We shall not cease from explorationT.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
and the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It is now a year since I started selecting three poems and writing about them once a week. I never thought I would be able to keep it going for so long, and under such a peculiar set of circumstances. For all that some weeks have been easy to write and some have been very hard, I have enjoyed the exercise and I propose to keep it going. I should thank all of you who have encouraged me to do this, and I hope that everyone who has read the poems has enjoyed them, even if they don’t agree with my inexpert commentary!
From now on, I am going to cut back on the number of poems so from today, I will cover just one poem a week and do a single post rather than four. I am considering looking at some longer poems this year too—perhaps breaking monsters like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” into smaller sections.
There are several poets I like: Kipling, Rossetti, Omar Khayyam (via Fitzgerald) and Donne spring to mind quite readily but if anyone would like to suggest a favourite poem (or poet), feel free to comment below or PM me if you’d rather.
Poem 160. The Good-Morrow
For love, all love of other sights controls,John Donne (1572—1631)
And makes one little room an everywhere.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
This is one of Donne’s best poems in my opinion, where he speaks of love very plainly but beautifully. An interesting point about this poem is that it does not give any indication of the narrator’s gender, nor that of his or her lover. I find this curious given that it was written in the 17th century when it might be thought that most writers would tend towards a masculine voice in their works.
The first stanza speaks of the time before the two were lovers and suggests that they were both childish and unsophisticated or that they slept unaware but that there was always a hint of the bliss to come.
The second stanza moves on to the feelings that love engenders in those that feel it: “love, all love of other sights controls, and makes one little room an everywhere”—within the confines of their room, these two have found a wonderful thing: that their love makes all else trivial. Each of the lovers is themselves an undiscovered country for the other to explore, and this is far more absorbing than the mere mapping of foreign lands or other worlds.
The third stanza develops this theme, saying that each lover sees their reflection in the other’s eyes, and the reflection shows that their hearts are true. Likening them to two equal halves of a perfect sphere, he implies rhetorically that the world cannot hope to match this: “Where can we find two better hemispheres, without sharp north, without declining west?”—the “sharp north” refers to the icy North Pole (the South Pole and Antarctica being completely unknown at the time) and the “declining west” refers to the belief that since the West is where the sun sets, it must be a sign of aging and decay, unlike the East where the sun rises new every day. The poem finishes by saying that as long as they love each other with equal strength, their love will never die.
The Seven Sleepers is a Christian tradition that several youths who were persecuted by the Romans for their faith gave away their possessions and took up residence in a cave near Ephesus. The Roman emperor, hearing that they had failed to bow to his idols, ordered that they be sealed inside the cave. Years came and went, as did emperors, and Christianity became the dominant religion. Nearly two hundred years later, the cave was opened so that it could be used to shelter livestock and the legend says that the sleepers awoke, believing they had slept only a day, and one of them went to Ephesus to get food only to be amazed to find that the religious buildings now carried crosses instead of graven idols; the people of the town were equally astonished to be paid with 200-year-old coins. The Bishop interviewed the sleepers who told him their miraculous tale before they died. The same legend occurs in the Koran, and the number of sleepers has never been confirmed, so that seven simply seems like an alliterative accommodation.