Donne’s Undertaking

I was recently called on to recommend a poem. I chose “The Undertaking” of John Donne. I want to say here why.

  • The poem (quoted below) has a sound that impressed me when first I read it, more than thirty years ago.

  • The poem alludes to ideals:

    • of recognizing what is good for its own sake;

    • of climbing a rung or two on Diotima’s ladder or stairway of love, recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (211c):

      And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά), is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps (οἳ ἐπαναβαθμοί) only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms (τὰ καλὰ σώματα), and from fair forms to fair practices (τὰ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα), and from fair practices to fair notions (τὰ καλὰ μαθήματα), until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (ὃ ἔστι καλόν).

  • The sound of Donne’s poem may seduce one into thinking the ideals worthy.

Analytic Geometry and Donne's complete poetry

Two books that were my mother’s

I was invited to pass along a poem as follows.

It should be a favourite text/verse/meditation that has affected you in difficult times. Or not. Don’t agonize over it. If you’d like to send a poem in your own language and provide a translation, please do so!

I did not agonize. Language was not an issue. English is already my own language, though there are a few Turkish poems that I have translated, in collaboration with my beloved spouse, and there are some poems in French that I am glad to know.

I like John Donne, perhaps most of all of the poets I read for school. (I mean the poets whose individual works tend to fit on single pages; otherwise I would have to mention also Homer and Blake.)

In my last post here, “Mood,” for its uses of the subjunctive, I had mined a “song” of Donne, “Goe and catche a falling starre”; so he was on my mind.

I could not just recommend that poem itself, without giving also some kind of disclaimer or explanation. The song might appeal to the incel; I hope it would not reinforce his hatred, but illuminate his problem. The poem is not really misogynist, but confessional, as in my understanding Sylvia Plath (quâ novelist) and G. H. Hardy (quâ mathematical apologist) are confessional.

Donne’s song aims not to create or reinforce a feeling, but to recognize it. One may infer this by reading also, to the end, “Womans constancy.” This follows “Goe and catche a falling starre” in the 1633 edition of Donne’s poetry (which was the first printing of his poems, though he had died in 1631). Having but three more lines than a sonnet, “Womans constancy” is an exceptional catalogue of specious excuses for what really needs no excuse; let’s just put it here:


Ow thou haſt lov’d me one whole day,
To morrow when thou leav’ſt, what wilt thou ſay ?
Wilt thou then Antedate ſome new made vow ?
Or ſay that now
We are not juſt thoſe perſons, which we were ?
Or, that oathes made in reverentiall feare
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forſweare ?
Or, as true deaths, true maryages untie,
So lovers contracts, images of thoſe,
Binde but till ſleep, deaths image, them unlooſe ?
Or, your owne end to Juſtifie,
For having purpoſ’d change, and falſehood ; you
Can have no way but falſehood to be true ?
Vaine lunatique, againſt theſe ſcapes I could
Diſpute, and conquer, if I would,
Which I abſtaine to doe,
For by to morrow, I may thinke ſo too.

Though the drop cap may not come out too well, I am trying to preserve the spelling and typography of Donne’s time, as reflected in my source:

The Poems of John Donne. Edited from the old editions and numerous manuscripts with introductions & commentary by Herbert J. C. Grierson. Vol. I, the text of the poems with appendixes. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1912.

I downloaded this book from the Internet Archive. I could not find images of the 1633 edition of Donne’s work. That edition has been transcribed by the Early English Books Online–Text Creation Partnership, but the transcription does not preserve the alternating indentation of “The Undertaking,” nor generally the use of the long ess.

Of course one may modernize or normalize Donne’s spelling, as in Frank Brady and Martin Price, Poetry Past and Present (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). This school anthology is where I first read Donne. “Woman’s Constancy” and “The Undertaking” are not there; the Donne poems that both are there and were read in the second semester of my tenth-grade English class are

  • “The Sun Rising” (“Busy old fool, unruly sun”),

  • “The Canonization” (“For God sake hold your tongue, and let me love”),

  • “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,”

  • Holy Sonnets 10 (“Death be not proud”) and 14 (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”).

The Flea” is not there, but we read it, probably on a mimeographed sheet:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be …

Reviewing these poems raises (for me) both nostalgia and a question: to what extent is education indoctrination?

Poetry Past and Present against buildings in the sun

I have tried to argue here, most recently in “Salvation,” that we cannot be indoctrinated in mathematics, but can only accept it freely. On the other hand, what we like, or what makes us feel good (or for that matter bad), depends on what we are exposed to when young. Likewise, what we think is right depends on what our elders have thought. Of course we may rebel; but how many have the spirit for this?

I said also in “Salvation” that I had lots of songs in my head because I had not only heard them, but listened to them. Still of course I had to hear them in order to listen.

In the tenth-grade course where we first read Donne, I asked one day, “What is the point of English class anyway?”

He was taken aback, but I have always appreciated Paul Piazza’s answer: “To find a writer whom you enjoy.” This was elite education at a private school, St Albans School in Washington; but such an education ought to be available to all, and there has supposedly been an attempt to offer it to all, at least in the United States:

As the country moved to mass higher education—from the land-grant acts of 1862 and 1890 and the establishment of women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities to the G.I. Bill and the postwar explosion of state university systems—the idea of a liberal education was carried right along. The heyday of public higher ed, the 1960s, was the heyday of the liberal arts. If those middle- and working-class kids were going to college just to get a better job, why did so many of them major in English? Because they also wanted to learn, think, reflect, and grow. They wanted what the WASP aristocrats had, and the country was wise enough, or generous enough, or egalitarian enough, to let them have it.

That’s William Deresiewicz, in one of the articles from Harper’s that keep me subscribing: “The Neoliberal Arts,” September, 2015.

At St Albans, I think Dr Piazza liked Donne, but I am not sure. In a later year, when I asked him whether there were works he did not like teaching, he named Gulliver’s Travels. However, I had enjoyed well enough reading Swift’s satire with him.

In the 1633 edition of Donne, and hence in later editions such as Grierson’s, after “Womans constancy” comes “The Undertaking,” though it has no title in the 1633 edition:


Have done one braver thing
Then all the Worthies did,
And yet a braver thence doth ſpring,
Which is, to keepe that hid.

It were but madnes now t’impart
The skill of ſpecular ſtone,
When he which can have learn’d the art
To cut it, can finde none.

So, if I now ſhould utter this,
Others (becauſe no more
Such ſtuffe to worke upon, there is,)
Would love but as before.

But he who lovelineſſe within
Hath found, all outward loathes,
For he who colour loves, and skinne,
Loves but their oldeſt clothes.

If, as I have, you alſo doe
Vertue’attir’d in woman ſee,
And dare love that, and ſay ſo too,
And forget the Hee and Shee ;

And if this love, though placed ſo,
From prophane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this beſtow,
Or, if they doe, deride :

Then you have done a braver thing
Then all the Worthies did ;
And a braver thence will ſpring,
Which is, to keepe that hid.

In the Phaedo, Socrates teaches his followers not to mourn him, because the hemlock will put only his body to death, and the virtuous soul is rewarded in the afterlife. However, Socrates actually disbelieves in an afterlife; and like Donne’s braver thing, this disbelief is hidden in the text of the dialogue. Except for the analogy with Donne, I have mentioned the foregoing elsewhere as the plausible argument of David Bolotin, my teacher in college, in his article, “The Life of Philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul: An Introduction to Plato’s Phaedo” (Ancient Philosophy 7, pages 39–56).

Perhaps Bolotin’s main point is not a specific conclusion about Socrates’s thought, but the method of reaching it:

How are we to avoid the dangers of arbitrary interpretation, such as that of regarding as genuine only those among Socrates’ arguments that we happen to find congenial, while dismissing the others as Socratic irony? It seems to me that we can avoid such dangers, and that we can bring Socrates’ innermost thought to light, but only if we approach the dialogue by beginning from the very surface of the text. This means we must not presume to know in advance what Socrates could and could not have meant seriously; we must make a deliberate effort, if need be, to let the dialogue unfold for us as it did for the most docile of Socrates’ interlocutors or listeners.

This all makes sense, although I do want to find an argument that is congenial, and perhaps it does not matter if the argument is Socrates’s, or Donne’s, or for that matter Somerset Maugham’s.

I allude here to a relevant vignette in “The Round Dozen,” included in the 1931 collection Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (which I read while in college), but published in 1924 as “The Ardent Bigamist” in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s and presumably elsewhere. I now cut and paste the text of Distributed Proofreaders Canada, as made available on Faded Page. The setting is an unfashionable English seaside resort in November. In getting in a dig at Victorian morality, Maugham clarifies what morality is:

It was while I was drinking a glass of port with Mr. St. Clair one evening that he told me the sad story of Miss Porchester. She was engaged to be married to a nephew of Mrs. St. Clair, a barrister, when it was discovered that he had had an intrigue with the daughter of his laundress.

“It was a terrible thing,” said Mr. St. Clair. “A terrible thing. But of course my niece took the only possible course. She returned him his ring, his letters and his photograph, and said that she could never marry him. She implored him to marry the young person he had wronged and said she would be a sister to her. It broke her heart. She has never cared for anyone since.”

“And did he marry the young person?”

Mr. St. Clair shook his head and sighed.

“No, we were greatly mistaken in him. It has been a sore grief to my dear wife to think that a nephew of hers should behave in such a dishonourable manner. Some time later we heard that he was engaged to a young lady in a very good position with ten thousand pounds of her own. I considered it my duty to write to her father and put the facts before him. He answered my letter in a most insolent fashion. He said he would much rather his son-in-law had a mistress before marriage than after.”

“What happened then?”

“They were married and now my wife’s nephew is one of His Majesty’s Judges of the High Court, and his wife is My Lady. But we’ve never consented to receive them. When my wife’s nephew was knighted Eleanor suggested that we should ask them to dinner, but my wife said that he should never darken our doors and I upheld her.”

“And the laundress’s daughter?”

“She married in her own class of life and has a public-house at Canterbury. My niece, who has a little money of her own, did everything for her and is godmother to her eldest child.”

Poor Miss Porchester. She had sacrificed herself on the altar of Victorian morality and I am afraid the consciousness that she had behaved beautifully was the only benefit she had got from it.

That’s right. Morality as such has no benefits beyond itself. You behave morally, by your lights; you do philosophy, you pursue your love of wisdom; or with Miss Porchester or even John Donne you simply love, not because the gods will reward you, but because—well, there is no reason, if you have to ask for one.

Miss Porchester does fall. Her uncle says of her,

No, Miss Porchester never cared for anyone but her cousin. She never speaks of him and it is now thirty years since they parted, but I am convinced that she loves him still. She is a true woman, my dear sir, one life, one love, and though perhaps I regret that she has been deprived of the joys of marriage and motherhood I am bound to admire her fidelity.

Then she is seduced, at age fifty-four (fifty-one in the Maclean’s version) by a man who aims to take her three thousand pounds.

Donne’s allusion in “The Undertaking” to a higher love may itself be another seduction, like saying loss of maidenhead is no bigger a deal than a fleabite.

Donne attended both Oxford and Cambridge, but refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, and therefore could not take a degree. I don’t know what Plato he read (or heard) at university; he had been born in 1571 or 2, and the Stephanus edition of Plato (the edition whose pagination we still use for reference) had come out in 1578. “The Undertaking” may not show the direct influence of Plato’s Symposium; but there is a common theme, of a love beyond what exists between bodies.

We are not our bodies, and a word is not its spelling. Standard spelling is as useful as the Stephanus pagination for Plato. As God forbid that I or any reader find out first hand, one may lament, if infected by the novel coronavirus, “Though I cough and cough, it is never enough.” Here we are stuck with the non-phonetic spelling of though cough enough, tho’ we may abbreviate the first of these words with an apostrophe; I don’t think we can do anything else. Having (since Donne) come to make them, we ought to maintain such spelling distinctions as between “than” and “then,” as we ought to follow the Latin transliteration of the Greek ἔκστασις. The Greeks did not combine the kappa and sigma (κσ) to form xi (ξ), and so, in writing “ecstasy,” we do not combine the cee and the ess into an ex. However, John Donne (or his first editor) did just this, naming one of his poems as “The Extasie.”

We may do well to remember that standard spelling is younger than modern English; and as readers of “The Undertaking,” we do well to have “The Extasie” in mind, regardless of how we spell its title.

“This ecstasy does unperplex,” says Donne; or rather,

This Extaſie doth unperplex
(We ſaid) and tell us what we love,
Wee ſee by this, it was not ſexe,
Wee ſee, we ſaw not what did move :
But as all ſeverall ſoules containe
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, theſe mixt ſoules, doth mixe againe,
And makes both one, each this and that.

Let me only remark that I know “The Ecstasie” best from words of the college classmate of mine who inspired the film The Tao of Steve. The memory is dim. Our seminar was discussing maybe Paradise Lost. Duncan brought in “The Extasie,” to say that what the vulgar see as sex (as between Adam and Eve) might be something else on a higher plane, to those who are elevated enough to see it.

No doubt Duncan had a profound understanding of sex. However, he didn’t understand people like me. Tasking himself with improving social life on campus, he asked me whether there should be chess nights, or similar events, to draw out the people who didn’t go to the dance parties. I suggested that perhaps some of us actually preferred to be alone in our rooms.

I can be grateful to Duncan for inducing me to verbalize the possibility of being what is now commonly called an introvert. Such a person is one for whom isolation in response to the novel coronavirus is no big change in routine.

I return again to the form of Donne: to the spellings that look odd to us, or ought to, if we have been properly indoctrinated in standard spelling.

My discussion of spelling ecstasy makes an incidental point that I could not make, several decades ago. I may have been on holiday from college when a bitter argument erupted over whether I could play the word “xi” in a family game of Scrabble. My uncle asserted peremptorily that “xi” was not a word. A friend of my cousin’s with Greek ancestry said he should not be allowed to play Greek words. Nobody could understand that “xi” was the English word for the Greek letter whose Greek name was ξῖ and whose capital form was Ξ. If you are drinking in front of the ΞΥΖ fraternity house, and the letters over the door fall on you, then you may be hit by a xi.

We were drinking in West Virginia as our Scrabble dispute arose. I started to quit the game, saying I hadn’t realized we were not going to play by the rules; but my aunt prevailed on me to stay. I took back xi and spelled out pixie.

“It’s a better word,” said my uncle. Maybe so, but I got fewer points; and if points didn’t matter, why did my uncle not want to learn something new? I had read books about how professional Scrabble players depended on two-letter words like “xi.”

My aunt and uncle must have had a private discussion, that night or the next day. On a later occasion, they invited me to play Scrabble again, this time by the rules as I understood them—that is, by the rules! I declined.

Modern Library College Editions on a ledge

One of the stories my uncle used to tell was of going out drinking to celebrate passing a course in ancient Greek with a D. This was at Beloit College in Wisconsin, and I have a couple of books he used there: Modern Library College Editions of Virgil’s Works and Seven Famous Greek Plays. Maybe I have them because he passed them along to his sister, my mother, when she attended the same college (as had their father before them). It is her Modern Library edition of The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne that I use now. I took that volume with me to St John’s College, and at some point I decided to study it from the beginning. My resolve may not have lasted long, but it taught me early poems like “Goe and catche a falling starre” and “The Undertaking.”

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