The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

John Donne (1633)

John Donne’s poem, The Apparition (1633), parallels the Panopticon (1785) structure developed by Jeremy and Samuel Bentham over a century later. This poem uses harsh language to echo Donne’s numerous poems where a male speaker reproaches a female subject for not reciprocating his feelings. For example, the speaker calls his lover a ‘murd’ress’ and a ‘wretch’, who ends their relationship for lustful desires. As a result of her dismissal, he threatens to die ‘by [her] scorn’, and haunt his lover as she is rejected by her new partner. This, in turn, portrays an early interpretation of surveillance, where the observer has to be physically present to watch their subject.

Surveillance in The Apparition is present in the relationship between memory and the supernatural, where the speaker’s threat to haunt his lover is a form of surveillance designed to ensure she will never forget him. The speaker exclaims ‘then shall my ghost come to thy bed’, haunting the woman in her new relationship, demonstrating his own inability to move on from their relationship. However, this ‘ghost’ could also represent their memories together, which the speaker wishes will haunt his partner’s thoughts as her new relationship fails. In this way, when the speaker explains ‘what I will say, I will not tell thee now’ he is suggesting that he will be waiting for the moment when she repents, and will tell her something that will make her suffering even worse as revenge. In The Apparition, the surveillance occurs through the speaker’s control over the woman’s life, as her relationship fails and she regrets having left him.

Given the strong religious beliefs of the 17th century, Donne uses supernatural elements to create a sense of anxiety in the reader, through the speaker ‘haunt[ing]’ his lover by her bedside. The anxiety created by surveillance is evident in The Apparition when the speaker claims that he will watch as the woman is ‘bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat’, horrified by her new lover’s rejection. This description of ‘sweat’ can be the result of the woman’s sexual frustration, as her new lover devises a ‘false sleep’ to avoid sleeping with her. She will be overcome with emotion and become ‘a verier ghost’ than the speaker when she realises that she is at fault. As a result, both the speaker and the woman are both trapped by anxiety, as the woman’s new relationship is seemingly bound to fail, and the speaker is restless to enact his revenge.

This cyclical structure of rejection reflects the Panopticon structure, as the speaker watches his lover go from rejecting him to being turned down by her own lover. The woman becomes physically tortured by her lust, and her misery is reinforced by being haunted with the memories of her past as she finds herself in ‘worse arms’ than the speaker, whom she has rejected. In this way, the speaker becomes more powerful as he takes his revenge, while watching the woman lose her power when she is dismissed. The speaker, however, is also trapped by his own obsession, which forces him to learn that his lover would rather be turned down than remain in a relationship with him. Here, the Panopticon becomes more evident as its cyclical structure of surveillance is reflected in the events of this poem: the one being watched and the one watching become one in their struggle, unable to escape this dynamic.

The poem explores the theme of revenge fantasy from a gender power imbalance, where the male speaker relies on empty threats to maintain control over his lover. The male speaker tries to intimidate his lover, but he only suggests that he will stand at the foot of her bed, accepting her rejection instead of asking her to reconsider. The bed imagery highlights the lack of intimacy between the characters, as well as the speaker’s lack of power. Although he is the only speaker throughout, his lover has the control to physically and emotionally limit their intimacy, leaving him to become a silent ghost, observing her from her bedside. As a result, the Panopticon structure is challenged, because the subject has more power than the observer in this situation. As the speaker resigns himself to revenge fantasy, surveillance becomes the prism through which he creates his identity, dependent on his lover’s affection. In this way, John Donne’s The Apparition presents the dangers associated with the Panopticon structure, because those involved in the network of watching and being watched are so engulfed in the process that they begin to lose their own identity as a result.

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