Professor Tayler was my graduate school advisor at Columbia in the early 1990s. He worked with the history of ideas and wrote and published this book while I was moving through my own studies. He had been fascinated by what Donne is said to have told Jonson, "that he described the Idea of a Woman and not as she was." This, of course, is about the figure of Elizabeth Drury in Donne's two Anniversarie poems: she died as a teenager, and Donne was asked to write tributary poems to her--or he took it on himself in the hopes of patronage--I need to look up the facts again.
I had been meditating about this phrase and how it now seems to connect to Robert in my head all the time, and I wanted to remember some of the things that Tayler said in his book. I opened it, and there was my careful pencil underlining of various passages, all of this, of course, about six years before Robert was born.
Here is an excerpt of some of the passages that fascinated me, and still catch my attention, although they are taken out of their scholarly context:
The "idea" defines that which makes the thing what it really is. What finally counts for Donne is the ability, as he says in The Second Anniversary, to get "up unto the watch-towre," and to get up there, one has to be, primarily though not exclusively, an Aristotelean, or at least an "aristotelean-platonist" . . . . To "see" the "Idea" of Elizabeth Drury we must use the eye of the mind, not Plato's eye of the mind but Cicero's eye of the mind.The qualification "and not as she was" indicates that Donne had in mind the basic distinction between essence and accidents. When in the context of this distinction we "see" the Idea we do not see A Symbol, nor ought we to think in terms of causes and effects. Rather, we come to know Elizabeth for what makes her what she is, no longer occluded from our view by the individuating properties of matter, which are unintelligible.
That is the way I would like to see: things as they are, not clouded by matter, and not for what they symbolize. I feel forever caught between what people or things symbolize (to me, at any rate), and the accidents of them. Seeing another as fully human, fully realized for who and what he or she is seems to lie between, outside, or around that. To know another--he gets to that, but no time tonight.