Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Dr. Donne's Undertaking

Lounge frequenters have generally enjoyed our occasional visits to the Poetry Corner. It happened by chance rather than design that the two poets whose work we looked at in some detail on previous occasions (in Issues Nos. 4 and 18) were both (1) female, (2) American, and (3) denizens of the first part of the 20th century, namely Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore. We have resolved therefore on this virtual visit to share the company of a poet who is (1) male, (2) un-American, and (3) not a contemporary of the aforementioned poets.

This month's poem first came to our attention many years ago: part of it appears as an epigraph in one of the Lounge's most deeply revered novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch. Ms. Eliot, attributing the verses only to "Dr. Donne," opens a chapter about midway through her book with the last three stanzas of the poem (which appear here with modernized spelling):

If, as I have, you also do
 Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
 And forget the He and She;

And if this love, though placèd so,
  From profane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this bestow,
 Or, if they do, deride;

Then you have done a braver thing
 Than all the Worthies did;
And a braver thence will spring,
 Which is, to keep that hid.

These verses appear at a point in Middlemarch where everyone you care about seems to have gotten into the wrong relationship with the best of intentions. At the time that we first read the novel, the verses shed a kind of half-light on the action that made us want to know more about the poem.

We learned that the verses are from "The Undertaking," by John Donne, which was first published in his Songs and Sonnets in the early 17th century. We spent some time with the poem all those years ago and we have revisited it on several occasions since then: it is a work that rewards occasional perusal while never entirely revealing its secrets. With the Visual Thesaurus as our companion we spent a little time with the poem again recently to shine a light into some of its nooks and crannies.

From a distance of nearly 400 years it is hard to know whether words resonated in the same way then as they do now, but somehow it feels as if Donne got the title of the poem just right. Undertaking even today carries solemn associations that none of its synonyms enjoy: the poem would immediately lose most of its gravitas, and might gain considerable tendentiousness if he had called it, for example, "The Task." And if he'd opted for "The Project," chances are that we moderns would turn away immediately, fearing that a Power Point presentation was to follow. In English today, the most typical modifiers of undertaking include ambitious, massive, irrevocable, major, dominant, mammoth, and huge. What other English word has arrogated such weighty company through centuries of usage?

Undertaking for us, aside from its technical uses, connotes something about midway between obligation and willing, the sort of thing that you commit yourself to because it suddenly looms as the only thing you can do. So just what is it that the poet is undertaking?

It's always the recommended thing to start a poem at the beginning, and we apologize for dropping you into the middle first. So: we have a poem called "The Undertaking." The poem begins in a vein not so different from the way it ends:

I have done one braver thing
 Than all the Worthies did;
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
 Which is, to keep that hid.

The first questions we hear from the back are (1) Just who are these Worthies? and (2) How exactly by telling us about it are you keeping it "hid?" For now we'll chalk up question No. 2 to poetic license, and address only the first: a Worthy, the VT tells us, is "a person whose actions and opinions strongly influence the course of events." It's a word that (the VT notes), "is often used humorously," though we suspect that this is a modern conceit and that for Dr. Donne, the word was not necessarily ironic. Specifically, Donne was talking about the Nine Worthies (see link below), who are alluded to with some frequency in literature of this period.

So the question becomes, what is this surpassingly brave thing the poet has done, greater in valor (in his view) than the efforts of great figures from history? Many term papers have been devoted to answering that one, and you'll be relieved to know that we won't add another layer to the exegetical pile: we maintain our philosophy that the best way to kill a poem is to tell someone what it means.

The poem continues:

It were but madness now to impart
 The skill of specular stone,
When he, which can have learn'd the art
 To cut it, can find none.

So, if I now should utter this,
 Others -- because no more
Such stuff to work upon, there is --
 Would love but as before.

The specular stone Donne mentions is something the Ancients used to make mirrors. It seems to have been an object of some fascination for him; he also mentions specular stone in one of his other poems (see link below).

There is only one more stanza in "The Undertaking," which is literally and figuratively at the heart of the whole seven-stanza poem. Here then, laid out in the proper order, is the rest of the poem, including the concluding verses we began with. It's a poem that can roll around in your head for quite a while, and we found that a couple of the words in it, which we've hyperlinked to the thesaurus, opened up interesting avenues of inquiry. We wonder, again, what centuries of usage might have done to these words, but we take it as a mark of the poet's art that readers like us, at this remove in time, can still drop right down into the poem:

But he who loveliness within
 Hath found, all outward loathes,
For he who color loves, and skin,
 Loves but their oldest clothes.

If, as I have, you also do
  Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
 And forget the He and She;

And if this love, though placèd so,
 From profane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this bestow,
 Or, if they do, deride;

Then you have done a braver thing
 Than all the Worthies did;
And a braver thence will spring,
 Which is, to keep that hid.

If you find Dr. Donne to your taste, you may want to sample some of the other poems that were published in Songs and Sonnets:

Donne's other mention of specular stone is in his longer poem, "To the Countesse of Bedford:"

Wikipedia has a thumbnail article about the Nine Worthies:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 1st 2006, 6:11 AM
Comment by: Suzi A.
I though he was a little hard to read and would really like to know for sure what prompted this poem.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 6:30 AM
Comment by: Jeffrey W.
I have tried to read Donne's poems with no avail; after reading your comments I will try again. Thank you.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Amy D.
Make them easy enough for english as a second language to understand, a challenge but I'm sure some one is able.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Steve M.
Thank you for taking me back to the dance of words and ideas. We have lost subtlety and nuance in our bullet-communication, web-based, non-gramatic, unpunctuated email world and in so doing, we risk loss of very important abilities to delight ourselves. Thanks for this exercise of mind. Puzzles are good for us.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Glenda R.
How nice that someone appreciates Mr. Donne so much. I use his "Meditation XVII" in my "Cold Equations" unit along with the film "Powder." Kids really come to appreciate this marvelous writer. Thank you so much for bringing him to everyone's attention.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I have never been any good at deciphering English poetry -- nor too much American for a' that.

I think Donne has loved someone platonically and not mentioned his attraction to other men who might make more of it than it is (in their eyes) -- or less of it than it is to him.

Or is that too obvious?

I don't think his opinion of Worthies is all that high.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Anne G.
Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-prize winning play, "Wit" centers around Donne's Holy Sonnet, "Death Be Not Proud." For Donne lovers, it feasts the ear hearing Emma Thompson recite and deconstruct the poem.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 1:50 PM
Comment by: Layton M.
The poem is a little obfuscated but so powerful. I look forward to your monthly feast with much pleasure.
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Saul G. (Winthrop, MA)
This is really a pre-poem comment, concerning the background of the poet. You refer to him as being "un-American." Shouldn't the proper reference be to him as a "non-American"?
Wednesday November 1st 2006, 11:11 PM
Comment by: Saul G. (Winthrop, MA)
If you go to the following web site, you can hear an audio clip of the poem being read. I find it is helpful sometimes to listen to something unfamiliar, because it often adds a different perspective from my initial reading of the text.
Saturday November 4th 2006, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
A rather sad story told in a somewhat light-hearted manner-or at least without a great deal of chest-pounding drama. I like that. Having never read his other works (although the title "Death be not Proud" certainly rings bells) I don't know if this is typical of Mr. Donne's writing or not.
I also want to comment on the use of the term "un-American. It seems a very odd choice of words, when "non-American" or even "
"not American" or "not an American" would be more appropriate. "Un-American" sounds entirely too much like you are describing the gentleman as "Anti-American"-as in the "House on Unamerican Activities" of the McCarthy era.
Sunday November 5th 2006, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Saul: Thanks for pointing out the link to the audio version. I would have included it in the Lounge article, but for some reason trying to play it on my machine causes my browser to crash, and I didn't want others to experience this.

Saul and Kathleen: You're both right that non-American, and not un-American, was the technically correct choice here. I can rarely resist being slightly subversive when there is an opportunity for it, and in the rhetoric that prevails today, its seems that the two words are about to meet up anyway. It's hard to say whether Dr. Donne would truly be considered un-American, given that he lived and died before the USA was even a glimmer in most folks' eyes, and well before the term "un-American" acquired the baggage it picked up in the 1950s. I would venture that anyone as rigorously intellectual as he was certainly ran the risk of having the label hurled at him (but there I go, being subversive again.)

All: many thanks for your comments! They always help me to feel that the Lounge is a place where lovers of language can have an enjoyable conversation. I agree that "The Undertaking" is not an easy poem and that it probably doesn't appear on any ESL syllabus, but it's not impenetrable, and it rewards repeated study.
Saturday November 11th 2006, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Karen A.
I liked what I read about the poem
Saturday December 9th 2006, 10:54 PM
Comment by: Josefina B.
I didn't get the poem but enjoyed it nevertheless because of its rhyme. I'm sure I can get into it deeper later but for now, I'd just like to say that this site won't cease to be my favorite.
Tuesday December 19th 2006, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Joseph B.
I found this very interesting and the article improved my vocabulary. Thank you.
Wednesday December 27th 2006, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Sheila G.
Thanks! for giving me something to find articulation in. A good prevoking poem, as I write poetry but in verse form mostly. Thank you for this site too, I love reading and this inspires me greatly! Happy Holidays and a more inspirational New Year to all! -2007- HERE WE COME... Stay Positive!
Friday May 25th 2007, 7:29 AM
Comment by: MARK W.
Thankyou for bringing Donne's sensitive words back to me; his feeling that "worthy" men could no more appreciate his Platonic love for a woman than fly to the moon! However, I think that he was definitely English, rather than un/non/whatever American. :) Whoops, I forgot that American men have flown to the moon!

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