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III - Acts of Writing and Authorship

Traces of Nothing: self-reflecting acts of writing in John Donne’s love poems

Guillaume Fourcade


À l’exception de quatre d’entre eux, les poèmes de Donne furent publiés après sa mort et tout porte à croire que leur auteur ait veillé, de son vivant, à les diffuser uniquement sous forme manuscrite auprès de ses seuls amis ou protecteurs. Le secret relatif auquel ils ont été tenus constitue une mise à distance de leur création et il n’est dès lors pas étonnant qu’à l’exception de remarques dispersées, Donne n’ait pas rédigé de texte théorique destiné à commenter ses poèmes ou les choix poétiques ayant présidé à leur composition, c’est-à-dire à expliciter le geste d’écriture qui les a engendrés. Toutefois, cet article se propose de mettre en évidence que l’acte de création, en sa qualité de définition et mise en œuvre de principes poétiques, n’est pas absent des poèmes et qu’il apparaît, de façon oblique, en filigrane de textes auto-référentiels. En procédant à leur examen attentif, cette étude cherchera à montrer comment, par le truchement de deux fictions, les commentaires métapoétiques formulés sur eux-mêmes par les poèmes « Negative Love », « The Will » et « The Undertaking » constituent aussi un discours où le geste d’écriture se détermine en miroir. Ces trois poèmes présentent la particularité de se construire autour d’un centre thématique vide, d’un « rien » essentiel qui se meut en une modalité d’auto-définition pour les textes et l’acte de composition qui les engendre. Cet article vise ainsi à souligner l’humour avec lequel les textes et leur geste d’écriture en viennent, dans un mouvement ironique, à se représenter comme « petits riens ».

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  • 1 Gary A. Stringer charts a useful overview of the hypotheses made by scholars of Donne (including hi (...)
  • 2 Not only did Donne not produce any theoretical subtext or treatise to his poems and the way they we (...)

1With the exception of a few pieces (“The First Anniversary” and “A Funeral Elegy” [1611], “The Second Anniversary” [1612] and “An Elegy Upon the Untimely Death of the Incomparable Prince Henry” [1613]), Donne’s large and varied poetic production was not published in his lifetime. Whatever the reasons brought forth by critics to account for Donne’s desire to keep these texts from wide public view and to circulate them in manuscript form among friends and patrons alone, their author seems to have persistently cast a veil over their existence. If they came to be known in his day, it was chiefly through multiple manuscript copies of his original drafts.1 While blurring and weakening the link of these texts to their author, such a private, restrictive mode of dissemination can also be construed as putting at a distance, staving off and cloaking in mystery their creation process and its aesthetic choices. In the light of such authorial secrecy, it is hardly surprising that the Donnean poetic corpus should not be supplemented by any substantial body of comments in which its author would shed light on his poetics and its enactment. Donne’s poems cannot be read alongside any “poetical art” that would provide insight into their composition, into the act of writing that fashioned them.2

  • 3 As recently noted by Albert C. Labriola in his article “Style, Wit, Prosody in the Poetry of John D (...)
  • 4 Robert Ellrodt coined the phrase “dédoublement réflexif” to describe the introspective quality of D (...)

2However, and for all the conspicuous lack of critical guidance by their author, these texts could hardly be viewed as thoroughly smooth, sealed off surfaces leaving no point of entry into their interiority. They are far from being entirely free of hints to their poetic features and to their creation. Close attention to the poems can indeed disclose that they do occasionally supply some critical, self-referential remarks through which they delineate their own poetic nature.3 Such self-reflexive comments in the poems inevitably lead up – or rather, perhaps, down – to the writing process behind them, that is to say to the definition and actualization of their poetic principles.4 In other words, the presence of self-mirroring remarks within the texts reads at a further remove as the echo or trace of the creative act which fashioned them. However indirectly, this act reveals and defines itself through the folds of the poems. This paper purports to track such a form of self-consciousness at work in three poems from the Songs and Sonnets, that is to say, to highlight the oblique appearances of the act of poetic composition that spawned them.

  • 5 Donnean critics generally refer to the discourse-articulating entities from Donne’s poems as “perso (...)

3“Negative Love”, “The Will” and “The Undertaking” need to be considered jointly, firstly because they are cases in point of artefacts whose self-referential stance paves the way for a self-definition of the act of writing in them. Moreover, sharing the dramatic quality of many of Donne’s love lyrics, these three texts unfold as dramatic monologues. In spite of their tonal differences, they have in common to feature male utterers who, without admitting it, are concerned with absence and non-being.5 Even if concealing it as best they can, all three poems therefore revolve around non-entities, in other words around “nothing”.

  • 6 Very few studies of Donne go beyond noting, as a general statement, the perceived presence of metap (...)

4Through close readings of the verbal complexities and self-reflecting discourse of the three poems, this study will argue that these pieces deftly steer a course that goes from “nothing” to “noting”, from their non-existent objects to themselves and their creation as self-conscious forms of literary emptiness.6 This paper will thus explore the process (of contamination) by which these poems gradually transform the theme of the void lying at their core into a mode of self-definition, indirectly exposing the act by which they were written. Highlighting the way these elaborate, overlapping strata of meaning are constructed will require addressing an essential feature of these texts that does not seem to have elicited much, if any, critical interest thus far, namely their fundamental double illusion. Firstly, all three pieces camouflage their non-existing discursive objects under the guise of “being”. Secondly, these three texts cunningly pretend to be oral pieces and hide their essentially written nature. Bringing to light this double game of deceit will in turn lead to unveil the self-deconstructing and playful stance of the texts and of the very act by which they were created. All indeed testify to their insubstantial nature or “nothingness”.

  • 7 Quotations from Donne’s verse will throughout refer to the following edition: Arthur J. Smith (ed.) (...)

5“Negative Love”, a poem whose title forebodes absence, non-being, or less than being, from the outset, ranks among the pieces from the Songs and Sonnets that revolve around an empty, never-to-be-found centre. Picking up on the traditional ideas of contemptus mundi and amoris, its first six lines flaunt the utterer’s scorn for those who, trapped in a two-dimensional paradigm of desire, are so base as to succumb to the beauty of a fair body, or do not rise quite so high as to resist the appeal of a pretty soul. Swearing that he, for one, “never stooped so low”7, the utterer sets about sketching his own, loftier conception of love:

My love, though silly, is more brave,
For may I miss, whene’er I crave,
If I know yet what I would have.
If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be expressed
But negatives, my love is so.
To all, which all love, I say no.
If any who decipher best,
What we know not, ourselves, can know,
Let him teach me that nothing; this
As yet my ease, and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot miss.
(ll. 7-18, p. 71)

  • 8 As noted by Elaine Perez Zickler about lines 7-9: “There is an admitted silliness or ignorance in t (...)

6The initial bravado is spun out in lines 7 to 9 as the utterer asserts the more noble quality of his own love, paradoxically tinged with, but reinforced by ignorance and blindness (“silly”, l. 7).8 Unlike those who clearly know what they love, the utterer is unable to identify what he is drawn to and therefore does not feel any frustration from having or not having his ill-defined “craving” satisfied. Cunningly devised, his rhetorical twist consists in making his love pass off as superior, and in any case as genuine and full, in the name of its absence of name and because it steers clear of any definite object. His clever statement merely omits that there can be no such thing as love if the latter is content-free, deprived of a centre that gives it a place, shape and substance. Love without an object is reduced to being less even than a concept and turns out to be nothing. Thus the reality the utterer discusses as real (“My love”, l. 7) is in fact a negative and hence non-existent substitute of love. His discourse too is hollowed out and from then on develops around an absent centre whose negativity is all pervasive.

7This further appears, as an enlightened and hypothetical scholar of love (“any who decipher best”, l. 14) is conjured up in lines 14 to 16 only for his perceptive insights to be debased. The utterer positing that love is not to be known (“what we know not”, l. 15) – which in a further pun implies that it can neither be theorized on nor perhaps be experienced – any would-be clear-sighted teaching on it simply amounts to thin air, to void hocus pocus science, or to “nothing”: “Let him teach me that nothing” (l. 16). True love, the utterer asserts, cannot be confined to knowledge and invalidates any supposedly learned discourse on it. If line 15 and the ambiguous phrase “what we know not” lend themselves to a double reading, so does line 16 where “nothing” can admittedly refer to the void, imposturous knowledge of love but also to love itself. As if caught in the trap he carefully set in lines 7 to 9, the utterer ends up denying his love and that of such self-proclaimed ignorant lovers as himself any existence (“we”, l. 15). Following the trompe l’oeil of lines 7 to 9, which, carefully slanting the perspective, hardly concealed the unreality of the utterer’s love, lines 14 to 16 confirm it as non-being, because it evades, first, the boundaries of knowledge, and more importantly still, those of experience. Negative in these two respects at least, the so-called love the utterer has been entertaining his reader with from the start further extends to confer its “nothingness” upon the text itself.

  • 9 For a detailed study of Augustine’s, Pseudo-Dionysius’ and Nicholas of Cusa’s contributions to “neg (...)

8Having debunked as totally unworthy any love that can define its object in full terms, whether it be physical or moral (ll. 1-6), the utterer even more radically opposes those whose all-encompassing desires are likely to be satisfied by all women. Such yearnings, which recognize that womanhood can potentially fulfil them, are in fact brushed aside as irrelevant: “To all, which all love, I say no” (l. 13). If all definitions of love identifying its object positively fall short of being valid, there ensues that the only acceptable definition of “[his] simply perfectest” love (l. 10) and of its object can only be phrased indirectly, with reference to what they are not. This is what the utterer asserts in lines 11-12, claiming that his love “can by no way be expressed / But negatives”. With their emphasis on the impossible direct wording of perfection, these two lines are reminiscent of the “negative theology” or via negativa developed by Christian and non-Christian philosophers, whose attempts at characterizing absolute divine perfection ended up listing its negative attributes, namely what it was not. In the poem, however, such a philosophical stance contributes to further undermine the very existence of the utterer’s love. Supposedly perfect, it cannot name its object so that, in an additional twist, it turns out to be “nothing”, since love cannot be a mere centre-free essence but requires an identified object. Tripping over his own scholastic arguments, the utterer, as noted by Sean Ford, “pushes negative definition to its extremes to argue that denying all positive attributes ultimately leads to nothingness.”9

  • 10 In lines 1 to 6, the criticism of love as a feeling and experience whose boundaries are clearly det (...)

9The utterer having stated that love does not exist and that there can be no knowledge and positive discourse on it (ll. 13 to 16), having also reduced his own love to the addition of nothings (ll. 10 to 12) and thereby marred the validity of the negative reasoning intended to demonstrate its perfection, what status or even credit is there left for his words? As early as line 7 (“My love, though silly, is more brave”), echoed by line 12 (“my love is so”), the utterer strains to develop a direct definition of his love. Wording an assertive definition of it seems to be the sole purpose of his discourse throughout the poem. The phrase “My love is so” (l. 12) both enacts and mirrors the utterer’s design with the text and all along it, namely directly expressing (“expressed”, l. 11) the nature of his love. The use of this past participle, which precisely refers to naming, just as the utterer is striving to fit his love into the categories of discourse, gives his words a distinctive self-referential tinge. In this respect as well, his self-proclaimed goal through the text seems to be no other than to phrase a positive definition of his love. However, because assertive definitions of love and thus of his own have been invalidated, because this attempt at bringing his love to words assertively opens up simultaneously onto an impossibility (it “can by no way be expressed / But negatives”, ll. 11-12) and finally because even negative definitions of love turn out to be as empty as their subject, the utterer’s self-asserted design along with its verbal realisation – the poem itself – dissolve into nothing. Making them turn back upon themselves, the utterer silently no less than wittily confesses the vacuity of his own convoluted and recondite developments.10

  • 11 Such self-directed irony is reinforced by some manuscripts in which the title of the poem reads “Th (...)

10However, this deconstruction process reaches a further level. The words spoken by the poetic persona identified through the first person amount to nothing else than the poem “Negative Love” itself. His entire discourse on love and the poem are fused into one and made inseparable even if the first-person utterance, the reference to a speech act (“I say no”, l. 13), and to a “present” time of utterance (“yet”, l. 9; “As yet”, l. 17) fictionalise (and silence) their distinction. The written words of the poem are one with the utterer’s and they therefore share their characteristics. This implies that, as the utterer self-consciously purports for his discourse to define love and coterminously highlights its failure and emptiness, the poem itself turns out to be self-referential and to reflect (on) its own features. Hence, more palpably through lines 7 to 13, the text refers to itself as to an attempt at defining the utterer’s love and it self-ironically marks and re-marks itself as “nothing”. “Negative Love” thus reads both as the poem’s void object and as its own self-definition in terms of an airy, self-debasing and thereby also humorous text.11 The identity of the poem and of the utterer’s discourse also leads to question another fused pair, namely its utterance and the act of writing it. Indeed, behind and beyond the self-reflecting utterance performed by the male lover, there lies the written, self-reflecting text. The latter serves as a reminder that “Negative Love” is above all a textual piece and, debunking the fiction of orality throughout conveyed by the pseudo vocal “I”, it reveals indirectly the act of poetic composition of the poem. Fused with the fictional oral utterance, the act of writing, which indirectly appears in the poem, is just as self-referential and self-debunking as the utterer’s would-be spoken words and as the text itself. Although in an oblique fashion, the act of writing at work in the text leaves a trace of itself. It discreetly defines itself as the verbal creation of an amusing “nothing” of a piece.

11“Negative Love” relies on a two-fold illusion. Not only does it cloak its discursive object, namely the “nothingness” of love, under the garments of fullness but it also deceitfully sustains the claim that it can define this elusive object, thereby surreptitiously concealing that any attempt at positive or negative definitions of this emptiness is logically always-already precluded. The second fiction at work in the text is its pretence to be oral discourse. However, revealing dangling threads and (loop)holes in its rhetoric, the poem gradually lifts the veil over its fallacy, discloses its void core, its emptiness as text and voices a self-defacing discourse from its very act of composition. Even if this act tries to hide it, the serious elaboration of verse on “nothing” that it pretends to be, openly turns out to be the clever, flippant penning of playfully facetious lines. Owing to the ambiguities of its utterance, self-consciousness and self-trapping also characterize “The Will” and, at a further remove or as a subtext within its lines, its act of poetic creation. This poem needs reading alongside “Negative Love” for in it self-mirroring and self-deconstruction also originate in the staging of a slightly different, yet cognate double fiction which substitutes otherness for identity and emptiness for substantial discourse.

12As in “Love’s Exchange” and “Twicknam Garden”, the voice heard in “The Will” is that of a bitterly disillusioned lover. The pangs of unhappy, unrequited love having taken a heavy toll on him and having nearly tipped him off into death, he sets about writing his will. Along the six stanzas of the poem, the utterer draws up the list of his legatees and legacies (which are such qualities as characterize a true lover) and in the concluding three lines of each stanza provides some remarks intended to rate the value of each gift. His words formally take up the form of a genuine will. In an address to the personified, abstract figure of “Love” the poem opens with the following statement of the utterer’s intentions: “Before I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe, / Great Love, some legacies; here I bequeath” (ll. 1-2, p. 90).

  • 12 Alison Shell, “The Death of Donne”, in Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn and M. Thomas Herster (eds.), op. (...)

13However, from stanza to stanza, the near-dying utterer turns out to be just about as cynical towards his legatees as Love and his mistress once were to him. He even justifies his legacies in the name of “Love’s” cruel teachings. The man pledges to give some of his belongings to those who have no need for them for they already have them in abundance (stanza 1). He further promises to bestow such gifts as will remain fruitless for they will go against the very nature of their recipients (stanza 2). If, to some, he intends to make a donation of what they can only scorn (stanza 3), to others, he will only give back what he owes (stanza 4). Finally, to those who need almost nothing he will bequeath goods which outsize by far the use they can make of them (stanza 5) so that, as noted by Alison Shell, those legatees will “receive bequests that satirically undermine the notion of worldly possessions”.12 Each stanza hinges around a series of paradoxes which, by highlighting the pointlessness of each gift, reflects “Love’s” and the woman’s scorn and therefore the equal pointlessness of the utterer’s unrequited love. At the end of the first five stanzas and their lengthy enumerations it therefore appears that all the man’s legacies are but fakes, and that giving useless gifts actually amounts to giving nothing. Under the guise of real donations, the utterer only empties out these gifts of any significant content until the will itself disintegrates. The poem is entirely built around a hollowed out centre and the gradual revelation of its emptiness culminates as the utterer notes in the final stanza:

Therefore I’ll give no more; but I’ll undo
The world by dying; because love dies too.
Then all your beauties will be no more worth
Than golden mines, where none doth draw it forth;
And all your graces no more use shall have
Than a sundial in a grave.
Thou Love taught’st me, by making me
Love her, who doth neglect both me and thee,
To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.
(ll. 46-54, p. 91)

14As if the previous donations had not been pared to the bones by being tantamount to nothing, the utterer self-consciously cancels any ulterior donation of his love (ll. 46-47). Promising to die, he will take his love for his heartless beloved away with him into the grave and thus no longer give it. Paradoxically his ultimate promise or gift is that of his death, that is to say an absence. If he “undoes” (“undo”, l. 47) anything, it is perhaps the saddening “world” (l. 47) he will leave behind, but more certainly still, the will written up to this point as well as the concepts of donation and will. What are indeed a bequest when what is given is withdrawn, and a will when its already useless content expands into the promise of death? The legacy turns out to be nothing and the legal document only a barren, irrelevant piece. This gift of death or emptiness brings down to non-existence the utterer, his love for the woman, together with her charms and whole being, as brought across by the utterer’s absurd reasoning (ll. 48-51) and its images of underground, death-haunted spaces (“mines”, l. 49; “grave”, l. 51). The fake donation does not only “annihilate all three” (l. 54): it also defeats the act of giving, which it subverts into taking back, as well as the very principle of will. Poised on the edge of “nothing”, for they conclude the utterer’s discourse, line 54 and the general disintegration it brings in its wake spell the triumph of “nothingness”. The nail previously driven into the coffin of the various legacies is thus definitively hammered in. All the gifts mentioned, including the utterer’s death, have been made and simultaneously denied as non-gifts and as such the legal text detailing them, the will itself, has lost both its substance and raison d’être.

  • 13 In that respect, the closeness of both poems also appears in a further echo. “A Valediction: of my (...)

15The deconstruction process leading to the all-pervasive presence of “nothing” in the unfortunate lover’s disenchanted words does not fail to affect “The Will” as poetic construct nor the act leading to its creation. Indeed, closer attention needs to be paid to the first two lines of the text, which, behind the dying lover’s painful breath, orchestrate a fiction and reveal the poem’s self-reflecting nature: “Before I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe, / Great Love, some legacies; here I bequeath” (ll. 1-2, p. 90). The imperative phrase “let me breathe [...] some legacies” (ll. 1-2) and the performative verb form “I bequeath” (l. 2) both refer to and actualize a legal, testamentary act of utterance. The verbal donation and its enactment are furthermore pointed at and located in time, namely the time of utterance, through the deictic adverb “here” (l. 2). The bequest and its utterance are inextricably bound up and therefore give the utterer’s words in these two initial lines a distinctive self-referential quality, which, as they frame his entire discourse, is passed on to it. The utterer’s words and their oncoming developments self-consciously describe themselves as a will. Such a categorisation of discourse nonetheless needs to be put into a corrected focus. Indeed, with its echoic references to respiration (“sigh”, “gasp”, “breathe”), line 1 deceptively stages the will as talk, makes its words pass off for vocal signs. However, these introductory remarks as well as the whole will are written words, and no other than those making up (or perhaps masking and marking up) the poem “The Will” itself. The fiction sustained by these two lines is that of a separation of verba and scripta, in other words, they silence the fact that the will, as legal proceeding enumerating a series of legacies, is fused and even one with “The Will”. Because literary text and legal discourse are merged and even identified, the poem “The Will” comes to function as a verbal equivalent of the visual trick at work in “A Valediction: of my Name in the Window”. The inscribed window pane bearing the utterer’s scribbled, skeleton-like name (and, in his essentialist perspective, his whole being) also reflects the woman’s face on its mirroring surface, thus leading as she looks at it to their fusion into one self-same whole: “Here you see me, and I am you” (l. 12, p. 87).13 What the reader actually “sees” in “The Will” (the “I” or “me” of the text, its identity as poem) masquerades under the guise of orality, and thereby pretends to be another (a “you”, the alterity of a testamentary talk). Just as the reflecting glass erases the distance between two signs, namely an image and a series of letters, the written surface of “The Will” erases the boundary between legal speech and poetic text, conceals the poem in the list of legacies. Important consequences derive from the fact that the will, as a series of donations, and “The Will”, as a poetic construct, should be one and the same. First, if the pseudo oral discourse is self-conscious, precisely because it enacts and describes itself as an enumeration of gifts (ll. 1-2), then the poem “The Will” is endowed with an identical self-reflecting quality. Beneath its would-be oral utterance, the text self-referentially designates itself as will, defines its poetics as pertaining to that of a legal text. Secondly, the anonymous utterer who, addressing “Love”, pretends to be “talking” and hides behind the first person pronoun, is himself just as self-conscious as his speech and as the poem. He self-referentially defines his discourse as intended to voice (if only feebly) some legacies and, as if commenting upon himself, draws attention to his status as speaker of a testamentary speech. However, because this speech has no other words than those of the poem “The Will”, beneath the “I” that keeps recurring at its surface, beneath the act of speaking, therefore indirectly, the act of poetic composition that generated the text appears. The identification of the utterance and the act of writing, although hidden by the would-be oral nature of the text, also implies that the self-conscious stance of both utterer and utterance is shared by this creative act. At least at this stage and obliquely, it represents itself as the penning of a testamentary writing, as the literary invention of a text whose poetic principles are those of a will and which is, perhaps, a genuine legal document.

16But is it really so? Do the self-definitions asserted at the outset of “The Will” by the self-absorbed text and the no less self-reflecting act of writing really hold and should they be taken at face value? Both the poem and the act of creation at work behind it make an initial claim to being essentially legal. However, this initial self-labelling is strongly called into question, if not downright subverted, in the stanzas that follow. At first sight at least, “The Will” strives to abide by the rhetorical principles of a testamentary writing. Throughout stanzas 1 to 5, it develops as a list of legacies and legatees and pays lip service to its supposedly official form through its many repetitions of, and variations on “give” (the declarative form “I give” is repeated seven times along the first five stanzas, the verb phrase “I bequeath” returns twice, and the verb “share” is used once). Yet, several cracks run through the alleged testamentary surface of the “The Will”. Should the subtle irony of each enumerated donation not appear clearly enough, the last three lines of each stanza openly shed light on the fake and therefore empty nature of the successive bequests. They comment on the paradoxes which constitute the core of the will, highlighting the mismatch of each gift and recipient. In the process they underscore that each legacy is empty, that the act of giving is ineffectual, and that both are therefore non-existent. As for stanza 6, it substitutes the gift of eternal absence for that of love and self and, as a climactic conclusion to the earlier “un-gifts”, leaves “nothing” of the utterer, the woman and love. What, however, remains is the would-be will of a poem whose own pretence to be a will has been sapped. The legacies being void and crowned by an all-surpassing vacuity, the will and “The Will” have gradually been emptied out of the content which should make them testamentary pieces. The donations being reduced to thin air (they are indeed no more than “wind”, than the “sighs”, “gasp”, and “breath” explicitly mentioned in line 1), the legal text and the poem with which it is fused are thus themselves “nothing”.

  • 14 Without citing it as a likely influence on Donne, it is worth mentioning that François Villon’s Tes (...)

17The irony with which the will is deconstructed in turn affects “The Will”, as a literary object, for it also becomes self-directed. Indeed, as revealed by lines 1 and 2, the poem self-reflexively contends to be a will so that by flaunting hollowed-out legacies, it winds up upon itself and ultimately confesses to be “nothing”, or, at the most, a poetic trick aping a will. As for the act of poetic composition which reveals itself beneath the semblance of vocal utterance, it is as self-mirroring as the utterer and the poem. Furthermore, it denies its seriousness in the creation of a legal text. It designates itself as mock legal drafting, as the elaboration of a poetic “nothing”, which plays with the conventions of legal texts. That the act of writing should negate itself (if only implicitly) as the genuine drafting of a will appears with the most wit in the last line of the poem. Having made and disqualified all earlier legacies, the utterer asserts his wish to make the final, paradoxical gift of his death (“by dying”, l. 47), thereby doing away with himself, love, and his scornful beloved. It is love, he insists, that has “taught” (l. 52) him “To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three” (l. 54). In accordance with line 47, the “way” referred to may well be death and the radical absence it leaves in its wake. But because “this” (l. 54) can read as a deictic and because the tool for the planned destruction is described as “invention” and “practice” – two terms that are strongly reminiscent of literary creation – the means used in this enterprise of “annihilation” may well be the creation of “The Will” itself. In other words, behind the fake voice of the utterer, the act of creation of the poem disqualifies itself as genuine testamentary writing to better exhibit itself as a deft and bitter attempt at reducing a sorrowful love to nothing. Writing a fake will full of empty legacies indeed symbolically amounts to reasserting oneself as living, that is to say to having died to one’s old self, to love and to one’s mistress. The self-reflecting act of writing that engenders the poem openly debunks itself as inscription of a legal text. It self-consciously deflates its claim to commit a testament to writing. However, while confessing that it generates an empty will, the act of writing also defines itself as an extremely elaborate poetic attempt at conjuring the pains of unrequited love by writing (on) nothing.14

18Though much darker in tone than “Negative Love”, “The Will” also discloses an indirect and self-mirroring discourse by and about the act of its writing. Although with different undertones, the creative act gradually transforms in both texts their central thematic “nothing” or void into a mode of self-definition. This complex process and the fictional screens it involves also need exploring in a final type of variation illustrated by “The Undertaking”.

  • 15 In some manuscripts, the poem is entitled “Platonic Love”. See Arthur J. Smith (ed.), op. cit., p. (...)

19Glorifying his almost ineffable love is, at first glance, the goal the utterer sets out to reach in “The Undertaking”. The boastful pose he strikes as early as the opening lines of the poem is akin in tone and vocabulary to the display of superiority by the utterer of “Negative Love”. Both indeed are eager to convince their anonymous addressees of the nobility of their love, which translates in the strikingly straightforward assertion opening “The Undertaking”: “I have done one braver thing / Than all the Worthies did” (ll. 1-2, p. 83). The deed worthy of such lofty praise is the utterer’s experience of love, which ranks arguably higher than that of the common lot. As he further notes in the fourth stanza, its abstract, ideal centre – the woman’s inner beauty – resists time and change. Aloof from finite, sensual love, both the utterer’s feelings and their centre therefore lie beyond the reach of corruption and decay. Voicing his essentialist, platonic contempt15 for base sensual love and pointing out by contrast the superior breed of his own, the utterer remarks:

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes,
For he who colour loves, and skin,
Loves but their oldest clothes.
(ll. 13-16, p. 83)

20Although not dressed in “old clothes” but in the garments of a woman, the utterer’s is a love primarily for her moral qualities. Completely indifferent to sexual attraction, it is disincarnate and of a neutral, ethereal kind. Such a wonder gives it enough price to hide it away from common people. Concealing it is at any rate what, taking himself as an example, the utterer advises his addressee to do, should he be so fortunate as to experience such highly valuable love:

If, as I have, you also do
Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
And forget the He and She;
And if this love, though placed so,
From profane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this bestow,
Or, if they do, deride:
Then you have done a braver thing
Than all the Worthies did.
(ll. 17-26, p. 83)

  • 16 See Richard N. Ringler, “Donne’s Specular Stone”, The Modern Language Review, 60 (3), Jul. 1965, p. (...)

21These ten lines unfold in two opposite directions, for the love they are intended to describe in its abstract purity and to show as exemplary (ll. 17-20) is first and foremost to remain unseen of unworthy eyes (ll. 21-24). Because such an exceptional love, if made public, is likely to be the butt of unrefined, common lovers’ incredulity or jest (ll. 23-24), it should remain unknown and hidden from them. The utterer’s words seem to gloss those spoken by the male lover from “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, for whom “’Twere profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love” (ll. 7-8, p. 84). Thus, just as the text reveals the existence of an outstanding love, its utterer simultaneously wishes to bury it into secret, to take it under or away from sight and hearing, and in the process to make it absent. Within the course of these few lines, this love shifts from presence to programmed absence, from being to planned non-being. Perhaps even more importantly, its concealment is what grants its uttermost value (ll. 25-26), as suggested by the metaphor of the “specular stone”16 used in stanzas 2 and 3:

It were but madness now t’impart
The skill of specular stone,
When he which can have learned the art
To cut it, can find none.
So, if I now should utter this,
Others (because no more
Such stuff to work upon, there is,)
Would love but as before.
(ll. 5-12, p. 83)

22Just as revealing the secret of its difficult hewing is pointless when no such stone can be found any more, making his wonderful love known seems irrelevant to the utterer as it is unique and no such like can ever be experienced again. One of its kind and precious above all, this love should therefore stay cloaked in its mystery, covered, eclipsed. The core of the utterer’s discourse ultimately appears to be an absent reality, or more exactly a reality whose existence is brought to light in order to be better hidden and turned into a form of absence, of would-be nothing. Whereas the thematic core of “Negative Love” and “The Will” is a non-existing object cunningly presented as actual, in “The Undertaking” the void around which the text revolves, results from the purposeful silencing of a love whose existence is all along stated. However, despite this difference in the initial paradigm, “The Undertaking” develops throughout as a discourse dedicated to a love meant to become as hidden as if it were nothing.

23The deconstruction process whereby the supposedly real experience of love is meant to become a figure of absence is remarkably complex for it is bound up with, and paralleled by, the deconstruction of the utterer’s discourse and of the poem. Both of these are self-burying or annihilating, and they mirror the hiding of love, which is to disappear from public view. The echoic, circular pattern of “The Undertaking” indeed throws into relief the platonic lover’s purpose even as he utters these words. He intends to hide the existence of his unequalled love:

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is to keep that hid.
(ll. 1-4, p. 83)

24Originating in a desire to keep such a love unheard of, unseen and absent, his development concludes by urging its mute addressee, if he were to have enjoyed such a love, not to reveal it, in other words to keep it secret:

Then you have done a braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And a braver thence will spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.
(ll. 25-28, p. 83)

25The negation of all-surpassing love, its becoming a non-entity or nothing, thus frames the utterer’s whole discourse. These two stanzas, however, do much more than confine silence, invisibility, and therefore “nothing” to the margins of the utterer’s speech: they make it colonise its entire body. First and foremost, between the opening and concluding quatrains, which both insist that the unique love deed should be kept secret, the latter has been characterized and disclosed, so that having become a revealed enigma, it has also turned into “nothing” as a secret. On an additional and related level, the pervasiveness of “nothing” affects the utterer’s words in the form of another fictional trick from those found in “Negative Love” and “The Will”: praeterition. This figure consists in a carefully devised lie as it promises to silence what it brings to words, disguises under the cloak of “nothing” what it actually says and, in the process, hollows out its own pretence. Foregrounding what it asserts not to say, praeterition is a figure that ends up denying itself. Based on this self-subverting trope, “The Undertaking” inverts the discursive polarities of “Negative Love” and “The Will”, which both strain and fail to present forms of non-being as substantial objects, but it nonetheless achieves the same deconstruction of its discourse into an empty, volatile riddle. In both the first and last stanzas, the utterer literally declares that his intention is to hide (“keep that hid”, ll. 4 and 28) his one-of-its-kind experience of ideal love. Yet, confessing his wonder-eclipsing project, he brings it out into the open and simultaneously invalidates it. By revealing his secret and by self-consciously exhibiting that his plan consists in burying it, the utterer undercuts and inhumes above all his concealment scheme, cancels it from the outset and reduces it as well as his words to nothing more than an empty gesticulation, in other words to “nothing”. The utterer’s self-revealing discourse thus traps itself and disintegrates as secret-keeper only to show the void of its own promise.

26If praeterition, as a self-undermining figure of speech leading to the becoming-nothing of the surface discourse, sets “The Undertaking” apart from “Negative Love” and “The Will”, this text does nonetheless have another fiction in common with both poems: its fake oral utterance. In spite of the first person utterance and of the dramatized address to a silent double (“If as I have, you also do / Virtue attired in woman see”, ll. 17-18; “And if this love, though placed so, / From profane men you hide”, ll. 21-22; “Then you have done a braver thing / Than all the Worthies did”, ll. 25-26), for all the references to speech acts that the utterer refrains from performing in the here and now of his utterance (“It were madness now t’impart / The skill of the specular stone,” ll. 5-6; “So, if I now should utter this”, l. 9), his “talk” remains inseparable from, and one with, the written words of the poem “The Undertaking”. His so-called oral speech is mimicked by the text itself, but is only a fictitious screen leading back to the written construct. The identification of the fake oral monologue with the poem implies that the features of the former also apply to the latter and more precisely bounce back on it. For if the utterer’s pseudo “talk” is self-referential and, as a mirror to itself, announces the course it intends to steer, namely hiding a wonder (“Which is, to keep that hid”, l. 4), there ensues that the text similarly reflects upon itself and announces itself as an “undertaking programme”, much as its title spells out. But as the utterer’s deceptively spoken words reveal themselves as a concealment plan only to undermine themselves in the process, the poem, too, defines itself as a text intended to hide a secret but it simultaneously denounces itself and points out its own failure. It openly flaunts and parodies itself as secret holder, and ultimately underlines in a self-ironical way that it is “nothing” of what it claimed to be, and perhaps only a pleasant piece on a presumably exceptional love.

27Behind the self-deconstructing specular text, there also appears the indirect self-referential discourse of the act of writing that penned it. Indeed, if the poem asserts and denies itself as the keeper of a love deed that should remain unknown, unheard and unseen, then the creative act by which it was committed to writing refers to itself between the lines of the text: this act both defines itself as the poetic composition of a secret and self-consciously saps this assertion. In “The Undertaking” as well, the fictional screen of vocal utterance, which hides the written poem within the utterer’s discourse, conceals the self-reflecting act of poetic writing behind the self-referential (but fake) oral “I” and its declared intention to keep his unique love from being revealed. Thus, behind the utterer’s promise to reduce to absence his wondrous experience of love (“It were madness now t’impart / The skill of the specular stone,” ll. 5-6; “So, if I now should utter this”, l. 9), that is to say behind the self-asserted planned oral concealment, the act of writing makes itself indirectly visible and reads as a self-proclaimed attempt at writing a secret. It stands as an act of literary dissimulation. Yet, by exposing its attempted concealment strategy, it also invalidates itself as creation of an absence and, in a self-reflecting but oblique way, undermines and mocks its concealment programme. With this self-denial, the act of poetic creation that spawns the poem brings the presence of the utterer’s exceptional love to the forefront of the text and simultaneously self-consciously brings forth its own absence to itself, that is to say to its initial writing scheme. It then heralds itself in a self-ironical and self-parodying way as an inconsequential, witty composition, as a trifling literary “nothing”. The humorous quality of such a self-deconstructing discourse appears in the future reference contained in the advice the utterer gives his addressee, whom he imagines having achieved as brave a love deed as he: “And a braver thence will spring, / Which is, to keep that hid” (ll. 27-28). These two concluding lines backfire upon the entire poem for they entice the addressee not to copy such a talk, such a text and such writing by keeping entirely silent. They therefore read as a further, amusing self-denial indirectly “voiced” by the act of creation that engenders the poem. The act of writing that reveals itself in “The Undertaking” may not “impart / The skill of specular stone” (l. 5), but what it does impart is its own specularity and the humorous self-deconstruction this implies. Through the self-referential and self-subverting poem, therefore again in a subdued, indirect fashion, the act of poetic creation mirrors itself and points itself out as the impossible composition of a secret, precisely because of its self-conscious nature. Thus it also defines itself wittily as the playful enactment of its own failure, as an absence to its initially asserted poetic intention and, with self-directed irony, it highlights the boastfulness with which it reveals nothing but a so-called unparalleled, platonic love. The self-reflecting act of writing buries its project to keep a secret, turns it into nothing, but simultaneously refers to itself as to the amused and amusing creation of a complex “nothing” of a literary piece.

  • 17 The paradoxical assertion of self through self-negation and self-annihilation is highlighted by L.C (...)
  • 18 Arnaud Villani, Court traité du rien, Paris, Hermann, 2009, p. 54. Villani’s words read: “passer la (...)

28Through their convolutions and self-subverting reflections, these three poems about essential “nothings” leave traces of the act of writing that fashioned them. A concealed shadow of their fictitious utterance, the latter mocks its own pretence at being “something”, or anything serious, and through its self-directed irony declares itself jocular, insubstantial scribbling. However, such a seemingly debasing self-definition brings to light, in a further twist, the outstanding complexity of the poems and of their creation process. If they can indeed voice a self-ironical and self-negating discourse, it is precisely because they teem with intricacies and extremely elaborate fictional figures. In other words, and at a further ironical remove, for these poems and the act of writing to flaunt themselves as “nothings” is quite “something”.17 It is both a tour de force and a way to demonstrate that they are above all outstanding poetical achievements. To borrow words from Arnaud Villani’s Court traité du rien, beyond but also with their self-professed “nothingness”, these texts and the acts that spawn them negotiate a difficult course and succeed in “walking along the ridge of nothing without falling down into its precipice.”18

  • 19 Stanislas Breton, La Pensée du rien, Kampen, Kok Pharos, 1992, p. 13-18, here p. 17: “Détruisez le (...)

29The indirect and paradoxical self-assertion stemming from the texts and the act of writing might be read in the light of the renewed philosophical interest for the question of “nothing” in the Renaissance. The most significant treatises on the subject were published around 1634 and cannot, for obvious reasons, have influenced Donne. However, standing at a point in the history of ideas that immediately follows Donne’s lifetime, they can in retrospect offer some conceptual insight into the paradoxical definition of self as nothing voiced by some of his poems and by the creative act within them. Indeed such anonymous texts as Nihil, fere Nihil, minus Nihilo (1634), Metafisico del Niente, Discorso Sacro (s.d.), Le Glorie del Niente (1634) and Il Niente Annientato (1634) revaluate “nothing” as being far more than merely the absence of anything, but as the necessary prerequisite and condition for there to be something. As argued by Stanislas Breton, these works consider “nothing” as the corollary of anything that is, including God. It is the shadow which makes anything visible and thinkable, from which anything derives its existence and with which it is necessarily bound up: “Destroy nothing and creation becomes but a word. Imagine the infinity of what can be created. It must be preceded and backed up by an ‘infinite nothing’.”19 Nothing is not, in those philosophical studies of the concept, merely passive void. It is precisely the opposite, that is to say what actively enables being to emerge. This paradoxical stance is reminiscent of the discourse voiced by the poems and by the act of writing that indirectly appears in them. Indeed, along with the texts, the act of poetic composition self-reflexively points out its own inconsistence, its vacuity and asserts itself as “nothing”. However, it remains the principle that fashions the poems and the creation of their discourse on their and its “being-nothing”. Henceforth, at a further, and admittedly self-parodying remove, it also asserts itself as a demiurgic power. The act of literary creation at work in the poems reasserts itself all the more forcefully as it flaunts itself primarily as “nothing”, as it makes the reader follow the path to its own “nothingness”, that is to say as it heralds its shadowy darkness. And yet, because the texts do read as its traces, and as very intricate ones indeed, the act of poetic composition negatively comes back to the forefront to reveal its mind-puzzling and playful complexity.

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1 Gary A. Stringer charts a useful overview of the hypotheses made by scholars of Donne (including himself) to explain his relentless efforts in preventing the publication of his poems. Central to such careful containment were his desire to be read by a “coterie” of readers alone, his social undervaluing of the role of the poet, the still noble status conferred on manuscripts in Early Modern England, and, finally, his distrust of print which might have entailed long-lasting misinterpretations of his texts. Stringer also underscores the difficulties in establishing a canon for most poems as a result of the alterations introduced along chains of manuscript copies. See “The Composition and Dissemination of Donne’s Writings”, in Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn and M. Thomas Herster (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Donne, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 12-25, here p. 15-20.

2 Not only did Donne not produce any theoretical subtext or treatise to his poems and the way they were penned, but as a result of their manuscript circulation and copying, no holograph critical apparatus on individual poems is extant, if ever there was any. As noted by Stringer: “Whatever […] ‘metacommentary’ may have surrounded the original distribution of his poems – whether in the form of written remarks, oral comments, or merely understandings implicit in the relationships Donne had with his various recipients – is […] now lost.” Ibid., p. 25.

3 As recently noted by Albert C. Labriola in his article “Style, Wit, Prosody in the Poetry of John Donne”, in Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn and M. Thomas Herster (eds.), op. cit., p. 704-717, here p. 704: “In the most unlikely places, whether Sermons, poems, or Letters, but not formal critical commentary, Donne provides brief remarks on poetry. From such piecemeal disclosure one must infer or interpret what the author’s poetics may have been. Considerations of figurative language, irony, paradox, the use of a persona that may or may not be autobiographical, tonal range, and the like – all come into play even when engaging Donne’s remarks on poetry.” Of particular interest to this study is the fact that many of his poems read as dramatic monologues in which the “voices” heard articulate a number of metapoetic remarks about their discourse and about the poems themselves. These can in no way be regarded as an extensive guide to Donne’s poetics but as scattered metadiscursive signs which can be interpreted as fragments of self-definitions within the texts. The impossible dating of most poems, which makes any social context rather irrelevant to their understanding, as well as the anonymity and fictional nature of the poetic personae call for careful critical distance in analyzing such comments. They should perhaps not be viewed as direct reflections of the biographical Donne or even of his authorial “voice” in general, but as reverberations of his conception of individual pieces and as clues revealing the creative act he performed in their composition. The self-referential, metapoetic comments which crop up in the poems can thus read as echoes of the poetic principles his writing enacted and of the effects it intended to achieve.

4 Robert Ellrodt coined the phrase “dédoublement réflexif” to describe the introspective quality of Donne’s poems in which conscious speakers simultaneously experience and analyse an emotion. This extremely apt critical concept can be extended to refer to the self-consciousness with which the poems and their act of writing, pointing at themselves, sketch out their own features. See Robert Ellrodt, L’Inspiration personnelle et l’esprit du temps chez les poètes métaphysiques anglais, Paris, Librairie José Corti, 1960, vol. 1, p. 117-135.

5 Donnean critics generally refer to the discourse-articulating entities from Donne’s poems as “personae” or “speakers”. Both labels are unsatisfactory for several reasons. First and foremost, by using the term “persona”, one fails to acknowledge that Donne’s love lyrics are not dramas in miniature (the personae expressing themselves in these texts are not even named, as is often wont with dramatic personae), but poems with an undeniable dramatic tinge, not least of all because they often include (silent) addressees. As for the term “speaker”, it is equally misleading for it implies that those pieces were exclusively and essentially oral in nature. Convenient though it may be, such a tag leads one to overlook the fact that an additional and meaningful complexity to many of these poems derives from the hints to their written status by the lovers expressing themselves in them. This study attempts to point out such allusions and what they reveal about the texts and their creation. Therefore in order to respect the carefully plotted hovering between orality and writing in these poems, the male lovers whose words constitute them will be neutrally referred to as their “utterers”.

6 Very few studies of Donne go beyond noting, as a general statement, the perceived presence of metapoetic remarks in his poems. Mapping out how such self-reflexivity is verbally elaborated in the texts and attempting to figure out how it participates in the complex construction of meaning enables at least partly to shed light onto what Donne’s poetics reveals of itself. Only one critical work – at least in the published literature consulted and accessed thus far – purports very specifically to tackle the way Donne’s poems provide self-referential comments on their literary features: Scott D. Vander Ploeg’s “Donne’s ‘Witchcraft by a Picture’ as Evidence of Performative Aesthetics”, West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Selected Papers, 19, 1996, p. 51-61. Yet Vander Ploeg remains somewhat unconvincing in this attempt. His study fails to marshal significant evidence of the poem’s ability to reflect upon its own poetic principles as it starts off from the basic assumption that a poem referring to the visual arts (here, painting) is necessarily one that mirrors its own aesthetics. Vander Ploeg’s article does not provide any of the links that would demonstrate how visual aesthetics translates into poetics, in other words, how the represented work of art serves as a model for self-definition by the text. However stimulating in some respects, his study also falls short of tracking the verbal ploys which enable some of Donne’s poems to open up a critical distance with themselves and to express a self-referential, metapoetic discourse.

7 Quotations from Donne’s verse will throughout refer to the following edition: Arthur J. Smith (ed.), John Donne, The Complete English Poems, London, Penguin Books, 1986. Here l. 1, p. 71.

8 As noted by Elaine Perez Zickler about lines 7-9: “There is an admitted silliness or ignorance in the speaker’s reasoning; but the original sense of silly, as happy or blessed, is present as well.” See “‘Nor in nothing, nor in things’: The Case of Love and Desire in Donne’s Songs and Sonets”, John Donne Journal, 12 (1-2), 1993, p. 17-39, here p. 28.

9 For a detailed study of Augustine’s, Pseudo-Dionysius’ and Nicholas of Cusa’s contributions to “negative theology” along with a contextual analysis of Donne’s use of the word “nothing” in relation to the via negativa, see Sean Ford, “Nothing’s Paradox in Donne’s ‘Negative Love’ and ‘A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day’”, Quidditas, 22, 2001, p. 99-113, here p. 104-105.

10 In lines 1 to 6, the criticism of love as a feeling and experience whose boundaries are clearly determined (the physical graces or the moral qualities of a woman) reads for Robert N. Watson as an attempt to defy death and the anxieties it causes. Both kinds of love being attached to an object that can at any time be carried away by death, the utterer prefers to leave his own love unidentified and therefore safe from annihilation. With their emphasis on the indefinable nature of his love (and of the love experienced by those like him), lines 13 to 18 do not only articulate a “negative” definition of love, they also undercut or negate death itself: “By relinquishing object-desire, he [the utterer] deprives death of its most feared power. By embracing, exalting, and identifying with this negation, by immersing himself in the destructive element, he renders himself figuratively immune to its dissolving effects.” See Robert N. Watson, The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994, p. 222. However illuminating, Watson’s analysis fails to underline that the dissolution the utterer cleverly sheds away from does, at any rate, affect his discourse. Precisely because love without an assigned object is always-already disqualified as love and reduced to nothing (and not to a negatively defined feeling), the utterer’s self-conscious and vain attempt at proving its superiority (even in a bid to defeat death and the fears it fosters) is undermined and becomes the negation of itself. At odds with their surface seriousness, the utterer’s self-referential discourse and the self-reflecting poem fused with it ultimately turn out to be nothing of what they claim to be. Trapped in their inconsistent, pseudo definition of love, they underscore above all that they are, just like it, “nothing” but jocular pieces.

11 Such self-directed irony is reinforced by some manuscripts in which the title of the poem reads “The Nothing”, sometimes alongside “Negative Love”. On this point, see Arthur L. Clements (ed.), John Donne’s Poetry, New York, Norton, 1992, n. 6, p. 42.

12 Alison Shell, “The Death of Donne”, in Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn and M. Thomas Herster (eds.), op. cit., p. 646-657, here p. 647.

13 In that respect, the closeness of both poems also appears in a further echo. “A Valediction: of my Name in the Window” too is a poem about “undoing” (“But all such rules, love’s magic can undo”, l. 11, p. 87) the separation of two lovers, that is to say the isolation of the man’s etched name and the woman’s reflection. “Undoing” is not only a concept. It is also the way and means of an ontological identification: by “magic”, the utterer and his beloved overpass or deconstruct the rules which ontologically separate a reflected image and an inscribed name, the absent lover and his mistress. Both are essentially united and made to become “one” on the window pane where her reflection and his name are superimposed. In the last stanza of “The Will”, while heralding the “nothing” inherent in death, “undoing” (l. 46, p. 91) is, paradoxically, the ploy used by the utterer to deconstruct as well the separation, initially caused by the woman’s scorn, of love, himself and his beloved. By his death, he “undoes” such a divorce and fuses all three into non-existence. They are re-united into an admittedly negative, self-identical “nothing”.

14 Without citing it as a likely influence on Donne, it is worth mentioning that François Villon’s Testament exhibits some common features with “The Will”, not least as regards its status as mock testamentary piece and the act of literary creation behind it. The latter themes are the focus of Tony Hunt’s illuminating study, Villon’s Last Will: Language and Authority in the Testament, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1996. In a chapter of his work on the “fragmentation of authority” (p. 13-33), Tony Hunt explores the irony that suffuses Villon’s Testament to suggest that it is not only self-conscious but also self-directed. He underscores the poem’s numerous allusions to writing, from the way the testator mocks and saps learned references to his own self-debasing stance about the writing of his will. Hunt concludes that in many respects, the bequests made by the testator, including his references to authorities, authors and books, are so deftly undermined that they ultimately turn out to be “worthless or non-existent” (p. 31). Such closeness with the utterer’s own hollowed-out legacy in “The Will” is further strengthened by the fact that, as demonstrated by Hunt, the author of the Testament also calls into doubt his own “disposition or causa scribendi”, in other words the seriousness of his attempt at writing a legal document: “He is emphatically no respecter of authorities, himself included. […] The whole value of the enterprise is thus neatly undercut.” However, just as in Donne’s “The Will”, the self-parodying and self-deconstructing mode with which Villon’s Testament develops is also, indirectly, a way for the act of poetic creation to reassert itself, in the folds of the text. Even if Donne’s “The Will” is far darker in tone than Villon’s Testament, the “nothingness” which permeates both texts and the acts of writing at work in them enables the latter to define themselves indirectly not as the penning of poetic canons but as the crafting of subtle, elusive pieces. As argued by Hunt (p. 33) in terms that could apply to Donne’s “The Will”: “There is nothing in Le Testament for posterity and the testator […] has not tried to produce a literary monument, but rather a more modest dramatic performance, as impermanent as the charcoal writing on his tomb, in which posterity is not implicated.”

15 In some manuscripts, the poem is entitled “Platonic Love”. See Arthur J. Smith (ed.), op. cit., p. 405.

16 See Richard N. Ringler, “Donne’s Specular Stone”, The Modern Language Review, 60 (3), Jul. 1965, p. 333-339, here p. 336-337. Pliny’s Natural History distinguished clearly between the “specular stone” (a soft, glazing material) and “phengites” (a hard, transparent building material). However, some corrupt readings of this work by Guido Panciroli in his 1599 treatise Rerum memorabilium iam olim deperditarum led to the erroneous identification of both minerals in the late 16th century. Ringler provides internal and external evidence to demonstrate that Donne had read Panciroli and that he used the term “specular stone” in “The Undertaking” with reference to phengites, a material supposedly lost and extremely difficult to cut.

17 The paradoxical assertion of self through self-negation and self-annihilation is highlighted by L.C. Knights in his study of a tension recurring throughout Donne’s works: his desire of “all” and his simultaneous awareness of his (or man’s) sense of nullity. About another poem than the three considered here, “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day”, Knights concludes that the general disintegration of the world and of the utterer, which is at the core of the poem, does not completely carry off victory. Through the very presence of a text on annihilation, both the utterer and the poem assert themselves as something: “paradoxically the poem, by the very energy of the account of ‘how it feels to reach absolute zero’ and ‘how it feels to think when you are there’, becomes a kind of affirmation. After all, the poet has made something, alive in all its parts, which is itself a victory over chaos and the sense of nothingness that is its theme.” Though thematically very different from “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day”, “Negative Love”, “The Will”, and “The Undertaking” are characterized by a similarly puzzling assertion of self by the poems and by the acts of writing at work in them. “After all”, or rather “after and beyond nothing”, they are indeed witty, beautifully complex accomplishments, which seemingly fall into the abyss of nothing to redeem themselves from it through their self-reflexivity. See L.C. Knights, “All or Nothing: A Theme in John Donne”, in Roma Gill (ed.), William Empson: The Man and his Work, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, p. 109-116, here p. 115.

18 Arnaud Villani, Court traité du rien, Paris, Hermann, 2009, p. 54. Villani’s words read: “passer la crête du rien sans tomber dans l’abîme” (the translation is mine).

19 Stanislas Breton, La Pensée du rien, Kampen, Kok Pharos, 1992, p. 13-18, here p. 17: “Détruisez le rien, la création n’est plus qu’un mot. Supposez l’infinité du ‘créable’, il faudrait bien que la précède et la sustente ‘un rien infini’” (the translation is mine).

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Guillaume Fourcade, « Traces of Nothing: self-reflecting acts of writing in John Donne’s love poems », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 21 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2012, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Guillaume Fourcade

Guillaume Fourcade is a senior lecturer of English at the Department of Modern Languages, University Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris VI and a member of VALE (EA 4085, Paris-IV). His doctoral dissertation (2005) is entitled “L’écriture et ses miroirs dans les poèmes et les Sermons de John Donne (1572-1631)”. He is the author of several conference papers and articles which focus on the links between Donne’s poetry and homiletic texts as well as on their shared self-referential quality. His latest research explores the figures of the margin and of the fold in Donne’s poems.

Agrégé d’anglais, Guillaume Fourcade est maître de conférences au Département des Langues de l’Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris VI et membre de VALE (EA 4085, Paris-IV). Soutenue en 2005, sa thèse porte le titre « L’écriture et ses miroirs dans les poèmes et les Sermons de John Donne (1572-1631) ». Il est l’auteur de plusieurs communications et articles qui s’intéressent aux liens unissant l’œuvre poétique et le corpus homilétique de Donne et, plus spécifiquement, au caractère spéculaire et programmatique de l’écriture dans ces textes. Ses derniers travaux l’ont conduit à s’intéresser plus particulièrement aux figures de la marge et du pli dans les poèmes de Donne.

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