Friday, October 7, 2016

Poems I Journey With 20

The Dean of St Paul's, John Donne - early portrait
The ode is an ancient poetic form that dates back to ancient Greece. A simple definition runs thus: a poem in which a person expresses a strong feeling of love or respect for someone or something is an ode. A rather more precise definition would be that it is a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms.  A classical ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode also exist. It is an elaborately structured poem praising or glorifying an event or individual and that describes nature intellectually as well as emotionally.  It was originally accompanied by the music of the lyre in ancient Greece and hence it is a distinct form of the lyric. Tonight I would like to offer the reader an Ode from the pen of the great Anglican Divine, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and accomplished poet John Donne (1573 – 1631).

ODE by John Donne
VENGEANCE will sit above our faults; but till
She there do sit,
We see her not, nor them. Thus blind, yet still
We lead her way; and thus, whilst we do ill,
We suffer it.

Unhappy he whom youth makes not beware
Of doing ill.
Enough we labour under age, and care;
In number, th' errors of the last place are
The greatest still.

Yet we, that should the ill we now begin
As soon repent,
Strange thing! perceive not; our faults are not seen,
But past us; neither felt, but only in
The punishment.

But we know ourselves least; mere outward shows
Our minds so store,
That our souls no more than our eyes disclose
But form and colour. Only he who knows
Himself, knows more. 

Brief Commentary and Observations

St Paul's Cathedral, London
John Donne is a very complex and most interesting character.  He was well educated, but came from a recusant Catholic background with an uncle (his mother’s brother) being a Jesuit priest and translator named Jasper Heywood. His mother was a great-niece of the Roman Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne's closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons. Needless to say, given this background, the young Donne converted to Anglicanism as anyone of us would if we prized our very lives. 

He travelled on the continent for several years in his early to mid-twenties and learned to speak both Spanish and Italian fluently. Needless to say, as any scholar of the time would be, he also was adept in both Latin and classical Greek.  He served also as a diplomat for some years. Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends as patrons. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. 

In 1601, he secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children, several of whom died either in childbirth or as infants. In 1615, he became an Anglican priest at the behest of the King, James I, although he did not want to take Anglican orders at all. In 1621, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. He also served as a Member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614. The subjects of Donne's poetry are (i) religious themes, especially the search for what might be termed true religion or the truth in religion, (ii) romantic love, (iii) sexuality – explicit enough in places – and (iv) mortality. He is known as the foremost poet of the group that is called the Metaphysical Poets and is a supreme exponent of the art of the conceit.  The poem I have offered the reader this evening is simply called Ode.

I like this poem as it may be read on two levels.  The obvious or overt level shows us the human being in all his/her flaws, unaware of the level of their sinning before the Almighty God, the Judge of our lives, and, consequently, possessing little or no guilt. The second level, I argue, would not really have been too obvious to readers of Donne’s own time, namely how little the human person actually knows himself or herself. In other words, we moderns can see that such lack of self-knowledge is in fact our lack of awareness of all our unconscious motivations. In this regard, I read the final stanza, which I repeat here, in such a fashion. We could do worse than contemplate the depth in those lines once again:

But we know ourselves least; mere outward shows
Our minds so store,
That our souls no more than our eyes disclose
But form and colour. Only he who knows
Himself, knows more. 

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