts as spokesperson for an essentialist theory of language, wherewords themselves have magic properties and are intricately bound up with theessence (ε δο , ο σ α) of their object. Set against him Hermogenes, proponent ofthe nominalist view of language where stating a name ( νοµ ζειν) is regarded as aspeech-act in its own right thus allowing for the possibility to state either a true( ληθ ) name or a false (ψε δο ). To prove his point, he flags up the discrepancybetween his own name—literally “offspring of Hermes”—and nature which,devoid of commercial ability and eloquence, was about as far from Ερµο-γενη asyou could get. Socrates meanwhile introduces the concept of mimesis, beforeresolving for himself that we should examine the things themselves rather thannames in order to find out about reality. At no point do we really sense Platostepping in to lend authorial backing to any one of his speakers, no sense of aright or wrong conclusion being reached. Cratylus, unmoved, leaves Socrates onthis exchange: [Soc.] Reflect well . . . and do not easily accept such a doctrine; for you are young and of an age to learn. And when you have found the truth, come and tell me. Crat. I will do as you say, though I can assure you Socrates, that I have been considering the matter already, and the result of a great deal of trouble and consideration is that I incline to Heracleitus.12Subsequent accounts of Cratylus in Aristotle’s Metaphysics render these wordsdeeply ironic; Aristotle not only makes Cratylus ‘the most extreme of “those who 11 Cf. James Baumlin, John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse (Missouri, 1991),pp. 41-42. 12 The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, 3rd edn, (Oxford, 1892), I, 389. (my italics) 8
  9. 9. profess to be followers of Heraclitus”’ but writes also that ‘he finally abandonedthe use of words, and indicated his meaning by gestures’.13 Cratylus may wagglehis finger all he like, he would not be ‘telling’ anyone anything. Logically, theHeraclitean doctrine of flux, for it to be worthwhile, had to be universal. Collidingwith Cratylus’ system of naming, words became redundant according to theirown earlier essentialist definition: constantly fluctuating words becomemeaningless.14 Donne never reaches quite such absolute scepticism though hecertainly has his darker moments:— How empty a thing is Rhetorique? (and yet Rhetorique will make absent and remote things present to your understanding) How weak a thing is Poetry? (and yet Poetry is a counterfait Creation, and makes things that are not, as though they were) How infirme, how impotent are all assistances, if they be put to expresse this Eternity? (S.4.87) Donne is the better preacher and poet because he can recognise the attractionthat lies in both Cratylus’ and Hermogenes’ schools of thought; like Plato herefuses to choose between them. The confrontation between Catholic rhetoric(Empson imagines Donne learnt it in Spain) where ‘the individual praised is theLogos of the virtues he or she typifies’, and the Metaphysicals’ brand of Ramisticplace-logic (which it was felt ‘went with being a protestant’) provided the much ofthe energy for Donne’s paradoxical poems. ‘One can quite see,’ writes Empson, Donne feeling that the Protestant treatment gave an extra gaiety to his defiantly Catholic but startlingly displaced trope. In any case, when his imported line of paradox first hit London, it meant something a great deal odder than it had done in Spain.15As with the Spanish motto, translation (this time of technique, and across aquasi-religious divide too) brings on its own set of ironies. And far from it being 13 D.J. Allan, ‘The Problem of Cratylus’, The American Journal of Philology, 75 (1954), 271-87 (pp.271-72, my italics). 14 Cf. Steiner, p. 18. ‘Language—and this is one of the crucial propositions in certain schools ofmodern semantics—is the most salient model of Heraclitean flux.’ 15 Empson, pp. 74-75. 9
  10. 10. the case, as Robert Frost once said, of poetry being what gets lost in translation,translation looks to have added significantly to the poetry. If anything, it bringsus closer to understanding the true nature of language—how fickle or emptywords may be—which in turn trahit (reveals) something of the true nature ofMan, namely the fallibility of self-deception. The translation of rhetoric bringsmore than ‘extra gaiety’ or novelty ‘odd’-ness. Now, and truly paradoxically, wesee that Gheber-like verbal dexterity Donne’s speakers display in the moreinventive poems may, indeed must, mask a real sense of impotence.Simultaneously, impotence on the part of language acts as a mask contorting thefeatures of genuine emotion. In witnessing words manipulated so artfully, weask, When does this poem stop being a celebration of the ‘greatnesse’ of a poet’sskill (that can seem to say anything) and start to become a lamentation on thecapricious, flimsy state of any language post-Babel, where nothing meaningfulcan ever be said by anyone? How far, in short, may one truly enjoy ‘counterfeitCreation’? If a sixteenth century episteme was—as Foucault believes—built oncomparison, then Donne’s baroque, linguistically confrontational poems at thestart of the seventeenth century demonstrate how this scheme of knowledgefolded in on itself. ‘Similitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather theoccasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does notexamine the obscure region of confusions.’16 In a letter written to Sir HenryWotton in 1600, Donne writes the early Paradoxes were composed, ‘to deceivetime and her daughter Truth . . . written in an age when anything is strongenough to overthrow her’.17 By ‘age’ Donne probably means “number of years 16 The Order of Things (London, 2002), p. 56. (my italics) 17 Donne, Major Works, p. 64. 10
  11. 11. alive” and not “era”, though either statement would hold true. If perchance they be prettily gilt, that is their best, for they are not hatched. They are rather alarms to truth to arm her than enemies, and they have only this advantage to scape from being called ill things, they are nothings.18This letter rather overshadows the staid Paradoxes it accompanied, movingdeftly from a semi-religious tone—‘confession of their lightness and your troubleand my shame’—to a financial register by word-play on guilt/gilt. Further on hementions their ‘low price’, while “hatching” was the name given to the process ofinlaying with strips of gold. Clearly a strong correlation existed in Donne’smind—as in the minds of many—between the currency of coins and a currency oflanguage. “The dearth” in financial terms (a shortage of money accompanyingrising prices) was seen going hand-in-hand with what Harold Bloom later termsa ‘dearth of meaning’19 (language emptying out amid the rising numbers ofarbitrary signifiers which made paradox possible). Language, like money, couldbe cheapened by the gradual wearing away of gold from older generations (thetranslation by time whereby truth becomes truism); or could, like money, fall invalue with the influx of foreign gold. ‘Donne repeatedly alludes to . . . Spanishgold; writing in the persona of a starving poet, he says that “Poetry indeed besuch a sinne / As I thinke / That brings dearths, and Spaniards in.” [‘Satire 2’, 5-6] Donne knew that Spanish money looked rough, knew how it had becomediffused through Europe, and knew that it brought not prosperity but ruinwherever it went’:20 Spanish Stamps, still travailing, That are become as Catholique as their King, Those unlick’d beare-whelps, unfil’d Pistolets 18 ibid., p. 65. 19 ‘The Breaking of Form’ in Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, 1979, repr. 1995), pp. 1-37(p. 12). 20 Coburn Freer, ‘John Donne and Elizabethan economic theory’, Criticism, 38 (1996), 497-520 (p.500). 11
  12. 12. That, more than cannon-shot, availes or lets, Which, negligently left unrounded, looke Like many-angled figures in the booke Of some greate Conjurer, which would enforce Nature, as these do Justice, from her course; (‘Elegy 1: The Bracelet’, 29-36) Donne’s uneasy recognition that money was becoming a commodity in its ownright (rare among economic theorists of the time and singular among poets), fitsneatly with the reluctance he had to publish his verses—the one occasion he didpublish The Anniversaries for financial reasons he regretted it bitterly. A nearconstant habit of referring to his poetry in letters as ‘light flashes’ or‘evaporations’ is less, I think, false modesty than it is a shrewd move to protectwhatever value the lines may have by limiting their circulation. Moreimportantly perhaps, it is demonstrates Donne’s determination not to fall intosome lazy habit of ‘counterfeit Creation’. ‘There were large areas,’ writesPartridge, ‘of experience which Donne excluded from his consciousness. He is theleast descriptive of poets.’21 Poetic creation would be counterfeit (‘ill’) only so longas it tried to re-fashion that which already existed—‘makes things that are not’.Donne, in his most moving poetry, looks to create nothings. Take for example, theecstatic who say ‘nothing, all the day’ (‘The Exstasie’, 20); or the lovelorn whocrave ‘nothing’ (‘Loves Exchange’, 22); or these, the first six lines from ‘Aire andAngels’, Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee, Before I knew thy face or name; So in a voice, so in a shapelesse flame Angells affect us oft, and worshipp’d bee. Still when, to where thou wert, I came, Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.‘Nothing’ is invested with considerable emotional power—carrying far greaterweight than the lines that follow in which the speaker praises the lips, eyes, hair, 21 The Language of Renaissance Poetry (London, 1971), p. 236 12
  13. 13. et cetera of his love (‘wares which would sinke admiration’ [18]). Another instanceof a loaded nothing-ness occurs in ‘The Sunne Rising’, She’is all States, and all Princes, I, Nothing else is. (21-22)Until this point the second line of each stanza had been given over to animpetuous question; ‘Why dost thou thus,’ (2), ‘Why shouldst thou thinke?’ (12).Line 22 stands out defiantly, a bold statement. Unlike those two earlier lines,each made up of four monosyllabic words, now ‘Nothing’ stretches over twostrong syllables and acquires gravitas in the process. Introducing, even, ‘a newrhythm or tone’ (like a Latin quotation in one of the sermons), ‘nothing’ behavesand is treated as if it belonged to a different language. Also in line 22, we mightnotice that ‘is’ has become a strangely powerful word on account of the variouselisions surrounding it: ‘the’India’s’ (17), ‘leftst’ (18), ‘saw’st’ (19), and ‘She’is’ (21)in the run up; ‘honor’s’ (24), ‘world’s contracted thus’ (26), ‘that’s done’ (28)coming after. In the majority of these elisions the word ‘is’ goes understood butnot fully voiced, its metrical value of course amounts to nought: when suddenlythis word is sounded—‘Nothing else is’—Donne performs in terms of scansionwhat’s maybe best described as creation ex nihilo. Rhetorical poetry of thehighest order because it avoids the pitfalls of ‘rhetorique’: Donne does not make‘absent and remote things present to [our] understanding’ since the ‘is’ and the‘Nothing’ had been present all along—only now someone (an ingenious poet) ismanaging to make the most of their potential. ‘Nothing’ is a fluctuating concept—dreaded in the ‘Nocturnall upon S. LuciesDay’, embraced in ‘Aire and Angels’, cast away with contempt in ‘A Jeat RingSent’ where a series of puns are made comparing a ring to the shape of the 13
  14. 14. number ‘0’: Oh, why should ought lesse precious, or lesse tough Figure our loves? Except in thy name thou have bid it say, I’am cheap, and nought but fashion, fling me’away. (6-9, my italics)‘Adam was able to decypher the nature of every Creature in the name thereof’(S.2.78), but how could one go about deciphering the nature of uncreatednothing? From its name? A nominalist ‘0’ was well established—the cipher hadtwo functions: (1) to demonstrate that accounts were balanced in double-entrybookkeeping; and, (2) to represent an empty column in the decimal countingsystem, allowing one to differentiate, for example, between 13, 103, and 130. Inneither of these functions can ‘0’ be said to have an inherent value—hence its usein Shakespearean insults22 and flatteries, And therefore, like a cipher, Yet standing in rich place, I multiply With one “We thank you” many thousands more That go before it. (The Winter’s Tale, 1.2.6-9)It was difficult not to feel contempt for the rows of token noughts (note themocking tone of ‘The Computation’); Donne speaks slightingly of large numberswith their ‘lines of cyphers’. In the same breath as he condemns rhetoric as‘empty’ and poetry as ‘weak’ he demands, ‘How barren a thing is Arithmetique?(and yet Arithmetique will tell you, how many single graines of sand, will fill thishollow Vault to the Firmament)’ (S.4.87). Writing larger and larger numbers tothis purpose seemed as misguided as erecting a tower of Babel, or emptying out acommon language with ever increasing, ever more redundant, ever more high-flown praise of ‘things’. 22 ‘thou art an 0 without a figure. I am better than thou art, now. I am a fool;’ (King Lear 1.4.174-75); ‘Which I take to be either a fool or a cipher.’ (As You Like It 3.2.283-84). 14
  15. 15. we were still short of numbring the benefits of God, as God; But then, of God in Christ, infinitely, super-infinitely short. To have been once nothing, and to be now co-heire with the Son of God, is such a Circle, such a Compasse, as that no revolutions in this world, to rise from the lowest to the highest, or to fall from the highest to the lowest, can be called or thought any Segment, any Arch, any Point in respect of this Circle; To have once been nothing, and now to be co-heires with the Son of God (S.8.250-51)Once more the episteme of comparison and similitude folding in on itself—thevery biggest number we can think of still falls ‘super-infinitely short’. Butincreasingly the cipher ‘0’ had grown to acquire an essentialist significance, andas ‘zero’ (a word coined in 1604) became a mathematical figure in its own right.‘[T]he real paradigm shift,’ writes Kaplan, ‘was this: the invisible house of memory, where mathematics had lodged for so long, was giving way to an even more abstract structure. . . . [allowing] you to say what before you couldn’t even think. x² + 3x – 22 = 0 puts areas (x²), lengths (3x) and constants (22) together in one sentence: hard enough to visualize. But now you could as easily write x4 + 3x – 22 = 0, and solve it – yet how picture the dimension called up by x4? No wonder William of Malmesbury spoke of ‘dangerous Saracen magic’.23With such oriental magic, nought becomes practically divine—‘How invisible,How inintelligible a thing is this Nothing’ (S.4.100). Already interested intranslating three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional representations,Donne could look in wonder at this new 0 simultaneously passing through alldimensions imagined and unimaginable; he also probably shared in the popularmisconception that to divide any number by zero would result in infinity. ‘A JeatRing Sent’ may be in many ways a flat, stale and unprofitable poem but theValedictions, often retreating into similar circles and noughts, show just howmuch mileage Donne could get out of zero. With sexual connotations buzzingaround in the background, the ‘nothing’ in ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’ is the polaropposite of ‘barren’; stamped like a coin—a standard two-dimensional image—inline 3, the tear grows ‘preganant’ (6) and the zero has become ‘a round ball’ (10), 23 The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (London, 1999), p. 75 15
  16. 16. and then a globe, then ‘quickly . . . that, which was nothing, All’ (13), eclipsingeven the celestial bodies, ‘O more than Moone’ (19). For a few stanzas, the‘Valediction: of Weeping’ confounds the preacher’s every definition, breaks everyrule, of poetry, rhetoric, arithmetic—these ‘nothing’ lines are strong, and full,and fruitful; are so by very virtue of their naughtiness.Yet even the most pregnant nothing is unsustainable. Donne is nomathematician—if he were, dissolution into non-dimensional being could be thecrowning glory of the valediction; instead it occasions the very greatest sorrow,and the heart breaks. This, because the system of naming Donne most closelyfollows is neither Cratylian (Cratylus stops talking) nor Hermogenian, norSocratic or Aristotelian; rather it is that of St. Augustine, as outlined by MartinElsky in Authorizing Words: The heart, or mind, can speak spiritual truths only when it is one with those spiritual truths, . . . it may also truly speak spiritually repellent words “when we rightly dislike and censure them.” It is possible, however, for a word to be conceived “either by desire [cupiditas] or by love [caritas],” that is, in accordance with one’s spiritual attitude toward the object of knowledge and the contents of language. The inner word thus always indicates the absence or presence of caritas in the speaker. The primal act of interior discourse, Augustine seems to imply, always accompanies an acknowledgement that the object of knowledge exists either through itself or through God. In the former case, one conceives words through cupiditas, in the latter through caritas.24The gradual dawning in Donne’s Valediction that his love exists only throughitself, through cupiditas, makes his heaven dissolve (18): it comes with arealisation that ever since the Fall—and that heaven dissolved—the raison d’êtreof the love poem, really, has been translation of caritas into cupiditas, traversingthe boundary of post-lapsarian worldliness. Not that we should not be undulydistressed by ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’, it too serves as an alarm to this truth 24 op. cit., p. 73. 16
  17. 17. rather than her enemy—in light of the ‘present absence’ of caritas, poetry’s notwhat gets lost in translation; poetry is the translation. 17
  18. 18. AbbreviationsS = Sermons of John Donne (followed by volume number then page number)ELH = English Literary HistoryMLN = Modern Language Notes
  19. 19. Primary SourcesDonne, John, The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1965).Donne, John, The Major Works, ed. John Carey (Oxford, 2000).The Sermons of John Donne, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter, 10 vols (Berkeley, 1962).A Critical Edition of Yong’s Translation of George of Montemayor’s Diana and Gil Polo’sEnamoured Diana, ed. Judith M. Kennedy (Oxford, 1968).The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, 3rd edn, 5 vols (Oxford, 1892).Shakespeare, William, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1988).Secondary SourcesAllan, D.J., ‘The Problem of Cratylus’, The American Journal of Philology, 75 (1954), 271-87.Allen, Don Cameron, ‘Dean Donne Sets His Text’, English Literary History, 10 (1943), 208-29.Bacter, Timothy M.S., The Cratylus: Plato’s Critique of Naming (Leiden, 1992).Bald, R.C., John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970).Baumlin, James S., John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse (Missouri, 1991).Bloom, Harold, ‘The Breaking of Form’ in Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, 1979, repr.1995), pp. 1-37.Blum, Irving D. ‘The Paradox of Money Imagery in English Renaissance Poetry’, Studies in theRenaissance, 8 (1961) 144-54.Carey, John, John Donne: Mind, Life, Art (London, 1981).Coffin, Charles Monroe, John Donne and the New Philosophy (New York, 1937).DiPasquale, Theresa M., Literature & Sacrament: The Sacred and the Secular in John Donne(Cambridge, 2001).Docherty, Thomas, John Donne, Undone (London, 1986).Eliot, T.S., For Lancelot Andrewes (London, 1928).Elsky, Martin, Authorizing Words (Ithaca, 1989).Empson, William, Essays on Renaissance Literature, ed. John Haffenden (Cambridge, 1993). 19
  20. 20. Firth, J.R., The Tongues of Men (London, 1937).Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London, 1970, repr.2004; Les mots et les choses first published Paris, 1966).Freer, Coburn, ‘John Donne and Elizabethan economic theory’, Criticism, 38 (1996), 497-520.Frost, Robert, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, ed. Mark Richardson and Richard Poitier (NewYork, 1995).Graves, F.P., Peter Ramus and the educational reformation of the sixteenth century (New York,1912).Kaplan, Robert, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (Harmondsworth, 1999).Luce, J.V., ‘Plato on Truth and Falsity in Names’, The Classical Quarterly, 19 (1969) 222-32.Lunderberg, Marla Hoffman, ‘John Donne’s Strategies for Discreet Preaching’, Studies in EnglishLiterature, 1500-1900, 44 (2004), 97-119.Malisoff, William Marias, ‘Cratylus or an Essay on Silence (Not Illustrated), Philosophy of Science,11 (1944), 3-8.Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony, Renaissance and Revolution: The Remaking of European Thought(London, 1967).McCanles, Michael, ‘Paradox in Donne’, Studies in the Renaissance, 13 (1966), 266-87.McKeon, Richard, ‘Aristotle’s Conception of Language and the Arts of Language’, ClassicalPhilology, 41 (1946), 193-206.Mueller, William, John Donne: Preacher (London, 1962).Norford, Don Parry, ‘Microcosm and Macrocosm in Seventeenth-Century Literature’, Journal of theHistory of Ideas, 38 (1977), 409-28.Ong, Walter J., Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art ofReason (Cambridge, 1958).Partridge, A.C., John Donne: Language and Style (London, 1978).Partridge, A.C., The Language of Renaissance Poetry (London, 1971).Rajan, Tilottama, ‘“Nothing Sooner Broke”: Donne’s Songs and Sonets as Self-Consuming Artifact’,English Literary History, 49 (1982), 805-828.Ricks, Christopher, Essays in appreciation (Oxford, 1989).Robins, R.H., A Short History of Linguistics, 3rd edn (New York, 1990).Salomon, Willis, ‘Donne’s Aire and Angels’, The Explicator, 46 (1988), 12-14.Schofield, Malcolm, ‘A Displacement in the Text of Cratylus’, The Classical Quarterly, 22 (1972),246-53. 20
  21. 21. Stanwood, P.G., and Heather Ross Asals (eds.), John Donne and the Theology of Language(Columbia, 1986).Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1998).Summers, Claude J. and Ted-Larry Pebworth (eds.), ‘The Muses Common-Weale’: Poetry andPolitics in the Seventeenth Century (Columbia, 1988).Summers, Claude J. and Ted-Larry Pebworth (eds.), The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing JohnDonne (Columbia, 1986).Terill, T. Edward, ‘A Note on John Donne’s Early Reading’, Modern Language Notes, 43 (1928),318-19.Vance, Eugene, ‘Saint Augustine: Language as Temporality’, in Mimesis: From Mirror to Method,ed. John D. Lyons and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. (Hannover, N.H., 1982), pp. 20-35.Webber, Joan, Contrary Music (Madison, 1963).Works of ReferenceThe Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1989). 21