The Day I Was Seduced By John Donne

The other day, I received books from home that I’d forgotten about; in particular, John Donne’s collection of selected poems. I studied the man for A Level, and whilst at the time, I resented him somewhat, because he reminded me of a long and stressful examination that was coming up, I realised today, that I had rather missed his company.

John Donne represents an age in poetry before anxiety, and before modernity began to swallow up literature as a whole. The poems are to some extent, simple representations of a world of love and sex, and of faith. John Donne’s poetry is divided into two distinct categories: the secular, and the divine; the latter was written in the later part of his life, during his time as a protestant minister. The former was written during Donne’s youth, when the man was an excellent example of Elizabethan sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

My favourite poems tend to be the secular ones; they are playful, and imaginative, and continually toy with boundaries that no longer exist to the modern world. However in the Elizabethan period, these boundaries formed the basis of social propriety, and to Donne in the earlier part of his life, were something to be rejected, in favour of sensuality. An example of the seductive poetry is “Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed”. Donne states:

“To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,/What need’st thou have more covering than a man?”

John Donne in portrait (1)

If there was ever such a thing as the Elizabethan striptease, then this was it; the poem describes his mistress getting ready for bed, and undressing completely. As the above quotation states, Donne explicitly alludes to the pleasures of sensuality, and of female company. The poem is playful, and most certainly defied the education he received as a child, growing up as a devout Catholic. Donne however abandoned Catholicism in favour of Protestantism in the early seventeenth century, and was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1615.

Donne became much more contemplative after the death of his wife, Anne More, during childbirth, in 1617. The responsibilities of fatherhood to no less than twelve children, and his bereavement, led him to write poems rooted in mortality, and feelings towards God himself. Many of his later poems also focus on redemption, especially for the sins of his youth. In Holy Sonnet XIV, Donne declares:

“But I am betrothed unto Your enemy;/Divorce me, untie me, or break that know again, Take me to You, imprison me, for I,/Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,/Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.” 

This rather striking quotation represents the shift in Donne’s perception of himself; his desire to be forgiven for his sins extends to wanting divinity to take full possession of him. The sexuality and passion that dominates his earlier poetry is matched in later work; the passion however is no longer directed towards pursuing carnal fulfillment, and instead, moves towards divine fulfillment. The passion with which Donne writes is in my opinion at least, unmatched by other poets of the period.

Undeniably, Donne was passionate; a poet who used linguistic devices to portray a passion that was by no means reserved for the page; it was a passion that dominated his adult life, and goes on to make his poetry very special. The move against formulaic expressions of romance captured my impressionable literary heart; he was a rebel, just as Oscar Wilde was, three hundred years later. There is nothing more seductive in literature as an author with no respect for boundaries.

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(1) http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/DONNE25.JPG

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(1) http://files.myopera.com/tatora/blog/4878_PRO_sample_01.gif

(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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Dorian and I? We Had a Fantastic Afternoon…

This afternoon, I sat down and watched the adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall. And I’ve never enjoyed a film adaptation of a novel so much in my life. Usually, I tend to rebel against them; I find them slightly abhorrent, and feel as though they potentially corrupt the value of the text itself. And whilst the novel shows some differences, the theme and concept remains completely the same. The essence of the text has been preserved; possibly the mark of some of the very best adaptations.

The adaptation very accurately and rather shockingly portrays the idea of the soul being revealed in a painting, a visual medium; the graphic image of the maggots quite literally eating away at the portrayal of the soul is a repulsive image. As humans, we reject the idea of decay, because we seek to survive and preserve. The brutality of Dorian Gray’s character as a result of impulse as portrayed in the film also represents the concept of excess, an almost epidemic problem in Wilde’s own lifetime. The sexual excesses in which Dorian indulges represents not necessarily the corruption of an entire era, but the effect these excesses have on Dorian. The effect on his psyche is spectacular; his aversion to the idea of multiple partner experiences soon changes to an insatiable appetite for every sexual indulgence possible; from the sadomasochistic, to the bi-sexual.

Dorian's first visit to the Opium Den. (1)

Decadence appeals to my frugal sense of the self because it is a luxury I lack both as a student, and as a person who works, and who realises the value of money. To be allowed a window into this world of unimaginable excess is therefore highly appealing, and Wilde as an author created small moments of complete, unrestrained indulgence for a reader, with an almost unrivalled level of skill. As a Victorian, he escaped from the restrained morality dictated by Christianity and entered a hitherto unexplored arena, notably examining the right of man to engage in homosexual activity without legal condemnation. Wilde’s trial was less focussed on condemning him for a clearly defined breach of legality; instead, the trial sought to persecute a lifestyle, instead of one element of a person’s possible activities.

The adaptation not only focussed on the destruction of Dorian’s soul, sacrificed on the altar of beauty, but also the influence of Lord Henry, the narcissistic uncle figure who first introduces the young man to the carnal and chemical pleasures of the world has to offer, most strikingly in the first visit to the opium den. The Lord himself dreams of a lifestyle of profound excess, however never quite has the courage to complete the dream; perhaps he has a conscience that is unrealised, and perhaps he cannot fathom exposing his soul to such complete tyranny; for those who harbour superstitions within themselves, it is simply an impossible notion to risk eternal damnation to such a degree as Dorian does. Dorian however lacks one of the fundamental elements of existence, in that he has no boundaries; no real influence telling him where he ought to draw the line, and to this end, he sacrifices his soul on the altar of beauty and physical pleasure.

I would recommend watching the film alongside reading the novel; it certainly brings to light some of the more subtle ideas of the novel and emphasises the value of aesthetic beauty in relation to the soul. Not only is the novel spectacularly on form, the lighting and scene cuts add a great deal of atmosphere to proceedings. I hope you enjoy it!

(1) http://th07.deviantart.net/fs71/PRE/i/2010/163/b/b/The_Opium_Den_by_FroschiLove.png

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Staring into “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

As you may have become aware, as you have looked through my growing number of blog posts, I am just a little bit in love with Oscar Wilde. And the decadence, eloquence, and rather philosophical writings of his have been long fascinating my mind, however, today, I have nearly finished his only completed novel; The Picture of Dorian Gray. Moving on through the novel, you begin to observe the complete destruction of a man through the ultimate kind of all-consuming vanity. He is essentially being made the central element of the universe, and subsequently, if his beauty, that which inspired this masterpiece, was to begin to deteriorate, then the universe around him would begin to deteriorate also.

(1) Oscar Wilde: My Literary Hero

This vanity is portrayed from a completely singular view-point, which potentially adds to the overwhelming decadence of the novel; Dorian Gray is literally the whole world, to both himself and Basil Hallward, something that is an intoxicating responsibility and power simultaneously. This obsession with the self shows how delicate the psychological perception of the self is, and how truly brilliant Wilde is as a writer, with the ability to write in such a completely beautiful fashion.

My favourite element of the novel however is the subversive portrayal of influence of Lord Henry; he fundamentally feeds Dorian Gray these twisted, backwards perceptions of life that reinforce the concerns he has for the world in relation to himself. This is because he himself seems to be more affected by realism than Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward are, perhaps because he is more exposed to London high society as prescribed by the time; the complexities of the social politics described in the novel are familiar to most of us, especially considering the festive season we’re entering. The balance one has to strike between social factions, work demands, and family duty all serve to create potentially a very stressful holiday period.

The lack of innocence however that Lord Henry represents however is the beginning of Dorian Gray’s demise; it is this that leads to his want to experiment with every kind of vice available to him, including endless intoxication and debauchery. Fundamentally however, this abuse of the satanic finery of life does not show on the man physically; his initial wish, that his portrait would grow old as opposed to himself, is fulfilled. This desire haunts him, and eventually, he is forced to greet his own reflection, himself as he was painted by Basil Hallward. The sheer fact that he killed the painter of the portrait symbolises rather aptly his desperation, and the complete disregard he had for his soul, or indeed for willpower and self-control as an entity in itself.

This rather beautiful novel of Oscar Wilde’s is a testament to the extravagant excellence of the late Victorian period of decadence; Wilde himself reflected decadence and in many ways, perhaps could see some of himself in both Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray, both being complex characters of aesthetic value, with little regard for the depth behind the necessary aesthetic value of life, and of possessions. The linguistic quality of the text reflects the richness of the plot itself and indeed the decadence of the late Victorian period as a whole. Wilde himself was critical of the conservative nature of the Victorian period, and led a life that defied many of the social boundaries set at the time.

Oh, Oscar Wilde. Thank goodness you were so naughty.

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(1) http://nigelfeatherstone.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/oscar-wilde.jpg

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The Literature, the Author, His Character and His Beauty

Knitting is a fantastic use of time, in my humble opinion. Really, I think it’s fantastic. It stimulates the mind, increases dexterity, and creates something meaningful simultaneously. I suspect however that much can be said about English literature; it certainly stimulates the mind, if you find the right piece, and makes you dexterous insofar as your vocabulary increases, your capacity for accommodating other ideas grows, and you begin to perceive the world in innumerable different ways. Therefore, the question can be asked: why do children not want to read anymore?

I find this dilemma difficult to empathise with because I have never struggled with not wanting to read. I’d read under the duvet with torches, with glow in the dark things, mobile phone lights… anything that would allow me to see the words on the page and translate them into something fantastic in my mind. Harry Potter and company would transport me to alternate universes. Therefore, I think it is almost unfathomable that children wouldn’t want to be a part of this world; at least not through their own imaginations. Certainly through obvious, glaring media, but not of their own accord, or because they want to experience the novels in the purest form, without the director’s interpretation affecting how one perceives the characters, and the settings.

The castles, dragons, wizards and people who emerge from the realms of my imagination are always exponentially more interesting and more exciting than those put on a screen. The capacity to create an image that everyone is involved with is certainly an advantage of cinema, however it is not fundamental. It treats the integrity of the character and the setting as it was prescribed by the author as superfluous, something that can, and should be, altered at any given moment. This essentially defies the authority of the author as the creator of the literature, and in this way, we can consider that television, film and video gaming has murdered the literary beauty of the literature they seek to portray.

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A good example here is the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. The perception of the artist of the young man exploits the reality of the young man himself, although it was never intended to be so; all that was intended was for the young man, Gray, to be Basil’s muse, the influence that allowed him to create his art, instead of the exploited and caged creature that he inevitably becomes. I have always been a Wilde fan, and enjoy curling up in armchairs, reading the plethora of work he left us. Nothing is more wonderful than reading, with a pot of tea, on a cold, wet evening; this is not a rare occurrence in this part of the world. It becomes as enchanting as exploring antique book shops, and wandering over hills, having picnics. This simple pursuit then replaces all of these things, because it removes itself from reality; it takes us away, beyond the limits of our minds as they were, unexplored and untouched, and instead, creates something infinitely more beautiful than we truly acknowledge it as.

“But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.” – Oscar Wilde

And so, upon this final quote which I think rather nicely summarises my final paragraph, in that beauty is destroyed as an entity the second intellectual understanding is applied to it, I recommend that everyone dives into Wilde for a while. He’s great fun. I’m planning on writing a fairly lengthy blog on Oscar Wilde very soon, too!

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