The Madeleine Project: John Donne

When Proust dipped his much-discussed madeleine into a cup of lime tea, his pleasure in the madeleine and the tea were the same then as they were when he was a child. Whenever someone mentions this moment in literature, I wonder (a) what kind of madeleine was it (surely not the type they sell in cellophane packets at Starbucks?) and (b) what forgotten things would give me the same pleasure now as they did then? And why is that?

The first thing you have to do is recover those forgotten things. One way to do it is to just start writing. Write "lalalalala" if nothing comes to mind. Pretty soon, you'll remember how much you loved the Betsy Tacy Books. Ms. PacMan. Fried eggs with hard centers. Food and books seem to come back first.

Write for fifteen minutes; it gets easier as you get going. For example:

1. green pasta, thought to be healthful, and parmesan from the green can

2. brotchen — a kind of bread that was sold from the back of a baker's truck when my family lived, for a very short time, in Bavaria.

3. Leon Uris, James Michener, Chaim Potok

4. Donne's a nocturnal on st. lucy's day.

5. sangria

6. barbequed potato chips and french onion dip

7. Ray Bradbury, Starship Trooper, A Wrinkle in Time

8. cantelope with vanilla ice cream in the hollowed out middle

9. the prologue to the canterbury tales, recited as though you are ingrid bergman

10. romeo and juliet

11. rilke's letters to a young poet

Second, you choose something and revisit it. It's probably important to pick things you can revisit without getting into trouble, or having to spend too much money. You should be able to google it, get it at the library, or at Safeway. You shouldn't have to go to Paris, although if you do, well, no one will be upset. I'll start with Donne, a poem that can be googled because it is assigned reading for so many English majors. Also, I'm not sure if I'm ready to go as far into my past as barbequed potato chips and french onion dip would take me.

Here it is, hands down, the MOST depressing poem written in the English language. I read it in 1980, in a cold dorm room in the middle of the winter.


'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.


Okay. I still love this poem. Even though it's complicated and you have to look things up, in the end you are left with the impression that this poem about negation is a triumph over negation. Most simply, when you are truly in the pit of depression, you cannot write like this. It is cleverly, absurdly, delightfully down in the dumps. A masterpiece of the "you think you've got it bad, well I've got it worse" genre: I'm the gravestone. No wait a minute. I'm the GRAVE: and not even of something living, but of nothing at all. An, "I fall upon the thorns of life/I bleed" poem.

When I read this, I lived in cold New England, a place I wasn't from, a weather I didn't understand and wasn't prepared for. I was sick all the time, not used to the germs of other college students from other places. I felt stupid a lot. I was probably depressed. I had to look up a lot of things to get through this poem. Like "hydroptic" and "limbec." When I finished, it was actually midnight, acutely midnight. I felt pretty good, all things considered. I wasn't an epitaph, at least. Then and now, I see that it's not so terrible to be miserable, as long as you don't let it silence you.

Next month:  rilke, read while eating green pasta and green cheese

And you?


5 thoughts on “The Madeleine Project: John Donne

  1. Brotchen – 10 pfennings. Sold out of a car trunk in Christiansen Army Barracks in Bindlach, Germany. You were 3 years old when we first moved there.

    The funny thing is 40 years later I run into someone who was stationed there about 5 years after we left Hof. Small world. 🙂

    • i was at christen barracks 71-73.i bought bratworst and brochen out of the trunk of that car for over a year ,then the army said no more!but i tell you that was the best!i was with the 14th aviation at the end of the post ,out of the hanger.thanks for reminding me,boy do i miis the food tom mullins

  2. Apparently the love of warm bread begins early in our family, although I really find it hard to believe I was ever three years old. I’m glad you keep track of things like that!

  3. Pingback: Imminent Victorians « BlogLily

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