Friday, June 21, 2013


The True Character of a Dunce

John Donne (1572-1631), "The True Character of a Dunce," in his Paradoxes, Problemes, Essayes, Characters ... (London: Printed by T:N: for Humphrey Moseley at the Prince's Arms in St Pauls Churchyard, 1652), pp. 67-71 (p. 68 mis-numbered as 86; divided into numbered paragraphs by me):
[1] He hath a soule drownd in a lumpe of Flesh, or is a peece of earth that Prometheus put not half his proportion of Fire into, a thing that hath neither edge of desire, nor feeling of affection in it, The most dangerous creature for confirming an Atheist, who would straight swear, his soul were nothing but the bare temperature of his body: He sleeps as he goes, and his thoughts seldom reach an inch further then his eyes;

[2] The most part of the faculties of his soul lye Fallow, or are like the restive Jades that no spur can drive forward towards the pursuite of any worthy design; one of the most unprofitable of Gods creatures, being as he is, a thing put clean besides his right use, made fitt for the cart & the flail, and by mischance Entangled amongst books and papers,

[3] A man cannot tel possible what he is now good for, save to move up and down and fill room, or to serve as Animatum Instrumentum for others to work withal in base Imployments, or to be a foyl for better witts, or to serve (as they say Monsters do) to set out the variety of nature, and Ornament of the universe,

[4] He is meer nothing of himself, neither eates, nor drinkes, nor goes, nor spits but by imitation, for al which he hath set forms & fashions, which he never varies, but sticks to, with the like plodding constancy that a milhors follows his trace,

[5] both the muses and the graces are his hard Mistrisses, though he daily invocate them, though he sacrifize Hecatombs, they stil look a squint, you shall note him oft (besides his dull eye and louting head, and a certain clammie benum'd pace) by a fair displai'd beard, a Nightcap and a gown, whose very wrincles proclaim him the true genius of formality,

[6] but of al others, his discours and compositions best speak him, both of them are much of one stuf & fashion, he speaks just what his books or last company said unto him without varying one whit & very seldom understands himself, you may know by his discourse where he was last, for what he heard or read yesterday he now dischargeth his memory or notebook of, not his understanding, for it never came there;

[7] what he hath he flings abroad at al adventurs, without accomodating it to time, place, persons, or occasions, he commonly loseth himself in his tale, and flutters up and down windles without recovery, and whatsoever next presents it self, his heavie conceit seizeth upon and goeth along with, however Heterogeneal to his matter in hand,

[8] his jests are either old flead proverbs, or lean-starv'd-hackny Apophthegm's, or poor verball quips outworn by Servingmen, Tapsters and Milkmaids, even laid aside by Balladers,

[9] He assents to all men that bring any shadow of reason, and you may make him when he speaks most Dogmatically, even with one breath, to averr pure Contradictions,

[10] His Compositions differ only terminorum positione from Dreams, Nothing but rude heaps of Immaterial-incoherent drossie-rubbish-stuffe, promiscuously thrust up together, enough to Infuse dullness and Barrenness of Conceit into him that is so Prodigall of his eares as to give the hearing, enough to make a mans memory Ake with suffering such dirtie stuffe cast into it, As unwellcome to any true conceit, as Sluttish Morsells or Wallowish Potions to a Nice-Stomack,

[11] which whiles he empties himselfe of, it sticks in his Teeth nor can he be Delivered without Sweate and Sighes, and Humms, and Coughs enough to shake his Grandams teeth out of her head; Heel spitt, and scratch, and yawn, and stamp, and turn like sick men from one elbow to another, and Deserve as much pitty during his torture as men in Fits of Tertian Feavors or selfe lashing Penitentiaries;

[12] in a word, Rip him quite asunder, and examin every shred of him, you shall finde him to be just nothing, but the subject of Nothing, the object of contempt, yet such as he is you must take him, for there is no hope he should ever become better.
[1] temperature: temperament (?)
[3] Animatum Instrumentum: animated tool
Monsters: "Something extraordinary or unnatural; an amazing event or occurrence; a prodigy, a marvel" (OED, sense 2)
[4] milhors: mill-horse
[5] louting: "Bowing down, deferential" (OED)
[7] Heterogeneal: heterogeneous
[8] flead: fled, i.e. vanished, obsolete; or perhaps flea-bitten (?)
[10] terminorum positione: by setting of boundaries (?)
Sluttish: "Unclean, dirty, grimy; untidy" (OED, sense 2)
Wallowish: "Insipid, tasteless, flat; also, ill-tasting, nauseous, esp. through being over-sweet" (OED)
Nice: "Fastidious, fussy, difficult to please, esp. with regard to food or cleanliness; of refined or dainty tastes" (OED, sense 3.b)
[11] Heel: He'll
Penitentiaries: penitents

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