Saturday, January 19, 2008

Siobhan Collins: "Gold Coins & the Phoenix"

Dr. Siobhán Collins
Making Books, Shaping Readers Project
English Department
University College Cork

Gold Coins and the Phoenix in Donne’s Genre-Defying Verse

2 comments:

Hannah Lavery said...

I am very interested in your insightful reading of 'Farewell to Love'. I wonder if you could expand on the form of the poem, and perhaps comment on why this 'riddling' style is established here?... and whether we see this elsewhere, perhaps in his 'religious' poetry?

I am interested in the position the 'reader' adopts in relation to the construction and enactment of meaning, as you touch on in relation to the final lines. This idea of the external 'act' of completion through reading means that the poem is forced to repeat without satisfaction (the nature of flawed earthly love?) Perhaps this is important for producing an irony in the poem whereby there is ultimately no 'farewell'. Certainly I agree that this is a great poem to consider in relation to the concept of genre as fluid and interactive in Donne's works.

Siobhan Collins said...

Thanks for your comments and questions. To respond: in “Farewll to Love” Donne attempts to order his view of history and selfhood as being both degenerative and regenerative into the form of a lyric poem that absorbs contradiction and uncertainty. His lyric dramatizes the conflict inherent in love and faith as experienced by the fallen self. Both formally and conceptually, the act of saying farewell to love is endlessly repeated. The repetitive cycle is produced largely through its riddling quality, which is employed here by Donne for its ability to spark a reader’s inferences. Donne’s love of the riddle is evident in his use of the paradoxes and puns that can be seen throughout his canon, in both his secular and his religious poems. As you recognize, the reader plays a very important role in the poem’s meaning. The role of the reader is linked to his use of riddling devices: the riddling nature of his work demands a deep level of engagement on the part of the reader, it is designed to stimulate the reader’s imagination. Also, Donne’s use of the riddle as a poetic device allows for no absolute closure or predestined end; rather, it is generative, bringing into play several meanings. Poetry, for Donne has a liminal nature, its meaning is suspended between author and reader, between a presence and an absence, if you like, and invites wonder. Wonder, like the riddle, is a spiritual concept—Albert the Great describes it as both the fear and the desire to know the unknown, to know the portentous. Wonder also has profane connotations in this period of geographical exploration and colonization—it’s related to the early modern fascination with the strange and “other”, which also produces both fear and desire. Donne employs the riddling style in “Farewell to Love” in order to complicate any notion of stability, making it impossible to confer on the poem, or the concept of love it presents, any single, unequivocal meaning—profane or spiritual. Donne’s riddling lyric dramatizes the conflict inherent in love and faith as experienced by the fallen self, crossing boundaries between the realms of the known and the unknown, the secular and sacred:

Whilst yet to prove,
I thought there was some Deitie in love
So did I reverence, and gave
Worship, as Aetheists at their dying houre
Call, what they cannot name, an unknowne power,
As ignorantly did I crave

The poem expresses a view of the self and sexuality as both degenerative and regenerative. This reading challenges the notion that in terms of genre Donne’s lyric belongs to the renunciation of love. As you suggest, there is an irony in that in “Farewell to love” there is ultimately no “farewell”.