How to Focus Like a Renaissance Poet
And a few other observations on Katherine Rundell's life of John Donne
We live, they say, in the age of distraction. Or you could call it the attention crisis. Some say that our focus has been stolen. If you regularly read this newsletter, you might be especially interested in the lost art of reading, and why books matter in a distracted time, or have heard a podcast about how magnificent your brain is when deep reading, so you you feel as though you could use the pleasures of reading in this age of distraction. Perhaps you feel inundated with links. You worry about how much you read on your phone, when you're supposed to be doing something else. You are supposed to be doing something else, right? Did you remember to do that thing you promised you'd get done, or did you forget to remember it? Did you remember that last thing you read on your phone? Have you scrolled past this essay yet? Are you opening it for a second time, as my reader stats from Substack suggest that you sometimes do? Is that package you ordered finally getting tracking updates, or is it still, somehow, inexplicably, in Dubuque? Which tab had that thing you told yourself you were going to read? The one with the cool opening anecdote, except it was a cover story in a magazine you don't subscribe to so you had to keep it open in order to keep the free pageview and you don't remember where it went. It's going to be so cool if you ever find it, though.
We live in strange times. If you're a reasonably savvy information browser circa 2022, you are surveying far more information on a daily basis than most humans, in the 200,000-year history of the species, absorbed in weeks and years. There's a reason why the metaphor of surfing stuck to the web so early: surfers don't control the forces that batten them about, but merely ride with style. There might be benefits to being a badass infovore hanging-ten on the information super-pipeline, but as all those links above suggest, it's also freaking us readers out. Are we meant to consume text like this, frantically hurtling from page to page, with no means of retention and no time for reflection?
Let Musement distract you every week with a new, free essay about books & reading:
Early (I think) in their correspondence, polymathic super-readers Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport imagine how a learnéd European gentleman of the early 17th century might read a copy of the New York Times. Gingerly, he'd unwrap the rolled paper brought to him on a platter, order a candle trimmed and lit, then settled into his chair to meditate upon the front headline. He'd carefully survey the images, then work his way slowly through it, article by article, stopping after each one to ponder and reflect, perhaps adding a few notes in the margins or glossing an unfamiliar phrase. If he had a friend or family member present, he'd doubtless read much of it aloud to them, so that they might profitably discuss it together, perhaps debating the meaning and merit of the story and its chief characters, and drawing out erudite allusions to the Bible or the classical canon. It would take the better part of a day.
Kenner, a student of Marshall McLuhan, was thinking an awful lot in the early 1960s about how people read, and to what ends. After all, this was when the speed-reading fad was near its peak and the term "information overload" was first used. Back then, the term described a kind of emergency, a crisis for businesses and organizations to avoid. Our situation since then has not improved.
So there is an obvious joke about imagining a man from four centuries ago encountering our baffling, overwhelming information ecosphere. But there might be something to this: looking at the crop of great writers in early modern English—Milton, Robert Burton, Thomas Browne, Roger Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, to name a few—one is struck by the sheer breadth and depth of their reading, the labyrinths of association their ideas formed between themselves, the languages they reached for in coining new words. Surely these were men with tremendous attention spans.
Consider the sermon, a staple of English life at the time. "Renaissance sermons," Katherine Rundell writes, "were long: often upwards of an hour, some up to three." John Donne, the subject of Rundell's biography Super-Infinite, usually preached on the farther end of that scale, and to houses so packed that a few of his parishioners once died from death by stampede. She writes:
Sermons, in Donne's day, were heard hungrily: they had breaking news in them, politics, entertainment, theatre; people gossiped about them and picked over in the week that followed. For that reason Donne would often repeat a point over and over in slightly different wording, because people took notes: they were not ephemera, but something to be carried out into the city more widely. A school system which hinged on colossal amounts of memorisation had built a population with the kind of mammoth recall which is, in retrospect, breathtaking—so listeners went home and argued over them, plagiarised them, fell out over them, made them part of the fabric of their days.
Three hours! I can hardly focus on an entire 50-minute lesson when I'm teaching it, and barely remember the one I taught yesterday. Meanwhile, these Renaissance parishioners were out listening to sermons all morning, arguing over each others' notes in the pubs afterward. Donne himself was especially good at this, thinking carefully over things read, heard, and discussed, often sorting and storing them for later use in ways that made him a a better reader, preacher, and poet. Can we learn from his example?
Donne had two techniques that helped him focus his powers of memory and focus: a commonplace book, and the memory theater. Both were common in the English Renaissance, though Donne seems to have pushed both techniques to extremes.
The idea behind a commonplace book is simple: keep a reading journal containing quotes, ideas, stories, words, and examples that are particularly striking, and organize them by topic. Rundell lists a few headings from one English nobleman's commonplace: Academia, Tedium, Authoritas, Error, Religio, Passio. It was even possible to get pre-printed commonplaces with the categories picked out for you. These were especially common for academic and professional training, a kind of structured notebook for copying crucial information at a time when legal and medical textbooks were still too heavy and expensive for students.
The best authors, though, usually made their own commonplaces from scratch, reflecting their own fascinations. Although Donne's own commonplace is lost, we know he was an enthusiasitic commonplacer (in fact, he coined the word "commonplacer")."Donne's book," she writes, "must surely have had: angels, women, faith, stars, jealousy, gold desire, dread, death." These were not just idle journals, either: the great commonplacers of the time, from Erasmus to Montaigne, depended on their storehouses to produce their work, and Donne was no different.
This was crucial to Donne's creative process and deep reading. His letters, speeches, and sermons—hundreds survive—tend to lay out a subject early, then buttress it with anecodtes, stories, examples, definitions, and citations that almost certainly were taken from his commonplace. His commonplace, Rundell writes, "was to offer the raw material for a combinatorial, plastic process." They are the reason why in his poems, as Samuel Johnson complained, "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." But smashing together disparate ideas is exactly how metaphors are made, which in turn become models for understanding the world. Donne would not be Donne without his metaphors, and his metaphors would not exist without his commonplacing.
The other technique that we know Donne used to achieve astounding levels of memorization and focus was the method of loci, or the memory theater. This is an ancient trick, known throughout the classical Mediterranean world, and a simple one: imagine a building or room that you know well, filling it with objects that represent what you want to remember. If you're headed to the grocery store and need to get eggs, tomatos, and bread, you might imagine walking through your childhood bedroom, finding a chicken roosting on your dresser, a pile of tomatos tumbling out of your closet, and a giant loaf of bread where your bed would be. (You don't have to be silly, but the images tend to be more morable when they are funny, sexy, or disgusting. The brain wants what it wants.) Sherlock Holmes uses one, dozens of non-literate indigenous cultures around the world used them, champion memorizers use them, and Donne used them, too.
He wrote about his use of the technique, calling one sermon "a goodly palace," through which audiences will "rest a little, in an outward Court, upon consideration of prayer in general; and then draw near the view of the palace, in a second court." In another sermon, he preached that "the art of salvation, is but the art of memory." A speech from Donne was almost literally a journey through the architecture of his mind.
Donne very much wanted his listeners and readers to remember his words, too.
Much of his preaching, and probably his poetry, too, was aimed at impressing itself upon the memory. In another letter, not quoted by Rundell, he wrote that his sermons were structured so that "though the pieces may seem many, yet they do so naturally flow out of one another, that they may easily enter into your understanding; and so naturally depend upon one another, that they may easily lay hold in your memory." Image, space, architecture, and geography combine in his writings—and in his writings about his writing, as in the Masselink article linked above—to create maximally memorable passages that could be kept even without a commonplace book, expanding a person's natural store of wisdom, solace, and instruction.
I should stress that keeping an especially good collection of quotes or building elaborate palaces of highly-memorable occultic symbols is not going to make you a genius of attention, treat symptoms of ADD, or make you one of the greatest poets in the English language. It probably won't even cure the circumambient dread and distraction of being a person in the modern world circa December 2022, and it certainly won't make the internet go away.
But how much energy have you, as a reader, invested in building the kinds of links, memories, and associations that are needed for deep, focused reading? Do you have your own version of a commonplace, which lets you keep what you need and discard the rest, saving your attention for where it is most needed? Do you ever make the effort to recall and reflect, as Donne did?
These aren't idle exercises: there is good reason to believe that attention and memory are related. They strengthen and enable each other, and it's very hard to have one without the other. So instead of clicking on all the links in this essay, maybe all you need is a commonplace book and a memory palace.
From the Archives:
For another bit of oddball literary & intellectual history, readers might enjoy my essay last year about how Hokusai, Japan’s favorite artist, was a product of its unique publishing culture.
And that’s it. I have one more post in the pipeline for 2022. Happy reading!
Which is nothing like legal and medical textbooks today, I am sure.