The Millions

Ten Ways to Lose Your Literature

“I have built a monument more durable than bronze.”
Horace

1.
Inconceivable that a man with a disposition like Ben Jonson’s wouldn’t take an offered drink, and so it can be expected that the poet would enjoy a few when he completed his four-hundred mile, several months long walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. Mounted as a proto-publicity stunt, Jonson’s walk was a puckish journey between the island’s two kingdoms, where once the Poet Laurette was in view of the stolid, black-stoned Edinburgh Castle upon its craggy green hill he’d be hosted by his Scottish equivalent, William Drummond of Hawthornden.

At a dinner on September 26th, the bill for victuals was an astonishing (for the time) £221 6s 4d. Imagine the verse composed at that dinner, the lines jotted onto scraps or belted out as revelries, the lost writing which constitutes the far larger portion of any author’s engagement with words. Also his engagement with ale and sack, for it was Jonson’s loose tongue that led to a discussion about a different type of literature lost to posterity, when he confessed that one of their poetic colleagues, a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn named Dr. John Donne, had decades before attempted a scurrilous mock-epic entitled Metempsychosis; or, The Progress of the Soule.

Drawing its title from a Pythagorean doctrine that’s roughly similar to reincarnation, Donne’s Metempsychosis is a poem wherein he sings the “progress of a deathless soul, /Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control, /Placed in most shapes.” He abandoned the project some 520 lines later. Drummond recorded that Jonson had said that the “conceit of Donne’s transformation… was that he sought the soul of the Apple which Eve pulled, and thereafter made it the soul of a Bitch, then of a she-wolf, and so of a woman.” Written before Donne converted to Protestantism, Metempsychosis was a parody of the Reformation, whereby the “soul” of the forbidden fruit would migrate through various personages in history, contaminating them with its malevolence. Jonson told Drummond that “His general purpose was to have brought in all the bodies of the Heretics from the soul of Cain,” perhaps moving through other villains from Haman to Judas.

As it was, Donne mostly charted the apple’s soul through various animal permutations, ending with Cain rather than starting with him. It seems that Donne feared his own mind, and the inexorable logic that drove his poem to a conclusion which was unacceptable. Donne “wrote but one sheet, and now since he was made a Doctor he repented highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems.” Jonson thought that Donne’s intent was to have the final manifestation of that evil spirit appear in the guise of John Calvin. Others have identified an even more politically perilous coda to Metempsychosis, when the at-the-time staunchly Catholic Donne imagined that the “great soul which here amongst us now/Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue, and brow… (For ‘tis the crown, and last strain of my song)” and assumed that the poet was speaking of Elizabeth I.

Biographer John Stubb notes in John Donne: The Reformed Soul that Metempsychosis was “a politically directed piece of writing,” which is the biggest reason why none of you will ever read the entire poem. Donne himself wrote to a friend of his that there must be “an assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect.” Metempsychosis is one way of losing your words. Literature as fragment, literature as rough draft, literature as the discarded. The history of writing is also the shadow history of the abandoned, a timeline of false-starts and of aborted attempts. What Donne wrote of Metempsychosis is, even in its stunted form, the longest poem which the lyricist ever penned, and yet it’s a literary homunculus, never brought to fruition. Never burnt upon the pyres by his critics either, because it would never be completed.

This is a syllabus of all which you shall never read: ’s which exists only in outline form written in 1817, the year its author died of Addison’s disease, and that promised to tell the narrative of whose “great object in life was to be seductive.” ’s epic about Merlin entitled Over 2/3rds of the work of , with all that survives composed of lecture notes. A thundering abolitionist speech delivered by the congressman on May 29, 1856, where one observer said that he spoke “like a giant inspired.” by which told the tale of romance between the Nantucket maiden Agatha Hatch Robertson and a shipwrecked sailor and crypto-bigamist. Melville explained in a letter to that concerned “the great patience & endurance, & resignedness of the women of

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