One of the great pleasures of metaphysical poetry is unlocking it, figuring out how the metaphors fit. It’s a pleasure akin to the pleasure of making up categories. Rooting around the web today, trying to learn something about this poem, I came across a delightful old (1965) PMLA article that takes the poem’s central irony very, very seriously—to a fascinating result. So, the first thing to say about this poem regards the title: this is a love poem that borrows its title from a serious, official theological procedure. Canonization, the process of declaring a person a saint, follows strict bureaucratic rules. John Clair’s 1965 essay argues quite simply and persuasively that, in Donne’s poem ironically borrows the five-step canonization process for its structure. Thus, each stanza corresponds to a stage in the process of declaring someone a saint. The process, as Clair outlines it was as follows: 1) Investigation into the subject’s reputation, 2) Inquiry into the subject’s practice of the heroic virtues (i.e. faith, hope and charity as well as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), 3) Investigation of alleged miracles, 4) Scrutiny of the subject’s writings, and 5) Examination of the burial place an identification of the remains or relics.
Thus, [Donne's] lovely third stanza makes the fusion of two into one in love the miracle itself.
It’s a lovely, nerdy little observation, dutifully attentive to doctrinal theology and thus very out of fashion with contemporary criticism. I adore it. It deepens the poem for me. I have an even greater respect for the ingenuity of Donne’s conceit, which is intellectually satisfying as all such categorizations are. (Each stage in the process gets exactly a stanza; a five-step process maps perfectly onto a five-stanza poem.) But this intellectual pleasure, like a solved puzzle, is only part of it, for linking the stanza to the investigation of miracles enlivens and enriches the metaphors within it: the paradoxical combination of eagle and dove, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the more than miraculous stability of a love that persists.
28 February 2006
Anne Fernald on John Donne's "The Canonization":