On Adam’s Rib
To explicate John Donne’s love poetry is to take a position in the front trenches of the battle of the sexes. Donne’s love poems run the gamut from simple lust through adoration, maniacal jealousy, and masochistic self-abnegation. The poet anatomizes sexual response in terms that are both physiological and emotional. His love verse characterizes women as goddesses, vampires, soul-murderers, religious icons. To comment on Donne is necessarily to mount the barricades where misogyny confronts philogynia. A man writing an exegesis of Donne’s love poetry runs the risk of revealing too much about his own relations with the opposite sex.
Consider Theodor Redpath’s magisterial The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, a collection of Donne’s love poems furnished with several prefaces, a hundred pages of introduction, no fewer than eight appendices, a glossary of rhetorical forms, and thousands of notes on difficult or contested passages in the poems. The poems themselves number about fifty, none of them longer than 65 lines. Redpath is an expert on Elizabethan obscenities and quick to identify bawdy passages in Donne’s texts. He seems to have read everything about Donne, including vast amounts in Italian (on Petrarch) and German. Redpath also fancies himself something of an expert on the physiology of sex as witness notes such as on the conceit of the compass in Donne’s "A Valediction: forbidding mourning":
...the highly language-conscious Donne could hardly fail in writing l. 32 to have in mind the sense of "erect" which could apply to the male sexual organ, and he could well, in a typically original way, have meant to suggest, secondarily and covertly, that it is the woman’s clitoris tht stiffens as the male partner returns home...
As is the case with many philologists, Redpath often finds ambiguities where there are none and invokes archaic and secondary meanings to show off his erudition, often construing passages in Donne to be far more arcane and difficult than they are meant to be. Further, and most problematic, Redpath is seriously tone-deaf. For instance, he follows Ezra Pound, another exegete with a tin ear, in finding Donne’s comical poem "The Ecstasy" an example of "Platonism believed." But, it seems apparent that Donne is pulling his reader’s leg (while stroking his girlfriend’s thigh) with stanzas such as :
Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string
So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation...
This last phrase is particularly problematic in view of the poem’s setting – "a pregnant bank swell’d up...like a pillow on a bed." Surely, Donne is joking about the "eye-beams" and the hand "cement", amusing himself and his lady-friend with the learned psycho-babble of his day. Bullshit has always been an important aspect of the language of seduction, a characteristic of Donne’s wit that Redpath is constitutionally unable to appreciate.
But there is another more interesting, subtle, and poignant subtext to Redpath’s commentary. Am I alone in detecting a faint aura of Nabokov’s Pale Fire in Redpath’s notes and explication? Does his commentary, in fact, embody a deeply suppressed narrative, the evidence of a highly contentious and sexualized rivalry?
Consider Redpath’s remarks on this passage from Donne’s "Valediction: of the book":
I’ll tell thee now, dear love, what thou shalt do
To anger destiny, as she doth u
How I shall stay, though she eloigne me thus.
And, how posterity shall know it too;
How thine may out-endure
Sibyl’s glory, and obscure
Her whom Pindar could allure,
And her, through whose help Lucan is not lame,
And her, whose book (they say) Homer did find, and name.
After reminding us that "eloigne" is law-French for "takes me far away," Redpath annotates the references to Sibyl, Pindar, Lucan, and Homer. "Sibyl’s glory" refers to the prophetess who foresaw the founding of the Roman empire as described by Virgil in his Aeniad. Corinna the Theban was said to have instructed Pindar in poetry and "defeaed him five times" at Theban poetry "slams." Lucan’s wife, Polla Argentaria, supposedly "assisted him in correcting" the first three books of the Pharsalia and "often completed (his) verses" when he found himself baffled by the Latin meter. The reference to Homer, however, inspires a lengthy and somewhat impassioned note from Redpath.
Ptolemy Hephaistion of Alexander, Redpath tells us, summarized what he called "New History." Although Ptolemy’s book is lost, its content is abstracted in Photius’ Myriobiblion, a work that Redpath editorially calls a "a mine of suspect information." Redpath tells us that according to these works a woman named Helena of Musaeus "wrote on the Trojan War, and that Homer took his subject from her work." Not content with this calumny on Homer, Photius reports that Ptolemy also alleged that Phantasia, a woman from Memphis, composed both the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s adventures, leaving these texts with a priest-scribe in her city. Homer is said to have come to Memphis and received copies from this priest-scribe and "followed them in composing" his two epics.
At this point, Redpath interpolates a waspish critique of Donne. Redpath says:
In neither case is Homer represented as simply giving a title to the work of someone else, or necessarily, as seriously plagiarizing.
Donne, Redpath implies, has accused Homer of plagiarizing, and, worse, simply putting his name on texts written by a woman. But the scholarly editor will have none of this nonsense and, in effect, rebukes Donne for claiming that the Greek bard’s poems were "her book" that, they say, "Homer did find and name."
Lurking behind Redpath’s vehemence on this point is a scholarly rivalry – and, indeed, a rivalry with a woman. Redpath’s great predecessor is a textual critic named H. C. Grierson, a man who published in 1912 an edition of Donne’s poems, known from inconsistent handwritten manuscripts. In his 1956 preface to the first edition of his book, Redpath declares his "greatest debt" to Grierson whose notes "have thrown light on so many dark places" in Donne’s verse. Redpath’s 1981 "Preface to (his) Second Edition," is largely devoted to denouncing the scholarly pretensions of Helen Gardner, whose Oxford edition of Donne’s songs was published in 1965 and, apparently, supplanted Redpath’s book issued nine years before.
With amusing, and fanatical, consistency, Redpath attacks everything that Gardner has asserted or, in the alternative, damns her with faint praise. "Professor Gardner" as Redpath calls his version of Phantasia of Memphis had dated the poems wrong; she mistakenly mistakes poems written within the conjugal relationship to verse about "unmarried lovers" – indeed, it seems that Professor Gardner doesn’t understand the first thing about love, whether married or unmarried. Redpath’s tone can be gauged from this quotation:
The sexual joy implied in "The Sun Rising" and the deeper spiritual satisfactions expressed in "The Canonization" are surely far from unknown in fortunate marriages?...Without further argument, I hope I have said enough to cast substantial doubt on Professor Gardner’s scheme of dating the lyrics...
In part, Redpath seems upset that he has had to revise and rewrite his magnum opus to address arguments contesting his opinions in Gardner’s competing edition. But there is also a persistent anxiety, I think, that Redpath’s views might, in some hypothetical future, be cast as dependant on Gardner’s scholarship – in fact, a form of plagiarism of the kind that Donne accused Homer of.
This theme runs through the hundreds of annotations that Redpath makes to Donne’s poems. Even when he agrees with Gardner, Redpath suggests skepticism about her reasoning. In editing, "The Expiration," Redpath conceds that Garner is right in preferring "the more powerful word ‘break’ to ‘leave’. Gardner prefers the verb "break" on the basis of "musical considerations" – therefore, on a superficial basis associated with the mere "sound" of the verse. Gardner says: "I find the explosive ‘break’ more consonant with the high tension of the poem." If Gardner cites one source for her reading, Redpath, agreeing with her must adduce four or five other sources, including several in scholarly tomes written in Italian or ancient Greek. In a note to "The Anniversary," Redpath takes issue with Gardner’s assertion that the love expressed in the poem is "clandestine" – a view that Redpath rejects peevishly. A few pages later, Redpath dismisses Gardner’s citation of a renaissance love treatise involving description of "theories of sight" ("extramission" versus "intramission") as unnecessarily "Grand Guignol" and, therefore, disturbing the "tenor of the poem". In his notes to "The Good-morrow," Redpath accuses Gardner of dishonesty saying "(she) might have pointed out that (one manuscript) supports (textual readings" endorsed by Grierson, a scholar always cited in refutation of his rival’s opinions. These are serious "omissions" in Gardner’s edition, helpfully pointed out by scholars allied with Redpath.
And so it goes in dozens (if not hundreds) of notes, a running theme like a scarlet thread through Redpath’s exegetical materials. One might assemble a novel of sorts, monotonous to be sure, but thematically coherent from Redpath’s rebukes to Professor Gardner. Certainly, Redpath makes it clear that no one could possibly assert that his analysis of John Donne’s poetry, or his textual decisions, are influenced (except negatively) by Helen Gardner’s work. All readers of Redpath’s second edition must fully comprehend that Helen Gardner is no Helena of Musaeus or Phantasia of Memphis to the waspish Don.
In the annals of posterity, Helen Gardner, it seems, has had the better of the quarrel. She merits a Wikipedia entry, short to be sure and succinct, but laudatory. Professor Gardner, it seems, was groomed from early girlhood to be a literary critic. She came to fame first with a celebrated book of essays about T.S. Eliot (The Art of T. S. Eliot) published to much praise in 1949. Gardner was a key expert witness in an obscenity trial arising from publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and edited the Oxford Book of English Verse printed in 1972. There are three photographs of her on the Internet and her Wikipedia page is graced with a nice, if somewhat tenebrous, pen drawing of the critic in her old age. She seems to have been always an old lady with a small sparrow-like face, round eye-glasses, and, in a picture of her taken in the forties, an incongruously large bust.
Theodore Redpath gets no Wikipedia entry and his admirers must be content with an obituary written by one of his students. The obituary praises Redpath’s scholarship and admires his odd versatility – it seems that after retiring from the university, Redpath taught in Japan and, even, was a wine merchant in that country. Redpath is described as eccentric, although not in an endearing manner. He would not shake hands with students except when on vacation, citing the traditions of the college, and denounced those who appeared at school events in less than the full regalia of cap and gown. It is interesting that Redpath in his old age wrote a memoir of his experiences as a student of the formidable Ludwig Wittgenstein. Intervening between Redpath’s first and second editions of Donne’s songs and sonnets was a happy marriage, celebrated when the critic was in his late forties in 1964. It is not clear from the Wikipedia entry about Professor Gardner whether she ever married and, so, perhaps, Redpath hectors her from a position of presumed marital superiority.
I find only one picture of a man who may be Theodore Redpath. The image shows a serious-looking young man with an intense face without glasses, he cheeks and jaw already inclining toward jowls. But it is not clear that this picture actually depicts the great literary critic. The source of the photograph is something called Guess my Age and the picture, I suppose, could be anyone.