The third century BC philopher Theophrastus wrote a book of character that attempted to make a sort of zoological catalogue of recurring personality types. He lists some 30 common personalities. He probably wasn't the first to attempt this kind of study, and he definitely wasn't the last. While I prefer Chaucer's stab at it in the Canterbury Tales, the most influential example of this kind of book today is arguably the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, the so called DSM-IV. When you hear your shrink flipping pages, it may be that he's looking for you in its index.
While DSM-IV, would be a handy tome for handicapping political races and debates in the House of Representatives, there's another guide that helps me see our current congress with that same clarity that the wise old satyr, Miller, tried to shine on his young friend, the Satires of John Donne. He wrote five satires, three of them in the classic satire form perfected by the Roman poet Juvenal. In that form, the speaker of the poem (the poet) engages in something of a rant against folly to a character that he's accompanying into some scene that the character moves comfortably in. These poems rip the scene and the companion.
Donne is famous for his Jack and John phases. As a young man (Jack) he wrote rakish poems of lust and seduction as well as some of these satires and other works. Later on he wrote his Holy Sonnets in his John phase and the best of these are at least the equals of Shakespeare's best sonnets. Obviously, the satires are very different in tone from his sonorous spiritual sonnets. Donne's versification in the satires is jagged and choppy with plenty of stops contrasting to places where the verse seems to tumble out of an overstuffed closet. None of it happens casually. These are ugly poems about ugly people and I think they're beautiful. The ugly scenes are on the streets of London, in the legal courts and in the royal court.
They're the kind of poems that need to be read over and over until you're ear is attuned to that late Elizabethan rhythm. You also need to look up all of the references he's making. Only then can you begin to visualize the carefully crafted image structures he creates to sustain his logical tirades against folly, corruption and yes, sinne. The imagery often contains rich connections to his personal story as in this denigration of legal affidavits:
Of affidavits: words, words, which would teare
The tender labrynth of a soft maid's eare,
More, more, than ten Sclavonians scolding, more,
Then when winds in our ruined Abbeys rore.
Taken as a whole, the images in these four lines ascend from the tender maid's ear, to the discordant unfathomable scolding of London's raw market districts to the painful history of the ruined abbeys. This kind of progression of imagery is where Donne and Shakespeare leave most other poets behind. Earlier in the poem Donne had observed that many lawyers had begun as poets. So the words words in the affidavits move out from the maiden's ear, a place where a poet's words may be more appropriate, to the rowdy assault of dock side or market place language to the trauma of a violent history.
The meate was mine, th' excrement is his owne: