Excerpt from lecture titled:
Poetry and Consciousness
by Eli Siegel
about John Donne
The word consciousness implies, in its simple meaning, a being aware of anything-the feeling of life itself. But in the sharper meaning, it means the self being aware of itself as aware. That is, you look at a banana: you are conscious of the banana; but you are fully conscious when you can see yourself having seen the banana. Consciousness has many forms, and in poetry we always have the interplay of what a person sees as an object and what he doesn't see.
Unconsciousness can be represented by doodling, and by writing any words that come to you. Some people have done that and if they are very lucky it is a great surrealist poem. People in various ways have gone ahead driftingly. Sometimes they have been very careful, and have even got the right size paper and the right size pencils and all the dictionaries and thesauri, and all the books of metrics, and then have tried to please themselves in a very knowing way, and have really changed poetry into something like profound dominoes or chess. Consciousness has been present in all poems; because even if we doodle, some awareness is present.
The varieties of consciousness in poetry are so many that it is difficult to show that variety in one talk. But generally speaking, whenever we see a poem about which it can be said with safety that the writer has been aware of himself thinking about the poem and what is in the poem, we can say that consciousness is unusually present. I am speaking about the awareness of oneself looking at something or thinking about something. But it is to be always remembered that unconsciousness is present too, that even the unconscious has gradations, and that all poetry is both spontaneity and plan.
Going to some examples of what consciousness is in poetry-there is an unusual poem by John Donne, "The Blossom." It is presumed that he wrote it between 1590 and 1600. The poems of Donne seem to have been very carefully planned. They are mostly in a pretty unusual stanza form. Samuel Johnson complained that these metaphysical poets, they figure out everything! they can't leave any comparison alone! they plan their poems in order to surprise.
Now, Donne was aware of the contrarieties of existence, and he did want to say things that had never been said before, and I am quite sure he knew he was saying them, because these poems are too carefully planned to be just tidal things, torrential-oh, it just came to me, something came over me! Something may have come to John Donne as it does to most people at one time or another; but at the time he wrote the poem, it wasn't coming over him, because he was coming over what had come over him, and we can see it. This is a very strange poem, and from one point of view it is quite batty, definitely.
"The Blossom" is essentially about the following: A person, Donne himself, is leaving a place in the country, where there is a lady. He looks at a flower, and says to it, You don't know it but though you've lived for some days, tomorrow you may die. Then he talks to his heart. The heart, it seems, has an inclination to stay where the lady is, and Donne says to his heart, You won't get anything out of this really, and though you seem to want to stay here and take what this cruel lady wants to give you, I'm off to London, and there I'm going to grow fat and feel good because I have some real friends.
First, Donne consciously wants to talk to a flower:
|Little think'st thou, poor flower, |
Whom I have watch'd six or seven days,
And now dost laugh and triumph on this bough...
Donne imagines the flower thinking, which could not come without consciousness; we cannot imagine plants thinking in this manner or give them feeling unless we are aware of ourselves: "Little think'st thou/That it will freeze anon, and that I shall/Tomorrow find thee fal'n, or not at all."
Then he talks to his heart. And his heart is thought of as doing something which Donne himself, the possessor of the heart, doesn't want to do. The heart wants to stay there; the heart is still hopeful, though he isn't. The heart, however, will have to go along with Donne:
|Little think'st thou, poor heart, |
That labour'st yet to nestle thee,
And think'st by hovering here to get a part
In a forbidden or forbidding tree,
And hop'st her stiffness by long siege to bow:
Little think'st thou,
That thou to-morrow, ere that Sun doth wake,
Must with this Sun, and me a journey take.
This idea of the heart as a separate thing working against the whole person could come only with planning-from someone who is very much aware of himself as body and as having rifts in himself.
Now the heart is imagined talking back. It says: "Alas, if you must go, what's that to me? / Here lies my business, and here I will stay." That idea could come only through post-medieval conscious subtlety-the heart talks back to the man! Then Donne answers:
|Well then, stay here; but know, |
When thou hast stay'd and done thy most;
A naked thinking heart, that makes no show,
Is to a woman, but a kind of Ghost.
All of this means there is a way of feeling that Donne thinks is against what another part of him wants to do. But to have the heart arguing with you-that could come only from a continued awareness, which is aligned to consciousness in the sense that I am using the word. Donne says to his heart, All right, I'll meet you later. He is going to recover from the lady by being with men:
|Meet me at London, then, |
Twenty days hence, and thou shalt see
Me fresher, and more fat, by being with men,
Than if I had stayed still with her and thee.
I would give you
There, to another friend, whom we shall find
As glad to have my body, as my mind.
We can be sure that, though Donne must have felt something very intense at one time, what he did to this thought was give it an intricate sculpture, a grotto work. We feel that somewhere blood was moved, but by the time Donne wrote the poem, the blood was something he was carving, knowingly. It is difficult to think of carving blood, but the phrase can be understood.
At various times in history, people have been more aware of what they are doing, and have seemed to think spontaneity is against the idea of a poem. This is not a spontaneous poem; I can't imagine Donne being very excited and dashing this off. He didn't; he worked over it. Along with the working over of it, there is a pretty artificial idea, and the idea of artifice is close to the idea of consciousness. And so we have an honest example of the elaborately conscious poem.