Sunday, December 15, 2013

break, blow, burn

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

--John Donne

Needful words for me, today.

I was reminded of the existence of this sonnet while reading an article on Camille Paglia, an art critic who edited an anthology of poems with accompanying essays entitled "Break, Blow, Burn", and, although she is an avowed atheist, in her  lecture on religion and the arts in America, expressed the opinion that "the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion."

Camille Paglia, with her incisive, biting wit and ideas that she not only seems to own, but to enjoy riding long and hard, like a mechanical bull, is a figure I both admire, and am terrified of.

An earlier writer, who would most likely have argued vehemently (while perhaps secretly agreeing) with Paglia is Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is famous for the creation of the detective, Lord Peter Wimsey and his romantic side-kick, Harriet Vane. Born in 1893, Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree at Oxford, and she was also a huge fan of John Donne's poems, which she often quotes in her Wimsey series. Reading the series as a teen, I remember how it was in the dialogue between the characters, often couched in literary quotes within Sayers' novels, that I discovered the sorts of friendships I would dream of having with other human beings, and not only that, but, in leaving these small golden tidbits like breadcrumbs, Sayers inspired me to discover writers that I might not otherwise read. If I recall, Sayers wrote once that Lord Peter had a lingering existence of his own in her mind, it was as if Wimsey was her ideal husband.

When I do grow up, it would be a pleasant surprise to me; nay, I would be quite ecstatic (!), if I were ever to cultivate the ability to write like either Paglia or Sayers, to be able face such a sentiment head-on:

"She had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery."

--Dorothy Sayers (Gaudy Night)

But here is where I find myself currently (here, another quote from a Lord Peter Wimsey novel):

Peter: How can find words? Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do-- 
          Harriet: Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.

--D.S. (Busman's Honeymoon)

The history of literature is antiphonal: first one voice sings out, then another chimes in, responding. That is how it always has been. Who knows which voices from the 21st century will continue to resound long after our time. Perhaps it will be those who have first immersed themselves in the long line of choristers; it may be easier for them to slip into their niches in the world's memory.

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