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:

http://www.luminarium.org/editions/songsandsonnets.htm

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

http://www.bartleby.com/105/125.html

Wikipedia has a thumbnail article about the Nine Worthies:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Worthies