In poetry, love might well be the hero with a thousand faces. As passion or pain, night-hid or star-lit, love has always shape-shifted in lyric forms, and yet remains somehow the same. Or so it seemed to me, as I came across (purely by accident) an unlikely duo recently: John Donne, of body and soul electric, and Billie Holiday, who made sorrow lovely in song.
For Donne, Love is fuelled by and linked to the ecstatic, feeding his poems with fervent, luminous life. From his “waking souls” that seek only to “possess one world” to his “palsy…gout…[and] five grey hairs”, all in Donne seems to branch from a sense of higher feeling and a need to grasp it, which is often balanced against the reality, by fact of being human, of having only a limited time and space to do so. Whatever its divine embodiment may be, for this most vital of poets every attainable love must be found in human ways, and from this grey soil springs the lush, quickening thicket of his verse:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new…
Love calls him to the things of the world, and thus comes thrillingly to life at an altered beat: Donne’s is a rhythmic poetry that plums the depths of each transient moment it encounters, and so even the simplest of lyrics proves to be deeply and ever compelling:
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes as half-acre tombs…
Something similar could be said of Billie Holiday, the magnetism of whose music stems at least partly from the kind of perfect imperfections she marshalled into song. Within only a one-octave singing range, Holiday allowed the agonies and ecstasies of romance to tilt each note and every line earthwards.
Her music grounds and finds itself in experience, and the result is that still phenomenal sound: her voice. Through it, loss and longing are fused together deftly, delicately, taking on a shared rhythm, and so are communicated as they exist in the heart and mind of the love-lorn singer.
Both Donne and Holiday bring the giddy tempo and the yearning after-ache of love to bloom in their work, yet both tend towards different shades of blue, so that the poetry of each strangely and seductively echoes that of the other. While Donne’s “Busy old fool, unruly sun” (already rhyming thematically with the 20th century spiritual “That Lucky Ole Sun”) comes to reflect the loving afterglow of a sleeping couple, Holiday’s lovers go out, lonely, to wander through “haunted music in the rain”. As if in response to Donne’s plea to be broken, blown, burned and made new by an all-consuming love, Holiday flips the coin: her man is tall and strong, he beats her to the bone, but she loves him, because he’s her man. Her voice rises and falls in showers, and quietly swells, like a wave about to break in upon itself, or a bruised plum held beautifully to the light by thin fingers.
Holiday has tasted the strange fruit that Donne craves. The fading gleam of passion which Donne detects, and masterfully magnifies, is transmuted by Billie into the inevitable stormy weather of a lover’s pain. As firm under-earth to the two towers of song which these artists construct, however, is the fact that both ultimately anchor their music in the recognition that “it’s good to live it again”, that memory – and by extension, song – is the one miracle-maker which we have at hand, helping us to resurrect past love when the present feels to be lacking.
Also shared by both is the fear – propulsive and even liberating in Donne, a resonant ache in Holiday – that the high summer of love that each experienced or imagined has swiftly turned to autumnal decay, where “lovers bless the dark”, or where the body itself withers.
Either could have given us the line
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
and yet the body is the book
for Donne and Holiday envision the bright and dark side of the same brilliant moon, the former celebrating those times when the mortal body and the love-lit soul can touch and inter-twine, the latter drawing from the broken lips of the past a still-loving spirit, and one that soars.
Out of new depths did these two singers commend their songs, and it is for this reason that the music they made continues to fly high. A happy thought, then, that by fate, fortune or perhaps just sheer delusion, the sound of a duet can be heard in the eaves.