The Triple Fool

I didn't plan this, but perhaps my Quote of the Day from August 27 caused me to seek out John Donne's (1572-1631) poem The Triple Fool from his songs and sonnets. (More about the link between the two below.) I've loved Donne ever since reading The Flea and Death Be Not Proud while in high school.

Donne's work rarely pierces the modern cultural bubble, but there was a remarkable film from 2001 in which his work figured prominently: Wit, starring Emma Thompson and directed by Mike Nichols, is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. (Read a stimulating conversation about the play between Ms. Edson and Jim Leher here.) I'll say no more about the movie now except that it's brilliant.

In The Triple Fool, Donne calls himself a fool for loving and then again for writing about it in poetry. Well, perhaps that's not so bad: he tames his grief in verse. Maybe that's an example of art serving as the guardian of sorrow, as I wrote the other day.

But then, to make things worse, Donne complains that someone sets his poetry to music! His grief is set free and amplified for all to hear. He becomes a fool for the third time!

Here's the complete poem, taken from the Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1, edited by E. K. Chambers (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896):

The Triple Fool

I am two fools, I know,
    For loving, and for saying so
        In whining poetry ;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
        If she would not deny ?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
    Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
    Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
    But when I have done so,
    Some man, his art and voice to show,
        Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
        Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

(One of Donne's metaphors doesn't work today: it used to be thought that salt was purged from the "narrow crooked lanes" of water as they made their way inland through the marshes to create fresh water rivers.)

My interest in all this stems from my curiosity about who set Donne's poetry to music. It was a common Elizabethan custom to take a popular ballad tune (e.g. Go From My Window, Fortune My Foe) and write new words to transmit news of the day (sensational crimes, hangings); I gather it was equally customary to find a tune whose meter matched that of a poem and join the two, although I imagine this would be quite difficult with Donne's poetry.

I've seen reference to settings by William Corkine and Giovanni Coperario, but have not seen the music. I've poured through my scores of John Dowland's (1563 -1626) lute songs and have found only two with texts by Donne: Sweet Stay Awhile and To Ask For All Thy Love.