Monday, April 14, 2014

Poem of the week: The Anniversary by John Donne

by Carol Rumen's Poems of the Week)

'Only our love hath no decay /This, no to-morrow hath, nor yesterday' … 'love locks' on the Pont des Arts in Paris. Photograph: John Van Hasselt/Corbis

John Donne was the grandson of last week's poet John Heywood. It's not impossible that Heywood saw the young boy who would turn out to inherit his talents, growing up to take the verbal wit he so enjoyed to bold new heights of poetic expression. Donne was born to Heywood's daughter, Elizabeth, in 1572. Although by this time, Heywood was in exile in Malines, and had only six years or so to live, he had permission from Elizabeth I to visit England. John Donne, of course, was also a child of precarious political times.

The Anniversary appears in Songs and Sonets, Donne's second collection, published in 1601. Theodore Redpath, editor of the Methuen University Paperback edition (1987) suggests it recalls the poet's first meeting with his teenaged wife-to-be, Ann More, in 1598. Autobiography can never be assumed, but fidelity in love is clearly the poem's major, anxious theme.

It's not one of the most technically complex of Donne's poems. Some of the metaphors are conventional. That lovers are princely or kingly, with more glory than actual princes and kings, is a well-worn fancy. It's the rhetorical organisation, based not only on paradox and antithesis but led by Donne's intellectual honesty, which provides much of the poem's energy.

In the opening lines we're informed that a year has passed since the lovers "first one another saw". The couple are entering their second year together, and are therefore seen to be in the process of crossing the threshold between temporary liaison and permanent commitment. In the last stanza, the speaker looks optimistically ahead over the years "till we attain/ To write threescore … " – which would be the diamond jubilee of a lasting partnership. It's a somewhat unusual angle for a young writer of love poems, though typical of Donne that he should have thought through his topic in the context of mortality.

From the beginning the poem gestures towards a grand scale: "All Kings, and all their favourites,/ All glory of honours, beauties, wits,/ The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass … " We get a sun's-eye view of the celebrities of earthly state, and the truism that human glory passes (away) as it passes through space and time. But the sun, which creates the divisions of time, is no less subject to the temporal laws.

Donne's neo-Platonist assertion of the lovers' indivisible supremacy contrasts with the sharper, finer focus that divides the reassuring and lofty plural pronoun "we" into units of "thou and I", "thine and my", etc. "Thou and I" in line five records the the last moment of the lovers' separate existence. Then, after the vision of timelessness conjured at the end of stanza one, Donne crash-lands back in earthly time, and, with a kind of blunt bravura, calls a spade a spade: "Two graves must hide thine and my corse … " Even should they share a single grave, the dead bodies will be incapable of tender promises and "sweet salt tears". This interplay of singular and plural pronouns makes for a subtle dramatic tension in a poem intent on declaring the couple's inviolable unity.

Donne's contention is that the lovers' love "keeps his" (ie its) "first, last, everlasting day" even after death. The claim is cemented into an overarching paradox. The Anniversary records an obsession with earthly time, but insists the love celebrated isn't really subject to time at all, because it inhabits souls which it has so perfected that they will achieve Heavenly resurrection immediately after death. (In line 18, the word "inmates", applied to all thoughts other than love, denotes a merely temporary residence.) Of course, the lovers aren't the only souls who will be blessed by immortality, another less-than-comforting thought. But the speaker recovers triumphant equilibrium: at least on earth, he and his beloved are unique and exceptional: " … and none but we/ Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be … "

The notion of treachery is briefly entertained. Only "one of us two" could "do treason to us" – so the lovers are perfectly safe – or are they? Donne's concluding exhortation is all the more moving for the acknowledgment that fears are not always unfounded.

In a crescendo of ardour, he echoes, and embellishes Catullus V, line one: "Let us love nobly, and live … " The inspired placing on one line of "Years and years unto years …" slows the pace and enhances the sense of accumulation. We feel the years' weariness, perhaps, but also their span and fullness.

The tone of the last four lines aspires to majestic certainty, reinforced, as are all end-of-stanza quatrains, by a single rhyme-sound. But a tremor of anxiety remains, and there's even a certain pathos in the concluding declaration that this year is "the second of our reign". Only the second? Donne seems to hint at the realisation that the lovers, while destined for lifelong and death-defying fidelity, have still quite a way to go.

The modernised text featured here is based on that of Theodore Redpath, and includes his end-of-line semicolons not in the original. Redpath explains in the Preface that "the comma had different limits of value in 16th- and 17th- century English from those which it has today". By replacing some commas by semicolons or, more rarely, colons, the rhythmic subtleties are renewed. The lilt of a poem meant to be set to music rises from the page.

The Anniversary

  All Kings, and all their favourites,

  All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw:

All other things to their destruction draw,

  Only our love hath no decay;

This, no to-morrow hath, nor yesterday;

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

  Two graves must hide thine and my corse ;

  If one might, death were no divorce:

Alas, as well as other Princes, we

(Who Prince enough in one another be)

Must leave at last in death, these eyes, and ears,

Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet salt tears;

  But souls where nothing dwells but love

(All other thoughts being inmates) then shall prove

This, or a love increasèd there above,

When bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove.

  And then we shall be throughly blest;

  But now no more than all the rest;

Here upon earth, we're Kings, and none but we

Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.

Who is so safe as we, where none can do

Treason to us, except one of us two?

  True and false fears let us refrain,

Let us love nobly, and live, and add again

Years and years unto years, till we attain

To write threescore; this is the second of our reign.