The Computation. by John Donne

FOR my first twenty years, since yesterday,
    I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away;
For forty more I fed on favours past,
    And forty on hopes that thou wouldst they might last ;
Tears drown’d one hundred, and sighs blew out two;
    A thousand, I did neither think nor do,
Or not divide, all being one thought of you;
    Or in a thousand more, forgot that too.
Yet call not this long life; but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal; can ghosts die ?

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What a painful and beautiful poem.

“For my first twenty years, since yesterday”

You poor man, twenty years after your wife’s death, the pain is still fresh.

“For forty more I fed on favours past,
And forty more on hopes that thou wouldst they might last”

‘Would’ in Elizabethan English means something like ‘would wish’ or ‘would hope’. Forty years of living in the happy memories, then another forty in the hope that he had made her happy while she lived. How kind he must have been.

“…Or not divide, all being one thought of you;
Or in a thosand more, forgot that too”

Poor man, so depressed, lost in his grief. His ony thoughts are of his wife. Or finally just completely desolate, barely thinking at all, as really depressed people are. (this is so authentic, clearly an honest first hand account of what we in our clinical modern way would call deep depression)

“Yet call this not long life; but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal; can ghosts die?”

A sweetly sad ending. He can’t bear to tell us of his grief, so he makes a wry joke of it — not even that funny, how could it be? Of course he hasn’t lived 2000 years, his sadness has just felt that long. But what a sad punch line to the joke — he hasn’t lived 2000 years, he has been dead 2000 years, with his beloved gone joy is gone, life is like death, dead inside, dead to the world.

And yet, in that last couplet, a tiny suggestion of hope, delicately emphasised by the slight touch of humour. The words ‘immortality’ and ‘ghost’, both with a Christian meaning — ghost (as in ‘Holy Ghost’) in Elizabethan English also having the meaning of spirit. So there is just the faintest allusion (within the context of his other poems) of his faith in eternal life and reunion with his beloved.

The music of the words is delightful. Delicate like a little painted miniature. Simple and almost childlike, with few words of more than two syllables: ‘yesterday’, then ‘immortal’, that one jumps out at you, subtly emphasising again the Christian hope (his audience would have been attuned to these references, so they only needed to be very subtle).

Childlike also with it’s little counting game. This has a touch of the ‘sing song’ about it, and reminds me a little of Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet. Grief drives people mad, because madness is a refuge when reality is more than you can bear. But the counting game is then brushed aside in the last couplet, which contains that little joke, but also the poems most serious thoughts, delivered rapier swift.

Imagine this poem read to an audience, and this change in tone would become much more distinct. The last couplet fades, and it takes many seconds for its inner depths to sink in, even for Donne’s sophisticated audience. There is a hush, one of the ladies dabs away a tear.

A beautiful and heartfelt poem. So simple. So honest, authentic and sincere. So very very sad. And yet not self pitying, but thoughtful, with a slight touch of humour, even a little philosophical, and with an expression of hope for others who might be grieving.

Good old John Donne, you really are one of the greatest poets of all.

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