Good Friday

Easter and Passover are of the times of year when historical and scientific explanations seek to find ways to support, or contradict, magic and faith. Numerous documentaries are aired on Western television during the holidays, with the purpose to see the Judeo-Christian narrative within the context of historical evidence and scientific proof. Validity and belief lock horns. Religious texts are set against historical documents and tried through scientific process. When could the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn really have created the illusion of a great star? What was the role of Egypt, for the people of Judea, and for the family of the carpenter Joseph? What did Caesar Augustus really decree? What was the plan of Herod? – What happened that Easter around AD 33 in Jerusalem?

The twilight zone between the two parties of the debate is the vast semantic field of the metaphor. Ancient prophesies can turn into substantial future events, or they can be seen realised in symbolic form. The “great light” (Isaiah 9:2) can be searched as a great “star in the east” (Matthew 2:2), or as illumination on a broader scale. Where the blood of a slaughtered lamb as a sign on the door-post saves from illness and the death of the oldest child (Exodus 12:6–11), the blood of the metaphorical sacrificial lamb keeps returning as a life-giving force in Christian narrative thousands of years later.

The poet John Donne (1572–1631), together with the other Metaphysical poets, developed the art of the poetic conceit into the most prominent composition of prophecy, metaphor and image. On Good Friday 1613 (then, too, on the 2nd of April, like this year), Donne returns to one of his most favoured puns, expanding and exploding it into a most profound Christian metaphor – and into a rather intriguing philosophical image. While riding Westward, Donne writes, were he to turn around and face East, he “should see a Sunne, by rising set, / And by that setting endlesse day beget;” (ll. 11–12). The sun rises from the east, yet this is also where, in the narrative of the Christian Donne, the Son on God is raised on the cross to his death; by dying, then, he is creating everlasting day — life — to mankind. While the full interpretation of redemption and mercy is restricted to a Christian reading, the ”Cosmographers” (whom Donne tempts in another poem, ”Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse”, l. 7) must find the image rather ingenious, too.

* The quotations, as well as the image of the poem, are from the 1921 edition of Herbert J.C. Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of The Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press), the centenary of which is celebrated this year as one of the key inspirations for the revival of Donne and the other Metaphysical poets for the modern reader.

“this crown of prayer”

Or, The day of a Donne scholar in the age of corona: a university lecturer applying 21st-century methods of distance learning to early modern poetry

 

In the mornings, my worries are technical: will the program work, will the video contact and sound work, can I hear the students, can they hear me? We gather around our computers, with a variety of domestic scenes in the background, sometimes a family member, or a pet, passing through the room. The students tend to be more computer savvy than me, but then that is hardly surprising; I try to create an atmosphere of inquisitiveness and learning with text, in a situation where I cannot meet my students in class. Four-hundred years ago, John Donne (1572–1631) asked, in one of his Holy Sonnets: “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

During my coffee break, my mind is concerned with first-world problems: the trips I had planned to take, the concerts I had wanted to attend, an exhibition I really had wanted to see. I am annoyed by the inconvenience to my every-day life, and to my selective life-style. What if the world changes for good now? What if I can never again travel and move freely, like I am used to. Donne envisions his world that has expanded considerably just recently: “West and East / In all flatt Maps… are one”.  Yet, what if this is the end of life as we know it? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the twilight, I think of family and friends: the luncheons and coffees planned, the book waiting to be returned, and the one I had promised to lend. Now, we are asked not to touch, not to shake hands, only to meet through the safety of windows, and the telephone. Donne writes: “But glasse, and lines must bee / No meanes our firme substantiall love to keepe…” Yet, we are forced to social distancing that challenges our social needs. — I also think of academic conferences: grateful for the ones that I attended, sorry for those now cancelled. After all the digital prowess I have developed recently (and much faster than I would ever have believed), these encounters really require face-to-face presence. Only in a random conversation during the lull in a busy conference-schedule did that project come about, was that book planned, did those great minds think alike. “Learning were safe; in this our Universe…” But what about now? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the darkness of the night, I fear for the health and life of loved ones, and of myself: we have not experienced this kind of a world-wide plague in our life-time. I think of the sweating sickness of the Tudor era, of the relapsing fever endured by John Donne, of the Spanish flu that killed my great-grandmother and the twins she was carrying. “Tis the yeares midnight…” They, too, were filled with fear, and for all our health insurance and western medicine, so are we. While the vernal equinox has passed, dawn is still hours away. “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

Westminster Abbey, London; at night

*All references to Donne’s poetry are from the John T. Shawcross edition (1967).

English Studies in/for the World

(One of the great challenges of the Humanities is to increase the awareness of these different disciplines in today’s increasingly economics- & technology-based world: to show why the different studies in Faculties of Arts are elemental to the well-being of society, to the development of civilization, and to the survival of humankind. The following text is based on my deliberation on this, mostly in two presentations earlier this term, from the point of view of my own vocation in language and literature in general, and in English studies in particular.)

English is a world language, a lingua franca of the Internet, of popular culture, and of much of international politics. In the western world, English is often an expected and presumed second-language skill whatever the native language(s) of a country. In a number of contexts, English has reached the status of the the designated language of communication (e.g. in civil aviation). These are choices of safety, practicality, and circumstance.

In a world with this language set-up then, what is the role of academic English studies?

All language study is study of communication, of people’s minds and of their emotions. In the English-speaking world today, we need to study and understand phenomena like Brexit, Backstop, and “fake news”, and, on an even larger scale, we need to work through challenges like nationalism, prejudice, and environmental issues. This is why we study language.

Furthermore, the academic study of languages is more than the study of contemporary language. In the case of English, it is the study of a language in the continuum of centuries of Judeo-Christian western tradition. In order to understand the language of today, we need to study the language of the past, and the literature created in that language, by the writers who saw the world change, and sometimes made that change happen. “Study our manuscripts, those Myriades / Of letters, which have past twixt thee and mee, / Thence write our Annals, [—]” prompts the poet John Donne (1572–1631) in one of his poems.*

Taking John Donne as an example, then: He lived in the London of Renaissance Humanism, harbouring the legacy of his great-uncle and the friend of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535); he suffered, and later embraced, the aftermath of the English Reformation; and he saw the Elizabethan era come to an end and the Tudor rule turn into the reign of the Stuarts that eventually open the way to the creation of the United Kingdom.

John Donne was also involved and interested in the exploration of and travel in the new world(s): he partook in naval campaigns with men like the Earl of Essex (1565–1601) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618); he was highly intrigued by the expedition of the Virginia Company; and he had a great personal engagement with the work of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). All these expansions of the known world — and of the mind of man — are reflected in Donne’s language and writings.

In the English-speaking world of today, we need to study writers like John Donne — as well as other writers of other eras — in order to find out how the world we know was formed and why. By understanding how the people were thinking and why they made their choices, we can make sense of where and who we are in England and in Europe today. Other scholars do the same in other languages and for other cultures. Together, eventually, we can hopefully make the future a better place.

* “Valediction on the booke” (ed. John T. Shawcross, 1967)

Ristin merkki

Pääsiäisen alla Kirkko ja kaupunki -median esittämä #silmätristissä-kuvahaaste herätti lukijat hahmottamaan ristin kuvia ympäristöstään. Kampanja oli kekseliäs ja ehkä hieman provosoivakin, onhan uskonnollisten tunnusmerkkien pitäminen esillä ja niistä puhuminen tullut nykyaikana yhä kyseenalaisemmaksi. Pohjoismaisessa kulttuurissa uskontoa on kauan pidetty jokaisen yksityisasiana, ja nyt haluamme mielellämme soveltaa samaa yksityisyyden periaatetta myös muualta tuleviin kansalaisiin ja heidän uskonnolliseen ilmaisuunsa. Samalla tämä periaate kääntyy meitä itseämme vastaan: Keskustelemme joka vuosi soveliaisuudesta järjestää koulujen perinteisiä joulu- ja kevätjuhlia; kauppaketju poistaa etelämaalaisesta mainoskuvasta kirkontornien ristit, suvaitsevaisuuden merkiksi.

Keskustelu ei kuitenkaan ole uusi. Samoin oli 1500-luvun lopun Englannissa. Vuosisatainen roomalaiskatolinen perinne oli saanut väistyä protestanttisen kuningattaren tieltä, ja puritaanisimmat kannattajat halusivat uuden kirkon kieltävän myös ristin kuvan ja ristinmerkin. Moni vangittiin ja tuomittiin sääntöjen rikkomisesta. Runoilija John Donne (1572–1631), joka oli syntyperältään katolinen, otti kantaa ristikeskusteluun. ”Kristus itse otti ristin kantaakseen; / kuinka minä saatan tämän kuvan kieltää?” Donne kysyi runossaan.*

Uskova näkee vakaumuksensa tunnusmerkit joka puolella maailmassaan. John Donne tietää tämän myös: ”Kuka voi kieltää minulta vallan ja vapauden / levittää käteni ja olla niin oma ristini?” Donne kysyy edelleen ja jatkaa kuvaamalla, kuinka uimari jokaisella vedollaan muodostaa ristin, kuinka linnut taivaalla liitävät ristin muodossa, kuinka koko maailma pituus- ja leveysasteineen (tämä oli uutta tiedettä Donnen aikana) on toisinto ristin kuvasta. Donne ottaa runossaan jo neljäsataa vuotta sitten osaa #silmätristissä-kampanjaan.

Oma isoäitini oli herkkä merkeille maailmassa. Hän varoi visusti jättämästä aterimia, narunpätkiä tai tulitikkuja pöydälle ristiin — kuoleman merkiksi. (Tämä oli yleinen pahaenteinen uskomus hänen aikanaan. Minä kulutan ihmiselämän verran aikaa päästäkseni irti tuosta perimästäni taikauskosta.) Uskonnollisten merkkien voima on suuri, ehkä ne siksi pelottavat.

Mutta kuva ei kieltämällä katoa. ”Kuka voi peittää ristin, tuon, / jonka Jumala kasteessa minuun piirsi?” Donne kysyy. Samoin on kaikkien uskonmerkkien kanssa: pelkkä kuvan tai tunnusmerkin piilottaminen ei poista vakaumusta. Todellinen suvaitsevuus ja yhteisymmärrys voidaan saavuttaa ainoastaan hyväksymällä uskon rauhanomainen ilmaiseminen, jokaisen oman vakaumuksen tarinan kertominen. Uskon ulkoinen tunnusmerkki, oli se sitten riipus, päähine tai tapa tervehtiä vastaantulijaa, ei pohjimmiltaan ole ulkoinen uhka vaan sisäinen oman uskon vahvistus.

”Tämän ristin menetys / olisi minulle uusi risti,” John Donne sanoo runossaan ja jakaa samalla myös useiden eri uskoa tunnustavien nykyajan ihmisten tunteen. ”Mikään kärsimys, / mikään risti ei ole niin raskas, kuin olla sitä ilman.”

”Marttyyrien risti” kadussa Englannissa Oxfordin Broad Streetillä vuosina 1555–56 teloitetun kolmen protestanttisen piispan muistoksi.

*John Donnen runon ”The Crosse” lainaukset suomennettu tätä tekstiä varten (MS).

Poems and Science

While we often want to experience and discuss poetry and scientific phenomena in completely separate contexts, and indeed as far from each other as possible, there was a time when the twain did meet — and in doing so created the most moving and engaging verse imaginable.

This is the form of English verse that (in the words of Samuel Johnson almost two centuries later) was to be called Metaphysical poetry. The term refers to verse originating in the 1590s and, most specifically, with the poet John Donne (1572-1631). Other poets included in this group of writers are, most significantly, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell.* Some scholars also include, for example, Thomas Carew, Abraham Cowley, and Richard Lovelace, as well as some earlier, pre-Metaphysical poets like Ben Jonson, Walter Raleigh — and even William Shakespeare.**

The common denominator for Metaphysical poetry is its strong focus on complex imagery and use of diligent linguistic precision. (In the terms of rhetoric, this is referred to as Metaphysical conceit.) The poets were learned men of intelligence, and of wit (another central term for this poetry), and they were eager to demonstrate their refinement through linguistic artfulness. The poems are primarily concerned with passion, or with God — or with combining temporal and celestial love; later, closer to the mid-17th-century and the revolution, political topics were introduced into the discourse. Strong lines resolutely carry the significance of meaning.

The imagery used in this poetry is always purposely rather far from the topic discussed, and the metaphors are elaborated upon extensively to create complex and multilayered constructions of meaning. The narrative is not complete without covering the entire semantic field of the image, on all levels of meaning. (For example, in one of his poems Donne presents a flea as the metaphor for an encounter where, on one level of reading, the love can be seen as romantic, pure affection, whereas, on another level, the content is highly erotic.)

Very often the Metaphysical conceit introduces imagery from the realm of exploration or scientific discovery. This was a world very new for the writers of the time, and the new worlds and universes presented endless possibilities for fantastic encounters — with oneself, with a lover, and with God. Donne frequently elaborates on the image of the sun rising and setting, and he uses it as a poignant homophonic metaphor for the son of God rising on the cross to die and setting in the grave to save mankind. Other metaphors include maps to new worlds, cosmological spheres — and, most famously perhaps, the drawing compass.

Here the Metaphysical poetry of the 1590s and the early 17th century meets the Science Fiction of today. In both genres the writers seem to employ the metaphors of the most developed thinking of their day, to reach to the limits of that understanding — and to venture beyond the known world. Writers in both eras and genres use the most elaborate research of their time as a springboard for their creative minds, and build new universes with which to illustrate the intricate workings of mans body, his mind, and his soul.

The ’Lothian Portrait’ of John Donne, c. 1595. National Portrait Gallery, London.

* See e.g. Joan Bennett, Five Metaphysical Poets (1964)
** See e.g. Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (1957)

Fear

When terror takes over, time and time again, and fear sweeps over city after city, our tomorrow never seems as safe as yesterday, anywhere. This year has been especially hard like that. Some incidents have us glued to the news reports and the internet; sometimes we barely have the strength to open the television. All these incidents make our world shudder, and they turn it into a darker place. At the same time, we know that we should not give in, should not let evil, hatred and fear win.  

When contemplating the untimely death of a young girl, John Donne (1572–1631), too, felt similar helplessness in the face of the events and the cruel world around him. “[W]hen thou knowest this,” he concludes three times in his despair:    

“Thou knowest how poore a trifling thing man is.
[—] Thou knowest how lame a cripple this world is.
[—] Thou knowest how ugly’a monster this world is”    

Every death, every violence, shakes us to the core, and we may, like Donne, see the world “a cripple” and “a monster” and resign to our own insufficiency. It feels that all we want to do is to hide and to protect our loved ones as best we can. Seems like the best thing to do.  

In 1529, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1478–1530) had to step down as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII (1491–1547). His main successor as the king’s trusted advisor was Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540). In his play about Henry VIII (1613), William Shakespeare (1564–1616) gives Wolsey a moment to pause when leaving office, and Wolsey gives a long, moving speech to Cromwell. At the time of writing the play, more than eighty years after the event, Shakespeare already knew that the world Wolsey was leaving behind was to face turmoil and even terror, and Cromwell, too, was to meet a violent death. Yet, in the play, Shakespeare lets Wolsey instruct his follower – as well as the audience – on how to encounter the world:

[—]
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; 
Corruption wins not more than honesty. 
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace, 
To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not:   
[—]   

These are heavy challenges on a day when the news are again filled with violence and terror. Yet, even in hindsight, Shakespeare deemed it more productive to go with “honesty” and with “gentle peace” – and to encourage us to “fear not”.  

 

St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on the night of the terror attack on 22nd March 2017. 

* John Donne: “An Anatomy of the World”, ll. 183–4, 238, 326, ed. by John T. Shawcross, 1967; William Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, Act III, scene ii

Uppståndelsens mysterium

Den engelska prästen och poeten John Donne (1572–1631) skrev i början av 1600-talet en dikt om Kristi uppståndelse (”Resurrection, imperfect”). I den dikten ville han beskriva och förklara uppståndelsen på tre olika sätt, från tre olika synvinklar.

I den första delen av dikten, de första åtta raderna, jämför Donne Kristus med solen. Men när Kristus uppstår är solen och alla andra ljus överflödiga, allt världsligt ljus bleknar. Det här är en välkänd bild. I den andra delen av dikten, de följande åtta raderna, presenteras Kristus som de vises sten, som lades i graven men uppstod för att kunna förvandla allt det orena och oädla till heligt och rent. På Donnes tid var användningen av denna alkemistiska språkbild även starkare än idag, eftersom man trodde att det bortom människans dåtida kunskap och förstånd verkligen kunde finnas ett något så magiskt ämne. I den tredje och sista delen av dikten använder John Donne inte längre en språkbild, utan han försöker sig på att beskriva konkret själva händelsen. Han börjar beskriva vad man kunde ha sett om någon hade vittnat uppståndelsen.

Men denna sista del av dikten innefattar bara sex rader och slutar två rader före den poetiskt sett borde, och dikten förblir således ofullbordad. (Senare förläggare har tillagt orden Desunt Cætera, ”resten fattas”, efter dikten.) Än idag, fyrahundra år senare, tvistar litteraturvetare om hur det riktigt gick till: Visst borde en poet som John Donne ha hittat de sista rimmen för att slutföra dikten? Varför klarade han inte av att beskriva konkret det han förklarat bildligt just innan?

Eller ville John Donne kanske genom att lämna dikten oavslutad visa att det här alltid förblir ett mysterium för människan: att människan inte kan förstå och därför inte kan med ord beskriva det under som uppståndelsen innebär? För Donne var det här ett mycket större under än en sol som får alla världens ljus att blekna eller de vises sten som förvandlar oädla metaller till guld. Det tomrum som dessa saknade rader skapar visar för Donne på det hisnande avståndet mellan mänsklig strävan och gudomlig fullkomlighet som han själv kämpade med hela sitt liv. Kanske svaret på mysteriet för Donne ligger i de här två diktraderna som inte finns.

(En tidigare version av den här texten har publicerats i Matteusbilagan i Kyrkpressen (nr. 13/2010). Texten publiceras här med tillstånd av chefredaktör May Wikström.)

Time

For a mother, there are always moments when you want time to stop: holding your newborn in your arms; seeing your toddler explore the world; or spending precious moments with a child already leading their own life. Life often gives us moments when we feel the need to stop the clocks, step down from the busy highway of life, seize the wheel of time.

John Donne (1572–1631) also had moments when he voiced a similar yearning to master the flow of time. Three poetic instances especially come to mind:

Firstly, Donne’s poem “A Valediction of my name, in the window” shows a magical moment of the poet inscribing his name on glass with a diamond. The poet imagines his lover looking at the inscription and seeing her own reflection in the glass at the same time, and thus his work blurs the parameters of time and place. Most importantly, however, this inscription is eternal and “[s]o shall all times finde mee the same” – at his happiest, most content, safe perhaps.*

The second moment is probably the best known from Donne’s poetry, the poem “The Sunne Rising”. Here Donne (or the speaker, but with Donne that often feels like one and the same person anyway) has been interrupted in his lovemaking to his mistress (and now we tend to believe that this would in fact be his wife and the sole love of his life, Anne More). Donne commands the “[b]usie old foole, unruly Sunne” to go wake schoolboys and tell courtmen the time – but to leave the lovers alone, because love “no season knowes, no clyme, / Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time”.

Finally, in his Holy Sonnet “At the round earths imagin’d corners”, depicting the Day of Judgement, Donne asks God to let the dead still sleep, and to let him “mourne a space”, in order for him to be able to repent and be ready for judgement. Here, too Donne takes to his verbal powers to stop time, at the very last moment, in order to be able to stay in a place in time where God’s mercy and grace still abounds.

This image of man stopping time is closely related to the concept of carpe diem, of seizing of the day, introduced by the Roman poet Horace, and made especially famous in English verse in early modern time by Donne’s late contemporaries like Robert Herrick (1591–1674) and Andrew Marvell (1621–78). With carpe diem the point is to make the best of a moment, not to waste the precious time we are given. However, Donne’s pursuit to master time seems more intense than that, more violent perhaps, more desperate at least, more eager. Donne does not content himself by making the best of a given moment; he wants to hold on to it, be in control of time.

Donne saw the times treat his Catholic family harshly; he experienced the loss of wife and children. He himself almost lost his life in illness, and he realised that indeed, “no man is an island… ”. Life was not always kind to him, and more than once he hoped not only to seize the day but make time stop, give him a breathing-space, let him regroup and decide where and how best to move on. – There were also many moments of love, of gratitude, and of deepest divine devotion. Then too, Donne would gladly have stopped time for a while, to keep happiness close, to savour the moment.

All in all, Donne seems very confident of his power to master time and make it pass – or not – at his command. Although he was strongly aware of all aspects of the heliocentric worldview, especially, we know, of Keplerian thought, he liked to revisit the Medieval reality of an orbiting sun and rising stars in his imagery. So he commands the planets and the temporal realities as well as God’s own composition of time. And he does not plead; he seems to be stating in an assertive imperative like Joshua (“Sun, stand thou still…”) – yet, “there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man” (cf. Joshua 10:12–14). Time just does not do that. It tends to move on, everyday – and day by day a little faster it seems. But I can relate to Donne. Not only do I wish to stop for a moment every now and then; I want the moment to stop for me.

Donne’s signature from the title page of Donne’s copy of a book by Johannes Kepler; image reproduced by permission of the Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

* Poetry quoted from The Complete Poetry of John Donne, edited by John T. Shawcross (1967); Bible quotations from the King James version.