August 9: The Wages of Cleverness


John Donne was a clever man. For those who need evidence, this is submitted. Or, we find in today's reading, (Walton's "Life of Dr. Donne"), a sentence from one of his letters :

This I made account: I began early, when I understood the study of our laws; but was diverted by leaving that, and embracing the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages; beautiful ornaments indeed to men of great fortunes, but mine was grown so low as to need an occupation; which I thought I entered well into, when I subjected myself to such a service as I thought might exercise my poor abilities; and there I stumbled, and fell too; and now I am become so little, or such a nothing, that I am not a subject good enough for one of my own letters.
This in a letter where he complains that "pain hath drawn my head so much awry, and holds it so, that my eye cannot follow my pen." Well, let's unpack this sentence a little bit, notwithstanding the fact that it's already so big that it doesn't count as a carry-on, and it will tell us a little bit about the life of the clever.

the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages... this sentence, condemning his own great lust for cleverness, reminds me of nothing so much as people who drink to forget they're alcoholics. And, rather like an drunk, he's working on a pretty good self-hatred there, yet he can't quit the five-dollar words. Don't blame him -- they're his only friends!

beautiful ornaments indeed to men of great fortunes, but mine was grown so low as to need an occupation...At first I thought that Donne was the beautiful ornament (i.e., he can't earn for himself, he needs a Patron), but now I think he's saying that it's fine for nobles to be all voluptuous and hydroptic, but some of us have to work for a living, and "coins metaphysical conceits" is generally considered to be a resume-killer. Both interpretations jibe with my impression of the real world. The more preening and individuated your cleverness is, the more luck you need; being unable to put the hay down where the goats can get at it is not, in itself, virtuous.

when I subjected myself to such a service as I thought might exercise my poor abilities; and there I stumbled, and fell too...If by "stumbled," you mean "secretly married my patron's 16-year-old (Wikipedia says 14, maybe) daughter," yes, you did stumble. Although the real villain of the piece (and this is what most of today's reading is actually about) is young Anne's father, who had Donne and his two accomplices thrown into prison and made Donne sue to get his woman.

It's this kind of payback for impetuousness that makes you think Jane Austen wrote journalism. It also shows, to me, that, like spiders, the clever depend upon a fine thread. If your talent is to please, then you must always serve at someone's pleasure. Whereas everyone needs dry goods.

...that I am not a subject good enough for one of my own letters. Another conceit! You would think that the clever would be the ones who are always learning, but in fact they never do.

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