"A Lecture on the Shadow"
John Donne – first a rake, if we’re to believe the man himself, and then an Anglican minister of unusual verve and power – was what people have come to call a “Metaphysical Poet.” And as soon as I say that, my readers will run for the door! But stay with me, readers. You aren’t a “metaphysical poet” if you write about whether “dog” is just a convenient label for a large group of tail-wagging creatures, or if it names a genuinely existing reality. You’re a “metaphysical poet” if you like to draw analogies that nobody ever thought of before, between what look like completely dissimilar things. So, if you’re George Herbert, you compare the patient discipline of God to the action of a pulley. If you’re Henry Vaughan, you say that when Christ became man, he “clothed the morning star with dust.” And here, if you’re John Donne, you say that the progress of a love affair is like what happens to two people’s shadows as morning draws to noon, and afternoon to evening. The thing is, it’s not meant as sentimentality. You’re not supposed to say, “Dear me, that’s so deep,” and if you’re asked what it means, you say, well, words can’t describe it. No, you’re supposed to know precisely what it means. The poet Donne is going to tell you in our Poem of the Week.
When you are walking toward the east, in the morning, you cast the shadows behind you. At noon, even as far north as England, you’ll be standing on top of most of your shadow. But then, afternoon, the shadows you cast will be ahead of you, because the light will be behind you. You will be facing the shadow. And that’s the way it is with a love affair. See? Still not? Of course, we need a little more explanation. At the beginning of the affair, the shadows are behind you, so that they help to hide you from other people’s eyes, if you imagine them as snooping after you, and that’s good, says the lover in the poem, because you don’t want anybody to know what’s going on. But as the affair goes past the summit, the shadows are ahead of you, and your eyes are shaded by them, so that it is hard for him to see what she is doing, and for her to see what he is doing; it’s easier for them to be false to one another, and to themselves. Then comes Donne’s devastating final couplet.
“But,” you say, “true love is not like that at all!” No doubt. But then, what do we mean by the word “love”? For 500 years, poets in the west had been addressing that question. “Love is not love,” says Shakespeare, “which alters when it alteration finds.” “Such love is hate,” says Spenser, referring to mere lust. We do not always know what we love. Sometimes it strikes us as quite a revelation. Maybe some of my readers will say, “Yes, I didn’t know it, but I was in love all along.” Think of that – love, the most powerful and glorious thing in human life, and we’ll often not even know whom we do love, until somebody or some event slaps us in the face and says, “Wake up!” Thank God for that!
We mustn’t suppose that Donne, the poet, necessarily believed, without reservation, what he says here about love. His speaker is a persona, and his comments on love are meant to instruct us. If love is a hugger-mugger affair, if love is not courtship leading to marriage, then it is like the shadows. “Be advised,” he says, and I think he’s right about that.
Stand still, and I will read to thee A lecture, love, in love's philosophy. These three hours that we have spent, Walking here, two shadows went Along with us, which we ourselves produced. But now the sun is just above our head, We do those shadows tread, And to brave clearness all things are reduced. So whilst our infant loves did grow, Disguises did, and shadows, flow From us and our cares; but now 'tis not so. That love has not attained the high'st degree Which is still diligent lest others see. Except our loves at this noon stay, We shall new shadows make the other way. As the first were made to blind Others, these which come behind Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes. If our loves faint, and westwardly decline, To me thou falsely thine, And I to thee mine actions shall disguise. The morning shadows wear away, But these grow longer all the day; But oh, love's day is short, if love decay. Love is a growing or full constant light, And his first minute after noon is night.
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Darkness extinguishes shadows but true love keeps its own light.