I spent much of yesterday with Donne. He is very exhausting. Here's a bit of what I wrote, and I hope it's true.
Lucille Clifton’s poem “sorrows” opens with “who would believe them winged,” an unpunctuated, uncapitalized line that is a clear, straightforward question. Her sentence doesn’t require punctuation or capitalization to convey what Frost called “the sound of sense.” In contrast, John Donne relies on ornate, heavy-handed punctuation to demarcate the sentences in “The Triple Foole.” Nevertheless, at first reading I’m not always convinced that what Donne has marked out as a sentence is, in the OED’s terms, “complete in itself as the expression of a thought.”
But what is “the expression of a thought”? My own thoughts are frequently clotted, unclear, and ambiguous; and it seems that Donne may have felt the same about his, for not much in “The Triple Foole” can be called straightforward. Let’s look at the opening sentence and track how the speaker moves grammatically through his own perplexity.
I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
The sentence breaks neatly into halves. The first section, which ends at the semicolon, lays out a claim (“I am two fooles, I know”) and follows with supporting reasons. Foole 1 is foolish “For loving,” and Foole 2 is foolish “for saying so / In whining Poëtry.” Thus far, the sentence seems to express a coherent thought “complete in itself.”
But after the semicolon, things get stranger. As the sentence shifts from a statement to a question, the speaker lays out a series of linked but incongruous phrases. “But where’s that wiseman,” he asks. Immediately he undercuts the question with the self-deprecating “that would not be I.” Or should I read this as an excuse rather than as modesty? Suddenly I find myself not entirely trusting this speaker. What is he trying to evade? The sentence continues, deepening my confusion. “If she would not deny?” Deny what? Are words missing here? The sentence feels as if it’s been chopped off mid-phrase. Typically, “deny” would be followed by a noun phrase or a dependent clause: for instance, deny my love, deny that I am a foole. As it is, the question leaves me hanging. I don’t understand what’s going on. All I know is that I am confused, suspicious of the speaker, and curious about this enigmatic “she,” this mysterious “deny.”
“The Triple Foole” is an early seventeenth-century poem. No doubt there’s a scholarly edition that would translate its archaic sentences into contemporary English, lifting my spirits and erasing my puzzlement. But even though I honor such scholarship, I want to argue for the value of coming to a poem as it exists, unadorned, on the page. I think it’s important to meet a difficult poem on your own ground, to rely on your own wits and reactions as you wrestle with it.
Are my reactions to this sentence “correct”? If I were faced with a multiple-choice question about “The Triple Foole,” I’d probably get the answer wrong. But when I ask myself what I’ve learned, I see that I’ve made an important discovery. Pushing myself to look closely at the structure of the sentence has also pushed me look closely at the structure of a thought. And what I’ve learned is that, for some poets, sentences really do seem to mirror thoughts. Clear or confused, simple or complex, Donne’s thoughts unwind as his sentences unwind. When I read his lines, I feel as if I am wandering along the pathways of his brain, at one moment basking in his rational neatness, at another drowning in his tortuous evasions. “Donne felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose,” writes A. S. Byatt. Now I know what she means.
[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]