The first issue to consider is how we begin to distinguish between the terms and conditions of poetic form within the dramatic text and within the isolated structure of the poem. Here we will encounter a phenomenon that is vitally important in our discriminations between text, context and meaning: 'deixis' and 'deictics'. Deixis, the Greek word for 'pointing' refers to the orientational features of a particular statement. The principal deictic features of a sentence will refer to the conditions of the speaker (first or third person pronoun) and will involve the use of locatives, the time, place and circumstances of the utterance (the use of second person pronouns, the indication of objects and concepts and their spatio-temporal relation to the speaker). In non-dramatic poetry deictics/deixis is particularly important because we will rarely encounter the actual circumstances, fictional or real, that brought the poem into existence, so we will need to construct these circumstances from the deictic evidence within the poem itself. Clearly in dramatic texts our need to use deictics is limited by the fact that we know who the speaker is, who the speaker is addressing and in what circumstances this exchange takes place. Even with the soliloquy, the closest dramatic counterpart to the non-dramatic lyric, we have a good deal of background information. So with the non-dramatic lyric we will construct an absent addressee from the addresser's discourse, and, more significantly, we will be obliged to resolve the distinction between the formal and stylistic allegiances of the text —it will have a great deal in common with other poems that deploy rhyme, metre and metaphoric strategies—and its more specific reference to particular circumstances and conditions.
We will start with The Flea', a lyric by John Donne, published in 1633, but written within a decade of Shakespeare's play.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deny'st me is; Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be; Confess it, this cannot be said A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead, Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, nay more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, we are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet. Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to this, self murder added be, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood and innocence?
In what could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
The most prominent and distinctive deictic features of this lyric are its interpersonal references—the density and almost obsessive emphasis upon personal pronouns, I, thee, you, we, and its use of very specific locative phrases, this flea, it sucked, now sucks. The locative phrases are temporal as well as spatial determinants in that they consistently relocate the immediate past and future in the present; everything done both by the flea and the addressee takes place within seconds of the speaking voice's response to them. By identifying the main deictic features of the poem we provide ourselves with a framework to chart the metaphoric strategies of the speaking presence. The two people—male addresser and female addressee—and the flea function as the three principal components of the vehicle. Stanza 1 maintains an allegiance to the metonymic rather than the metaphoric pole. The key phrase is 'our two bloods mingled be'. This statement of verifiable fact allows the speaker to propose a daring but somehow logical connection between one form of physical union, the flea bite, and another, the sexual act. In stanza 2 metaphor replaces metonymy with the flea proposed as at once a token and symbol of their relationship, 'marriage bed and marriage temple', 'living walls of jet', and, more disturbingly, as a kind of contractual joining of their fate, 'three sins in killing three'. In stanza 3, after the woman has succeeded in swatting his vehicle, the male voice has to reinterpret his own metaphoric propositions and return to a more metonymic pattern—the flea bite and the death of the flea are both physical acts which neither harm nor dishonour their perpetrators and nor, he argues, would the proposed sexual act.
Donne deliberately and self-consciously foregrounds the apparently spontaneous and improvisational nature of the utterance and in doing so he creates a paradox. The reader constructs the situation of the utterance by locating the temporal-spatial relation between the deictic features, and we should note that the speaker's imagined existence is given greater psychological plausibility by his almost desperate deployment of extravagant metaphor in the second stanza, the point at which the vehicle for his pseudo-logic is most seriously threatened. The paradox exists in the fact that it is entirely implausible to imagine that the deployment of such a complex structure of rhyme and metre is spontaneous. In The Literary Work of Art (1973), Roman Ingarden distinguishes between aesthetic objects which are iconic and non-linguistic, in the sense that their form incorporates elements of pre-representational experience (painting and sculpture, for instance), and the linguistic text which is a 'purely intentional object'.
In comparison with the ontically autonomous object, the intentional object is an 'illusion' that draws its illusionary existence and essence from the projecting intention...of the intentional act. The purely intentional object is not a 'substance'.. .Some of the elements assigned to it fool us with the outward appearance of a 'carrier'; they seem to play a role which according to their essence they are truly not capable of playing (122-3).
What Ingarden means by 'fooling us' is that in order to naturalise a poem we must suspend our awareness that there is likely to be an incongrous relation between the 'carrier' and the 'intentional act'. Human beings do of course attempt to seduce other human beings and are often given to reflect verbally upon their existential condition, but they do not, in normal circumstances, do so in rhyme and metre. When we naturalise poems we strip the intentional object of its textual 'essence' and demystify, or in basic terms explain, the intentional act. Donne seems to be fully aware of this paradoxical relation between the 'carrier' and the 'intentional act' because he contrives to deliberately subvert the process of demystification and naturalisation.
In our readings and our naturalisations of all poems there is an uneasy relationship between our interpretation of the 'carrier' and our creation of an 'intentional act'. To return to Jakobson's diagrams, we depend entirely upon the textual features of the message—deictics, metre, syntax, etc.—for our perception of context and contact. The former are properties of language whereas the latter are elements of an imagined non-linguistic situation. We can usually reconcile this somewhat paradoxical relation between the textual and the real by reminding ourselves that poetry demands that, in Coleridge's words, we suspend disbelief. But with Donne's poem every significant textual feature seems designed to remind us that text and world are irreconcilable.
In the second stanza we encounter an instance of grammatical deviation,
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
The second person pronoun and its conective, 'and you', are shifted outside the more conventional grouping of second and third person forms antecedent to the verb, 'though you and your parents grudge'. We might explain this as a mimetic effect, a paratactic slippage betraying the sense of pressure felt by the speaking presence as he attempts to rescue his linguistic strategies from the woman's act of rejection. In doing so we would have drawn upon the contact-code functions to explain one element of the message, but we would then have to remind ourselves that it is only through our explication of features within the message that we are able to construct the contact-code functions. To complicate matters even further the deviation occurs only within the syntactic (real) rather than in the metrical (textual) element of the double pattern; 'and you' fits easily into the iambic/ octosyllabic structure of the line (we can assume that 'we are' is, in contemporary fashion, elided as a single unstressed syllable). This tension between elements of the poem anchored to the contextual situation of the utterance and elements that function as constituents of the text is continuous and unremitting. We should, for example, consider the rhyme scheme.
The semantic-phonemic-syntactic syntheses are quite dazzling. On two occasions the locative term 'this' rhymes with the emphatic 'is', and there is an habitual almost urgent configuration of the speaker's projected ideal, 'be', and the pronouns that allow the reader to construct the situation of his utterance: 'sucks thee', 'mingled be'; 'kill me, added be', 'killing three'; 'fears be', 'to me', life from thee'. The pattern is complicated by the use of 'flea' as an internal counterpoint to 'be', 'thee' and 'me'. We might argue that the speaker's ingenious interpolation of the materiality of language, its phonic signifiers, with their semantic-syntactic functions is part of his rhetorical strategy—an attempt to persuade the woman, perhaps subliminally, that there is a natural correspondence between 'flea', 'thee', 'me' and 'be'. This argument would depend upon an interpretive conflation of textual and contextual features, and again its validity is by no means secure. When reading the poem we are continuously aware that its structure and the development of its argument is responsive to contextual circumstances and events: between stanzas 1 and 2 the woman attempts to swat the flea, between 2 and 3 she succeeds. But we are also aware that this foregrounding of the context-contact functions is matched by an equally prominent foregrounding of self-evidently textual features. The fact that each stanza consists of a very complex system of three couplets of eight and ten syllables terminated by a triplet of two octosyllabic lines and one pentameter disrupts our attempts to naturalise the rhyme scheme. On the one hand we are invited to admire the complexity and precision of the design; on the other we have again to confront the paradoxical relation between self-evident preplanning and our use of its effects to construct a speech act based upon and determined entirely by unpredictable non-linguistic circumstances. We might argue that the mixture of regular and irregular patterns—octosyllabic and decasyllabic lines in the same couplet—is a concession to the contextual element of improvisation and spontaneity, but at the same time we would have to acknowledge that such a concession is made through the foregrounding of the double pattern, and the double pattern is anything but improvised or spontaneous.
To summarise, we, as readers, are caught between two separate and often conflicting models of the communicative circuit. We have to situate ourselves, at least partly, in the position of the addressee, whose silent non-linguistic responses determine the structure of the message, but we also maintain a commanding position outside this dramatic communicative circuit and find ourselves faced with a conflict between the internal structure of the text and the inferred but very real circumstances that created the text. As I have stated, no poem is entirely immune from some potential for conflict between its concentration of linguistic features and its ability to construct its contextual circumstances, but it would be difficult to find another text which so selfconsciously and continuously foregrounds this conflict. In creating such effects Donne becomes the poetic counterpart to the Duke. The Duke could shift easily between the linguistic and circumstantial conditions of the poetic and non-poetic language; Donne asks us to consider this uneasy relationship as purposive elements of the same speech act. The consequent tension between the speaking presence within the text and our image of the controlling hand, the creator of the text, is a consistent feature of metaphysical poetry. Moreover, it operates as an element that can disrupt the protocols of linguistics and literary analysis.
Emile Benveniste (1971, 206-7) distinguished between two fundamental elements of linguistic representation, histoire and discours. Histoire, like history, involves an emphasis upon the story, the events, while any evidence of who the narrator is and of what his/ her opinion of these events might be slips into the background. But with discours we are as much aware of the means by which the story is told and the circumstances in which the telling occurs as we are of the events narrated. The most obvious point of distinction between these two concepts is the use of third and first person narratives in prose fiction, but with poetry, particularly regular poetry, the distinction becomes virtually useless as a framework for naturalisation. With 'The Flea' we might safely assume that the text functions as an example of discours, but whose discours is it? In one sense we need to construct the presence of the addresser who weaves complex metaphoric patterns out of events and circumstances, yet at the same time we are made aware that addresser and addressee are as much functions of the texts as are its metrical and syntactic design.
This problem of identifying a speaking presence upon which we might base interpretive strategies is considered by Jacques Derrida, arguably the most incisive commentator on the fallacies of modern linguistics:
What was it that Saussure in particular reminded us of? That language [which consists only of differences] is not a function of the speaking subject'. This implies that the subject (self-identical or even conscious of self-identity, self-conscious) is inscribed in the language, that he is a 'function' of the language. He becomes a speaking subject only by conforming his speech, to the system of linguistic prescriptions taken as the system of differences.
What Derrida does not acknowledge is that in texts such as 'The Flea' there are effectively two speaking subjects: one is indeed a function of the language, but the other, a.k.a. John Donne, has manipulated the ability of language to designate its own contextual circumstances and has deliberately and self-consciously 'inscribed' his poetic persona in the language of the text.
The sense of uncertainty as to who exactly is in command of the text, poet or persona, underpins the most widely discussed exchange on the value of metaphysical technique. Samuel Johnson (1779, 40-3) dismissed metaphysical technique as 'heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together'. In short their metaphors, or more commonly their conceits, drew too readily upon the paradigmatic axis, and consequently shifted the message, the poetic function, too far from the terms and conditions of linguistic exchange in the real world. T.S.Eliot (1921, 2024) praised this same method: 'A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility'. Thought and experience, whose relation parallels the unification of language and its referent, are, according to Eliot, the constituents of the poetic function, and their bringing by violence together is what should distinguish poetic from non-poetic discourse. The disagreement between Johnson and Eliot can be explained in terms of the historical/cultural circumstances of their judgements— eighteenth-century rationalist versus twentieth-century expressionist views. As we shall see in the next chapter, eighteenth-century poets and critics regarded poetry as the aesthetic counterpart to the practical and utilitarian functions of non-literary discourse. Histoire and discours, events and perceptual response should be balanced, and their differences acknowledged, within the structure of the text. For Johnson, Donne and his contemporaries moved too far toward the extravagant employment of discours: 'wit, abstracted from its effects on the hearer...a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike' (1779, 40-3). In short the text had created its own world, in which linguistic effects and the situation of the addresser and addressee had become detached from the situation of 'the hearer' or more accurately the reader. But for Eliot this same effect registered as the copresence, rather than the separation, of addresser and poet: '[The ordinary man] falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes'. In Eliot's opinion the linguistic text should effectively contain and transform the contextual and referential functions of non-poetic language and experience. To summarise the Johnson-Eliot disagreement: the former favoured a balanced relation between the syntagm-paradigm configurations of poetry and non-poetic discourse while the latter held that the imaginative and unexpected use of the paradigm should create a world within the text. The validity of either of these judgements still remains open to question, but for the moment we should note that the metaphysicals, Donne in particular, represented the test case for two very distinct perceptions of how the functions of addresser, addressee, message, contact and context operate in relation to one another.
The Flea' corresponds with one of the primary characteristics of the metaphysical tradition in that in most cases the speaking presence will establish a fictive situation of immediacy. The metaphysical conceit, the metaphoric technique that maintains a single vehicle throughout the metaphoric excursions of the poem, is often founded upon what might be termed the deictics of verification. The selective axis that constitutes poetic metaphor will usually be linked directly to a person or a non-human object or concept that inhabits the situation in which the utterance occurs. For instance in Donne's 'The Sunne Rising' the speaker does not directly address his female companion; the notion of the addressee is split between the reader, the introspective reflections of the speaker himself and the fictive companion who functions both as a deictic element and the recipient of the speech act. The deictic configurations of the poem make it clear that the thoughts and ideas mediated occur in response to a particular morning on which the sun rises and the speaker's presence in a particular bedroom following a particular night of sexual activity. Again we confront a conflict between the notion of speaker/ poet who employs the fictive situation of the utterance as a function of its linguistic effect and the speaker within the text who is balancing the temporal immediacy of experience against his own mental condition. As Eliot said, a thought to Donne was an experience! But how do we judge the extent to which thought (the use of the paradigmatic axis) constrains experience (the syntagmatic, combinative axis) or vice versa?
At the other end of the metaphysical spectrum we will encounter the religious poems of Vaughan, Herbert and the holy sonnets of Donne himself. Here the range of metaphoric associations will, by virtue of the context of man speaking to or about God, be both reflective and speculative but the poem will still be anchored to a particular situation in which the speaker finds that he needs to address God directly, and it is usually the case that abstract concepts such as the nature of eternity or redemption will be drawn back into a chain of more concrete associations—the archetype for this pattern of linkages is Herbert's The Temple in which the objects that inhibit his daily life become correlatives for his perceived relationship with God. Like their 'amatory' counterparts, in which addresser and addressee are usually man and woman, the religious poems create an uncertain relationship between the communicative circuit occupied by poet and reader and that which governs the addresser-addressee function of the text itself. The following is Donne's most famous 'Holy Sonnet':
Was this article helpful?