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Naked Numbers: A curve from Wyatt to Rochester.

Thou knew'st this papyr, when it was

Meer seed, and after that but grass;

Before 'twas drest or spun, and when

Made linen, who did wear it then . . .

Henry Vaughan, "The Book"

Covers are usually about books. But when you find books about covers, well, then you have wandered into a paradoxer's paradise, a place where a sensualist's eye might at any moment be turned on its own holdings, a literalist's eye on the unsettled literary premises themselves, and an analyst's eye on content's uncontainability. In such regards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in English poetry resemble our own era. Materialists, students of sensation, these poets knew how to redden a reader, inflame a page.

Cover: the wild beast hides his hide under it, fills his belly with it. The cover he consumes may sleeken his skin for the volumes of his own consumers (those arguably lesser beasts whose books--leather-bound or not--have boards and leaves). In other words: a guise can expose; a hide can reveal.

A name is itself a kind of cover, and in the English literary tradition of the time, poetry went under the name of numbers--numbers not only configured poetry's events but transfigured them, too. Numbers as an incarnation of mystery may seem to today's computer-whizzing, digit-crunching public less immediately plausible than they would have seemed to a people across whose lives the powers of theology and numerology cast larger shadows than they do now. The power in divine arithmetic lay in its capacity to transcend (not merely to calibrate) the commerces of men.

According to a bon mot of La Rochefoucauld (a shrewd late-seventeenth-century figure himself), the true use of speech is to conceal our thoughts. His is a sentiment congenial to the spirit of materialism. (It should be noted that "the spirit of materialism" is no oxymoron in such an era.) One might equally say, since Vesalius, that the true use of flesh is to conceal our nakedness. A poem's content no less than its form can be a cover: what it means may reveal less than how it is seen through.

If I am drawn to the poems of the English literary Renaissance and its vicinity, it is partly because the era lavished such attention on containers as to enrich any notion about content. Here paradoxes abound. Here even scatologies are scrupulous: and the era's poetic precisions put to shame our own time's casual (or automated) forms of ravishing and lavishing: these poems pose rich linguistic alternatives to our feedback mechanisms, our wasting of the infinite on a mere regress. Full of outlaws and intricacies, the best sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry proposed a more capacious means for meaning. I mean a language able to mean in more ways than one, a language that proliferates and enriches (rather than hones to a point) the meaning of meaning.

Look back at Henry Vaughan's "The Book" (from which this essay takes its epigraph). The material of the poem and the poem on materials are mutually interpenetrating. Down to the word worn, the poem cannot be said at any moment to refer exclusively to either possible topic (robe or tome). The usual sense of the word meaning itself seems mean at such moments, for the meanings of such poems have something in common with those of spirit: they aren't to be contained (the way, for example, a pint of beer's contained). Shot glass, looking glass, eyeglass, isinglas: poetry drinks them all in and is drunk from them all--the lowest flows and the quickest sands of language.

John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, is a case in point. Given both to exposes and to impersonations, "he took pleasure to disguise himself, as a Porter, or as a Beggar; sometimes to follow some mean Amours, which, for the variety of them, he affected. At other times, meerly for diversion, he would go about in odd shapes. . [my italics!].") (1) Lover of lingoes, chameleon of culture, connoisseur of senses, the poet seeks out a luxuriance in covers (and sometimes under them). In his tenure as a quack physician he set up shop under the name of Alexander Bendo (2) (and in that, incarnation even issued a mock mountebank bill)--all this apparently to escape a period of disgrace at Court. (Rochester's father, in his own day, evaded imprisonment precisely by dint of such undercover talents.)

Some impersonations actually work as exposes. Rochester savaged his rival Sir Carr Scroope by mocking Scroope's courtship of Cary Frazier (daughter of the king's physician and a dresser of the queen). The haplessly monikered Scroope had the further misfortune to have undertaken his courtship in verse. (Publishing love poems, one makes a bed one may not later like to lie in.) One of Scroope's amorous efforts went like this:

I cannot change as others do,

Though you unjustly scorn,

Since that poor swain that sighs for you

For you alone was born.

No, Phyllis, no, your heart to move,

A surer way I'll try,

And to revenge my slighted love,

Will still love on, will still love on, and die.

When killed with grief Amyntas lies

And you to mind shall call

The sighs that now unpitied rise,

The tears that vainly fall,

That welcome hour that ends his smart

Will then begin your pain,

For such a faithful, tender heart

Can never break, can never break in vain. (3)

Rochester's burlesque of it fairly seethes with mimic malice:

The Mock Song

"I swive as well as others do;

I'm young, not yet deformed;

My tender heart, sincere and true,

Deserves not to be scorned.

Why, Phyllis, then, why will you swive

With forty lovers more?"

"Can I," said she, "with nature strive?

Alas I am, alas I am a whore!

"Were all my body larded o'er

With darts of love, so thick

That you might find in every pore

A well-stuck standing prick,

Whilst yet my eyes alone were free,

My heart would never doubt,

In amorous rage and ecstasy,

To wish those eyes, to wish those eyes

fucked out." (4)

Never would "blind" love earn its adjective more painfully! The poem's craft is turned with exquisite malevolence; sinister adroitness. Its refinements connive with its crudity, and the poem's venal virtues haven't been tamed by time: a reader is every bit as astonished today as readers must have been in Rochester's, caught in the crossfire between such a diction and such a dick. Mere sexual explicitness is not so sharp a point (as much of pornography attests), but the skill and savage wit involved in this particular lady's larding-over make for a masterpiece of nastiness. In Rochester's version of the lay, the only one lewder than the layman is the lady who's so ludicrously laid. (Lewd comes from lay, and lay from unlearned or ignorant. And laid she'd be--forgive my French--as ugly as they come, under such heavings of schlag.) The lady in question is, of course, only an excuse for the humiliation of her lover. The grossness of that larding is deepened by the precisions of those "well-stuck standing pricks," the stand-ins, so to speak, for the slings and arrows of Rochester's assault on Scroope's own "tender heart." No presumption to delicacy could fail to be offended, and Scroope's delicacy will surely now go down in poetic history as a presumption. It seems writing well is, after all, the best revenge.

Around the same time, Thomas Carew was admonishing his Celia:

Let fooles thy mystique formes adore,

I'le know thee in thy mortall state;

Wise Poets that wrapt Truth in tales;

Knew her themselves, through ill her vailes. (5)

That the mortal could be presented as the naked state, and the "mystic forms" as the veils that obscure it, reverses the usual conventions. In such ways does the sheer materiality one encounters in poets of the seventeenth century celebrate both senses of the sheer and the material, of spirit and of flesh: when the body's the figure of truth; nakedness can be treated as a virtue of knowledge, rather than as a matter of misdemeanor. Reminding the lover that her immortality was, after all, conferred by his poems, Carew goes on in the poem's final figure to claim to know the naked truth, the figure underneath the veils, and so entertains a flash of knowing's carnal sense: that Truth is not, for all its mystic forms, unfuckable.

Do poets honor or besmirch the truth in claiming so to know her? Neither Carew's construction nor our own age's skepticism will permit an exclusively sweetened reading. (Thank whatever heavens you revere.) Perhaps more apparently than in any other poetic era, what matters is the fabric of the felt, the material of the meant.

Full of spit and spunk, of pricks and pranks, at one time or another Rochester pitted himself against a number of the literary figures of the age--including Dryden. His history is prolifically appointed with stabbings and pikings and--over the course of a lifelong marriage he began by means of an abduction--the rakeries of a roue. Even his writing swaggers. Look for instance at this advice to a mistress:


By all love's soft, yet mighty powers,

It is a thing unfit

That men should fuck in time of flowers,

Or when the smock's beshit.

Fair nasty nymph, be clean and kind,

And all my joys restore

By using paper still behind

And spunges for before.

My spotless flames can ne'er decay

if after every close,

My smoking prick escape the fray

Without a bloody nose.

If thou wouldst have me true, be wise

And take to cleanly sinning;

None but fresh lovers' pricks can rise

At Phyllis in foul linen. (6)

The sensual intelligence of such a piece of work makes of the mind a most convincing member. His ear (and nose) are in top form, his humors as hilarious as bilious. "My smoking prick"--now there's a pistol! And "its bloody nose"? A reluctant casualty of the love wars. Rochester's is a happy capacity to deflate the hot airs of romance with a wicked prick, or even just a twist of smear. Intimated in this poem's exquisite economies are the arts and vices of a gentleman's engagement ma fray--and also the lady's signature of menstrual anointing (or loss of virginity, if you prefer: given a phrase like "fuck in time of flowers". neither the young nor the mature woman escapes, and the fore and aft of foulness in this poem are writ in time as well as space).

There's a lot of literary subtlety in the pen that takes to task--for their "freshness"! (or inexperience)--lovers insouciant of Phyllis's lack of it. The rhetorical balance of fresh and foul expands on "cleanly sinning"'s oxymoron. And if linen content can inform a page, the poem can be taken as' a kind of ars poetica. (7) Rochester entertains no more staleness in the love of forms than in the forms of love. (8) It's a low goad he uses but a high style: malevolence alone is not the point. The point's a skillful prick, a sharpened wit, a tended craft. No Betty Boop or Sir Carr Scroope escapes.

Of all the examples of a sartorial poetic tradition in English, the instance that comes most readily to mind may be the venerable "Greensleeves." Its full length contains a mind-boggling number of bodily baubles, bedeckings with which the lover woos (and fails to win) his lady. In order of appearance, each in its stanza, they include kirchers (kerchiefs), peticotes (petticoats), "jewels for thy chest," a "smock of silk," a "girdle of gold," purse and pincase ("no better wore the Burgesse wives"), crimson stockings, "pumps as white as was the milk," gown- "of the grassie green," "sleeves of Satten," and "garters fringed with the golde." One can't read such poetry without becoming luxuriantly aware of how materialistic are its love bargains. In the poetry of a Sir Philip Sidney even nature will be rendered as "rich tapestry." As David Norbrook remarks, "To post-Romantic readers, for whom poets are expected to disguise their art, there may seem something shameless about the Elizabethan poets' conspicuous consump tion of artifice." (9) Of course, sexual expressiveness can be every bit as shameless as sartorial impressiveness--and it's the coefficiency of the two (redress in undress, snake in weeds) that makes these poetries so sly and so astonishing. The fashioner of such enchantments, the maker of such materials, covers his 'discoveries with ever more expert insinuation, ever nicer needling. He's aiming for the ultimate understory.

Her Muffe


'Twas not for some calm blessing to receive,

Thou didst thy polish'd hands in shagg'd furs weave;

It were no blessing thus obtain'd,

Thou rather would'st a curse have gain'd,

Then let thy warm driven snow be ever stain'd.


Not that you feared the discolo'ring cold,

Might alchymize their Silver into Gold;

Nor could your ten white Nuns so sin

That you should thus pennance them in

Each in her course hair smock of Discipline.


Nor Hero-like, who on their crest still wore

A Lyon, Panther, Leopard or a Bore,

To look their Enemies in their Herse;

Thou would'st thy hand should deeper pierce,

And, in its softness rough, appear more fierce.


No, no, Lucasta, destiny Decreed

That Beasts to thee a sacrifice should bleed,

And strip themselves to make you gay;

For ne'er yet Herald did display,

A Coat, where Sables upon Ermin lay.


This for Lay-Lovers, that must stand at dore,

Salute the threshold, and admire no more:

But I, in my Invention tough

Rate not this outward bliss enough,

But still contemplate must the hidden Muffe. (10)

Hide and hide, some furs removed, some furs revealed! (Coats even of arms have venereal symbols, and Lovelace's hunt comes right into the bedchamber.) All these half-draped, half-naked elaborations make for tantalizing sport. After a giveaway like "lay-lovers" (lovers of women, like lovers of poetry, are lovers of linen content), that "hidden muff" Won't need much glossing; rather, let's say, it glosses itself. To love less can mean to love lace; this less is more. And to the question "What's under the underthings?" there is no end of answers.

Thus do clothes make the woman; and the more transparent the better. These muffs and cuffs and scarves are more than mere accessories: like the fan and sword of sexual archetype in Asian art, or the cross and arrow on the biological signs of the sexes, they become incarnations of character. Their chemises and charades expose as much as they disguise. In the work of a poet like Rochester, the distinction between sartor and satyr is virtually annihilated. Producing most of his best work between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-three, he survives in all his priapic rancors and tart misanthropies (11) from the late edge of his larger era into the leading edge of ours precisely because so line a fastidiousness informs the fucking: not everyone who executes such "larding[s] o'er"--is scrupulous down to the "pore." Rochester is: He understands the erotic charge that arises between delirium and discipline. The carnal connoisseur is no anarchist: the body of his work is bound; his liberties are lashed.

From the works of Sir Thomas Wyatt to those of the earl of Rochester, there's a curve in the flesh--but the flesh of poems is, of course, the poetic cloth itself. And poetic material, of all literary materials, is peculiarly designed to be torn. Between the death of Wyatt and the birth of John Wilmot lay a century of sensual chirage. One of the first poems I ever heard heartily loved by a professor was this one:

They fle from me that sometyme did me seke

with naked fote stalking in my chambre

I have sene theim gentill tame and meke

that nowe are wyld and do not remembre

that sometyme they put theimself in daunger

to take bred at my hand and nowe they raunge

besely seking with a continuell chaunge

Thancked be fortune it hath ben othrewise

twenty tymes better but ons in speciall

in thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse

When her lose gowne from her shoulders

did fall

and she me caught in her armes long and


therewithall swetely did me kysse

and softely said dere hert howe like you this

It was no dreme I lay brode waking

but all is torned thorough my gentilnes

into a straunge fasshion of forsaking

and I have leve to goo of her goodenes

and she also to use new fangilnes

but syns that I so kyndely ame served

I would fain knowe what she hath deserved (12)

And now it's my lot to love it.

Separated from his wife only a few years after they married, Wyatt was arrested and banished in 1536 (probably for amorous relations with Anne Boleyn, about to marry Henry VIII); he was tried again in 1541 and ordered (on pain of death) to abstain from further infidelities. Throughout his adult life Wyatt lived under the suspicion of adultery. Indeed, the lives of almost all the poets I'm treating here (under the cover of covers) have in common some uncommon concupiscences. Wyatt's "deer" are severally venereal, irresistibly homonymal. Under the marksman's rubric Wyatt. remembers Venus's complicity in the aristocratic hunting grounds and' figures forth the dangers of encounters there. (13)

The greatness in the poem "They fle from me that sometyme did me seke" lies in the marriage of candor and cover, the cooperation of thematicis and rhetoric. The poem's numbers trace the course of amorous diminishment through. its pronouns and time markings: from a third-person plural account of encounters in general, through the memory of an episode "once" between two lovers (a switch from the generic to the specific that creates an effect breathtakingly erotic), and finally to the poet's solitude at the mercy of her particular leave, her' "newfangledness." The poem thus moves through three social states (three passages marked by capitalizations): first of loves at a remove (in the pronominal them); then of a single her (who says "you" and so brings the crowd down to a company of two); and finally of a self relegated to forsakenness. So "'Torned ... into a straunge fasshion" is the story of the poem's own numbers: there's an amorous arithmetic according to which what was given is now taken away: what he was s erved, she has now deserved. In all fairness, to wish her the same would be to wish her "torned" as well. And so a verse is turned.

The question of kind so deftly raised in the poem's penultimate line is a question of several species because how kind or "gentil" either lover was is precisely what's at issue in the lines preceding. If all can be turned--or torn--through gentleness, then even a goodness could wound. Thanks to a host of likenesses and links at work in the linguistic fabric of the poem, the lovers are torn in turn, torn in kind, turned foreign, turned alike, and torn apart. And the dressing of the entire poem in terms of the seduction of wild animals (the taming of the unicorn being a conventional sexual motif) makes the usual unhappy destiny of the hunted animal haunt the poem's last line. She has deserted, or failed to serve, her lover: "what she deserves," then, in this welter of cognates, conflates the preda-

tory and protective gestures. ("Cover me," says the friend who runs, to the-friend with the gun. He wishes to be kept in sights, covered in auspices.)

The necessity for great poetry to garb itself in musical recurrences or regularities is equaled only by the compulsion of great poetry to tear through conventional ties and binds: to find its founding breath lessness again. And that compounding of compulsions is itself an amorous figure.

Pyramus and Thisbe

Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear

Slain, cruel friends, by parting have joined

here. (14)

A neglected little by piece John Donne, this couplet reminds us how literal the love of numbers can become--and how uncontainable the implications of the epigram. "Each" and "other," in this poem's sixteen words, are not only slain but do the slaying, not only rejoined but do the rejoining. Syntactically speaking, this little couplet is a most compacted feat. "By themselves" is at once the sign of each's solitude--and of both's suiciding. The lovers live by themselves and are killed, by themselves. (In the myth, you'll recall, one lover thinks the other dead and so kills himself, and then the other, seeing HE is dead, kills herself in consequence.) The lovers are together yet by themselves, parted yet by themselves--you see the ramifying properties of the phrase "by themselves," not only grammatically but philosophically, as it operates in different syntactical connections, different senses of agency. The two lines of the couplet, like the two persons of a couple, are able to stand complete and apart. (Were the couplet split by a period--or Dickinsonian dash--instead of only the line break's passing hint at discouplement, then "two people when left alone will love and fear each other" would be a perfectly legitimate intact reading for line 1, and for line 2, "hard-hearted lovers, killed, have come together here by being separated there.") Yet every comma or breath-turn marks a chance for recombining: in some blinks of the combining eye, "love" and "fear" can switch from verb to noun; and back, as elements of both lines are indispensably interwoven then rewoven. Each of the two is half of one, yet each of the two is an all. Love and death are the grounds on which such paradoxes most can move us--they are the surprises of our lives.

Grammatically speaking the "two" who begin this poem become the very love and fear that do them in. The syntactical deftness needed to keep so many meanings in simultaneous operation is the measure of the poet's art. Great syntactical economy is required to keep this poem's little mechanism self-escaping: all its counterpoises (male and female, love and fear, parting and joining, themselves and each other, friendly ones and, cruel) must be able to shift grammatical functions in different readings. Where every single noun can operate either as a subject or an object, the usual dynamics of mutual exclusion have to be suspended. Conspiring is expiring's counterpart, and the cooperation of opposites prevails over their distinction. Measuring, as they may; "self-life's infinity to a span, nay to an inch," most critics reading Donne seek to reduce a generosity, of possibilities to a proper exclusivity. Donne "did unite but not confound ... in seeking secrets"--a fashion of mind that befits his readers as well. The syntactical coil is as animating to Renaissance love-numbers as is the genetic, coil to contemporary microbiology. (DNA is, after all, a backreader's conjunction! And the slash of metaconjunction in any "and/or" -- a slash that has always implicitly cast an extra or across our hermeneutic landscape--that slash ought, for the most capacious reading, to be refigured as an and. Such a, sewing up of the slash might manage to redress [with love] a critical insufficiency, given that "and and or" will comprehend the two at once, whereas "and or or" means always only one alone.)

The phrase "cruel friends" condenses the coil of conspiring opposites into the simultaneous positive and negative of oxymoron. The ones who kill themselves rob each other of love, for love, and so are themselves each other's "cruel friends." But in another reading, it is we, the readers, thusly. Addressed--we who think ourselves beyond the story yet are implicated in it; we who bestow such far off favor on the poem's centuries-old act. We may bring to a classic literary work our readerly fire--but, always in the cool of a here-and-now forever relegated to the poem's hereafter. Four hundred years ago John Donne entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper; he was dismissed when his secret; marriage to Lady Egerton's niece was exposed. Later he'd become a clergyman, but John Donne the poet continues to weigh love's ands and ors, conjunctions and compunctions. Numbers are poems, too, but Donne goes us one better, giving us numbers in numbers; for he actually alludes to enumeration inside the poem, counting up love's tallies, counting down love's tolls.

"The Triple Fool," for example, explicitly turns the meaning of numbers into a number of meanings.

The Triple Fool

I am tow fools, I know,

For loving, and for saying so

In whining poetry;

But where's that wiseman, that would not be I,

If she would not deny?

Then as th'earth's inward narrow crooked lanes

Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,

I thought, if I could draw my pains

Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.

Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,

For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,

Some man, his art and voice to show,

Doth set and sing my pain,

And, by delighting many, frees again

Grief, which verse did restrain.

To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,

But not of such as pleases when 'tis read,

Both are increased by such songs:

For both their triumphs so are published,

And I, which was two fools, do so grow three;

Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

(Smith, 81)

Like "Pyramus and Thisbe" this poem drives the lover's computation all the way to its poetic destiny in oxymoron -- two oxymorons, to be exact: "a little wise" and "best fools." As a double oxymoron it works deepeningly: the one who remained a little wise (that is, who stopped short of poetry and wound up married) would be the best (or maybe biggest?) fool. The numbers game is evident enough as it piles up the lover's foolishnesses. But it reaches a self-reflexive peak in the line "Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce," a line variously readable to mean "the woes of love are allayed when turned into poems" or "unhappiness shared among many is diminished in intensity." (Paraphrase confirms, by contrast, the generous grace of a poem's parsimonies!) In fact, of course, the verse that attracts reciters tends to spread -- rather than fetter--feeling, and Donne has hidden in the folds of the poem's apparent humbleness a secret self-love: he has written a poem so good the world won't be able to stop singing it back. It's not only the singer's modesty that's at issue here. To have allayed the pain, never to have turned it into poetry, to have won the beloved, and so been a "little wise" or the "best fool" (rather than the writerly kind), can, in retrospect, hardly be wholeheartedly desirable. The wish to share one's heart is, by this token, consanguineous with the wish to diminish it; and to give of one's heart, one has to break it. A sensitive reader will catch in Donne's fancy footwork the sorrow's underlying joke: while tallying up his fooldoms the poet-figure is also reminding us with what gifts of numbers (what numbers of gifts!) he outpaced the mixed condition of the oxymoron, or the marriage. The foolscap is a cover for poetic immortality.

There's another undercover delight to be had in this skeptic's sachet. Do a double-take at that penultimate line. Even as numbers are mentioned, they are also metrically encoded: as the poet's foolhoods multiply, his solitudes are reinscribed. Look at the line's first foot ("And I"). It appears, in the context of the poem's overall iambic pentameter, simply to be a regular iamb. But what follows can be said to tear away the regular stitch work of the iambic habit: two unstressed syllables ("which was") themselves followed in turn by two stressed ones ("two fools"), and then, only a quick beat later, three stresses in a row ("so grow three")--to my ear, a prominent derangement of the metrical expectation. Jonson once remarked that Donne, "for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging." (Among the Talmudic tales and rabbinical lore is recorded a similarly horrifying judgment: that of the rabbi who declares that any scholar who looks up from his studies even for a moment--if only to admire a tree!--deserves to die!) But scholars may, at such times, miss the bewitchment that Herrick knows cannot inhere "when Art is too precise."

For although the final line of "The Triple Fool" will return us to a reasonably regular iambic lope, it does so only after having alerted us (in the penultimate line) to the possibilities of an extraordinary stress pattern: whenever a number is mentioned, it is also beaten out in code. The thought of three fools makes a mimicking molossos in the metric; the thought of two is spelled out too, in spondee. (If an iamb is a normal heartbeat, then a spondee is a heart in trouble--and a molossos is a cardiac emergency, a heart a beat or two away from fatal overstress. What rhythmical disfiguring could better fit this poem's amorous disconsolation?)

Best of all, when we work our way backward through the penultimate line to admire how the metrics underscore the meaning, we wind up considering the first metrical foot in a new light. For now it seems to contain, by token of its numerical code, the "one" that would inform its single stress: a one in the form of that first-person singular pronoun. The iamb "and I" contains a pronoun that, as we go backward, could only count down to loneliness and a conjunction that brings us back not to any "you" but only to the speaker's solitude. This one is ciphered, so to speak, as soon as deciphered.

The Expiration

So, so, break off this last lamenting kiss,

Which sucks two souls, and vapours both


Turn thou ghost that way, and let, me turn this,

And let ourselves benight our happiest day,

We asked none leave to love; nor will we owe

so cheap a death, as saying, Go;

Go; and if that word have not quite killed thee,

Ease me with death, by bidding me go too.

Oh, if it have, let my word work on me,

And a just office on a murderer do.

Except it be too late, to kill me so,

Being double dead, going, and bidding, go.

(Smith, 56)

The intelligence of poems is a carnal matter. The word gives life, and it can kill; an amour is a little death, and a bidding (or a forbidding) may double an undoing. "So, so" the poem begins. But, later, at its heart, a similarly rhyming pair is severed: "go" is drastically removed from "go" and the whole poem broken in half. The saying and the doing are two things, not one, and that's why deaths (like vows) can come in numbers. The amorous math involved may bemuse us, because it doubles nothing and dilates (twice each!) upon the two who die.

It's important that the numbers remain irreducible to solutions, critically speaking. By that I mean to say that the poems would remain lesser puzzles, mere dead tricks, if their formulae were more apparently resolvable. Each dance of dualities spawns its third; and threes resolve back into ones, as in the Christian mysteries. All of Donne's numbers are enlisted in love's baffle, a battle to the thing it baffles against: the big cipher, that is, death. Lovers are those who wish to multiply; and would-be multipliers know that nothing (and only nothing) conquers all.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be

At the next world, that is, at the next spring:

For I am every dead thing,

In whom love wrought new alchemy.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations, and lean emptiness

He ruined me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,

Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;

I, by love's limbeck, am the grave

Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood

Have we two wept, and so

Drowned the whole world, us two; oft did we grow

To be two chaoses, when we did show

Care to aught else; and often absences

Withdrew our souls, and made us carcases.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)

Of the first nothing, the elixir grown;

Were I a man, that I were one,

I needs must know; I should prefer,

If I were any beast,

Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,

And love; all, all some properties invest;

If I an ordinary nothing were,

As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none. . . . (15)

Here too the lovers are figured (in one breath!) both as agents ("we two") and as objects ("us two") of their own destruction. Much of one's pleasure in reading John Donne arises from his capacity to melt with such exactitude the very lock of numbers he has forged, to liberate into heartening irreducibility his means and matters.

The Computation

For the first twenty years, since yesterday,

I scarce believed, thou couldst be gone away,

For forty more, I fed on favours past,

And forty on hopes, that thou wouldst, they might last.

Tears drowned one hundred, and sighs blew out two,

A thousand, I did neither think, nor do,

Or not divide, all being one thought of you;

Or in a thousand more, forgot that too.

Yet call not this long life; but think that I

Am, by being dead, immortal; can ghosts die?

(Smith, 49).

One gains a respect for the complexity of poetic numbers when one tries to sort out the syntax of lines 6 and 7. Any attempt to simplify can only deepen the mystery--yet there's no murk in this work. If I attempt some paraphrases here, you have to keep in mind what any good reader keeps in mind: that the poem means no one of these readings; it means them all.

For a thousand years I neither thought nor did anything, nor did I divide the years.... I neither thought up a thousand years, nor made (nor multiplied) them; I did not divide them either.... I neither thought a thousand years in the past, nor do I think a thousand years in the present; nor do I divide millennium from millennium--all eons being one when thought in your connection.... All being is one thought about you. All being is one thought of yours.

It's no accident that "The Computation" ends, as do so many other Donnean numbers, in an oxymoron--in this case, in a dead immortal (or dead ghost). Comprehended opposites (one as all) are the natural crown of a Donnean proof. (The poem "Lovers' Infiniteness" ends "we shall / Be one, and one another's all.") "Batter my heart," too, is rich with paradoxes and oxymorons. One could say it is a prayer for a violent inspiring. Unlike our contemporary American versions of good works, Donne's religious petition has no reverential pallor or mere politeness about it. No one could mistake his metamorphiliac forms for mere formulae. Like Rochester, he equips his love, lyre with a whip:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and


Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me


I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue,

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy,

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

(Smith, 314-15)

The four onslaughts of line 2 seeming to the petitioner too weak, each verb is scrupulously deepened a screw's turn or two in line 4. In the last four lines the poet wants of God something unholy--a divorce, and then a rape. He conceives freedom as a thralldom, chasteness as God's ravishment--and in so doing, makes four hundred years of readers (--and counting!--) breathe a little faster.

If mere good intentions are insufficient token of poetic genius (a fact much of contemporary America's "celebration" of poetry overlooks), so too is reason insufficient poetic proof. The usually antithetical realms (of carnal and spiritual passion) are indivisible in the work of a writer like Donne (who, as eventual dean of St. Paul's, would be as passionate a lover of God as of women and for whom the subtext of all carnal multiplication is God's triune arithmetic).

The Trinity

O Blessed glorious Trinity,

Bones to philosophy, but milk to faith,

Which, as wise serpents, diversely

Most slipperiness, yet most entanglings hath,

As you distinguished undistinct

By power, love, knowledge be,

Give me a such self different instinct,

Of these let all me elemented be,

Of power, to love, to know, you unnumbered


(Smith, 318)

That jolt of odd yoked opposites (and tri-posites!) in Donne can still compel and shock us, even out of postmodernism's natural indifference to gods and absolutes--not least because through the eye slits even of our casual oversight we can still, as animal beings, recognize the structure (that is, the rhetoric and patterns) of a stunning understanding. We gasp at the literary and spiritual audacity that would admire God's slippery entanglements (God the wise serpent! Now there's a hell of a celestial oxymoron!), the mind that would speak of "self-difference" or make the very syntax of divine distinction "undistinct"? (One finds oneself trying vainly to sort out the syntactical strands: distinguished in Himself? or by ourselves? Distinguished by virtue of his own power and love and knowledge, all of them inseparable?--Or distinguished as easily by exertions of our power as by exertions of our love or our knowledge? or...). Or. Or. Therein lies the gold: we can't distinguish ourselves, much less distinguish God .

And of course our ramifying questions must remain unreduced, for the answers are not mutually exclusive if God is to be in us or we in God. In this poem's scrupulous illimitability, the ultimate negotiation is between an "all me" and a "you three." But just what kind of being is that "all me"? A compound self or a sum of individuations? (The answer to that question is best left at "yes.") And as for "you three"--are they the aforementioned capacities of power, loving, and knowing (conveniently more or less synonymous with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)? Overall, we have a negotiation, clearly, between a first-person "me" and a three-personed second person ("you")--but how many is that, all together? two? four?

All one, in Donne. And all (at last) "unnumbered"!!

The One (or "unnumbered three") the poem addresses is countless: it's what cannot be contained by reason, what cannot be held by (or to) lesser forms of love. Its provenance is neither time nor poems. (God, says Meister Eckhart, is neither good nor true. I take that to mean that God is not to be submitted to our moral scales, that God is not susceptible of comparison insofar as the divine is no mere nominal, much less adjectival matter.)

In such paradoxes the usual laws of scale and separation don't obtain: parts of speech (or laws of lesser logic) can't contain the Logos. Readers sensitive to such pervasive insecurities at the very source of poetic meaning must keep relinquishing their grasp if they wish to accommodate, rather than merely resolve, the comprehensive grammars at work here. It's not clear (ultimately, in this poem's course) whether "unnumbered" doesn't shift from adjective to verb (just as "distinguished" seemed to shift from verb to adjective). No parser may lord it over what passeth understanding. The Word may move in ways mysterious--but never imprecise.

Numbers will be brought to grief, for we are mortal. But Donne's own spunky capacity to free poetic numbers from their merely quantitative senses represents an abiding mortal need. That "inner muff" of Lovelace's is a ludicrous profanity that harbors something serious. As Dickinson would put it two hundred years later. "The Outer--from the Inner / Derives its magnitude." (16) We may strip ourselves naked and still not have discovered ourselves.

Formal eccentricities (Jonson blasted Donne for them) were what made Dickinson's first readers so uneasy. The bulk of John Donne's work was not to be published, in his lifetime, nor was the bulk of Dickinson's in hers. The greatest writers may not find their readers for some generations; the greatest works work proleptically to create their readers, over time (". . . for till thou heare us, Lord / We know not what to say"). (17) Among the pleasures of the best poetry (or the best criticism) in any era are what the conventionally hidebound reader dismisses as quirk or idiosyncrasy--lines that leap out at us now for the same reason they could not lie down then; images unseen theretofore, or since; peculiarities promenaded, excesses intimated, stripes of a species of one:

The piller pearisht is whearto I Lent

the strongest staye of myne unquyet mynde

The lyke ofit no man agayne can fynde

From East to west still seking thoughe he went

To myne unhappe for happe away hath rent

Of all my joye the vearye bark and rynde

And I (alas) by chaunce am thus assynde

Dearlye to moorne till death do it relent

but syns that thus it is by destenye

What can I more but have a wofull hart

My penne in playnt, my voyce in wofull crye

My mynde in woe, my bodye full of smart

And I my self, my self alwayes to hate

Till dreadfull death, do ease my dolefull state (18)

In this little poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt there's an obsessively repetitive element that might well be deemable disbalanced or disorderly were it not earned by the appealing pealing of the poem (as, in "The Triple Fool'," Donne's piled-up stresses actually count). By pealing I mean the way the tolling pailfuls of the poem's woe are doled out, especially in the last six lines, as they turn us from the past's mainstay and pillar toward the singer's destiny in something desperate, disquieting, sung.

Someone once told me a story I stole for a poem--the story of Giordano Bruno burned at the stake for believing God moved in all things, worked as a force rather than a figure. In this account of Bruno's life he was burned in an iron mask (because his captors fearing his eloquence would incite the crowd). The man who told me this story ended it by saying, "Poetry is what he thought, but did not say." In the silence after (that other man's account of) that other man's story, audiences are often struck dumb; every time I've told the story publicly, some people actually weep. And into just such a silence, in a crowded auditorium a couple of years ago, a Seattle interviewer chirped up, overquick, with the question: "Are you comfortable with that, I mean as a definition of poetry?"

I suffered, for a long moment, my own speechlessness. Then I told her. The answer is no. Comfort is decidedly beside the point. Because poetry is not there to make you feel good--although it may make you feel exquisitely. The impaler's pike is more to the point--and I mean God (not Vlad) the Impaler; I mean the one who always makes us die, and for whom we may never presume to speak. Donne's violent figures in "Batter my heart" arise from a mortal combat with the received forms of religious reverence, forms that reduce the Logos to an iterable human word. But God, if granted to be beyond our ken, neither good nor true, a Lord essentially unspeakable, can thoroughly be loved (read: believed in) only at great cost to comfort. Such a work requires one's life. It's an aesthetic necessity: not an anaesthetic one.

It was, remember, an "unquiet mind" that Wyatt's pillar stabilized. That pillar gone, disquietude floods forth in words. Even, the pen fills with pain. Maybe only one other poem in English mourns so relentlessly, so materially; so recalls to mind the dulling of meaning by keening, and so knows sorrow's way of overflowing a human ken with drone. (Misery loving company, it should find the poem by Edward Thomas called "Rain" and read it aloud.) (19) These lamentations fill the ear with unrelieved reiteration: they, dress the mind in weeds. Wyatt asks, What else could I do? Inventively recalled, any failure of invention is an occasion for the mind to catch itself in the act, become the very ill to which, and through which, it itself refers. In Wyatt's mental misery the word smart refers less to wits than whippings. Self-hate wells in, where love of another is lost (--for that "pearisht" pillar must once have been animate). And because self's destiny seems to be written unrevisably, in inks of fate, the pen grows ill as well, the voice woe-choked. Woe fills every receptacle, and so (since woe is me, and I hate woe) I hate myself The mind full of itself, the body of itself, the self of self, always itself (because always is operative not only as adverb but as noun) and always itself to hate--under such conditions immortality is hell. Only what is dreaded by health can bring ease at last out of disease and take this world (of self and all its words) away. (Cioran: a book is a suicide postponed.)

The poem was surely as odd a song in its own time as in ours, giving such obsessive voice to its senses of disquietude. The very mind's a moan, the mouth mucked up. In Wyatt's lament the scope of hope is closed right down; the freedom to seek outward, freely east and west, is shrunk to the scale of a self-absorption, self as a hell of echoes. If sounds close down (an ear pressed only to its own head), we shouldn't wonder; for a sound in a solitude makes only its own sense. Here in a lone soul's lamentation at the loss of love, and love's lamentation at the loss of life, is dramatic evidence that although solitude may greaten grief, numbers greaten it unbearably too. The sheer repeating of a same sound, mere resounding of reminding, empties the material of meaning--and then. can become in itself a kind of means to enchantment. For poetic corroboration look at Stein or Stevens. Mere meaning seems, by comparison with such tones and meanings, mean.

The stuff of poetry: no transparency moves us like a slippered foot; no naked thought achieves the heft or depth of a maul sunk in mud. Time can be tricked by a trochee, spirit lifted. with a scarf; No wonder surprise is better registered in quaverings and quirks than in a lexicon: the heart of poetry may long and legally go iambing along--but it will leap sooner or later 'again, at hopes and hurts. And the convention of the poem establishes its proprieties of line precisely in order to have something against which to get out of line. All the ties that bind a poem, its strings attached, its threads, invite undoing. Poetry can think in spunk, expose the human guises in a gaze, find mind in matter, and love wilderness with wit--that's what these writers remind us. They come to their senses not in cozy securities and comforters but in rippable, or ripple-able, veils.

And we today have Renaissance England's same instrument, the shafted, shining, language with which we could still so finely deepen understandings (or' hurl out curses). Were America to care for its linguistic heritage, it could find good company in such complexities. Take Herrick, last but far from least, going about town in a fever of forms, tweaking what he needs, reminding us that nothing perfect lives and breathes, and giving us a lot of latitude for the imagination. Herrick was trained as a goldsmith--and ordained as a priest. Contemporary readers,-whatever their jaunty irreverence, may find that combination rather more unholy than their Renaissance counterparts did, when "men of the cloth" did not take the profession's fabric to be merely figurative, and the wealth of religious institutions was emphatically worldly: But for all the gulfs-between our eras, life as lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries surely felt as frill of force and fear, of power and peril, of diverse slipperiness and enta nglings, as it feels to us, in us, today. And its arts of elegant innuendo have plenty of pleasures to offer a modern sensualist.

The Silken Snake

For sport my Julia threw a Lace

Of silke and silver at my face:

Watchet the silke was; and did make

A shew, as if't'ad been a snake:

The suddenness did me affright;

But though it scar'd; it did not bite. (20)

How gloss the silver on that silk? What did that fabric cover? (What it covered may well bite, if Julia's data are dentata.) Perhaps all ingenuities take delight in balancing opposing claims (certainly these poets seem to). That we windup once again in oxymoron shouldn't seem surprising--or should seem both inevitable and surprising. Language itself being our material (our cover, as I've styled it here), we come to love it down to the numbered hairs. Our harried human hides (those covert things!) had best delight in numbers--numbers in the olden sense, of poetry, whatever keeps. measures apprised of timelessness, sensualities of proportion, politics of oxymoron, overcoats of underwear, and design of all it couldn't quite control.

Delight, in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dresse

Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:

A Lawne about the shoulders thrown

Into a line distraction:

An erring Lace, which here and there

Enthralls the Crimson Stomacher:

A Cuffe neglectfull, and thereby

Ribbands to flow confusedly:

A winning wave (deserving Note)

In the tempestuous petticote:

A carelesse shooe-string, in whose tye

I see a wilde civility:

Doe more bewitch me, then when Art

Is too precise in every part. (21)

What Herrick sees in a careless tie is worked for us into a golden' phrase--a "wilde 'civility." (How he would have loved the vagrant strand of DNA, its revelation through the sharp contemporary eye of an electron microscope! Instruments may change, but the big picture still beguiles and escapes the mind. Watched it is, and makes a show, indeed! In the face of such mysteries," inner and outer, it is faith [only another name for the imagination we must still' rely on.)

As for that "Crimson Stomacher," in the sartorial terminology of the time it's a kind of cummerbund (that's fine enough, with come and bond both bound inside the word!), but I bet there's some thing of the reddened upright member also con-. noted there. And what but a well-fired mind would ever think up "kindle," for disorder's verb? The "lawne" that meant fine linen could also, even in those days, suggest a cultivated man's backyard. A cuff's a careless blow, as surely as a portion of a sleeve; and what would flow from it in ribbands might well attend deflowerings, once a "crimson stomacher" is involved. Whose winning do you suppose that is, therein the petticoat? (Subjective or objective genitive?) What temp or temper here is turned into a tempest? Herrick has given us a song entirely animated by the tie's undoneness, naughtiness unknotted. If the woman is not mistress of her fate, neither is fate's master any man, the likes of whom his lover may "bewitch." As poets know, the knot that's tied is always also language's. And the fiancee, the lady in the golden braid, is always also one of the daughters of Mnemosyne. We burn for a pure indicative or superlative, but we live forever, finally, only in the comparative, that ladder or scale or ziggurat of means without end.

That our poetry's scansion can't be doled out in perfect certitudes--that the language is less angled than it is anglish, less susceptible of the' geometer's rule than of the forms of fire, the fluencies of air, the curves of earth (whose humus gives the human its etymological ground)--is occasion not for lament but elation. It is in the very nature of poetic numbers to supply literary content with grounds for uncontainability. Measure informs (rather than reforms) a Poem, and numbers aren't merely the girdle, grid, or girth of poetry--they are its body and soul. Numbers aren't just the silk; they are its silver rivulets. They are the ravishment it-self, the kindling, of civility, the spotlessness of flame, the cry in the voice, the self that burns or floods its I. They are the carnal weave in which all spirit must be implicated, or we never know it. ("In a nett I seke to hold the wynde," or so the airs of Wyatt have it.) Reading the greatest poems in English, we feel we've caught (but not to keep!) some-thin g of the world's stuff--a gown of sounds, the flow in the flower, a fluency in numbers, play of scopes and scales. A caress of the recognized comes as all the more precious for having been licked with unpredictabilities. We are mortal men and women: naked flesh is our tearable garb.

And where do we go from there? The reason spirit can be made out in matter is this: matter is essentially mysterious, despite our beams upon it. Words aren't only a ever-sharper cover. They are also a discovery. Quick with quirks, acquainted with unkept accents and apparently careless ties, their artful negligees may gape, but when they do, they intimate ultimate things; they reveal what they re-veil: ever-deepening senses of the material.


(1.) Burnet, "Some Passages," 54.

(2.) One of the undercover pleasures of the name Bendo is the anagrammatical double duty it can do, in the service either of chastity or of cheat, depending on whether you read it to suggest "no bed" or "on bed."

(3.) Vieth, Complete Poems of John Wilmot, 136.

(4.) Ibid., 136-37. Elsewhere Rochester would etch his memorial to Gary Frazier in even more economical caustics:

On Cary Frazier

Her father gave her dildoes six;

Her mother made 'em up a score;

But she loves nought but living pricks,

And swears by God she'll frig no more.

(ibid., 137)

(5.) "Ingrateful Beauty Threatened," in Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 354-55.

(6.) Vieth, Complete Poems of John Wilmot, 139.

(7.) For a bawdy joke on the arse poetica, worthy of a Wilmotian temper, consider X. J. Kennedy's little poem "Ars Poetica":

The goose that laid the golden egg

Died looking up its crotch

To see how well its sphincter worked.

Would you lay well? Don't watch.

(Kennedy, Cross Ties, 101)

(8.) Ovid with his amorous escapades and erotic writings would have been well known to, and served as something of a forebear for, such poets.

(9.) Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1.

(10.) Richard Lovelace, "Her Muffe," in Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 370.

(11.) Not mere misogynies! His misanthropies are far too broadminded to stop at broads alone.

(12.) Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 181-82.

(13.) Consider, for example, this little Wyatt poem:

Who so list to hount I knowe where is an hynde

the vayne travaill hath weried me so sore

but as for me helas I may no more

I ame of theim that farthest cometh behinde

yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde

drawe from the Deere but as she fleeth afore

faynting I folowe l leve of therefor

sethens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde

Who list her hount I put him owte of dowbte

as well as I may spend his tyme in vain

and graven with Diamondes in letters plain

There is written her faier neck rounde abowte

noli me tangere for Cesars I ame

and wylde for to hold though I seine tame

(Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 54)

Here the item of adornment cannot be removed, that necklace that, in its status as a mark of imperial possession, recalls the royal dog-collars inscribed, "I am her majesty's dog at Kew. Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?"

The danger is part of the mark of the lord: danger and domain come from the same root.

(14.) Smith, John Donne, 149. Subsequent quotes from this edition will be referenced parenthetically by page number in the text proper.

(15.) Donne, "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day," in ibid., 72.

(16.) Franklin, Poems of Emily Dickinson, no. 450.

(17.) Smith, John Donne, 324.

(18.) Quoted in Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 85.

(19.) From R. George Thomas, ed., Collected Poems of Ed-ward Thomas, 259.


Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain

On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me

Remembering again that I shall die

And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks

For washing me cleaner than I have been

Since I was born into this solitude.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:

But here I pray that none whom once I loved

Is dying tonight or lying still awake

Solitary, listening to the rain,

Either in pain or thus in sympathy

Helpless among the living and the dead,

Like a cold water among broken reeds,

Myriads of broken reeds all stiff and stiff,

Like me who have no love which this wild rain

Has not dissolved except the love of death,

If love it be towards what is perfect and

Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

(20.) Woudhuysen, Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 352. Watchet is commonly glossed to mean "blue" or "light green." I can't help adding, from the poet's angle, that the looks of things are implicated. I believe the word shew seconds that impression, for his eyes are on her overthrown underthings, which themselves suggest something of the serpentine moves and quickenings to follow.

(21.) Ibid., 351.


Burnet, Gilbert. "Some Passages of the Life and Death of Rochester." In Rochester: The Critical Heritage, ed. David Farley-Hills. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Franklin, R. W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 1998.

Kennedy, X. J. Cross Ties: Selected Poems. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Smith, A. J., ed. John Donne: The Complete English Poems. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1996.

Thomas, R. George, ed. The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Vieth, David M., ed. The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Woudhuysen, H. R., ed. The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659. Introduction by David Norbrook. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1992.

Excerpted from Green Thoughts, Green Shades: Essays by Contemporary Poets on the Early Modern Lyric. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press. [C] 2002 by the Regents of the University of California.

HEATHER McHUGH is Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington. In addition to six acclaimed books of poetry and the collection of essays Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan, 1994), she has translated Paul Celan, Jean Follain, and Euripides' Cyclops.
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Title Annotation:use of numbers in English Renaissance poetry
Author:McHugh, Heather
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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