from Satire III by John Donne

On a huge hill….

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Todays poem from the OBEV (ed Gardner, though I also have the other two editions, by  Quiller Couch and Ricks, and I usually use Ricks, but I’ve left it at work) is a portion of John Donne’s  Satire III, titled by Helen Gardner ‘Seek True Religion!’  – just the kind of title to put off half the world, but not me. I have no religion, but I  am, in a way, religious. I like translating religious ideas into things I can understand. On the other hand it looks about 40 lines, so too long for poem of the day – I have only an hour to find it,  read it  and write about it. A passing thought is: I wonder if I might have Poem of the Day as a few lines? But I’m still reading. This is a poem I don’t remember reading before, so I start to read;

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

This is already enough poem for a week’s reading. I’m stuck  on the first two lines, wondering how ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ can be ‘near twins’.  Is it about the fineness of distinctions?  Is it because they deal with the same stuff?  Still the advice is clear: go for truth, ‘He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.’

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

I know there is an historical context – the reformation – for this and I don’t know much about it, but I know enough to see Donne is talking about images in religious life – and about both sides in an argument (to make and use images of God or not). Lots of solidity in the uncertainty – ‘may all be bad’, where ‘may’ leaves leeway, while ‘bad’ makes a definite decision. ‘Doubt wisely’.

I’m in now. My own stance – I have no religion – is the ultimate in ‘no images’. I can’t even use the words ‘believe in God’ and yet I am not an atheist. I am religious. I (can’t use the word believe) something in (can’t use the word God)  something. My belief is like an equation with only x for terms. X marks the spot. I’m interesting the stance Donne offers, which is about mind, I think – ‘doubt wisely; in strange way/To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;’

In other words: ask the right questions!

My eye glances ahead and I suddenly  see I have read this before. Not since undergraduate days, and barely remember it but I do remember the lines that are coming, I remember them as if I had never forgotten them

…On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

What I remember is the feeling of  recognition, of knowing: here it is. Here what  is? Truth! So, across a lifetime of reading these words echo back  – you were interested in these lines then – remember? Ye there is  a resistance in me to the lines as I read them this morning – I’m not sure that all truths do need digging out, climbing for – some kinds of truth, even as this, writing a few words about a poem each day, yes, that feels a bit like  toiling up a mountain. But other truths are very clear, as in the flash of the signature on Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. When you see it, you know it.  What is the difference between those kinds of truth, I wonder? In the lines above the bit I want to stop and work at (about must and about must I go) is this;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Thinking of walking up a huge hill,  Moel Famau, say, remembering how necessary it is to follow the contours of the land, shouldering the hill to reach the peak. ‘The hill’s suddenness’ is a great piece of writing, isn’t it?  You turn a bend into some uprisen crag or hump which stops you in your tracks. Fighting it, getting over it, getting round it, coming at it from another angle is what gets you, finally, above it. The hard bits are the bits you might win.

I’m out of time now. If you are going to keep going, just read a sentence, or a clause at a time.

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name is chang’d; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum’d in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust
Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust.

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