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September 18, 2002

Modern Poetry Redux


There you go again, making me read poetry. I thought I was over that, but your posting on “Modern Poetry” made me pick up my copy of John Donne to see what makes "Ancient Poetry" any different.

A selection from a poem written during Donne's final illness:

Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instruments here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

While my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die

I joy, that in these straits, I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

One major difference is that Donne can view his own predicament "from above" so to speak; he doesn't have to convince you that he's really writing from the bed of a dying man, or that he's scared of death, or that he looks to his religion for hope, etc. He doesn't need to, as the orthodox Christian framework simply incorporates all of this. Donne wasn't forced to invent a system of meanings for himself and then to educate his readers in it.

Does this imply that the true reason for the rise of "difficult" modern art was the decline of religion as an intellectually respectable system in the last quarter of the 19th century? Lacking this supporting infrastructure places a lot more work on the backs of artists and poets. It may also make it nearly impossible to deal successfully with eschatological subjects. Who can communicate on any topic, let alone one like death, without a pre-arranged code book, a manual of shared assumptions? You can signal and signal, but can anyone translate your message?



posted by Friedrich at September 18, 2002


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