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Volumen 06


EPISTEMIC LUCK AND METAPHYSICAL WIT IN JOHN DONNE´S “A VALEDICTION: FORBIDDING MOURNING”

AN APPRECIATION OF SUCH POEM TAKING INTO CONSIDERATION TWO RELATED WORKS: T. S.

ELIOT´S APPROVING ESSAY “THE METAPHYSICAL POETS” AND SAMUEL JOHNSON´S

DISAPPROVING ESSAY ON THE LIFE OF “COWLEY”

 

¿Cuán accesible, por medio de la introspección, tiene que ser un aspecto fenoménico de

nuestra vida mental para ser cualitativo? […] Si se muriera el placer, ¿el placer seguiría

estando presente aunque, tristemente, sin ser apreciado?

Dennet

 

By Margarita Medina Ortega

Pablo Jesús Sánchez Sánchez

Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades y

Coordinación General de Lenguas

Colegio de Inglés

 

Epistemic luck [1] is a concept associated with accident (Morillo, 1984), chance (Harper, 1996)  and control (Statman, 1991). So, undergoing an avalanche, buying a lottery ticket with the winning numbers, or discovering a treasure are events that can occur because of good luck or bad luck, as long as somebody´s life is affected by them. According to Unger, there are three varieties of epistemic luck: the truthfulness of the proposition; the agent´s capability of knowledge, and the accidentality of existence at the time of existence. (1968)

Unger´s first variety of epistemic luck will be used in this essay to evaluate the presence of metaphysical wit in Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, estimating both Johnson and Eliot´s positions at the end of the evaluative analysis. [2]


As regards the first category of epistemic luck, the truthfulness of the proposition, Unger suggests judging the accidentality or chance of the event, and the presence or absence of the agent´s control over the event.

In order to carry out this estimation, the historical context of the emission will be briefly described, the receiver of the poem will be authenticated, and the objective of the poem, from both, a communicative and a literary point of view, will be established. Besides, the concept of metaphysical wit will be defined.

According to Parker (1975), it is likely that John Donne  had written this poem in 1611 for his wife, Ann  Donne, who was sick and pregnant at the time, and who had protested for being left behind when her husband began a European Tour. 

If this historical context is true, the ideal communicative receiver of this poem would have been Ann Donne, and the objective of the poem would have been both, to flatter her and to persuade her to remain serene and faithful during John Donne´s absence. (Cavanaugh, 1999) However, the probability that Ann Donne was the subject that Donne was bearing in mind when he wrote a poem that some critics consider the most transcendent within the context of metaphysical poetry is very low. (Sparke, 2002)

The literary complexity of the conceit [3] and discourse complexity of the argumentation in “A valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, make it reasonable to assume that Donne hoped his ideal or model reader [4] to be able to understand the organization of the poem and to ensemble the codes to assign contents to the expressions that he used.

At the minimal level, Donne expected his ideal reader to decipher his linguistic code, to evaluate his argumentation, and to appreciate his literary style, which does not mean that the text is closed or “immoderately open to every possible interpretation”, but, conversely, that the reader must be intellectually and culturally equipped in order to make his personal response reechoed by others, which means that the text is open. (Eco, 1979)    

 

Thus, a model reader of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” must be aware of the notion of conceit, understood as an extended metaphor, and must be able to restructure Donne´s poem on the basis of this notion.  On this account, the poem could be divided into four parts:

  • A comparison between virtuous dying  men whispering to their souls to leave their bodies and two lovers saying goodbye before a journey;

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls to go […]

 

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,

'Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

 

  • A comparison between the effects of some natural phenomena and the characteristics a mature love relationship;

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant,
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
-Whose soul is sense- cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

 

  • A comparison between the properties of a lovers´ love while separating and the properties of a precious metal while expanding;

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

 

  • A comparison between a couple that separates and a compass that opens.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th' other do.

 

[…]

 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like th' other foot, obliquely run,

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.

 

By articulating the set of metaphors of this conceit, Donne shows that there might be a strong spiritual union behind a period of physical separation.

The conceit was extensively used in the seventeenth century and is commonly associated with metaphysical poems. As a poetic technique, the conceit was used to appeal to the imaginative sensitivity of the reader by means of evocative paradoxes. (Preminger, 1996)

Discourse conceit is seen as a characteristic of mental wit, which, on the basis of Preminger’s vision, has a positive or, at least, a neutral connotation. Notwithstanding, Samuel Johnson’s perception of “wit” is negative. To him, the metaphysical poets are neither poets nor “wits” and those who think so are wrong.

Those, however, who deny them to be poets, allow them to be wits. Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries, that they fall below Donne in wit; but maintains, that they surpass him in poetry.

Johnson argues that, if Pope´s definition of wit is right, then the metaphysical poets are wrong.

If wit be well described by Pope, as being "that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed," they certainly never attained, nor ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction.

   

And, if Pope´s definition of wit is wrong, the metaphysical poets are wrong any way because they are neither natural nor precise and because looking for unnatural, artificial, unfair thoughts makes readers feel bad-tempered.

If, by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is, at once, natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that, which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.

For his part, Eliot considers that it is difficult to define what metaphysical poetry is, which poets fall into this category and which of their verses are truly metaphysical.

Not only is it extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry, but difficult to decide what poets practice it and in which of their verses.

And, particularly about Donne´s poetry, Eliot affirms that his use of conceit, unlike other metaphysical poets´, seems to develop figures of speech to the furthest stage of ingenuity. 

It is difficult to find any precise use of metaphor, simile, or other conceit, which is common to all the poets and at the same time important enough as an element of style to isolate these poets as a group. Donne, and often Cowley, employ a device which is sometimes considered characteristically 'metaphysical'; the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it. Thus Cowley develops the commonplace comparison of the world to a chess-board through long stanzas (To Destiny), and Donne, with more grace, in A Valediction, the comparison of two lovers to a pair of compasses.

According to Eliot, Johnson himself, as a poet, was somewhat metaphysical:

[…] if we are to judge of styles of poetry by their abuse, enough examples may be found in Cleveland to justify Johnson's condemnation. But a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet's mind is omnipresent in poetry. […] we may find it in some of the best lines of Johnson himself (The Vanity of Human Wishes) […] where the effect is due to a contrast of ideas, different in degree but the same in principle, as that which Johnson mildly reprehended.

  Eliot holds that Johnson is a limited critic and that he fails to define metaphysical poetry by its faults; so he suggests using the opposite method.

If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective 'metaphysical', consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but ought not to have disappeared.

In Eliot´s opinion, some erudite poets can incorporate erudition into sensibility.

Even if we except also Jonson and Chapman, these two were notably erudite, and were notably men who incorporated their erudition into their sensibility: their mode of feeling was directly and freshly altered by their reading and thought.

Eliot establishes a difference between the intellectual and the reflective poet:

 […] it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.

From Eliot´s point of view, there is more resemblance between the seventeenth century poets with Dante than with their Elizabethan predecessors.

The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino.

Eliot believed that as the English language improved (e.g. Dryden and Milton), the feelings became “cruder” (i.e. Andrew Marvel´s “To His Coy Mistress”):

The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

Eliot assures that metaphysical poets would have been classified otherwise, if poetic standards had sprung from them and not applied to them by the Romantics: 

[…] what would have been the fate of the 'metaphysical' had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically.

Moreover, Eliot thinks that metaphysical poets tried to verbalize states of mind and feelings:

The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they were better than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

Eliot proposes that metaphysical poets should be judged on the basis of the role their poetry has played in literature and not on the basis of Johnson´s point of view because they are not more “metaphysical” than other poets.

May we not conclude, then, that Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herbert and Lord Herbert, Marvell, King, Cowley at his best, are in the direct current of English poetry, and that their faults should be reprimanded by this standard rather than coddled by antiquarian affection ? They have been enough praised in terms which are implicit limitations because they are 'metaphysical' or 'witty', 'quaint' or 'obscure', though at their best they have not these attributes more than other serious poets.

Finally, Eliot concludes that Johnson´s canon of taste was very high and that Donne was not the poet he had in mind in his condemnation.

On the other hand we must not reject the criticism of Johnson (a dangerous person to disagree with) without having mastered it, without having assimilated the Johnsonian canons of taste. In reading the celebrated passage in his essay on Cowley we must remember that by wit he clearly means something more serious than we usually mean today; in his criticism of their versification we must remember in what a narrow discipline he was trained, but also how well trained; we must remember that Johnson tortures chiefly the chief offenders, Cowley and Cleveland.

Eliot´s more positive attitude, and stronger, more objective and better organized argumentation is far more effective that Johnson´s, who has a pompous tone, exhibits a condemning attitude and manages to use insulting assertions when criticizing the metaphysical poets.

Eliot´s conclusions about Johnson´s high standard of taste as well as about the possibility that the meaning of the word “wit” had had a different meaning to Johnson than to twentieth century readers are visionary, considering that his essay was written in 1921. What Johnson means and implies by witticism to allude one the main characteristics of metaphysical poetry is beyond the scope of cultural and social vortex of time and space and is closer to a negative connotation than to a neutral denotation of conceit.

In contrast to Johnson´s criticism on metaphysical poetry about the detachment of the writer from the experience that brings the poem into existence, historically, Donne´s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is originated in the feeling of the writer and is aimed at sensitizing an actual addressee, Ann Donne, and at making an infinitude of model readers gain knowledge at different levels through a process of reception in which a propositional variation of epistemic luck might be involved.

Such model readers must possess a threshold of encyclopedic competence that allows them not only to react critically to the power of argumentation and to respond sensitively to the richness of the metaphorical imagery, but also to develop a certain amount of esthetic competence that ends up with a personal interpretation.


   

Sources Consulted

Cavanaugh, C. A. (1999). “The Circle of Souls in John Donne´s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Retrieved June 10, 2010 fromhttp://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/cavanaugh.htm

Dennet, D. (2006). Dulces sueños. Obstáculos filosóficos para una ciencia de la concienciaBuenos Aires: Katz.

Donne, J. (1973). A Valediction: Forbbiding Mourning. In Kermode F. & Hollander J. The Oxford  Anthology of English Literature. I London: Oxford University Press. 1038-1039

Eco. U. (1979). The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Eliot, T.S. (1973). The Metaphysical Poets. In Kermode F. & Hollander J. The Oxford  Anthology of English Literature. II London: Oxford University Press. 2020-2024          

Harper, W. (1996). “Knowledge and Luck.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 34: 273–283.

Johnson, S. (1973). The Life of Cowley. In Kermode F. & Hollander J. The Oxford  Anthology of English Literature. I London: Oxford University Press. 2116-2122

Morillo, C. R. (1984). “Epistemic Luck, Naturalistic Epistemology, and the Ecology of Knowledge.” Philosophical Studies 46: 109–129.

Parker, D. (1961). John Donne and His World. London: Ruskin House.

Preminger, A. (1996). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. London: Princeton Publishing.

Pritchard, D. (2002).  “Virtue Epistemology and Epistemic Luck.” In The Moral and Epistemic Virtues. Edited by M. S. Brady and D. H. Pritchard, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sparke, N. (2002). “The exemplification of love, through the use of geometric conceits in the poetic works of Donne, Vaughan, Marvell and Herbert.” Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/sparke.htm

Statman, D. (1991). “Moral and Epistemic Luck.” Ratio 4: 146–156.


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[1] Epistemic luck is the hypothetical situation in which an agent gains knowledge even though that knowledge has come about in a way that has, in some sense to be specified, involved luck in some significant measure. To deepen into the concept, refer to Pritchard, D. (2002).  “Virtue Epistemology and Epistemic Luck.”

 

[2] An analysis based on Unger´s second and third variety of epistemic luck would be excessively extensive since it incorporates three different points of view: philosophic, pragmatic and semiotic.  

[3] According to Preminger, a conceit, advocating an origin which is specifically intellectual rather than sensuous, juxtaposes a number of dissimilar images to establish a ‘marked discord in mood’, resulting in the device functioning as a vehicle to allow numerous interpretations or readings. (1996: 148)

 

[4] There is a distinction between the actual reader or addressee and the ideal or model reader. On the one hand, the addressee is the reader at the end of the chain of any pragmatic process of communication. On the other hand, the model reader is the abstract reader capable of identifying the existence of codes and subcodes, and the variety of sociocultural circumstances in which the message is emitted. To expand information on the topic, examine Umberto Eco´s Introduction in The Role of the Reader.  3-43


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