1591-92: Lincoln's Inn (where lawyers got their training;
Donne known for his worldly ways)
1596: Sails with Raleigh and Essex to Cadiz
1597: Sails with Essex to the Azores
1598: Becomes an Anglican
1598: Private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton
1601: Secret marriage to Egerton's niece, Ann More; lived
off friends and patrons (especially Magdalen Herbert and Robert Drury) for 15
1615: Becomes an Anglican priest
1621: Appointed dean of St. Paul's Cathedral
1633: Publication of Poems
Obsessed with the idea of death, Donne had a portrait
painted of himself dressed in his burial shroud, a memento mori (reminder
of death), which he had placed so he could see it as he lay on his deathbed.
John "Un-" Donne
First of all, I must admit that I don't much care for
John's poems. But he's important to know--after all, he was the leader, so to
speak, of the metaphysical1 school of poetry and by all accounts,
a nice guy. He was described as a very charming and companionable person, even
if he was raised Catholic2. Though he attended the very prestigious
universities of Oxford and Cambridge3, he was unable to take a
degree either place because his family objected on religious grounds to the oath
of allegiance all graduates had to take. Undaunted, John began to study law in
1592, in hopes of landing a state job, or perhaps even a court position4.
He also frittered away some of his time messing about with some poetry.
His introduction into the fast lane was rather slow in coming5.
It wasn't until 1597 that he finally got any kind of a job, and that was working
as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Sir Thomas was a great and impressive statesman,
being Lord Keeper of the Great Seal6 and a real mover and shaker
of the times7. So naturally, if you were his secretary, eloping
with his niece would be a bad thing to do. Unfortunately, our hero did just that,
running off with and marrying Anne More, daughter of Sir George More and niece
of Sir Thomas' second wife. To make matters worse, Anne was underage, so her irate
father promptly had John arrested for marrying a minor without the consent of
her guardians8. He wrote his bride a despondent letter from prison,
ending it with "John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done"9. John didn't
stay in prison long, but even when he got out, his old job was pretty much out
of the question. So he and his rapidly growing family10 lived
mostly in poverty for the next fourteen years.
John tried his best to make a living by writing poems for patrons,
but he was really too proud to be properly obsequious to these patrons. Finally,
he succumbed to the urgings of all his friends and relatives11
and became an ordained minister of the Church of England in 1615. Just two years
later, his beloved Anne died12. Her death brought John's long-time
obsession with death to the surface13, and it showed in his sermons14
as well as his poems. It also showed in the decor of his room. Shortly before
his death in 1631, John obtained an urn, his own burial shroud, and an artist.
Wrapping himself in the shroud, John posed standing atop the urn and had the artist
draw him a nice charcoal sketch of himself. This macabre piece of artwork stayed
at John's bedside throughout his final illness.
John was a man very much torn between the worldly and the spiritual,
and this really shows in his poems15. He also felt the effects
of his Catholic upbringing all his life16. So things did not go
smoothly for him. But, thanks largely to T.S. Eliot, people are at least reading
his stuff again.
The history of John Donne's
reputation is quite unusual. Despite his having been pressured into becoming an
Anglican divine, he became famous for the beauty and power of his sermons. Almost
none of his poetry was printed in his lifetime, and when a first collected edition,
including a number of daring love poems, appeared two years after his death, his
son denounced the book as a libel on the memory of a good and holy man, almost
as if the poems were not Donne's. His work has always had discerning admirers,
but to many readers and critics through the centuries he was, if he existed at
all, an odd presence. His intellectual knottiness, his stress on poetry as speech
rather than song, and his intense and irregular rhythms all required a good deal
of getting used to, and there were many who could not or would not adjust their
ears and minds to the wealth that his poetry contains. But a magisterial edition
of his verse by H. J. C. Grierson in 1912 and an influential essay by T. S. Eliot
in 1921 began a reappraisal of Donne that has led to a just recognition of his
genius. And thanks to Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and John
Gunther's Death Be Not Proud, at least two phrases from Donne's writings
are known to virtually everyone. Indeed, he has been so firmly fixed in the canon
that it is now almost unimaginable that he has ever been anywhere else.
John Donne was born in London, most likely in
early 1572. He was the third of seven children, only three of whom lived to maturity.
His father, also named John Donne, was a prosperous ironmonger of Welsh descent.
His mother, Elizabeth (Heywood) Donne, was the daughter of John Heywood, an author
of interludes that give him a place in the development of British drama in the
decades before Shakespeare. Heywood's wife, the poet's grandmother, was the granddaughter
of the sister of Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia and the subject
of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, who had been executed by King Henry
VIII for refusing to compromise the principles of his Catholic faith. After Pope
Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII's daughter, in 1570, Donne's
family and all other English Catholics became subject to restrictions and outright
persecution. John Heywood, in old age and ill health, was forced to recant and
deny his faith, and his two sons, both Jesuit priests, were ultimately compelled
to leave England.
In 1576, when John Donne was four, his father
died. It was not uncommon at the time for widows, especially those with young
children to raise, to remarry quickly in order to prevent governmental confiscation
of their property, and within six months Donne's mother was once again a wife,
this time to a Dr. Symmings, a London medical practitioner who held degrees from
Oxford and the University of Bologna, and who twice served as President of the
Royal College of Physicians. As a young boy, Donne was privately educated, quite
possibly by the Jesuits, who would have given him a rigorous training in logic
and in various scientific subjects. In 1584, when Donne was twelve, and Henry,
his only brother, was eleven, the two boys were matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford.
It was not unheard of for boys so young to enter college, and there would have
been a particular urgency in this instance, since their mother no doubt wished
them to complete their educations before the age of sixteen, when all students
were compelled to swear allegiance to the Anglican Church. After three years at
Oxford, Donne transferred to the more liberal Cambridge, but, as a Catholic, he
could not take a degree.
In 1591, John and Henry Donne were enrolled at
Thavies Inn in London, a preparatory school for the study of law, and on May 6,
1592, John Donne was admitted to law school at Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns
of Court. He remained a student there for the next several years, but there is
no evidence of his ever having taken his law degree. This period of his life,
the time in which a young person traditionally weighs options and prospects and
begins to take the steps that will shape a career and a pattern of life, must
have been a particularly difficult one for him. In 1593, Henry Donne died of fever
in Newgate Prison, where he had been sent for harboring a Catholic priest. His
brother's sacrifice and death must have caused Donne great grief, and perhaps
a measure of guilt as well, for failing to act with similar courage. On the other
hand, given the religious doubts that characterized him for his entire adult life,
he would have been hesitant, to say the least, to throw away his future prospects,
and indeed his very life, on behalf of an allegiance to which he was not fully
and intensely committed.
Whatever internal conflicts and struggles Donne
may have undergone, we next find him as a member of a naval expedition--in what
capacity it is not clear--led by the Earl of Essex against Spain in June 1596.
This action, which surprised the Spaniards at Cadiz harbor and forced the sinking
of heavily laden treasure ships, was a great success, but a similar expedition
to the Azores in July 1597, in which Donne also took part, failed in its objective.
Donne may have hoped to advance his career through the patronage of Essex, but
any such wish was doomed by Essex's arrest for treason after an uprising against
the queen (he would be executed in 1601). Yet Donne's service on these voyages
led to his advancement through other means, since he befriended a shipmate named
Thomas Egerton, who later recommended Donne to his father, with the result that
Donne became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great
Seal. In October 1601, Donne's prospects were further enhanced by his election
to Parliament, from a constituency controlled by Sir Thomas. Two months later,
Donne radically altered the entire course of his life, when, at the age of twenty-nine,
he impulsively married Ann More, the seventeen-year-old niece of Sir Thomas's
late wife. Donne was dismissed from his post--a turn of events that he famously
announced to his bride in a letter with the phrase "John Donne, Ann Donne, undone"--and
even briefly imprisoned. He was forced to turn to the law to have the validity
of his marriage upheld, and once he had succeeded in this, the young couple began
a life of uncertain prospects and financial difficulties that would last for more
than a decade.
Donne can hardly be said to have had a literary
career in the conventional sense of the term, since only four of his poems were
published in his lifetime, two of which he later disavowed. He may have planned
to publish some of the satires he wrote in his twenties, but any such intent would
have been canceled by the government's 1599 ban on the publication of satirical
works. He seems to have made no effort to publish any of his Songs and Sonets
(the latter term denoting a short lyric poem), the collection of fifty-five love
lyrics written in his twenties and thirties that is not only one of his greatest
works but also one of the greatest books of love poetry in the language. The 1590s
in England saw a craze for sonnet sequences. Despite the (sometimes labored) cleverness
that characterized the writing, those works tended to circulate the same handful
of rather simplistic themes and emotional stances, such as the lover's outpouring
of grief over his lady's failure to reciprocate his passion, or the extravagant
praise of the beauty and allure of the beloved (this latter category was definitively
satirized by Shakespeare in his famous sonnet "My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like
the Sun"). Some of Donne's lyrics are admittedly within these narrow confines:
for all its hyperbolic wit and metrical ingenuity, "Song" fits into the conventional
mode of the complaint against female inconstancy. But his finest love poems counter
the conventions of the time by their originality of approach, by their ingenuity
(particularly in extended and surprising comparisons, as in the celebrated metaphysical
conceit of the compass that is developed over the last three stanzas of "A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning"), and by their intellectual and emotional complexity. In
Donne's poems, the woman is never merely an object of desire (his love poems are
famous for their lack of concern with the physical appearance of the beloved),
but a person with her own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual existence.
That at least some of these brilliant and
beautiful poems were inspired by Donne's wife is undeniable, although commentators
differ in their assessment of what the marriage must have been like. In the relative
absence of direct personal testimony, some assume that the passion and intensity
of Donne's greatest love poems must be rooted in actualities, while others predicate
that their straitened circumstances and Ann's almost constant state of pregnancy
must have put enormous pressures on the relationship. Eventually, Donne attracted
the notice of several benefactors, including Sir Robert Drury, who provided the
poet and his growing family with living quarters, but also insisted that Donne
accompany him and his wife on an extended trip to the continent in 1611-12, despite
the objections of Donne's pregnant wife. Some have assumed that the prospect of
this journey was the occasion for the writing of "A Valediction." Donne was ultimately
able to attract the notice of King James I, who made it clear that he wished to
see Donne take orders in the Anglican Church. Under such circumstances, ordination
was Donne's only path to advancement and financial security, and so Donne was
ordained a deacon in 1614.
Whatever the nature of its origins, Donne's religious
commitment produced some of his greatest poetry and prose. The sequence of Holy
Sonnets shows that in his devotional poetry he was no less witty, original,
and even shocking--as in the conclusion of "Batter my heart"--than he had been
as a love poet: he had previously used religious imagery to treat of romantic
love, and now he expressed the intensity of spiritual feeling through romantic
and sexual metaphors. In his sermons and his religious verse, Donne frequently
expressed a strong sense of guilt and of personal unworthiness. It is of course
impossible to say to what degree these attitudes may have been shaped by his
own temperament, his Catholic training, or his feelings (if any) of betrayal of
the faith for which so many members of his family had made so many sacrifices.
Such attitudes may also have had their origins, at least in part, in the circumstances
of his marriage. In addition to their poverty, over the nearly sixteen years of
their marriage Ann gave birth to twelve children, seven of whom were still alive
at the time of her own death in August 1617, a week after being delivered of her
last child, a stillbirth. Despite his being left with many young children to raise,
Donne, quite unusually for the times and under the circumstances, never remarried.
His own life was threatened by a bout of typhoid fever in 1623, an experience
that resulted in the writing of his prose Devotions, one of which contains
the famous passage beginning with the phrase "No man is an island," which has
become part of the common currency of our cultural heritage, known to many who
have never even heard of John Donne.
In 1621, Donne became Dean of St. Paul's
Church in London. Despite his deteriorating health, he held this position with
distinction and growing fame, owing in large part to his eloquent sermons. The
most famous of these was the last, known as "Death's Duel" and preached on February
12, 1631, only seven weeks before Donne's own death on March 31, 1631.
T. S. Eliot felt that, for Donne and the
poets of his generation, thought and feeling had been an interconnected process,
and that after them had occurred a "dissociation of sensibility," a widening gap
between thought and feeling, that had plagued poetry ever since. While the validity
of the second half of this thesis has since been called into question, no one
could disagree with the concept that Donne's poetry embodies a virtually seamless
fusion of emotion and intellect, that in the work of this witty and demanding
poet we are constantly treated to the entertaining and satisfying spectacle of
a man who feels intelligently and thinks passionately. Four hundred years
after it was written, Donne's poetry is as original and as startling as when it
was new, and in that sense it is still new, and likely to remain so for
a long time to come.
THE LIFE OF DR. JOHN DONNE
(Taken from the life by Izaak Walton).
MASTER JOHN DONNE was born in London, the year 1573, of good and virtuous parents:
and, though his own learning and other multiplied merits may justly appear sufficient
to dignify both himself and his posterity, yet the reader may be pleased to know
that his father was masculinely and lineally descended from a very ancient family
in Wales, where many of his name now live, that deserve and have great reputation
in that country.
By his mother he was descended of the family of the famous and learned
Sir Thomas More, sometime Lord Chancellor of England: as also, from that worthy
and laborious Judge Rastall, who left posterity the vast Statutes of the Law of
this nation most exactly abridged.
He had his first breeding in his father's house, where a private tutor
had the care of him, until the tenth year of his age; and, in his eleventh year,
was sent to the University of Oxford, having at that time a good command both
of the French and Latin tongue. This, and some other of his remarkable abilities,
made one then give this censure of him: That this age had brought forth another
Picus Mirandula; of whom story says, that he was rather born than made wise by
There he remained for some years in Hart Hall, having, for the advancement
of his studies, tutors of several sciences to attend and instruct him, till time
made him capable, and his learning expressed in public exercises, declared him
worthy, to receive his first degree in the schools, which he forbore by advice
from his friends, who, being for their religion of the Romish persuasion, were
conscionably averse to some parts of the oath that is always tendered at those
times, and not to be refused by those that expect the titulary honour of their
About the fourteenth year of his age he was transplanted from Oxford
to Cambridge, where, that he might receive nourishment from both soils, he staid
till his seventeenth year; all which time he was a most laborious student, often
changing his studies, but endeavouring to take no degree, for the reasons formerly
About the seventeenth year of his age he was removed to London, and then
admitted into Lincoln's Inn, with an intent to study the law, where he gave great
testimonies of his wit, his learning, and of his improvement in that profession;
which never served him for other use than an ornament and self-satisfaction.
His father died before his admission into this society; and, being a
merchant, left him his portion in money. (It was [[sterling]]3,000.) His mother,
and those to whose care he was committed, were watchful to improve his knowledge,
and to that end appointed him tutors both in the mathematics, and in all the other
liberal sciences, to attend him. But, with these arts, they were advised to instil
into him particular principles of the Romish Church; of which those tutors professed,
though secretly, themselves to be members.
They had almost obliged him to their faith; having for their advantage,
besides many opportunities, the example of his dear and pious parents, which was
a most powerful persuasion, and did work much upon him, as he professeth in his
preface to his "Pseudo-Martyr," a book of which the reader shall have some account
in what follows.
He was now entered into the eighteenth year of his age; and at that time
had betrothed himself to no religion that might give him any other denomination
than a Christian. And reason and piety had both persuaded him that there could
be no such sin as schism, if an adherence to some visible Church were not necessary.
About the nineteenth year of his age, he, being then unresolved what
religion to adhere to, and considering how much it concerned his soul to choose
the most orthodox, did therefore,--though his youth and health promised him a
long life--to rectify all scruples that might concern that, presently lay aside
all study of the law, and of all other sciences that might give him a denomination;
and began seriously to survey and consider the body of Divinity, as it was then
controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church. And, as God's blessed
Spirit did then awaken him to the search, and in that industry did never forsake
him--they be his own words (in his preface to "Pseudo-Martyr")--so he calls the
same Holy Spirit to witness this protestation; that in that disquisition and search
he proceeded with humility and diffidence in himself; and by that which he took
to be the safest way; namely, frequent prayers, and an indifferent affection to
both parties; and, indeed, Truth had too much light about her to be hid from so
sharp an inquirer; and he had too much ingenuity not to acknowledge he had found
Being to undertake this search, he believed the Cardinal Bellarmine to
be the best defender of the Roman cause, and therefore betook himself to the examination
of his reasons. The cause was weighty, and wilful delays had been inexcusable
both towards God and his own conscience: he therefore proceeded in this search
with all moderate haste, and about the twentieth year of his age did show the
then Dean of Gloucester--whose name my memory hath now lost--all the Cardinal's
works marked with many weighty observations under his own hand; which works were
bequeathed by him, at his death, as a legacy to a most dear friend.
About a year following he resolved to travel: and the Earl of Essex going
first to Cales, and after the Island voyages, the first anno 1596, the second
1597, he took the advantage of those opportunities, waited upon his Lordship,
and was an eye-witness of those happy and unhappy employments.
But he returned not back into England till be had staid some years, first
in Italy and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries,
their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.
The time that he spent in Spain was, at his first going into Italy, designed
for travelling to the Holy Land, and for viewing Jerusalem and the Sepulchre of
our Saviour. But at his being in the furthest parts of Italy, the disappointment
of company, or of a safe convoy, or the uncertainty of returns of money into those
remote parts, denied him that happiness, which he did often occasionally mention
with a deploration.
Not long after his return into England, that exemplary pattern of gravity
and wisdom, the Lord Ellesmere, then Keeper of the Great Seal, the Lord Chancellor
of England, taking notice of his learning, languages, and other abilities, and
much affecting his person and behaviour, took him to be his chief secretary; supposing
and intending it to be an introduction to some more weighty employment in the
State; for which, his Lordship did often protest, he thought him very fit.
Nor did his Lordship, in this time of Master Donne's attendance upon
him, account him to be so much his servant as to forget he was his friend; and,
to testify it, did always use him with much courtesy, appointing him a place at
his own table, to which he esteemed his company and discourse to be a great ornament.
He continued that employment for the space of five years, being daily
useful, and not mercenary to his friend. During which time he--I dare not say
unhappily--fell into such a liking, as,--with her approbation,--increased into
a love, with a young gentlewoman that lived in that family, who was niece to the
Lady Ellesmere, and daughter to Sir George More, then Chancellor of the Garter
and Lieutenant of the Tower.
Sir George had some intimation of it, and, knowing prevention to be a
great part of wisdom, did therefore remove her with much haste from that to his
own house at Lothesley, in the County of Surrey; but too late, by reason of some
faithful promises which were so interchangeably passed, as never to be violated
by either party.
These promises were only known to themselves; and the friends of both
parties used much diligence, and many arguments, to kill or cool their affections
to each other; but in vain, for love is a flattering mischief that hath denied
aged and wise men a foresight of those evils that too often prove to be the children
of that blind father; a passion that carries us to commit errors with as much
ease as whirlwinds move feathers, and begets in us an unwearied industry to the
attainment of what we desire. And such an industry did, notwithstanding much watchfulness
against it, bring them secretly together,--I forbear to tell the manner how,--and
at last to a marriage too, without the allowance of those friends whose approbation
always was, and ever will be necessary, to make even a virtuous love become lawful.
And that the knowledge of their marriage might not fall, like an unexpected
tempest, on those that were unwilling to have it so; and that pre-apprehensions
might make it the less enormous when it was known, it was purposely whispered
into the ears of many that it was so, yet by none that could affirm it. But, to
put a period to the jealousies of Sir George--doubt often begetting more restless
thoughts than the certain knowledge of what we fear--the news was, in favour to
Mr. Donne, and with his allowance, made known to Sir George, by his honourable
friend and neighbour Henry, Earl of Northumberland; but it was to Sir George so
immeasurably unwelcome, and so transported him that, as though his passion of
anger and inconsideration might exceed theirs of love and error, he presently
engaged his sister, the Lady Ellesmere, to join with him to procure her lord to
discharge Mr. Donne of the place he held under his Lordship. This request was
followed with violence; and though Sir George were remembered that errors might
be over punished, and desired therefore to forbear till second considerations
might clear some scruples, yet he became restless until his suit was granted and
the punishment executed. And though the Lord Chancellor did not, at Mr. Donne's
dismission, give him such a commendation as the great Emperor Charles the Fifth
did of his Secretary Eraso, when he parted with him to his son and successor,
Philip the Second, saying, "That in his Eraso, he gave to him a greater gift than
all his estate, and all the kingdoms which he then resigned to him;" yet the Lord
Chancellor said, "He parted with a friend, and such a Secretary as was fitter
to serve a king than a subject."
Immediately after his dismission from his service, he sent a sad letter
to his wife to acquaint her with it; and after the subscription of his name, writ,
"John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done;"
and God knows it proved too true; for this bitter physic of Mr. Donne's dismission,
was not enough to purge out all Sir George's choler, for he was not satisfied
till Mr. Donne and his sometime compupil in Cambridge, that married him, namely,
Samuel Brooke, who was after Doctor in Divinity and Master of Trinity College--and
his brother Mr. Christopher Brooke, sometime Mr. Donne's chamber-fellow in Lincoln's
Inn, who gave Mr. Donne his wife, and witnessed the marriage, were all committed
to three several prisons.
Mr. Donne was first enlarged, who neither gave rest to his body or brain,
nor to any friend in whom he might hope to have an interest, until he had procured
an enlargement for his two imprisoned friends.
He was now at liberty, but his days were still cloudy; and, being past
these troubles, others did still multiply upon him; for his wife was--to her extreme
sorrow--detained from him; and though, with Jacob, he endured not a hard service
for her, yet he lost a good one, and was forced to make good his title, and to
get possession of her by a long and restless suit in law, which proved troublesome
and sadly chargeable to him, whose youth, and travel, and needless bounty, had
brought his estate into a narrow compass.
It is observed, and most truly, that silence and submission are charming
qualities, and work most upon passionate men; and it proved so with Sir George;
for these, and a general report of Mr. Donne's merits, together with his winning
behaviour,--which, when it would entice, had a strange kind of elegant irresistible
art;--these, and time, had so dispassionated Sir George, that, as the world had
approved his daughter's choice, so he also could not but see a more than ordinary
merit in his new son; and this at last melted him into so much remorse--for love
and anger are so like agues as to have hot and cold fits; and love in parents,
though it may be quenched, yet is easily rekindled, and expires not till death
denies mankind a natural heat--that he laboured his son's restoration to his place;
using to that end both his own and his sister's power to her lord; but with no
success; for his answer was, "That though he was unfeignedly sorry for what he
had done, yet it was inconsistent with his place and credit, to discharge and
readmit servants at the request of passionate petitioners."
Sir George's endeavour for Mr. Donne's readmission was by all means to
be kept secret:--for men do more naturally reluct for errors than submit to put
on those blemishes that attend their visible acknowledgment. But, however, it
was not long before Sir George appeared to be so far reconciled as to wish their
happiness, and not to deny them his paternal blessing, but yet refused to contribute
any means that might conduce to their livelihood.
Mr. Donne's estate was the greatest part spent in many and chargeable
travels, books, and dear-bought experience: he out of all employment that might
yield a support for himself and wife, who had been curiously and plentifully educated;
both their natures generous, and accustomed to confer, and not to receive, courtesies;
these and other considerations, but chiefly that his wife was to bear a part in
his sufferings, surrounded him with many sad thoughts, and some apparent apprehensions
But his sorrows were lessened and his wants prevented by the seasonable
courtesy of their noble kinsman, Sir Francis Wolly, of Pirford in Surrey, who
intreated them to a cohabitation with him; where they remained with much freedom
to themselves, and equal conten to him, for some years; and as their charge increased--she
had yearly a child--so did his love and bounty.
Mr. Donne and his wife continued with Sir Francis Wolly till his death:
a little before which time Sir Francis was so happy as to make a perfect reconciliation
between Sir George and his forsaken son and daughter; Sir George conditioning,
by bond, to pay to Mr. Donne 800l. at a certain day, as a portion with
his wife, or 20l. quarterly for their maintenance, as the interest for
it, till the said portion was paid.
Most of those years that he lived with Sir Francis he studied the Civil
and Canon Laws; in which he acquired such a perfection, as was judged to hold
proportion with many, who had made that study the employment of their whole life.
Sir Francis being dead, and that happy family dissolved, Mr. Donne took
for himself a house in Mitcham--near to Croydon in Surrey--a place noted for good
air and choice company: there his wife and children remained; and for himself
he took lodgings in London, near to Whitehall, whither his friends and occasions
drew him very often, and where he was as often visited by many of the nobility
and others of this nation, who used him in their counsels of greatest consideration,
and with some rewards for his better subsistence.
Nor did our own nobility only value and favour him, but his acquaintance
and friendship was sought for by most Ambassadors of foreign nations, and by many
other strangers whose learning or business occasioned their stay in this nation.
Thus it continued with him for about two years, all which time his family
remained constantly at Mitcham; and to which place he often retired himself, and
destined some days to a constant study of some points of controversy betwixt the
English and Roman Church, and especially those of Supremacy and Allegiance: and
to that place and such studies he could willingly have wedded himself during his
life; but the earnest persuasion of friends became at last to be so powerful,
as to cause the removal of himself and family to London, where Sir Robert Drewry,
a gentleman of a very noble estate, and a more liberal mind, assigned him and
his wife an useful apartment in his own large house in Drury Lane, and not only
rent free, but was also a cherisher of his studies, and such a friend as sympathized
with him and his, in all their joy and sorrows.
At this time of Mr. Donne's and his wife's living in Sir Robert's house,
the Lord Hay was, by King James, sent upon a glorious embassy to the then French
King, Henry the Fourth; and Sir Robert put on a sudden resolution to accompany
him to the French Court, and to be present at his audience there. And Sir Robert
put on a sudden resolution to solicit Mr. Donne to be his companion in that journey.
And this desire was suddenly made known to his wife, who was then with child,
and otherwise under so dangerous a habit of body as to her health, that she professed
an unwillingness to allow him any absence from her; saying, "Her divining soul
boded her some ill in his absence;" and therefore desired him not to leave her.
This made Mr. Donne lay aside all thoughts of the journey, and really to resolve
against it. But Sir Robert became restless in his persuasions for it, and Mr.
Donne was so generous as to think he had sold his liberty when he received so
many charitable kindnesses from him, and told his wife so; who did therefore,
with an unwilling willingness, give a faint consent to the journey, which was
proposed to be but for two months; for about that time they determined their return.
Within a few days after this resolve, the Ambassador, Sir Robert, and Mr. Donne,
left London; and were the twelfth day got all safe to Paris. Two days after their
arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone in that room in which Sir Robert, and
he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert returned
within half an hour; and as he left, so he found, Mr. Donne alone; but in such
an ecstasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him;
insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare what had befallen him
in the short time of his absence. To which Mr. Donne was not able to make a present
answer; but, after a long and perplexed pause, did at last say, "I have seen a
dreadful vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through
this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her
arms: this I have seen since I saw you." To which Sir Robert replied, "Sure, sir,
you have slept since I saw you; and this is the result of some melancholy dream,
which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake." To which Mr. Donne's reply
was: "I cannot be surer that I now live than that I have not slept since I saw
you: and am as sure that at her second appearing she stopped and looked me in
the face, and vanished." Rest and sleep had not altered Mr. Donne's opinion the
next day: for he then affirmed this vision with a more deliberate, and so confirmed
a confidence, that he inclined Sir Robert to a faint belief that the vision was
true. It is truly said that desire and doubt have no rest; and it proved so with
Sir Robert; for he immediately sent a servant to Drewry House, with a charge to
hasten back and bring him word whether Mrs. Donne were alive; and, if alive, in
what condition she was as to her health. The twelfth day the messenger returned
with this account:--That he found and left Mrs. Donne very sad and sick in her
bed; and that, after a long and dangerous labour, she had been delivered of a
dead child. And, upon examination, the abortion proved to be the same day, and
about the very hour, that Mr. Donne affirmed he saw her pass by him in his chamber.
This is a relation that will beget some wonder, and it well may; for
most of our world are at present possessed with an opinion that visions and miracles
are ceased. And, though it is most certain that two lutes, being both strung and
tuned to an equal pitch, and then one played upon, the other that is not touched,
being laid upon a table at a fit distance, will--like an echo to a trumpet--warble
a flint audible harmony in answer to the same tune; yet many will not believe
there is any such thing as a sympathy of souls; and I am well pleased that every
reader do enjoy his own opinion. But if the unbelieving will not allow the believing
reader of this story, a liberty to believe that it may be true, then I wish him
to consider many wise men have believed that the ghost of Julius Caesar did appear
to Brutus, and that both St. Austin, and Monica his mother, had visions in order
to his conversion. And though these and many others--too many to name--have but
the authority of human story, yet the incredible reader may find in the sacred
story (I Sam. 28:14) that Samuel did appear to Saul even after his death--whether
really or not, I undertake not to determine. And Bildad, in the Book of Job, says
these words (4:13-16): "A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my head stood
up; fear and trembling came upon me, and made all my bones to shake." Upon which
words I will make no comment, but leave them to be considered by the incredulous
reader; to whom I will also commend this following consideration: That there be
many pious and learned men that believe our merciful God hath assigned to every
man a particular guardian angel to be his constant monitor, and to attend him
in all his dangers, both of body and soul. And the opinion that every man hath
his particular angel may gain some authority by the relation of St. Peter's miraculous
deliverance out of prison (Acts 12:7-10; 13-15), not by many, but by one angel.
And this belief may yet gain more credit by the reader's considering, that when
Peter after his enlargement knocked at the door of Mary the mother of John, and
Rhode, the maidservant, being surprised with joy that Peter was there, did not
let him in, but ran in haste and told the disciples, who were then and there met
together, that Peter was at the door; and they, not believing it, said she was
mad: yet, when she again affirmed it, though they then believed it not, yet they
concluded, and said, "It is his angel."
More observations of this nature, and inferences from them, might be
made to gain the relation a firmer belief; but I forbear, lest I, that intended
to be but a relator, may be thought to be an engaged person for the proving what
was related to me; and yet I think myself bound to declare that, though it was
not told me by Mr. Donne himself, it was told me--now long since--by a person
of honour, and of such intimacy with him, that he knew more of the secrets of
his soul than any person then living: and I think he told me the truth; for it
was told with such circumstances, and such asseveration, that--to say nothing
of my own thoughts--I verily believe he that told it me did himself believe it
to be true.
I return from my account of the vision, to tell the reader, that both
before Mr. Donne's going into France, at his being there, and after his return,
many of the nobility and others that were powerful at court, were watchful and
solicitous to the King for some secular employment for him. The King had formerly
both known and put a value upon his company, and had also given him some hopes
of a state-employment; being always much pleased when Mr. Donne attended him,
especially at his meals, where there were usually many deep discourses of general
learning, and very often friendly disputes, or debates of religion, betwixt his
Majesty and those divines, whose places required their attendance on him at those
times: particularly the Dean of the Chapel, who then was Bishop Montague--the
publisher of the learned and eloquent Works of his Majesty--and the most Reverend
Doctor Andrews the late learned Bishop of Winchester, who was then the King's
About this time there grew many disputes, that concerned the Oath of
Supremacy and Allegiance, in which the King had appeared, and engaged himself
by his public writings now extant: and his Majesty discoursing with Mr. Donne,
concerning many of the reasons which are usually urged against the taking of those
Oaths, apprehended such a validity and clearness in his stating the questions,
and his answers to them, that his Majesty commanded him to bestow some time in
drawing the arguments into a method, and then to write his answers to them; and,
having done that, not to send, but be his own messenger, and bring them to him.
To this he presently and diligently applied himself, and within six weeks brought
them to him under his own handwriting, as they be now printed; the book bearing
the name of "Pseudo-Martyr," printed anno 1610.
When the King had read and considered that book, he persuaded Mr. Donne
to enter into the Ministry; to which, at that time, he was, and appeared, very
unwilling, apprehending it--such was his mistaken modesty--to be too weighty for
Such strifes St. Austin had, when St. Ambrose endeavoured his conversion
to Christianity; with which he confesseth he acquainted his friend Alipius. Our
learned author--a man fit to write after no mean copy--did the like. And declaring
his intentions to his dear friend Dr. King, then Bishop of London, a man famous
in his generation, and no stranger to Mr. Donne's abilities--for he had been Chaplain
to the Lord Chancellor, at the time of Mr. Donne's being his Lordship's Secretary--that
reverend man did receive the news with much gladness; and, after some expressions
of joy, and a persuasion to be constant in his pious purpose, he proceeded with
all convenient speed to ordain him first Deacon, and then Priest not long after.
Presently after he entered into his holy profession, the King sent for
him, and made him his Chaplain in Ordinary, and promised to take a particular
care for his preferment.
And, though his long familiarity with scholars and persons of greatest
quality was such, as might have given some men boldness enough to have preached
to any eminent auditory; yet his modesty in this employment was such, that he
could not be persuaded to it, but went usually accompanied with some one friend
to preach privately in some village, not far from London; his first sermon being
preached at Paddington. This he did, till his Majesty sent and appointed him a
day to preach to him at Whitehall; and, though much were expected from him, both
by his Majesty and others, yet he was so happy--which few are--as to satisfy and
exceed their expectations: preaching the Word so, as shewed his own heart was
possessed with those very thoughts and joys that he laboured to distil into others:
a preacher in earnest; weeping sometimes for his auditory, sometimes with them;
always preaching to himself like an angel from a cloud, but in none; carrying
some, as St. Paul was, to Heaven in holy raptures, and enticing others by a sacred
art and courtship to amend their lives: here picturing a vice so as to make it
ugly to those that practised it; and a virtue so as to make it beloved, even by
those that loved it not; and all this with a most particular grace and an unexpressible
addition of comeliness.
That summer, in the very same month in which he entered into sacred Orders,
and was made the King's Chaplain, his Majesty then going his progress, was entreated
to receive an entertainment in the University of Cambridge: and Mr. Donne attending
his Majesty at that time, his Majesty was pleased to recommend him to the University,
to be made Doctor in Divinity; Doctor Harsnett, after Archbishop of York, was
then Vice-Chancellor, who, knowing him to be the author of that learned book the
"Pseudo-Martyr," required no other proof of his abilities, but proposed it to
the University, who presently assented, and expressed a gladness that they had
such an occasion to entitle him to be theirs.
His abilities and industry in his profession were so eminent, and he
so known and so beloved by persons of quality, that within the first year of his
entering into sacred Orders, he had fourteen advowsons of several benefices
presented to him: but they were in the country, and he could not leave his
beloved London, to which place he had a natural inclination, having received both
his birth and education in it, and there contracted a friendship with many, whose
conversation multiplied the joys of his life; but an employment that might affix
him to that place would be welcome, for he needed it.
Immediately after his return from Cambridge his wife died, leaving him
a man of a narrow, unsettled estate, and--having buried five--the careful father
of seven children then living, to whom he gave a voluntary assurance never to
bring them under the subjection of a step-mother; which promise he kept most faithfully,
burying with his tears all his earthly joys in his most dear and deserving wife's
grave, and betook himself to a most retired and solitary life.
In this retiredness, which was often from the sight of his dearest friends,
he became crucified to the world, and all those vanities, those imaginary pleasures,
that are daily acted on that restless stage, and they were as perfectly crucified
His first motion from his house was to preach where his beloved wife
lay buried--in St. Clement's Church, near Temple Bar, London; and his text was
a part of the Prophet Jeremy's Lamentation: "Lo, I am the man that have seen affliction."
In this time of sadness he was importuned by the grave Benchers of Lincoln's
Inn--who were once the companions and friends of his youth--to accept of their
Lecture, which, by reason of Dr. Gataker's removal from thence, was then void;
of which he accepted, being most glad to renew his intermitted friendship with
those whom he so much loved, and where he had been a Saul,--though not to persecute
Christianity, or to deride it, yet in his irregular youth to neglect the visible
practice of it,--there to become a Paul, and preach salvation to his beloved brethren.
About which time the Emperor of Germany died, and the Palsgrave, who
had lately married the Lady Elizabeth, the King's only daughter, was elected and
crowned King of Bohemia, the unhappy beginning of many miseries in that nation.
King James, whose motto--Beati pacifici--did truly speak the very
thoughts of his heart, endeavoured first to prevent, and after to compose, the
discords of that discomposed State; and, amongst other his endeavours, did then
send the Lord Hay, Earl of Doncaster, his Ambassador to those unsettled Princes;
and, by a special command from his Majesty, Dr. Donne was appointed to assist
and attend that employment to the Princes of the Union, for which the Earl was
most glad, who had always put a great value on him, and taken a great pleasure
in his conversation and discourse: and his friends at Lincoln's Inn were as glad;
for they feared that his immoderate study, and sadness for his wife's death, would,
as Jacob said, "make his days few;" and, respecting his bodily health, "evil"
too: and of this there were many visible signs.
About fourteen months after his departure out of England, he returned
to his friends of Lincoln's Inn, with his sorrows moderated, and his health improved;
and there betook himself to his constant course of preaching.
About a year after his return out of Germany, Dr. Carey was made Bishop
of Exeter, and by his removal, the Deanery of St. Paul's being vacant, the King
sent to Dr. Donne, and appointed him to attend him at dinner the next day. When
his Majesty was sat down, before he had eat any meat, he said after his pleasant
manner, "Dr. Donne, I have invited you to dinner; and, though you sit not down
with me, yet I will carve to you of a dish that I know you love well; for, knowing
you love London, I do therefore make you Dean of St. Paul's; and, when I have
dined, then do you take your beloved dish home to your study, say grace there
to yourself, and much good may it do you."
Immediately after he came to his Deanery, he employed workmen to repair
and beautify the Chapel; suffering as holy David once vowed, "his eyes and temples
"to take no rest till he had first beautified the house of God."
The next quarter following when his father-in-law, Sir George More,--whom
time had made a lover and admirer of him--came to pay to him the conditioned sum
of twenty pounds, he refused to receive it; and said--as good Jacob did, when
he heard his beloved son Joseph was alive--"'It is enough;' you have been kind
to me and mine: I know your present condition is such as not to abound, and I
hope mine is, or will be such as not to need it: I will therefore receive no more
from you upon that contract," and in testimony of it freely gave him up his bond.
Immediately after his admission into his Deanery the Vicarage of St.
Dunstan in the West, London, fell to him by the death of Dr. White, the advowson
of it having been given to him long before by his honourable friend Richard Earl
of Dorset, then the patron, and confirmed by his brother the late deceased Edward,
both of them men of much honour.
By these, and another ecclesiastical endowment which fell to him about
the same time, given to him formerly by the Earl of Kent, he was enabled to become
charitable to the poor, and kind to his friends, and to make such provision for
his children, that they were not left scandalous as relating to their or his profession
The next Parliament, which was within that present year, he was chosen
Prolocutor to the Convocation, and about that time was appointed by his Majesty,
his most gracious master, to preach very many occasional sermons, as at St. Paul's
Cross, and other places. All which employments he performed to the admiration
of the representative body of the whole Clergy of this nation.
He was once, and but once, clouded with the King's displeasure, and it
was about this time; which was occasioned by some malicious whisperer, who had
told his Majesty that Dr. Donne had put on the general humour of the pulpits,
and was become busy in insinuating a fear of the King's inclining to popery, and
a dislike of his government; and particularly for the King's then turning the
evening lectures into catechising, and expounding the Prayer of our Lord, and
of the Belief, and Commandments. His Majesty was the more inclinable to believe
this, for that a person of nobility and great note, betwixt whom and Dr. Donne
there had been a great friendship, was at this very time discarded the court--I
shall forbear his name, unless I had a fairer occasion--and justly committed to
prison; which begot many rumours in the common people, who in this nation think
they are not wise unless they be busy about what they understand not, and especially
The King received this news with so much discontent and restlessness
that he would not suffer the sun to set and leave him under this doubt; but sent
for Dr. Donne, and required his answer to the accusation; which was so clear and
satisfactory that the King said, "he was right glad he rested no longer under
the suspicion." When the King had said this, Dr. Donne kneeled down, and thanked
his Majesty, and protested his answer was faithful, and free from all collusion,
and therefore "desired that he might not rise till, as in like cases, he always
had from God, so he might have from his Majesty, some assurance that he stood
clear and fair in his opinion." At which the King raised him from his knees with
his own hands, and "protested he believed him; and that he knew he was an honest
man, and doubted not but that he loved him truly." And, having thus dismissed
him, he called some Lords of his Council into his chamber, and said with much
earnestness, "My Doctor is an honest man; and, my Lords, I was never better satisfied
with an answer than he hath now made me; and I always rejoice when I think that
by my means he became a Divine."
He was made Dean in the fiftieth year of his age, and in his fifty-fourth
year a dangerous sickness seized him, which inclined him to a consumption; but
God, as Job thankfully acknowledged, preserved his spirit, and kept his intellectuals
as clear and perfect as when that sickness first seized his body; but it continued
long, and threatened him with death, which he dreaded not.
Within a few days his distempers abated; and as his strength increased
so did his thankfulness to Almighty God, testified in his most excellent "Book
of Devotions," which he published at his recovery; in which the reader may see
the most secret thoughts that then possessed his soul, paraphrased and made public:
a book that may not unfitly be called a Sacred Picture of Spiritual Ecstasies,
occasioned and applicable to the emergencies of that sickness; which book, being
a composition of meditations, disquisitions, and prayers, he writ on his sick-bed;
herein imitating the holy Patriarchs, who were wont to build their altars in that
place where they had received their blessings.
This sickness brought him so near to the gates of death, and he saw the
grave so ready to devour him, that he would often say his recovery was supernatural:
but that God that then restored his health continued it to him till the fifty-ninth
year of his life: and then, in August 1630, being with his eldest daughter, Mrs.
Harvey, at Abury Hatch, in Essex, he there fell into a fever, which, with the
help of his constant infirmity--vapours from the spleen--hastened him into so
visible a consumption that his beholders might say, as St. Paul of himself, "He
dies daily;" and he might say with Job, "My welfare passeth away as a cloud, the
days of my affliction have taken hold of me, and weary nights are appointed for
Reader, this sickness continued long, not only weakening, but wearying
him so much, that my desire is he may now take some rest; and that before I speak
of his death thou wilt not think it an impertinent digression to look back with
me upon some observations of his life, which, whilst a gentle slumber gives rest
to his spirits, may, I hope, not unfitly, exercise thy consideration.
His marriage was the remarkable error of his life; an error which, though
he had a wit able and very apt to maintain paradoxes, yet he was very far from
justifying it: and though his wife's competent years, and other reasons, might
be justly urged to moderate severe censures, yet he would occasionally condemn
himself for it: and doubtless it had been attended with an heavy repentance, if
God had not blessed them with so mutual and cordial affections, as in the midst
of their sufferings made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly than the
banquets of dull and low-spirited people.
The recreations of his youth were poetry, in which he was so happy as
if nature and all her varieties had been made only to exercise his sharp wit and
high fancy; and in those pieces which were facetiously composed and carelessly
scattered,--most of them being written before the twentieth year of his age--it
may appear by his choice metaphors that both nature and all the arts joined to
assist him with their utmost skill.
It is a truth, that in his penitential years, viewing some of those pieces
that had been loosely--God knows, too loosely--scattered in his youth, he wished
they had been abortive, or so short-lived that his own eyes had witnessed their
funerals; but, though he was no friend to them, he was not so fallen out with
heavenly poetry, as to forsake that; no, not in his declining age; witnessed then
by many divine sonnets, and other high, holy, and harmonious composures. Yea,
even on his former sick-bed he wrote this heavenly hymn, expressing the great
joy that then possessed his soul, in the assurance of God's favour to him when
he composed it:--
TO GOD THE FATHER.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my' sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two:--but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done,
I fear no more."
I have the rather mentioned this hymn, for that he caused it to be set to a
most grave and solemn tune, and to be often sung to the organ by the choiristers
of St. Paul's Church, in his own hearing; especially at the Evening Service, and
at his return from his customary devotions in that place, did occasionally say
to a friend, "the words of this hymn have restored to me the same thoughts of
joy that possessed my soul in my sickness, when I composed it. And, O the power
of church-music! that harmony added to this hymn has raised the affections of
my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude; and I observe that I
always return from paying this public duty of prayer and praise to God, with an
unexpressible tranquillity of mind, and a willingness to leave the world."
After this manner did the disciples of our Saviour, and the best of Christians
in those ages of the Church nearest to His time, offer their praises to Almighty
God. And the reader of St. Augustine's life may there find, that towards his dissolution
he wept abundantly, that the enemies of Christianity had broke in upon them, and
profaned and ruined their sanctuaries, and because their public hymns and lauds
were lost out of their Churches. And after this manner have many devout souls
lifted up their hands and offered acceptable sacrifices unto Almighty God, where
Dr. Donne offered his, and now lies buried.
But now , Oh Lord! how is that place become desolate!
Before I proceed further, I think fit to inform the reader, that not
long before his death he caused to be drawn a figure of the Body of Christ extended
upon an anchor, like those which painters draw, when they would present us with
the picture of Christ crucified on the cross: his varying no otherwise than to
affix Him not to a cross, but to an anchor--the emblem of Hope;--this he caused
to be drawn in little, and then many of those figures thus drawn to be engraven
very small in Heliotropium stones, and set in gold; and of these he sent to many
of his dearest friends, to be used as seals, or rings, and kept as memorials of
him, and of his affection to them.
His dear friends and benefactors, Sir Henry Goodier and Sir Robert Drewry,
could not be of that number; nor could the Lady Magdalen Herbert, the mother of
George Herbert, for they had put off mortality, and taken possession of the grave
before him; but Sir Henry Wotton, and Dr. Hall, the then--late deceased--Bishop
of Norwich, were; and so were Dr. Duppa, Bishop of Salisbury, and Dr. Henry King,
Bishop of Chichester--lately deceased--men, in whom there was such a commixture
of general learning, of natural eloquence, and Christian humility, that they deserve
a commemoration by a pen equal to their own, which none have exceeded.
And in this enumeration of his friends, though many must be omitted,
yet that man of primitive piety, Mr. George Herbert, may not; I mean that George
Herbert, who was the author of "The Temple, or Sacred Poems and Ejaculations."
A book, in which by declaring his own spiritual conflicts, he hath comforted and
raised many a dejected and discomposed soul, and charmed them into sweet and quiet
thoughts; a book, by the frequent reading whereof, and the assistance of that
Spirit that seemed to inspire the author, the reader may attain habits of peace
and piety, and all the gifts of the Holy Ghost and Heaven: and may, by still reading,
still keep those sacred fires burning upon the altar of so pure a heart, as shall
free it from the anxieties of this world, and keep it fixed upon things that are
above. Betwixt this George Herbert and Dr. Donne, there was a long and dear friendship,
made up by such a sympathy of inclinations that they coveted and joyed to be in
each other's company; and this happy friendship was still maintained by many sacred
endearments; of which that which followeth may be some testimony.
"TO MR. GEORGE HERBERT;
SENT HIM WITH ONE OF MY SEALS OF THE ANCHOR AND CHRIST.
A Sheaf of Snakes used
heretofore to be my Seal,
which is the Crest of our
Qui prius assuetus serpentum falce tabellas
Signare, haec nostrae symbola parva domus,
Adscitus domui Domini.
Adopted in God's family, and so
My old coat lost, into new Arms I go.
The Cross, my Seal in Baptism, spread below,
Does by that form into an Anchor grow.
Crosses grow Anchors, bear as thou shouldst do
Thy Cross, and that Cross grows an Anchor too.
But He that makes our Crosses Anchors thus,
Is Christ, who there is crucified for us.
Yet with this I may my first Serpents hold;-
God gives new blessings, and yet leaves the old--
The Serpent, may, as wise, my pattern be;
My poison, as he feeds on dust, that's me.
And, as he rounds the earth to murder, sure
He is my death; but on the Cross, my cure,
Crucify nature then; and then implore
All grace from Him, crucified there before.
When all is Cross, and that Cross Anchor grown
This Seal's a Catechism, not a Seal alone.
Under that little Seal great gifts I send,
Both works and pray'rs, pawns and fruits of a friend.
O! may that Saint that rides on our Great Seal,
To you that bear his name, large bounty deal.
" IN SACRAM ANCHORAM PISCATORIS
Quod Crux nequibat fixa clavique additi,--
Tenere Christum scilicet ne ascenderet,
Although the Cross could not here Christ detain,
When nail'd unto't, but He ascends again;
Nor yet thy eloquence here keep Him still,
But only whilst thou speak'st--this Anchor will:
Nor canst thou be content, unless thou to
This certain Anchor add a Seal; and so
The water and the earth both unto thee
Do owe the symbol of their certainty.
Let the world reel, we and all ours stand sure,
This holy cable's from all storms secure.
I return to tell the reader, that, besides these verses to his dear Mr. Herbert,
and that Hymn that I mentioned to be sung in the choir of St. Paul's Church, he
did also shorten and beguile many sad hours by composing other sacred ditties;
and he writ an Hymn on his death-bed, which bears this title:--
"AN HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS.
March 23, 1630.
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with Thy Choir of Saints, for evermore
I shall be made Thy music, as I come
I tune my instrument here at the door,
And, what I must do then, think here before.
Since my Physicians by their loves are grown
Cosmographers; and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed--
So, in His purple wrapt, receive my Lord!
By these His thorns, give me His other Crown
And, as to other souls I preach'd Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
'That He may raise; therefore the Lord throws down.'"
If these fall under the censure of a soul, whose too much mixture with earth
makes it unfit to judge of these high raptures and illuminations, let him know,
that many holy and devout men have thought the soul of Prudentius to be most refined,
when, not many days before his death, "he charged it to present his God each morning
and evening with a new and spiritual song;" justified by the example of King David
and the good King Hezekiah, who, upon the renovation of his years paid his thankful
vows to Almighty God in a royal hymn, which he concludes in these words: "The
Lord was ready to save; therefore I will sing my songs to the stringed instruments
all the days of my life in the Temple of my God."
The latter part of his life may be said to be a continued study; for
as he usually preached once a week, if not oftener, so after his sermon he never
gave his eyes rest, till he had chosen out a new text, and that night cast his
sermon into a form, and his text into divisions, and the next day betook himself
to consult the Fathers, and so commit his meditations to his memory, which was
excellent. But upon Saturday he usually gave himself and his mind a rest from
the weary burthen of his week's meditations, and usually spent that day in visitation
of friends, or some other diversions of his thoughts; and would say, "that
he gave both his body and mind that refreshment, that he might be enabled
to do the work of the day following, not faintly, but with courage and cheerfulness."
Nor was his age only so industrious, but in the most unsettled days of
his youth, his bed was not able to detain him beyond the hour of four in a
morning; and it was no common business that drew him out of his chamber till
past ten; all which time was employed in study; though he took great liberty after
it. And if this seem strange, it may gain a belief by the visible fruits of his
labours; some of which remain as testimonies of what is here written: for he left
the resultance of 1400 authors, most of them abridged and analysed with his own
hand: he left also six score of his sermons, all written with his own hand, also
an exact and laborious Treatise concerning self-murder, called Biathanatos; wherein
all the laws violated by that act are diligently surveyed, and judiciously censured:
a Treatise written in his younger days, which alone might declare him then not
only perfect in the Civil and Canon Law, but in many other such studies and arguments,
as enter not into the consideration of many that labour to be thought great clerks,
and pretend to know all things.
Nor were these only found in his study, but all businesses that passed
of any public consequence, either in this or any of our neighbour-nations, he
abbreviated either in Latin, or in the language of that nation, and kept them
by him for useful memorials. So he did the copies of divers Letters and Cases
of Conscience that had concerned his friends, with his observations and solutions
of them; and divers other businesses of importance, all particularly and methodically
digested by himself.
He did prepare to leave the world before life left him; making his Will
when no faculty of his soul was damped or made defective by pain or sickness,
or he surprised by a sudden apprehension of death: but it was made with mature
deliberation, expressing himself an impartial father, by making his children's
portions equal; and a lover of his friends, whom he remembered with legacies fitly
and discreetly chosen and bequeathed. I cannot forbear a nomination of some of
them; for methinks they be persons that seem to challenge a recordation in this
place; as namely, to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Grimes, he gave that striking
clock, which he had long worn in his pocket; to his dear friend and executor,
Dr. King--late Bishop of Chichester--that Model of Gold of the Synod of Dort,
with which the States presented him at his last being at the Hague; and the two
pictures of Padre Paolo and Fulgentio, men of his acquaintance when he travelled
Italy, and of great note in that nation for their remarkable learning.--To his
ancient friend Dr. Brook--that married him--Master of Trinity College in Cambridge,
he gave the picture of the Blessed Virgin and Joseph.--To Dr. Winniff who succeeded
him in the Deanery--he gave a picture called the Skeleton.--To the succeeding
Dean, who was not then known, he gave many necessaries of worth, and useful for
his house; and also several pictures and ornaments for the Chapel, with a desire
that they might be registered, and remain as a legacy to his successors.--To the
Earls of Dorset and Carlisle he gave several pictures; and so he did to many other
friends; legacies, given rather to express his affection, than to make any addition
to their estates: but unto the poor he was full of charity, and unto many others,
who, by his constant and long continued bounty, might entitle themselves to be
his alms-people: for all these he made provision, and so largely, as, having then
six children living, might to some appear more than proportionable to his estate.
I forbear to mention any more, lest the reader may think I trespass upon his patience:
but I will beg his favour, to present him with the beginning and end of his Will.
"In the name of the blessed and glorious Trinity. Amen. I John Donne,
by the mercy of Christ Jesus, and by the calling of the Church of England, Priest,
being at this time in good health and perfect understanding--praised be God therefore--do
hereby make my last Will and Testament in manner and form following:--
"First, I give my gracious God an entire sacrifice of body and soul,
with my most humble thanks for that assurance which His Blessed Spirit imprints
in me now of the Salvation of the one, and the Resurrection of the other; and
for that constant and cheerful resolution, which the same Spirit hath established
in me, to live and die in the religion now professed in the Church of England.
In expectation of that Resurrection, I desire my body may be buried--in the most
private manner that may be--in that place of St. Paul's Church, London, that the
now Residentiaries have at my request designed for that purpose, &c.--And
this my last Will and Testament, made in the fear of God,--whose mercy I humbly
beg, and constantly rely upon in Jesus Christ--and in perfect love and charity
with all the world--whose pardon I ask, from the lowest of my servants, to the
highest of my superiors--written all with my own hand, and my name subscribed
to every page, of which there are five in number.
"Sealed December 13, 1630."
Nor was this blessed sacrifice of charity expressed only at his death,
but in his life also, by a cheerful and frequent visitation of any friend whose
mind was dejected, or his fortune necessitous; he was inquisitive after the wants
of prisoners, and redeemed many from prison, that lay for their fees or small
debts: he was a continual giver to poor scholars, both of this and foreign nations.
Besides what he gave with his own hand, he usually sent a servant, or a discreet
and trusty friend, to distribute his charity to all the prisons in London, at
all the festival times of the year, especially at the Birth and Resurrection of
our Saviour. He gave an hundred pounds at one time to an old friend, whom he had
known live plentifully, and by a too liberal heart and carelessness became decayed
in his estate; and when the receiving of it was denied, by the gentleman's saying,
"He wanted not;"--for the reader may note, that as there be some spirits so generous
as to labour to conceal and endure a sad poverty, rather than expose themselves
to those blushes that attend the confession of it; so there be others, to whom
nature and grace have afforded such sweet and compassionate souls, as to pity
and prevent the distresses of mankind;--which I have mentioned because of Dr.
Donne's reply, whose answer was, "I know you want not what will sustain nature;
for a little will do that; but my desire is, that you, who in the days of your
plenty have cheered and raised the hearts of so many of your dejected friends,
would now receive this from me, and use it as a cordial for the cheering of your
own:" and upon these terms it was received. He was an happy reconciler of many
differences in the families of his friends and kindred,--which he never undertook
faintly; for such undertakings have usually faint effects--and they had such a
faith in his judgment and impartiality, that he never advised them to any thing
in vain. He was, even to her death, a most dutiful son to his mother, careful
to provide for her supportation, of which she had been destitute, but that God
raised him up to prevent her necessities; who having sucked in the religion of
the Roman Church with the mother's milk, spent her estate in foreign countries,
to enjoy a liberty in it, and died in his house but three months before him.
And to the end it may appear how just a steward he was of his Lord and
Master's revenue, I have thought fit to let the reader know, that after his entrance
into his Deanery, as he numbered his years, he, at the foot of a private account,
to which God and His Angels were only witnesses with him,--computed first his
revenue, then what was given to the poor, and other pious uses; and lastly, what
rested for him and his; and having done that, he then blessed each year's poor
remainder with a thankful prayer; which, for that they discover a more than common
devotion, the reader shall partake some of them in his own words:--
So all is that remains this year [1624-5]--
"Deo Opt. Max. benigno largitori, a me, at ab iis quibus haec a me reservantur,
gloria et gratia in aeternum. Amen."
To God all Good, all Great, the benevolent Bestower, by me and by them, for
whom, by me, these sums are laid up, be glory and grace ascribed for ever. Amen.
So that this year, [1626,] God hath blessed me and mine with--
"Multiplicatae sunt super nos misericordiae tuae, Domine."
Thy mercies, Oh Lord! are multiplied upon us.
"Da, Domine, ut quae ex immensa bonitate tua nobis elargiri dignatus sis, in
quorumcunque manus devenerint, in tuam semper cedant gloriam. Amen."
Grant, Oh Lord! that what out of Thine infinite bounty Thou hast vouchsafed
to lavish upon us, into whosoever hands it may devolve, may always be improved
to thy glory. Amen.
"In fine horum sex annorum manet [1627-8-9]--
"Quid habeo quod non accepi a Domino? Largitur etiam ut quae largitus est sua
iterum fiant, bono eorum usu; ut quemadmodum nec officiis hujus mundi, nee loci
in quo me posuit dignitati, nec servis, nec egenis, in toto hujus anni curriculo
mihi conscius sum me defuisse; ita et liberi, quibus quae supersunt, supersunt,
grato animo ea accipiant, et beneficum authorem recognoscant. Amen."
At the end of these six years remains--
What have I, which I have not received from the Lord? He bestows, also,
to the intent that what He hath bestowed may revert to Him by the proper use of
it: that, as I have not consciously been wanting to myself during the whole course
of the past year, either in discharging my secular duties, in retaining the dignity
of my station, or in my conduct towards my servants and the poor--so my children
for whom remains whatever is remaining, may receive it with gratitude, and acknowledge
the beneficent Giver. Amen.
But I return from my long digression.
We left the Author sick in Essex, where he was forced to spend much of
that winter, by reason of his disability to remove from that place; and having
never, for almost twenty years, omitted his personal attendance on his Majesty
in that month, in which he was to attend and preach to him; nor having ever been
left out of the roll and number of Lent Preachers, and there being then--in January,
1630--a report brought to London, or raised there, that Dr. Donne was dead; that
report gave him occasion to write the following letter to a dear friend:--
"Sir, This advantage you and my other friends have by my frequent fevers, that
I am so much the oftener at the gates of Heaven; and this advantage by the solitude
and close imprisonment that they reduce me to after, that I am so much the oftener
at my prayers, in which I shall never leave out your happiness; and I doubt not,
among His other blessings, God will add some one to you for my prayers. A man
would almost be content to die--if there were no other benefit in death--to hear
of so much sorrow, and so much good testimony from good men, as I--God be blessed
for it--did upon the report of my death; yet I perceive it went not through all;
for one writ to me, that some--and he said of my friends--conceived I was not
so ill as I pretended, but withdrew myself to live at ease, discharged of preaching.
It is an unfriendly, and, God knows, an ill-grounded interpretation; for I have
always been sorrier when I could not preach, than any could be they could not
hear me. It hath been my desire, and God may be pleased to grant it, that I might
die in the pulpit; if not that, yet that I might take my death in the pulpit;
that is, die the sooner by occasion of those labours. Sir, I hope to see you presently
after Candlemas; about which time will fall my Lent Sermon at Court, except my
Lord Chamberlain believe me to be dead, and so leave me out of the roll: but as
long as I live, and am not speechless, I would not willingly, decline that service.
I have better leisure to write, than you to read; yet I would not willingly oppress
you with too much letter. God so bless you and your son, as I wish to
Your poor friend and Servant
In Christ Jesus,
Before that month ended, he was appointed to preach upon his old constant day,
the first Friday in Lent: he had notice of it, and had in his sickness so prepared
for that employment, that as he had long thirsted for it, so he resolved his weakness
should not hinder his journey; he came therefore to London some few days before
his appointed day of preaching. At his coming thither, many of his friends--who
with sorrow saw his sickness had left him but so much flesh as did only cover
his bones--doubted his strength to perform that task, and did therefore dissuade
him from undertaking it, assuring him, however, it was like to shorten his life:
but he passionately denied their requests, saying "he would not doubt that that
God, who in so many weaknesses had assisted him with an unexpected strength, would
now withdraw it in his last employment; professing an holy ambition to perform
that sacred work." And when, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in
the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification
by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face. And doubtless
many did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel (chap. 37:3), "Do these bones live?
or, can that soul organise that tongue, to speak so long time as the sand in that
glass will move towards its centre, and measure out an hour of this dying man's
unspent life? Doubtless it cannot." And yet, after some faint pauses in his zealous
prayer, his strong desires enabled his weak body to discharge his memory of his
preconceived meditations, which were of dying; the text being, "To God the Lord
belong the issues from death." Many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint
and hollow voice, professing they thought the text prophetically chosen, and that
Dr. Donne had preached his own Funeral Sermon.
Being full of joy that God had enabled him to perform this desired duty,
he hastened to his house; out of which he never moved, till, like St. Stephen,
"he was carried "by devout men to his grave."
The next day after his sermon, his strength being much wasted, and his
spirits so spent as indisposed him to business or to talk, a friend that had often
been a witness of his free and facetious discourse asked him, "Why are you sad?"
To whom he replied with a countenance so full of cheerful gravity, as gave testimony
of an inward tranquillity of mind, and of a soul willing to take a farewell of
this world, and said:--
"I am not sad; but most of the night past I have entertained myself with
many thoughts of several friends that have left me here, and are gone to that
place from which they shall not return; and that within a few days I also shall
go hence, and be no more seen. And my preparation for this change is become my
nightly meditation upon my bed, which my infirmities have now made restless to
me. But at this present time, I was in a serious contemplation of the providence
and goodness of God to me; to me, who am less than the least of His mercies: and
looking back upon my life past, I now plainly see it was His hand that prevented
me from all temporal employment; and that it was His will I should ever settle
nor thrive till I entered into the Ministry; in which I have now lived almost
twenty years--I hope to His glory,--and by which, I most humbly thank Him, I have
been enabled to requite most of those friends which shewed me kindness when my
fortune was very low, as God knows it was: and--as it hath occasioned the expression
of my gratitude--I thank God most of them have stood in need of my requital. I
have lived to be useful and comfortable to my good Father-in-law, Sir George More,
whose patience God hath been pleased to exercise with many temporal crosses; I
have maintained my own mother, whom it hath pleased God, after a plentiful fortune
in her younger days, to bring to great decay in her very old age. I have quieted
the consciences of many, that have groaned under the burden of a wounded spirit,
whose prayers I hope are available for me. I cannot plead innocency of life, especially
of my youth; but I am to be judged by a merciful God, who is not willing to see
what I have done amiss. And though of myself I have nothing to present to Him
but sins and misery, yet I know He looks not upon me now as I am of myself, but
as I am in my Saviour, and hath given me, even at this present time, some testimonies
by His Holy Spirit, that I am of the number of His Elect: I am therefore full
of inexpressible joy, and shall die in peace."
I must here look so far back, as to tell the reader that at his first
return out of Essex, to preach his last sermon, his old friend and physician,
Dr. Fox--a man of great worth--came to him to consult his health; and that after
a sight of him, and some queries concerning his distempers he told him, "That
by cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of
his restoration to health"; but he passionately denied to drink it. Nevertheless,
Dr. Fox, who loved him most entirely, wearied him with solicitations, till he
yielded to take it for ten days; at the end of which time he told Dr. Fox, "He
had drunk it more to satisfy him, than to recover his health; and that he would
not drink it ten days longer, upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years
added to his life; for he loved it not; and was so far from fearing Death, which
to others is the King of Terrors, that he longed for the day of his dissolution."
It is observed, that a desire of glory or commendation is rooted in the
very nature of man; and that those of the severest and most mortified lives, though
they may become so humble as to banish self-flattery, and such weeds as naturally
grow there; yet they have not been able to kill this desire of glory, but that
like our radical heat, it will both live and die with us; and many think it should
do so; and we want not sacred examples to justify the desire of having our memory
to outlive our lives; which I mention, because Dr. Donne, by the persuasion of
Dr. Fox, easily yielded at this very time to have a monument made for him; but
Dr. Fox undertook not to persuade him how, or what monument it should be; that
was left to Dr. Donne himself.
A monument being resolved upon, Dr. Donne sent for a carver to make for
him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height
of it; and to bring with it a board, of the just height of his body. "These being
got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his
picture, which was taken as followeth.--Several charcoal fires being first made
in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his
hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied
with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually
fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave. Upon this urn he thus
stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might
shew his lean, pale and death-like face, which was purposely turned towards the
East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus."
In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the picture was fully
finished, he caused it to be set by his bedside, where it continued and became
his hourly object till his death, and was then given to his dearest friend and
executor Dr. Henry King, then chief Residentiary of St. Paul's, who caused him
to be thus carved in one entire piece of white marble, as it now stands in that
Church; and by Dr. Donne's own appointment, these words were to be affixed to
it as an epitaph:--
SAC. THEOL. PROFESS.
POST VARIA STUDIA, QUIBUS AB ANNIS TENERRIMIS FIDELITER, NEC INFELICITER
INSTINCTU ET IMPULSU SP. SANCTI, MONITU
REGIS JACOBI, ORDINES SACROS AMPLEXUS, ANNO SUI JESU, MDCXIV. ET SUAE AETATIS
DECANATU HUJUS ECCLESIAE INDUTUS,
XXVII. NOVEMBRIS, MDCXXI.
EXUTUS MORTE ULTIMO DIE MARTII, MDCXXXI.
HIC LICET IN OCCIDUO CINERE, ASPICIT EUM
CUJUS NOMEN EST ORIENS.
And now, having brought him through the many labyrinths and perplexities of
a various life, even to the gates of death and the grave; my desire is, he may
rest, till I have told my reader that I have seen many pictures of him, in several
habits, and at several ages, and in several postures: and I now mention this because
I have seen one picture of him, drawn by a curious hand, at his age of eighteen,
with his sword, and what other adornments might then suit with the present fashions
of youth and the giddy gaieties of that age; and his motto then was--
"How much shall I be changed "Before I am changed!"
And if that young, and his now dying picture were at this time set together,
every beholder might say, "Lord! how much is Dr. Donne already changed, before
he is changed!" And the view of them might give my reader occasion to ask himself
with some amazement, "Lord! how much may I also, that am now in health, be changed
before I am changed; before this vile, this changeable body shall put off mortality!"
and therefore to prepare for it.--But this is not writ so much for my reader's
memento, as to tell him, that Dr. Donne would often in his private discourses,
and often publicly in his sermons, mention the many changes both of his body and
mind, especially of his mind from a vertiginous giddiness; and would as often
say, "His great and most blessed change was from a temporal to a spiritual employment",
in which he was so happy, that he accounted the former part of his life to be
lost; and the beginning of it to be, from his first entering into Sacred Orders,
and serving his most merciful God at His altar.
Upon Monday, after the drawing this picture, he took his last leave of
his beloved study; and, being sensible of his hourly decay, retired himself to
his bed-chamber, and that week sent at several times for many of his most considerable
friends, with whom he took a solemn and deliberate farewell, commending to their
considerations some sentences useful for the regulation of their lives; and then
dismissed them, as good Jacob did his sons, with a spiritual benediction. The
Sunday following, he appointed his servants, that if there were any business yet
undone, that concerned him or themselves, it should be prepared against Saturday
next; for after that day he would not mix his thoughts with any thing that concerned
this world; nor ever did; but, as Job, so he "waited for the appointed day of
And now he was so happy as to have nothing to do but to die, to do which
he stood in need of no longer time; for he had studied it long, and to so happy
a perfection, that in a former sickness he called God to witness (in his "Book
of Devotions," written then), "He was that minute ready to deliver his soul into
his Hands, if that minute God would determine his dissolution." In that sickness
he begged of God the constancy to be preserved in that estate for ever; and his
patient expectation to have his immortal soul disrobed from her garment of mortality,
makes me confident that he now had a modest assurance that his prayers were then
heard, and his petition granted. He lay fifteen days earnestly expecting his
hourly change; and in the last hour of his last day, as his body melted away,
and vapoured into spirit, his soul having, I verily believe, some revelation of
the beatifical vision, he said, "I were miserable if I might not die"; and
after those words, closed many periods of his faint breath by saying often, "Thy
kingdom come, Thy will be done." His speech, which had long been his ready and
faithful servant, left him not till the last minute of his life, and then forsook
him, not to serve another master--for who speaks like him,--but died before him;
for that it was then become useless to him, that now conversed with God on earth
as Angels are said to do in heaven, only by thoughts and looks. Being speechless,
and seeing heaven by that illumination by which he saw it, he did, as St. Stephen
, "look stedfastly into it, till he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand
of God His Father"; and being satisfied with this blessed sight, as his soul ascended,
and his last breath departed from him, he closed his own eyes, and then disposed
his hands and body into such a posture, as required not the least alteration by
those that came to shroud him.
Thus variable, thus virtuous was the life; thus excellent, thus exemplary
was the death of this memorable man.
He was buried in that place of St. Paul's Church, which he had appointed
for that use some years before his death; and by which he passed daily to pay
his public devotions to Almighty God--who was then served twice a day by a public
form of prayer and praises in that place; but he was not buried privately, though
he desired it; for, beside an unnumbered number of others, many persons of nobility,
and of eminence for learning, who did love and honour him in his life, did show
it at his death, by a voluntary and sad attendance of his body to the grave, where
nothing was so remarkable as a public sorrow.
To which place of his burial some mournful friends repaired, and, as
Alexander the Great did to the grave of the famous Achilles, so they strewed his
with an abundance of curious and costly flowers; which course they--who were never
yet known--continued morning and evening for many days, not ceasing till the stones
that were taken up in that Church to give his body admission into the cold earth--now
his bed of rest--were again by the mason's art so levelled and firmed as they
had been formerly, and his place of burial undistinguishable to common view.
The next day after his burial some unknown friend, some one of the many
lovers and admirers of his virtue and learning, writ this epitaph with a coal
on the wall over his grave:--
Reader! I am to let thee know,
Donne's body only lies below;
For, could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies!
Nor was this all the honour done to his reverend ashes; for, as there be some
persons that will not receive a reward for that for which God accounts Himself
a debtor; persons that dare trust God with their charity, and without a witness;
so there was by some grateful unknown friend, that thought Dr. Donne's memory
ought to be perpetuated, an hundred marks sent to his faithful friends and executors
(Dr. King and Dr. Montford), towards the making of his monument. It was not for
many years known by whom; but, after the death of Dr. Fox, it was known that it
was he that sent it; and he lived to see as lively a representation of his dead
friend as marble can express: a statue indeed so like Dr. Donne, that--as his
friend Sir Henry Wotton hath expressed himself--"It seems to breathe faintly,
and posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial miracle."
He was of stature moderately tall; of a straight and equally-proportioned
body, to which all his words and actions gave an unexpressible addition of comeliness.
The melancholy and pleasant humour were in him so contempered, that each
gave advantage to the other, and made his company one of the delights of mankind.
His fancy was unimitably high, equalled only by his great wit; both being
made useful by a commanding judgment.
His aspect was cheerful, and such as gave a silent testimony of a clear
knowing soul, and of a conscience at peace with itself.
His melting eye showed that he had a soft heart, full of noble compassion;
of too brave a soul to offer injuries, and too much a Christian not to pardon
them in others.
He did much contemplate--especially after he entered into his sacred
calling--the mercies of Almighty God, the immortality of the soul, and the joys
of heaven: and would often say in a kind of sacred ecstacy--"Blessed be God that
He is God, only and divinely like Himself."
He was by nature highly passionate, but more apt to reluct at the excesses
of it. A great lover of the offices of humanity, and of so merciful a spirit that
he never beheld the miseries of mankind without pity and relief.
He was earnest and unwearied in the search of knowledge, with which his
vigorous soul is now satisfied, and employed in a continual praise of that God
that first breathed it into his active body: that body which once was a temple
of the Holy Ghost, and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust:--
But I shall see it re-animated.
Donne (or Dunne), John 1572-1631. John Donne was the
son of John Donne, a prosperous London ironmonger, and a daughter of John Heywood,
the dramatist. Jasper Heywood, his uncle, was a Jesuit, while his brother Henry
died in Newgate in 1593 after being arrested for harbouring a priest. On his mother's
side, Donne was the great-grandson of Thomas More's sister Elizabeth, so a more
firmly Catholic background could hardly be imagined. He was educated at both Oxford
and Cambridge but as a Catholic he could not take a degree. About 1590 he travelled
abroad; in 1591 he resumed his studies at the Inns of Court, working for six hours
each day on language, law, and theology and spending the rest of his waking hours
enjoying the theatre and all the pleasures available to a personable young man
in London at that time.
Donne travelled again in Europe between 1594 and 1596 and then, through his
Oxford friend Sir Henry Wotton, met the Earl of Essex. He took part in Essex's
expeditions to Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) and on the latter became friendly
with Thomas Egerton. Egerton's father was Sir Thomas, Lord Keeper of the Great
Seal and a powerful man in public life. Donne became his secretary in 1598 and
entered parliament in 1601; his father had died in 1576 and he was making his
own way in the world - not without success, it seemed. He must, by this time,
have abandoned the faith of his fathers; he could not venture into public office
as a Catholic. But disaster came from another direction; he fell in love with
Anne, daughter of Sir George More and niece of lady Egerton, and unwisely married
her in secret without the blessing of her father. Egerton dismissed him and More
procured his imprisonment. Donne's hopes of a public career were at an end and,
though he only spent a few days in prison, his prospects were bleak. More allowed
the marriage to proceed after a few months and the lovers were reunited; but Donne's
private means were exhausted, and his family began to increase.
From 1602 to 1606 the poet and his family lived in the house of Donne's friend
Sir Francis Woolley at Pyrford, where Donne, in the hope of resuming his career,
studied canon and civil law. He went to the continent for a year as travelling
companion to Sir Walter Chute and returned to the vicinity of London in 1606,
taking a small house at Mitcham. He enjoyed the patronage of the countesses of
Bedford and Huntingdon and Sir Robert Drury but they could do nothing to advance
his public career. Fortunately Sir George More relented sufficiently to pay his
daughter's dowry in 1608 and the household enjoyed a little ease. Donne accompanied
Sir Robert Drury abroad in 1611 and on his return was able to move his household
back to London. He wrote for his patrons and assisted his friend Thomas Morton,
Dean of Gloucester, in his controversies with the Catholics, and it was Morton
who perceived that the best way forward for Donne would be for him to enter the
Church. But Donne had not given up hope of advancement in public life - that was
what he-really wanted. Yet the secular world apparently had no use for him, whereas
his religious writings, Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave,
impressed King James. Meanwhile Donne was lucky in the patronage of the king's
favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, of Lord Hay, and of Lord Ellesmere
(Egerton, now elevated and in a forgiving mood) and with their support he approached
the king. The king made it clear that he wanted Donne in the Church and the poet
submitted, taking holy orders in 1615.
Ironically, Donne now found himself at the centre of affairs. He was made a
royal chaplain and reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn and sent on a diplomatic
mission to Germany with Viscount Doncaster. His sermons made him famous and attracted
large crowds, and King James made him Dean of St. Paul's in 1621. Sadly, his Anne
enjoyed only two years of Donne's eminence; she died in 1617, having borne 12
children, 7 of whom survived.
Donne suffered a severe illness in 1623 and during his recovery began to write
his Devotions, which was an acknowledgement of mortality, but he returned
to his work in 1624 as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, where one of his admiring
parishioners was Izaak Walton. Donne was beginning to run down; his health was
precarious by 1630 and on the first Friday of Lent 1631 he preached his last sermon,
Death's Duell, in the presence of King Charles 1; he knew that he was dying.
The end came on 31 March 1631.
The poetry of John Donne is, for most readers, of two kinds - the superb love
poetry and the religious poetry - and it is easily assumed that the latter resulted
from the conversion of a man who, after many trials, rejected the nature of his
younger self - the high-spirited young man of the Inns of Court and the naval
expeditions who found exquisite delight in sex and gave us some of the finest
love poems in the English language. We have no explicit statements from the poet
himself but the outline of his life shows that there was no change or rejection
- rather a progression. His love for Anne More, for whom he sacrificed everything,
must have been profound and lasting, and in its first impact overwhelming, to
have made him behave so foolishly. His love poems were written before his marriage;
so was The Progresse of the Soule, and the famous third Satyre,
which found him anxiously pondering the question of faith and criticizing in the
harshest terms the religious follies of the times. Donne has to be recognized
as a man for whom such matters were of paramount importance; his Catholic birth
and training implanted a preoccupation with the metaphysical, while his passionate
nature ensured that all such questions would be subjected to searching examination.
By the time he reached his 30s he had found the old religion wanting, and the
practice of it - particularly in its Jesuitical teachings - inimical. By this
time, like the passionate young man he was, he had experience of physical love,
and he was 26 years old when he first met Anne More.
Important factors in the subsequent development of his career were his own
ambitions and the nature of the Church in those times. Donne was very keen to
get on in the world and his circle of friends was a mixture of noblemen, poets,
and intellectuals; he needed a'place'in that world and he was miserable out of
it, as a man of his learning would be. It is pleasant to remember, in passing,
how well supported he was in the bad times, by his friends and patrons. The Church
itself has always been a legitimate field for advancement; it is now, but the
range was far wider then, and churchmen could play a much larger part in affairs.
Donne's friend Morton saw it as the place for him; not the Catholic Church, which
he had left, but the reformed one, where Donne could take his obvious gifts -
and his wife and children. But seven or eight years were to pass before Donne
took the step and entered the final stage of his literary career also.
Very little of Donne's work was published during his lifetime, though much
of his poetry was circulating in manuscript. The first stanza of 'The Expiration'
was published in 1609 with a musical setting in a book of Ayres by A. Ferrabosco;
'Upon Mr Thomas Coryats Crudities' is one of the panegyrics in Coryats Crudities
(1611). An Anatomie ofthe World (The First Anniversary) was published in
1611 and again in the following year, with An Anatomie of the World. The Progresse
of the Soule (The Second Anniversary), and the two poems appeared together
in further editions in 1621 and 1625. The first stanza of 'Breake of day' was
published with a musical setting in The Second Booke of Ayres by W. Corkine
(1612); 'Elegie upon the untimely death of the incomparable Prince Henry' was
published with other elegies in Joshua Sylvester's Lachrimae lachrimarum
(1613). Donne's prose appears in several sermons, singly or in small groups of
two or three: Pseudo-Martyr (1610), Ignatius his Conclave (1611),
and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624).
The exact dates of the composition of the majority of his poems cannot be ascertained.
The Progresse of the Soule is actually dated, 16 August 1601, and both
'Anniversaries' must belong to the period of Sir Robert Drury's patronage since
they commemorate his daughter Elizabeth. Of this period also are Biathanatos
(an essay on suicide) and Essays in Divinity. For the most part the order
of the poems in the first published collection of 1633 is accepted for the want
of any more positive chronology. The collection was enlarged in 1635 and 1650.
Songs and Sonets belong to Donne's early manhood 'ere he was twenty-five
years old' according to his friend, Ben Jonson. It is a group of poems so full
of famous lines as to defy quotation; there can be no lover of English poetry
who does not know 'The Good-Morrow', the song beginning 'Goe, and catche a falling
starre', 'Lovers Infinitenesse', 'The Prohibition', and the rest. Epigrams
belongs to the same period, in Sir Herbert Grierson's opinion. Sixteen of them
were published in the 1633 collection, and three more were found in manuscripts.
Elegies and Heroicall Epistle (the last-named is grouped with the
Elegies by Grierson) are believed to belong to the last decade of the 16th
century and to Donne's meeting with his Anne. Donne's love poetry reaches new
heights in the Elegies; Donne is at his greatest in these poems and his
lines convey, as perhaps no other poetry does, the importance of the flesh in
the union of souls.
The Progresse of the Soule. Infinitati Sacrum. 16 Augusti 1601. Metempsychosis.
Poema Satyricon is, fortunately, dated. Donne wrote 51 stanzas of ten lines
each; the 52nd seems to be a later, hurried 'full-stop' to what was intended to
be a longer poem but one he knew that he would not complete. The work is ambitious:
the passage of the soul from vegetable origins (the apple in the Garden of Eden),
through animal metamorphoses, to its final form contained in man. It is also a
very peculiar conception and various theories have been advanced about the poet's
intentions: Ben Jonson declared that he was tracing the progress of the heretic
soul, from Cain to Calvin. But Donne was, by this time, a long distance from his
Catholic background and the final stanza suggests that he had intended to examine
the nature of good and evil in relative terms. An opening prose epistle refers
to the doctrine of metempsychosis ('the Pithagorian') and extends Pythagoras to
include the vegetable world. In the same year as he began, and put down, this
poem, Donne resolved his emotional problems by marrying Anne More in secret; the
poem's conception and partial execution may reflect the crisis in his life.
Epithalamions consists of four poems: a marriage song for Princess Elizabeth's
marriage (February 1613); an 'Ecclogue' and marriage song for the Earl of Somerset's
marriage (December 1613); and 'Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne', which is
attributed to his student days there. The first three Satyres are dated
1593 in the Harleian Manuscript; the other two are placed 1597-1600 by Sir Herbert
Grierson. The deliberately harsh and lumpy style serves the poet's purpose but
makes them a torment for the modern reader, whose distance from the subjects cancels
the purpose anyway. The third Satyre, already mentioned, is different from
the others in the combination of self-examination with criticism. Letters to
Severall Personages are verse epistles to various friends and patrons, most
of them written between the time of Donne's disgrace and his entry into the Church.
They are the least read of Donne's poems and are chiefly of interest as a reflection
of his condition in those years. The subject of the two Anniversaries was
Elizabeth Drury, daughter of Donne's patron, who died at the age of 15 in 1610.
The poet commemorated her in 'A Funerall Elegie', and in 1611 on the anniversary
of her death wrote An Anatomie of the World: The First Anniversary. He
wrote the next in 1612, An Anatomie of the World: The Progresse of the Soule
while travelling with Sir Robert Drury in Europe. The poems are, inevitably, much
more about John Donne than about Elizabeth Drury, whom the poet never met; they
are his reflections on death and contain memorable lines, but they are not easy
to understand. Of less interest are the Epicedes and Obsequies of the same
period: the subtitle, 'Upon the deaths of sundry Personages', explains the occasions
for them. Donne's genius was not always present; it is difficult to imagine a
poet less fitted to write to order.
In the Divine Poems Donne returns to the high level of the Elegies.
His Catholic background serves him in the idea of meditation, in the method of
Ignatius Loyola, on such great Christian issues as the Crucifixion, the Last judgment,
and death. Most of 'The Holy Sonnets' were written before he entered the Church
in 1615 but three, found only in the Westmoreland Manuscript and not included
in the collection of 1633, were written after the loss of his wife in 1617. 'A
Hymne to Christ', 'The Lamentations of Jeremy' Ueremiah), 'A Hymne to God my God,
in my Sicknesse', and'A Hymne to God the Father' were written after his ordination.
Donne's prose is clearly separated into secular and sacred by the circumstances
of his life. Juvenilia: Or Paradoxes and Problems was his essay as a young
man into a form fashionable at that time, one that exercised the wit and erudition
of the writer. The casuistical essay on suicide, Biathanatos, was written
about 1608; Pseudo-Martyr (published 1610) declared that Catholics should
take an oath of allegiance to their king, even if he was a Protestant; Ignatius
his Conclave (published 1611) is a satire on Loyola and the Jesuits and displays
Donne's awareness of the new scientific learning. Essays in Divinity was
a two-part series of reflections on the Creator and the Deliverance and was probably
written about 1614. The famous Devotions upon Emergent Occasions was written
during the winter of 1623, after Donne had been seriously ill and close to death.
His thoughts and feelings during his journey through the valley of the shadow
of death were expressed in a triple exercise: 'Meditations upon our humane condition',
'Expostulations, .and debatements with God', and 'Prayers, upon the severall occasions,
to Him'. Meditation XVII, beginning 'Perchance hee for whom this bell tolls',
is one of the most famous pieces of prose in the English language; number XII
'What will not kill a man if a vapor will?' - is almost as well known. The
Sermons, upon which Donne's greatest fame as a prose writer rests, were written
either before they were delivered or just after; he had no use for extempore preaching
and knew exactly what he was going to say. The 160 sermons were nearly all published
a few years after his death - in 1640, 1649, and 1660. The first 80 to be published
appeared with Izaak Walton's life of Donne (1640). Famous as they are, however,
the Sermons are not likely to warm or please a modern reader unless his
psychology matches Donne's. At this distance, for all they reveal of a brilliant
mind, they seem rigid and harsh, too preoccupied with sin and death, corruption
and resurrection, the devil's instrument that was Rome, and the Anglican Church
that was God's. Donne was a man of his time, certainly; but other men of his time
possessed more charity and sweetness and displayed more independent minds.
Donne's poetry went out of fashion about the time of the Restoration, but he
had effectively taken English verse out of the too-settled form of fluency and
ease to which the Elizabethan fashion seemed to have directed it. His poetry is
sharper and more concentrated and hardly seems to belong to the period at all.
At his best he is remarkable, but his best was not consistent and readers coming
to him for the first time may well be irritated by the self-conscious intellectual
display - conceits - which are present in his poetry no less than in his prose
and seem to be his resort when he is writing at less than his highest level. But
his highest level gives him, indisputably, the rank of a major poet.
Despite his eclipse in the 17th century Donne was not forgotten by the literary
world, and the poems were being read again towards the end of the 18th century.
But a real revival did not come until the end of the 19th, when James Russell
Lowell in America (1895) and E. K. Chambers in England (1896) published complete
editions. The standard edition for many years has been Sir Herbert Grierson's
of 1912, and a new one by Helen Gardner and W. Milgate is in progress. Single
volumes of the poems are the Oxford Standard Authors edition based on Grierson
and first published in 1929 and John Hayward's edition for the Nonesuch Press
(1929), which contains a selection of Donne's prose.
Paraphrase used in a review of Empson on Donne
[What follows is the beginning of a review by Eric Griffiths,
Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and author of The Printed Voice of Victorian
Poetry in the Times Literary Supplement for July 30, 1993.
He is reviewing William Empson's posthumous Essays on Renaissance Literature:
vol. 1, Donne and New Philosophy (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).
Please note in this extract the engaging, informal style and tone, the closeness
to specifics of the text which readers can check for themselves, and the incidental
reliance on paraphrase to illuminate difficult or ambiguous bits of the poem.
In all these way, the piece is a model of critical writing.]
Sleeping with someone is like nothing on earth; it renovates
I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov'd? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?
T'was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd, and got, t'was but a dreame of thee.
And now good morrow to our waking soules,
Which watch no one another out of feare;
For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.
As often in Donne, these lines ring, not untrue, but half-true; he has his arms
wide open, he also has his fingers crossed. The poem begins by asking whether
there is life before sex, and at once concludes there isn't. Virgins idle and
doze in an infantile state of virtual reality; sex is where we grow up, "get real".
He sounds bracingly decided until the fifth line: "T'was so; But . . ." Even this
"but" means to have no real buts about it; it paraphrases as "except for this
pleasure -- sharing a bed -- all pleasures are illusions". This construction is
itself so elliptical that other possible senses start nudging at the mind: "True
though it is that sex is the properly adult entertainment, just think about a
single point I'd like to make ('But this'): as all pleasures are illusions, might
not this new one, whose radiance now casts what went before into the shade, be
later yet another let-down?"
Donne is not a newcomer to the sexual world. The stanza ends paying a great
compliment to his bedfellow; he says she is the Form of all beautiful things.
As William Empson remarks, this is "the only bit of metaphysics in Metaphysical
Poetry. . . . The style is commonly used to praise a ruler or saint or mistress,
who is told 'You are in person the Platonic Idea of Justice, Virtue, Beauty' or
whatever quality is being praised." Charming. Yet because people say (and could
say in Donne's English), for instance, "Look at that one over there, the one with
the pearls; she's a beauty", the words "If ever any beauty . . ." start to mean
that the women he has slept with before were just rehearsals for her. This might
not be so gratefully received: he says she is the Girl of Girls, but then gives
her reason to suspect he says the same to all the girls. Rather as in Hardy's
The Well-Beloved , the Platonism can excuse philandering -- not so much
"Oh, all the others mean nothing to me" as "Oh, all the others mean You to me".
Whether she bridles at this or not, the second meaning makes trouble for "our
waking soules" at the opening of the next stanza.
His point was they had both snored away their lives before sleeping together
woke them up, but now he has, with oblique and awkward candour, mentioned his
"dreame" of other women. He awakes from previous affairs as well as from the pre-sexual.
Does she? We don't know, nor do we know whether Donne would have minded if she'd
replied "I know what you mean: I feel exactly like that about all those ostlers",
so it is inappropriate to get enraged about The Double Standard. The dawning "our"
in "our waking soules" is still clouded by this thought. So too, the next line;
it begins hideously ("Which watch"), but so careless an ear might be apt to suggest
how blissful and carefree they both feel. The relaxation is only for a second,
though; extreme care is needed with "watch not one another out of feare" to ensure
it means: "we gaze on each other without that scanning which often informs attention
to other living creatures (who might be predators)". These lovers are not on the
look-out, they are looking for the fun of it. Alas, the words also mean, unless
carefully steered by the voice, that they are afraid and can't meet each other's
eyes. Donne did not want to say so at this time and in this place, but, Empson
was right, "much of the haunting quality of Donne comes from writing about a total
situation, without realising quite how much of it he was getting into his language
or even what all his cross-currents of feeling about it were; he broods like a
thunder-cloud, as well as flashing like one."
Cunning elements: water, fire, and sacramental
poetics in "I am a little world." DiPasquale, Theresa M. Philological
Quarterly v. 73 no.4. p403-416. 22.09.1994
In John Donne's sonnet "I
am a little world," the speaker combats a nearly desperate fear of damnation
with a desire to be purged, either by water or by fire. He declares himself "a
little world made cunningly/Of Elements, and an Angelike spright," but he feels
certain that his microcosm is doomed:
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown'd no more:
But oh it must be burnt. . . .(1)
Gardner and others have explained that the sonnet's movement from flood to fire
is based upon two scriptural passages.(2) Recalling God's rainbow covenant with
Noah - that there shall be no "flood to destroye the earth any more" (Genesis
9:11) - the speaker reasons that his microcosm, too, "must be drown'd no more."
A watery apocalypse thus ruled out, he concludes with St. Peter that the end will
be a conflagration, "the day of God by the which the heavens being on fyre, shalbe
dissolved, and the elements shal melt with heat" (2 Peter 3:12). These biblical
glosses clarify the reasoning behind the sonnet's turn at line ten, but they do
not sufficiently explain either the psychological dynamics or the self-referential
poetics at work in the poem.
In order to appreciate the emotional force - and, ultimately, the metapoetic
implications - of the parallel Donne is making, we must recognize the typological
relation between the Flood and baptism: the water of the Deluge is a "figure"
of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). In a sermon preached at a christening, Donne stresses
that the sacrament does for individual Christians what the Flood did for the earth:
"it destroyes all that was sinfull in us."(3) Thus, the speaker's "little world"
has, like Creation itself, been drowned once already; and the connection between
the macrocosmic and microcosmic events is made clearer by the fact that baptism,
like the Flood, is never to be repeated. There is, as the Nicene Creed declares,
"one baptism, for the remission of sins."(4)
According to orthodox Christian teaching, God has made ample provision
for sins committed after baptism. In a christening sermon, Donne stresses that
"all the actuall sinnes [of the infant's] future life, shall be drowned in this
baptisme, as often, as he doth religiously, and repentantly consider, that in
Baptisme . . . he received an Antidote against all poyson, against all sinne"
(Sermons 5:110). At other times, however, Donne's sermons betray the fact
that he was preoccupied with the desire for a second baptism. He speaks of martyrs
as having "found a lawfull way of Re-baptizing, even in bloud" (5:66), and - in
one early sermon - goes so far as to define tears of repentance as the "souls
rebaptization" (1:245).(5) In the sonnet, the speaker wishes to weep such sacramentally
potent tears; but he has set up his typological analogy between baptism and the
Great Deluge, and having done so, he must feel that his "little world," like the
earth itself, "must be drown'd no more" (9).
In seeking to solve the problem he has thus posed for himself, he first
considers what seems to be a valid alternative to drowning, suggesting that his
world may be "washed" in tears even if it can no longer be drowned. Such a cleansing
would seem to be the perfect completion of the typological comparison he has drawn:
the earth, though it is never again to be utterly destroyed by water, is refreshed
by gentler rains; and Christ provides not only baptism, but "another Water," as
Donne explains punningly in a sermon: the "Ablution . . . [of] Absolution from
actuall sins, the water of contrite teares, and repentance" (9:329).
In the poem, however, the speaker's state is one of near, if not complete,
despair. In declaring from the start of his analogy that his "worlds both parts
. . . must die" (4), the speaker has testified to a horrifying conviction: he
will suffer, not only the physical death of his "Elements," but also "the seconde
death" (Revelation 21:8) - that of the "Angelike spright" itself.(6) And the poem's
form reflects his spiritual state. The line in which he considers washing as the
alternative to drowning is the sonnet's ninth line; in a conventional Italian
sonnet, it would be the turn. But here, it extends the water imagery of the octave
into what ought to be the sestet, disrupting the relation between the sonnet's
"both parts," only to make a far more decisive turn by resorting to fire imagery
in line 10: "But oh it must be burnt."(7) In his dark state of mind and soul,
the speaker cannot rest with the thought of cleansing tears, and the poet cannot
rest with a neatly-shaped Italian sonnet.
The poem's desperate logic is clear; since the macrocosm "must be drown'd
no more" after Noah's flood, it will instead be destroyed by fire. 2 Peter 3:7
declares that, just as the world was once destroyed by water, so "the heavens
& earth, which are now, are . . . reserved unto fyre against the day of judgement,
and of the destruction of ungodlie men." And if the fate of the macrocosm is thus
fixed, must not the microcosm, too, be destined for a fiery end?
It would seem that the speaker - who cannot be neatly distinguished from
Donne himself as the maker of the distorted sonnet - has analogized himself into
a furnace. He is trapped by the parallels that his own wit has generated; Donne's
homiletic poem "The
Crosse" warns against just such a danger: "when thy braine workes, ere thou
utter it, /Crosse and correct concupiscence of witt" (57-58). But here, even the
crossings and corrections - as in the careful substitution of washing for drowning
- help to seal the speaker/sonneteer's fate. According to the artful parallel
he has established, both parts of his "little world" are "reserved unto fyre"
(2 Peter 3:7) just as are the earth and sky of the macrocosm. He finds himself
hedged by the flames he himself has fanned. Playing out the apocalyptic implications
of his own trope, he finds that he must remain faithful to the poetic correspondence
between sinful world and sinful self.
The irony of this suicidal commitment to analogy is that it springs from
the poet/speaker's near-despairing sense that he has been unfaithful to the commitment
he made in baptism. For it is just such apostasy which - on the microcosmic level
- may lead to the fires of spiritual destruction. The Novatian heretics of the
third century considered any breach in the baptismal covenant to be completely
irreparable; they "denied that any man could have [grace] again, after he had
once lost it, by any deadly sin committed after Baptisme" (Sermons 5:86).
Many of Donne's sermons argue against such harsh doctrines and the despair they
inspire.(8) But those pastoral efforts reflect the Dean's own preoccupations;
he was haunted by the specter of an unforgivable sin, a transgression which would
wipe out the effects of his baptism once and for all.(9)
Several passages in the scriptures fed Donne's fears. As he points out
in a sermon on Christ's declaration that "the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost
shall not be forgiven unto men" (Matthew 12:31), the concept of unforgivable sin
is "grounded in evident places of Scriptures" (Sermons 5:91). One of these
is Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage which sheds significant light on the emotional logic
of "I am a little world":
[I]t is impossible that they, which . . . have tasted of the good
worde of God . . . [i]f they fall away, shulde be renued againe by repentance:
. . . For the earth which drinketh in the raine that cometh ofte upon it, and
bringeth for the herbes mete for them by whome it is dressed, receiveth blessing
of God. But that which beareth thornes & briars, is reproved, and is nere
unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.
This passage specifically invokes the image of earth which takes no benefit from
having been watered. Those who bear no fruit when they are blessed by God's rain
of grace will meet a fiery doom. No wonder, then, that the speaker of the sonnet
should feel the threat of flaming death for "both parts" of his microcosm. Having
acknowledged that his "little world," though it was once covered by the waters
of baptism "must be drowned no more," he must fear that his wrongdoing has ruled
out the possibility of being "renued againe" (Hebrews 6:6) and that, by sinning
wilfully after he has received the "knowledge of the trueth," to quote another
verse from Hebrews chapter 10, he has doomed himself to "the violent fyre which
shal devoure the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).(10)
The poem does not, however, end in despair. In an Easter sermon, Donne
tells the congregation that the Church has provided an ongoing source of hope
and renewal: just as "from the losse of our Spikenard, our naturall faculties
in originall sin, we have a resurrection in baptisme," Donne explains, so "from
the losse of the oyntment of the Lord . . . and the falling into some actuall
sins, . . . we have a resurrection in the other Sacrament" (Sermons 7:112).
In the sonnet, then, the speaker leaves behind the fears inspired by his meditation
on one sacrament - baptism - to find hope in the thought of another - the Lord's
Supper. He seeks a eucharistic renewal in the very flames with which, according
to his typological analogy, he "must be burnt" (10). Having acknowledged the fiery
guilt of his sins, the speaker prays: "Let their flames retire, / And burne me
o Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee'and thy house, which doth in eating heale"
(12-14). The lines refer not only to the purgative fires which - as in "Goodfriday,
1613" - restore God's image in the poet, but also to the Eucharist, during which
the zealous believer is healed and strengthened "in eating." As Thomas Docherty
points out, "The ambiguity here concerns who is eating what. The fire of the zeal
consumes the poet certainly; but more importantly the poet also eats the Lord,
and it is this eating which heals him."(11)
As long as one does not reject the Eucharist, Donne feels, one has a
means of being restored to God; for the Epistle to the Hebrews characterizes the
relapsed sinner as one who "treadeth under fote the Sonne of God, and counteth
the blood of the Testament, as an unholie thing" (Hebrews 10:29). In a sermon,
Donne interprets the description as applying only to "a falling away . . . from
Christ in all his Ordinances"; for, he explains, "as it is impossible to live,
if a man refuse to eat, Impossible to recover, if a man refuse Physick, so it
is Impossible for him to be renewed" if he rejects the "conveyance of [Christ's]
merits" through preaching and the sacraments (Sermons 7:112). The sonneteer
is at pains to demonstrate that he is no such man. Begging to be burnt by the
fire "which doth in eating heale" (14), he declares that, far from rejecting nourishment
and restorative medicine, he embraces both.
In the Devotions, Donne associates the ninth verse of Psalm 69, "For
the zeal of thine house hathe eaten me," with his feverish desire to be recalled
from the "excommunication" of bodily sickness which forbids him to go to Church:
"Lord, the zeale of thy House, eats me up, as fast as my fever; It is not a Recusancie,
for I would come, but it is an Excommunication, I must not."(12) He is unable
to worship in God's temple not only because he is physically sick in his bed,
but also because he is himself no longer a holy place, having been - as he puts
it in another Holy Sonnet - only "till I betray'd / My selfe, a temple of [the]
Spirit divine" ("As due by many titles," 7-8). In "I am a little world," his adaptation
of the psalmist's cry serves a similar purpose; for here, too, he is praying to
be healed. He hopes that, "in eating" the sacrament of Holy Communion, he will
be restored to the house of God, the Church which he first entered through the
saving flood of baptism. Moreover, by partaking of the Eucharist and thus receiving
Christ into his own body, he himself can become God's temple once again; for,
when Christ enters into him, he will drive out all evil as he did the merchants
and moneychangers from the Temple. As the passage from the Gospel of John recounts
it, Jesus "made a scourge of smale cordes, & drave them all out of the Temple
. . . And his disciples remembred, that it was written, The zeale of thine house
hathe eaten me up" (John 2:15, 17).
But how can the essentially excommunicate sinner, bedridden in his sins,
participate in the eating which heals? The Anglican service for "The Communion
of the Sick" provides an answer. According to the rubrics in the Book of Common
Prayer, the rite exists so that, "if the sick person be not able to come to
the church, and yet is desirous to receive the communion in his house," he may
do so (BCP 307). The Epistle read during this service, taken from Hebrews 12,
reminds the ailing communicant of sickness' purgative function: "My son, despise
not the correction of the Lord. . . . For whom the Lord loveth, him he correcteth,
yea, and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth" (BCP 308). The same book of
the Bible that fuels Donne's burning fear thus provides as well for Christ's restorative,
eucharistic entry into His defiled temple.
As the closing line of the sonnet suggests, it is not so much the body
of the believer as his soul - moved by devout zeal - which consumes the sacrament.
This idea, too, is supported by the Prayer Book rubrics, which explain that a
Christian may communicate spiritually if "by reason of extremity of sickness"
he cannot physically consume the consecrated elements: "[T]he curate shall instruct
him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe . . .
he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ, profitably to his
soul's health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth" (BCP 308).
Relying upon the doctrines articulated in the rite for the "Communion
of the Sick," "I am a little world" remedies private desperation with liturgically-informed
belief. The poet does not stop, despairingly, at the seventh verse of 2 Peter
3, which prophesies the fiery end of the world, but proceeds to the consoling
words found in verse 13 of the same chapter: "But we loke for new heavens, and
a new earth, according to his promes, wherein dwelleth righteousnes" (2 Peter
3:13). This verse looks forward to the perfecting of the macrocosm, not to the
renewal of an individual's body and soul. But because the logic of Donne's sonnet
is built upon the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, Donne can hope that the heavens
and the earth of his microcosm - his spirit and his body - will also be transformed
by purgative flame.
We might note that the sonnet's world analogy is complete only when Donne,
realizing that no lesser power can help him, looks to a "new heavens and new earth,"
burnt into being by God himself.(13) Invoking other powers only helps to advance
the self-destructive course of the analogy he has set up:
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly . . . .
These lines address not only to heroic Renaissance scientists and explorers, but
also the saints, the heroes of the Church Triumphant.(14) The speaker is, however,
following a false lead when he asks those who have traveled beyond the old world
to supply him with waters drawn from the oceans they have discovered; for the
saints have not yet seen the "new heavens and new earth" which will be fired into
being at the end of time. On that day, their "Angelike sprights" will be reunited
with the perfected elements of their own little worlds, their resurrected bodies.
But until then, Donne stresses in a sermon on 2 Peter 3:13, we can only speculate
about the nature of the "new Heavens and new Earth" which are to be. In the sermon,
Donne compares charts of New World discoveries to the works of various commentators
explicating that verse:
[I]n these discoveries of these new Heavens, and this new Earth, our
Maps will bee unperfect. . . . [W]hen wee have travell'd as farre as wee can,
with safetie, that is, as farre as Ancient, or Moderne Expositors lead us . .
. wee must say at last . . . that wee can looke no farther into it, with these
eyes. . . . We limit, and determine our consideration with that Horizon, with
which the Holy Ghost hath limited us.
God, then, is the only author who "of new lands can write" in such a way that
the text becomes an aid to salvation; and with the concluding prayer for the zeal
"which doth in eating heal," it becomes clear that only the words of the divine
author Himself can provide an escape from the typological cul-de-sac that the
human sonneteer has constructed for himself.
Yet the poet cannot throw down his pen. Even as he calls upon the Lord
to burn him, he phrases his prayer in terms which, on every level, maintain a
delicate tension between divine action and human response. In evoking the eucharistic
encounter, the petition for the "fiery zeale . . . which doth in eating heale"
involves the penitent's willingness to "take and eat" even as it implies that
he is a helpless object of the Lord's corrosive flames, a man "now zealously possest"
- to cite the expression in La
Corona (Sonnet 1. 11) - by a God who is zeal.(16) The phrase "zeale / Of thee'and
thy house" is, moreover, ambiguous with regard to possession; the zeal with which
Donne wishes to be burned is, in one sense, of God and his house in that it is
a characteristic of Christ and his Church, an expression of their great love for
each man. From that perspective, the allusion to Christ's furious assault on the
temple merchants supports the poet's view of himself as a temple awaiting the
zealous savior's whip of knotted cords. Yet the prayer is also a request that
he himself be imbued with zeal of - that is, for - the Lord and his house; and
zeal is the hallmark of the embattled Christian, himself active and eloquent on
behalf of God and his Church.(17)
Human response remains a factor in the process of redemption as "I am
a little world" portrays it; and for Donne as the maker of this highly wrought
conceit, human response takes the form of poetic act. The artist must exert himself
to heal his work - the poem - if he is to call upon God to heal and redeem him,
the divine artist's own "cunningly" made work.(18) Though Donne crafts the first
ten lines of the poem to reflect in deliberately dangerous trope the precarious
state of his soul, it is also through a poetic act that he finds the way to make
his final prayer. He can ask for the "fiery zeale . . . which doth in eating heale"
only insofar as he can reinterpret the fire which threatens him with destruction;
and doing so means enacting a eucharistic change. The element's function is redefined
- flames are interpreted as instruments, not of annihilation, but of medicinal
nourishment - in an enactment of the moral choice by which the afflicted man turns
from despair to repentance.
The Anglican definition of eucharistic transformation involves a change
in the use of the elements: in the sacrament, the bread and wine ordinarily used
to nourish the body are appropriated for a sacred function and become nourishment
for the soul.(19) Here, threatened by hellfire and in danger of utter despair,
the speaker/poet must avail himself of the eucharistic flexibility of poetic language,
and transform the element of fire. He must rework the image of burning, relying
on the fact that flames - like the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper - have
more than one use. Fire may destroy, or it may be an agent of purgation and digestion.(20)
The poet's eucharistic consecration of the fire imagery redefines and
transforms the sonnet itself. As we have seen, its turn may be said to occur in
line 10's desperate shift away from water imagery to that of fire; but from another
perspective, the real turn does not take place until line 12, when the poet/speaker
rejects the fevered fires of lust and envy, and addresses God directly, praying
for restorative fire. And while this twice-turned shape dramatizes the speaker's
tormented fluctuation between hope and despair, the resonant confidence of the
final couplet - with its strong masculine rhyme - bears witness to the resolution
of that conflict.(21)
The resolution is anticipated, moreover, in the sonnet's own testimony
that it is no spontaneous effusion, poured - unpremeditated - from the heart.
"I am a little world made cunningly," it says in its opening line, testifying
to its status as a completed artifact, carefully crafted and revised, already
"made" even as it begins.(22) Such making is both perilous and potentially efficacious;
and, indeed, the danger and the power are one. For according to the sacramental
poetics that underlies the sonnet, conceits are either truly deadly or truly salvific,
like the sacrament of Eucharist itself. A man who receives the Eucharist unworthily
is damned (1 Corinthians 11:29) or, as Donne puts it, he "makes Christ Jesus .
. . his damnation" (Sermons 7:321; my emphasis). Similarly, to doubt one's
salvation is, as Donne sees it, to weave a kind of dark Faustian conceit:
[T]o doubt of the mercy of God . . . goes so neare making thy sinne
greater then Gods mercy, as that it makes thy sinne greater then daily adulteries,
daily murthers, daily blasphemies . . . could have done, and though thou canst
never make that true in this life that thy sinnes are greater then God can forgive,
yet this is a way to make them greater, then God will forgive.
(Sermons 2:333; my emphasis)
In the sonnet, too, the poet makes a metaphor that threatens its inventor with
But he also finds his way out of the deadly trope, consecrating the elements of
his analogy, making active use of the multivalence with which God invests language,
and giving sacramental form to the fire of tribulation:
[I]f we can say . . . [t]hat all our fiery tribulations fall under
the nature, and definition of Sacraments, That they are so many visible signes
of invisible Grace . . . If I can bring this fire to . . . conforme it selfe to
mee, and doe as I would have it; that is, concoct, and purge, and purifie, and
prepare mee for God . . . [then] I shall finde, that . . . [t]hough we can doe
nothing of our selves, yet as we are in Christ, wee can doe all things.
Guided by the Spirit, the poet makes what he will of the element of fire, saying
such things as to put it to a new and spiritually profitable use. In "I am a little
world," the healing flames of a eucharistic fire save Donne from a burning fear
that he has lost the grace of Baptism: the response to fire is fire, the answer
to fears about sacramentality is sacrament, and poetic utterance remedies the
despair that was spoken into being through poetry.
Florida International University
1 "I am a little world," 1-10. Donne's poetry is quoted from The
Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday
and Company, 1967). Subsequent quotations are cited parenthetically by line number.
2 Helen Gardner, ed., The Divine Poems of John Donne, 2nd ed.
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 76. Scriptural passages are quoted from The
Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1969)
and cited parenthetically by book, chapter, and verse.
3 The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M.
Simpson (U. of California Press, 1953-1962), 5:110. Subsequent quotations from
the Sermons are taken from the Potter and Simpson edition and cited parenthetically
by volume and page number.
4 The creed is quoted from The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan
Prayer Book, ed. John E. Booty (U. Press of Virginia, 1976), 251. Subsequent
quotations from this edition are cited parenthetically by the abbreviation BCP
and page number.
5 In the sermon, Donne notes that one may waste the tears that could
fulfill this sacramental purpose by pouring out "prophane and counterfeit tears"
(Sermons 1: 245). The speaker of "I am a little world" may feel the need
for "new seas" to be poured into his eyes precisely because he feels, as does
the speaker of another Holy Sonnet - "O Might those sighes and teares returne
againe" - that he "spent" (line 2) all the tears he had when he "mourn'd in vaine"
(line 4) as an idolatrous lover. Both sonnets are among those that first appear
in print in the 1635 edition of Donne's poetry.
6 Cf. the "Resurrection"
sonnet of Donne's La Corona, where the speaker feels himself released from "Feare
of first or last death" (7).
7 The delayed turn is noted by William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral
(London: Chatto & Windus, 1950), 75 and by Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation
(Yale U. Press, 1954), 53.
8 See Sermons 8:280-81: "When I have had . . . true Absolution
. . . still to suspect my state in Gods favour, . . . still to call my repentance
imperfect, and the Sacramentall seales ineffectuall, still to accuse myl selfe
of sinnes, thus devested, thus repented, . . . this is to blaspheme mine owne
soule." See also Sermons 5:85-86, 102-3; 7:110-117, 9:329, and 10:118.
9 Donne, whose sicknesses had brought him to death's door more than once,
warns in one sermon that "upon thy death-bed . . . thou shalt heare" the voice
of Satan as "a hollow voice in thy selfe, upbraiding thee, that thou hast violated
all thy Makers laws, worn out all thy Saviours merits, frustrated all the endeavours
of his blessed Spirit upon thee. . . . [I]n that multiplying glasse of Despaire"
which the devil holds up, "every particular sinne, shall be a sinne against the
holy Ghost" (7:413). See also Sermons 2:84.
10 See also the chapter immediately preceding Peter's prediction that
the world will end by fire: "For if they, after they have escaped from the filthines
of the worlde, through the knowledge of the Lord, & of the Saviour Jesus Christ,
are yet tangled againe therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them
then the beginning. For it had bene better for them, not to have knowen the way
of righteousnes, then after they have knowen it, to turne from the holie commandement
given unto them" (2 Peter 2:20-21).
11 John Donne, Undone (London: Methuen, 1986), 226. See also Ira
Clark, Christ Revealed: The History of the Neotypological Lyric in the English
Renaissance (U. Press of Florida, 1982), 77. Donne plays upon a similar paradox
in his account of Matthew 4:19 ("I will make you fishers of men"): "[The Gospel]
is the net, with which if yee be willing to bee caught . . . then you are fishes
reserved for that great Mariage-feast, which is the Kingdome of heaven; where,
whosoever is a dish, is a ghest too; whosoever is served in at the table, sits
at the table" (Sermons 2:309-10).
12 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (McGill-Queen's
U. Press, 1973), 17. The passage is found in the Expostulation of Devotion 3:
"The Patient takes his bed."
13 See Antony F. Belette ("'Little Worlds Made Cunningly': Significant
Form in Donne's Holy Sonnets and 'Goodfriday, 1613,'" SP 72 : 322-47),
who notes that the sonnet's "resolution, the harmonizing, of its separate parts
lies not in argument and debate but in recognition and acceptance: specifically,
recognition and acceptance of Christ's sacrifice. When this occurs, the sonnet
form regularizes itself and is seen once again to embody within itself an orderly
movement towards a reconciling conclusion" (334).
14 Gardner's gloss identifies them as "discoverers generally: astronomers
who find new spheres and explorers who find new lands" (76). Smith's note on the
lines includes not only those mentioned by Gardner, but also "the blessed, who
have ascended to . . . heaven" (A. J. Smith, ed., John Donne: The Complete
English Poems [Baltimore: Penguin, 1971]). He does not, however, link the
lines to 2 Peter 3:13. In his notes, Shawcross glosses the "you" as "Christ" himself.
15 The sermon from which this passage is taken, quoted again below (pp.
15-16), was preached in commemoration of Donne's dear friend, Magdalen Herbert
Danvers, about one month after her death.
16 "God was . . . zeale in Paul" (Sermons 8:233).
17 See Sermons 3:214, where Donne recalls the coming of the Holy
Ghost at Pentecost "in Tongues, and fiery Tongues. Christ was not, a Christian
is not justified in silence, but in declarations and open professions; . . . and
not in dark and ambiguous speeches nor in faint and retractable speeches, but
in fiery tongues; fiery, that is, fervent; fiery, that is, clear." See the discussion
of human speech in relation to the divine Word in Heather Asals, "John Donne and
the Grammar of Redemption." English Studies in Canada 5.2 (1979): 125-39.
18 Bellette notes that the "sonnet, too, is 'a little world made cunningly'"
19 See Eleanor McNees, "John Donne and the Anglican Doctrine of the Eucharist,"
TSLL 29.1 (1987): 94-114. McNees cites Donne's explanation at Sermons
7:294: "That Bread which thou seest after the Consecration, is not the same bread,
which was presented before; . . . it is severed, and appropriated by God, in that
Ordinance to another use." The change in use is, Donne goes on to say, a true
transformation: "this transforming, cannot be intended of the outward form and
fashion, for that is not changed; but be it of that internall form, which is the
very essence and nature of the bread, so it is transformed, so the bread hath
received a new form, a new essence, a new nature, because whereas the nature of
bread is but to nourish the body, the nature of this bread now, is to nourish
the soule" (7:295).
20 Galenist physiology defines digestion as a process in which the body's
heat breaks down and transmutes food. Cf. Milton, who describes digestion as "concoctive
heat / To transubstantiate" (Paradise Lost, Book 5, lines 437-38).
21 On the issues at work in the conclusions of Donne's devotional lyrics,
see Susan E. Linville, "Contrary Faith: Poetic Closure and the Devotional Lyric,"
Papers in Language and Literature 20 (1984): 141-53.
22 The adverb "cunningly" evokes a connection between the poetic activity
of the poet's "Angelike" spirit and the divinely-inspired and commissioned work
of the craftsmen chosen to make the cloth of the tabernacle, which is to be adorned
with "broidred" cherubim Exodus 26:1): "That is," as the Geneva Bible's marginal
gloss indicates "of moste conning or fine worke." In the King James translation,
the language is even closer to that of the sonnet: "with cherubim of cunning work
shalt thou make them." On the speakers of some of Donne's Holy Sonnets as self-conscious
poets exploring the nature of poetic sincerity, see Anne Ferry, The "Inward"
Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (U. of Chicago Press,
COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Iowa
[Remainder omitted, but well worth reading.]
McDaniel Lectures on British Poetry
The Lover as Logician
Donne's Poetry Allies Intellect and Passions
When he donned the vestments of an Anglican priest in 1615 at Old St. Paul's
Cathedral, John Donne could comfort himself with the fact that whatever his spiritual
impulses were, he had certainly solved his patronage problem. His impulsive marriage
in 1602 had led to social and economic near-disaster for the young son of a wealthy
Catholic ironmonger. But in taking holy orders and its vocational security, he
would have to change poetic subjects; the rakish verbal pyrotechnics of the young
poet (Ben Jonson said Donne wrote his best poems before he was 25) would have
to give way to more sober poetic expressions. Donne's amorous poetry, so central
today to the study of the Late English Renaissance traditions suffered a dramatic
loss of readership in the two centuries following his death in 1631. (The famous
Victorian anthology, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, contained only one Donne
poem, and it a counterfeit one.) His major effect on 18th century poetry was that
he and the school of intellectual poets who shared his poetic vision were scolded
severely by Samuel Johnson, the self-appointed arbiter of Neoclassical taste.
In his "Life of Cowley," Dr. Johnson complained of what he considered the ostentatious
"yoking by violence together" of the most incongruous ideas that characterized
the school of Dr. Donne. Since their metaphorical drew analogies that transcended
apparent physical resemblance, Johnson derided them as unnecessarily Metaphysical.
Like Methodism and Impressionism, this label, intended to insult, became the standard
Many an English literature sophomore has lodged Donne in a special place in
their literary pantheon because of a heterogeneity that verges on the schizoid.
As Jack Donne, the rake and adventurer with the Earl of Essex, he dazzled London
poetic circles in the 1590s with his highly ornate, more than slightly frank amorous
poems. As a poet who could write of the man-woman relationship with misogynistic
sarcasm and Petrarchan idealism, Donne often resorted to metaphors of divine love
to explain the human bond. After his conversion and ordination, when Donne turned
his pen to devotional verse, he found analogies to divine love in the sexual union.
But it took scholarly encouragement for the 20th century to turn to Donne.
Grierson's monumental edition of Donne's poetry evoked a good deal of critical
response, including a review of the book by the young Anglo-American scholar T.S.
Eliot in 1922. The anti-Victorian literary mind was ready for an intellectually
compelling, highly cynical poet to counteract a century of post-Romantic emotionalism
and Victorian High Seriousness. The New Critical Mind, led by Cleanth Brooks's
adulation of Donne in The Well Wrought Urn, found intellectual delight
and nourishment in Donne's ornate metaphors. English professors of the 20th century,
down through the deconstructionists, have reveled in Donne's richness of wit and
Characteristics of Metaphysical Verse
In John Donne's love poetry, both the cynical and the idealistic, we see those
traits which led Dr. Johnson to dislike Donne and Eliot and Brooks to find him
fascinating. The first is an intense dramatic sense. After all, Donne was writing
verse in the Golden Age of the English Renaissance stage, and in his fancy-free
days he was known as a dramatic aficionado. Donne poems like the song "Go and
catch a falling star" and "The Flea" are dramatic monologues, not unlike those
that Browning and Tennyson would write in the 19th century. For example, "The
Flea" is a speech delivered by a would-be lover to a reluctant lady, and the careful
reader can discern her actions (and reactions) to his supplications. "A Valediction
Forbidding Mourning" is a speech to a lachrymose wife.
The second characteristic is a dependence on intellectualism. Flying in the
face of post-Renaissance tradition of couching amorous verse in emotionally intense
poems such as Shakespeare's sonnets and the elegant lyrics of the Tribe of Ben,
Donne demands that those who read his verse treat the "metaphysical conceits"
as riddles.How is a love affair like a flea? How are two lovers like the phoenix
bird? And, in the most celebrated simile of all, how are a happily married couple
similar to a draftsman's compass? Dr. Johnson was unimpressed with the riddles,
and 19th century, weaned on Byronic effusions, ignored them. But the post-Victorians,
cloyed with sentiment, were ready to use their brains.
Third, we see in Donne's verse a rhetorical stance that probably stemmed from
his days at the Inns of Court when he still saw for himself a legal career. The
complaining lover in "The Flea" uses the messages of both science and religion
to argue that their dalliance is justifiable. The narrator of "The Sun Rising"
disputes with the sun itself, using every solar movement to fit his case. But
it is his highly conversational tone of Donne's poetry which strikes the modern
reader as being most akin to the modern poetic vision, freed from both neoclassical
baggage and necromantic rhapsodizing. In the opening of a mock hymn to the morning
sun, Donne has his persona chide the sun as a "busy old fool, unruly sun." The
idealistic love-hymn The Canonization has the lover rudely dismiss his friend's
advice: "For God's sake, hold you tongue, and let me love." But as arresting as
this colloquial tone might have been to a belletristic culture accustomed to oratory,
it pales in comparison to the unorthodox, even shocking comparisons, the "combination
of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently
unalike" that upset Dr. Johnson.
Courtly Love Turned to Contempt
Those who turn to Donne's amorous verse will be first impressed by the antifeminist
drift to much of it. To be sure, misogyny had found a voice in Shakespeare and
almost everyone else, but in Donne the resentment of the moral falsity of women
is notably caustic. Consider the song "Go and catch a falling star." The poet's
persona gives a companion a whole list of things to do, a catalogue of impossibilities,
running from the mythological, such as the opening line and the vulgar call to
impregnate a mandrake root, to the realistic, such as learning to stave off envy
or "find[ing]/ What wind/ Serves to advance an honest mind." Though the companion
might be "born to strange sights" and "ride ten thousand days and nights," he
will not be able to come back and tell the narrator that he has found "a woman
true, and fair." The narrator then changes his mind, saying that if a woman who
was beautiful and faithful could be found, "such a pilgrimage" would be "sweet"
to make. Then he reverts to his contempt for the sex. Though he might find this
fabled woman of both beauty and virtue "at next door," he would not make the journey,
since though her virtue might last "till you write your letter," she could have
trysted with "two, or three."
Donne utilizes the medieval courtly-love tradition in "The Apparition" as he
threatens his Elizabethan la belle dame sans merci who has scorned his supplications
He imagines that the exaggeration of the lover's complaint might actually come
to pass and he would die of her denial, freeing her from his requests. Then his
ghost would come to the bed of this "feigned vestal" and find her "in worse arms."
In the presence of his ghost, her candle with flicker, and in her fear she will
try to wake her new lover. "And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,/
Will, if thou stir or pinch to wake him, think/ Thou call'st for more,/ And in
false sleep, will from thee shrink." She will, in her fearful "quicksilver sweat"
be more ghostly than he. He refuses to tell her what he will accuse her of then,
since now that his love is "spent," he wants her to be tortured by the anticipation
of his ghostly visitation.
These two poems are infused with anger of the spurned lover. But Donne could
also play the courtly suitor. The most famous of his poems in this vein is the
extended conundrum "The flea," which is the most well-known and the best example
of a whole tradition of flea poems in Renaissance erotica. It opens with the colloquial
request for his coy mistress to "mark but this flea," and therein see how little
that favor which she is withholding from him is. Having taken blood from both
of them, it is now emblematic of their would-be union. And in this flea our two
bloods mingled be. Yet the flea's actions caused no "sin or shame, or loss of
maidenhead." The woman threatens to kill the flea, but he begs her not to, since
"This flea is you and 1, and this/ Our marriage bed and marriage temple is." Their
two lives are "cloistered in these living walls of jet," no matter what she objections
she or her parents have. In a masterpiece of pseudo-theological logic, he argues
that in killing the insect, she would be committing three sins: murder (her sexual
reluctance, in the courtly-love tradition, is killing him); suicide (shedding
the flea's blood is also shedding her blood); and sacrilege (the flea being the
temple in which their wedding has taken place). But she "purples her nail"
anyway, and he scolds her for her shedding "blood of innocence." He then turns
his argument around to make that serve his purpose. He asks her to note how little
effect that act has had on her. "Yet thou triumph'st," but she finds herself nonetheless
vulnerable or shamed. That should be testimony, he says, that yielding her virginity
to him will cost her no loss of honor.
‘But we by a love so much refined'
Modern readers, especially those of either sex who have any degree of feminist
sensibility, will most likely find John Donne's misogynistic verse tiresome sophistry.
The question remains as to whether those poems of his which continue in the Petrarchan
tradition exculpate him to any extent. In "The Sun Rising," Donne follows in the
aubade tradition of the song to the rising sun. (Cf. Romeo's "But soft! What light
through yon window breaks?/ It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.") He rebukes
the sun for waking him and his beloved. Echoing sentiments in Shakespeare's Sonnet
73, he frees love from temporal demands: "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor
clime,/ Nor hours, months days, which are the rage of time." In the same fashion
that he will mock Death in the most famous of his Holy Sonnets, he demeans the
sun, saying that he could shut the sun's beams out at any time by closing his
eyes, but he would thereby lose sight of her. Using the Petrarchan conceit that
Shakespeare mocks in the opening line of Sonnet 130, Donne tells the sun that
if her eyes "have not blinded thine," it should report the next day where the
richness of the world lay—in the spice-and-gold rich Indies or in their bedroom.
"She is all states, all princes, I./ Nothing else is." All the world's pageantry
and honor is but a imperfect imitation of their exalted state, made so by love,
which has made them "an everywhere," a microcosm of all that is of value in the
The most celebrated of Donne's amorous poems (and one of the most esoteric)
is "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," which Donne's biographer tells us was
composed before he made a trip to the Continent. (This poem demonstrates also
the price that Donne pays for his verbal game-playing; this love poem, like most
of Donne's poetry, is virtually devoid of lyrical charm. As Coleridge cogently
observed, Donne's verse "does not sing.") Written in tetrameter quatrains,
the poem is a farewell, but one that calls for no weeping. The persona says to
her that their separation should be as unobtrusive as the passing of a holy man,
so quiet that the rest of the world would not know when body and spirit had separated.
"‘Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love." The language of
the church provides him with his metaphor. Just as in "The Canonization," in which
the lover defends himself for his removal from the world by saying that he and
his beloved are saints to love, Donne has his persona claim that he and his beloved
are the clergy, and making public their marital happiness with a tearful embarkation
would be a desecrating of their love.
The rest of the poem is a series of academic analogies drawn from the unromantic
worlds of astronomy, geography, chemistry, and geometry. Their separation will
be as innocent as an erratic orbit in one of the outer spheres—purer because they
are closer to Heaven. It is a love that has been through the crucible of refinement
that "Interassured of the mind/ Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss." His
going away merely expands the wedding ring, the symbol of their union, "Like gold
to airy thinness beat."
The poem concludes with the most famous of Metaphysical comparisons, the finding
of intellectually ostentatious, arcane correspondences that have led some, such
as the 20th century poet W.H. Auden to brand Donne an "insufferable prima donna."
The narrative voice concedes that if she cannot accept the expanded wedding-ring
analogy, he will offer yet another. "If they be two, they are two so/ As stiff
twin compasses are two;/ Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show/ To move, but
if th' other do." He explains the analogy: she is to stay in London, firm in place,
while he moves around. The compass flattens out as the roving point moves, but
straightens out the closer it comes to the "fixed foot." (Donne uses language
that heightens the sexual dimension to the union: "grows erect as it comes home.")
The wife provides the fixity that makes the circle correct, bringing the narrator
back to where the place from which he began, as suitable a metaphor for love as
any Petrarchan figure.
Dr. Donne the Divine
Devotional Poems Pinnacle of Renaissance Wit
Devotional verse poses a special problem for those readers who hold both spiritual
and literary values. More often than not those who compose religious verse are
moved more by a desire to express a doctrinal truth than to contrive intellectually
and aesthetically satisfying verse. Fortunately for those readers in the Christian
tradition, the English Renaissance provides an abundance of poets of the first
order who chose to express tenets of the Faith in well-crafted verse. Among these
was a coterie of poets who have been styled the Metaphysical Poets, the foremost
being John Donne.
The previous number of this series investigated Donne's career as a contriver
of amorous poetry, before his ordination in 1615 as an Anglican priest. It has
been a continuing fascination for readers that even though the vested John Donne
left off writing poems in defense of the pleasures of the world and the flesh
and took on the Devil as his adversaries, his poetic modus operandi remained much
the same challenging the readers' minds with unusual juxtapositions and intricate
Donne's religious background was mixed. He was a collateral descendent of Sir
Thomas More, the victim of Henry VIII's intolerance. His family remained fiercely
allied with Rome (two maternal uncles were Jesuits), and one brother died in prison
for having concealed a Roman priest from the Protestant authorities. Despite the
religious ban on Roman Catholics, Donne attended both Oxford and Cambridge because
he enrolled at such a young age. But he did not finish a university degree. When
the legal career which he seems to have envisioned for himself (he studied at
the Inns of Court) did not materialize, he sought preferment in the Church. (No
serious doubts have ever been raised concerning the sincerity of either his conversion
to Anglicanism or his priestly vocation.) His keen mind led to powerful sermons,
both in the pulpit and in print, and one piece of his religious prose, the 17th
of the Meditations on Emergent Occasions, is one of the most often quoted
works in our literature: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is
a piece of the continent, a part of the main...; any man's death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell
tolls; it tolls for thee."
Most readers first encounter Donne's devotional verse by reading in the Holy
Sonnets, published posthumously. Donne used the sonnet structure which has come
to be associated with Shakespeare's name: three quatrains and a concluding rhymed
couplet. They are not a sonnet-sequence, having neither narrative nor unifying
theme, other than the Gospel. (It is interesting that Donne considered the notion
of writing devotionally in the sonnet genre so unusual as to demand accounting
for in the title.)
We can detect in Sonnet 7 some of the characteristics of Metaphysical verse
delineated in the previous Donne lecture. It begins with the paradox of a "round
earth's imagined corners," a recognition on the poet-priest's part that some of
the metaphors of Scripture (such as the earth having four corners) must be taken
figuratively. He calls on the angels of judgment to rouse from the grave all those
who have fallen prey to the ills of humanity: "All whom the flood did, and fire
shall overthrow." But the sonnet is not a perfected utterance; like his amorous
poems, it is thought-in-process. He changes his mind, and asks the Almighty to
postpone the Second Coming, so that he as a sinner can have time to "mourn a space"
for his sinfulness. "Teach me to repent," he asks, saying that only by that reaction
to God's grace can he be confident of his salvation.
Sonnet 13 demonstrates the unorthodoxy of analogy that distinguishes Donne's
verse and that of the others such as Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, and Traherne who
are linked with him in the Metaphysical school. The poem allegorizes the conversion
experience of the soul from the Devil to God. With an arrogance not unlike that
in "The Sun Rising," the poet accuses the Almighty of not making a strong enough
effort to save him, to overthrow me," so that "I may rise, and stand." "Batter
my heart, three-personed God; for You/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek
to mend." He then continues the martial metaphor, saying that he could be seen
as a town under siege. He "labours to admit you," (with that phrase Donne introduces
the sexual imagery), but to no avail. God's presence in the human mind, Reason,
should help him, but Reason has been captured and is useless. The result is that
the narrator's soul is pledged to the Devil, "your enemy." He calls on the Trinity
to effect a divorce, putting asunder the bonds that the Devil has put him in.
"Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again." The metaphorical reference is again
sexual, with implications of a forced entry. The sonnet concludes with a statement
of the essential Christian paradox of perfect freedom being found only in perfect
submission, but the paradox is couched in language that suggests rape. He says
to God, "Take me to You, imprison me," for only in that imprisonment can perfect
freedom be found. Likewise, purity will elude him until God has taken him, as
it were, against his sinful will: "for I,/ Except you enthrall me, never shall
be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."
Rehearsal for the Afterlife
The poet's drawing his imagery from the world of war is not unorthodox, since
the Bible and Christian tradition abound with comparisons to the Christian as
a warrior and life as a battle against sin. It is the frank statement of the
metaphor of the action of grace on the unredeemed soul as akin to rape that disconcerted
readers like Dr. Johnson. Interestingly enough, the reverse occurs in one
of his amorous poems, "The Canonization." He likens the phenomenon of sexual climax
followed by renewal of ardor to the mystery of the Resurrection of the Body (a
metaphor that works for the poet because in Renaissance parlance, "die" was
a commonplace for orgasm). "We die and rise the same, and prove/ Mysterious
by this love." No poem of John Donne's is more widely read or more directly associated
with Donne than the tenth of the Holy Sonnets,"Death, be not proud." (Donne's
reputation as a moribund preacher was well-known. had a portrait of himself made
while posed in a winding-sheet so that he could contemplate a personalized memento
mori.) Donne draws upon a popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art, Le
roi mort or King Death. With an impudence that is characteristically Donne's,
he deflates Death in the opening salvo. He discounts the power of death as a mere
fiction: "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful,
for thou art not so./ For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow/ Die not,
poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me."
The rhetorical theme of the poem goes back and forth between the two perceptions
of death inherent in the Judeo-Christian belief-system. The first is the perception
of death as a natural and desirable end to life and its vicissitudes, and adding
to that the Christian idea that death is the avenue to eternal salvation. In the
second quatrain, Donne says that if fatigue-induced sleep, one of life's greatest
boons, is the very picture of death, then how much more pleasure will come from
death itself? Even the virtuous must go with Death, to the "Rest of our bones,
and soul's delivery."
The second perception about death comes in the third quatrain—the image of
death as vile accompaniment to evil forces in life: "Thou'rt slave to fate, chance,
kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell." The
poet even notes that narcotics or witchcraft ("poppies or charms") can outdo death
in making people sleep, since drug-induced or hex-generated trances are not as
permanent as death. The superiority of these human-based modes of death takes
away the last shred of dignity for death: "Why swell'st thou then?" His confident
reliance is on the victory of Christ over Death through the Resurrection: "One
Short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And death shalt be no more. Death, thou
shalt die." The verbal gymnastics that Donne performs in this sonnet cannot disguise
the fact that as a Christian he must entertain these two ideas of death: death
as rescuer, death as punisher of even the most noble. In the end, all that he
can do in order to deal with the enormity of death is to turn the sting of death
against death itself.
The Anglican Reformation brought about a need for hymns in English to replace
the Latin canticles. Donne wrote many religious poems and hymns, although none
have taken a place in the standard repertory of English hymnody. (Only one, "A
Hymn to God the Father," can be found in the 1982 Hymnal from which Episcopalians
m America sing.)
Dr. Donne's religious hymns show a breadth of knowledge which we associate
with the clich? Renaissance man, which indeed he was. Canon law, Scripture, and
Church history were areas that he had complete intellectual mastery over, but
his academic province stretched far beyond that. Interestingly enough, despite
the fact that he did have university experience, his verse is relatively free
of Greco-Roman allusion, the mainstay of Renaissance verse for the poetic mainstream
of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton. This anti-Olympianism, as it were, is a characteristic
not only of Donne's verse but the Metaphysicals in general. Both his secular and
religious verses show him to have more than a layman's knowledge of the sciences,
a branch of human intellectual endeavor that has seldom been congenial with theological
studies. Of the sciences, he was most fascinated with the physical ones mathematics,
geometry, chemistry, astronomy, and geography. His fascination with the shape
of the physical planet, not just as the home of souls, and the nature of the physical
heavens as other than the abode of the Divine place him as very decidedly in the
Renaissance Zeitgeist which prized exploration.
But Donne's religious poems and hymns show not just a quick, fertile intellect
at work. They reveal a personal intimacy and confessional disposition that one
would not expect from a clergyman of Donne's public stature—after all, King James
named him Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, the largest church in the kingdom, in
1621, and he was in line for a bishopric when he died. (His name is on the list
of deans in Wren's St. Paul's, but at his own request his grave in the churchyard
was not marked.)
Donne's 17th century biographer Isaak Walton gives the circumstances in which
various Donne poems were composed. More modern biographers have often proved Walton
wrong, but the feeling still persists that Donne wrote in reaction to various
occasions. "Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness" was written after his recovery
from the same especially severe illness of 1623 that produced the Devotions on
The first stanza sees himself, the sick man, as in a rehearsal room, waiting
to go on the celestial stage to sing with the Eternal Choir. Hence, he must look
over his part and tune his instrument, i.e., prepare spiritually for death. In
the next stanza, he introduces the controlling metaphor for the poem—the human
body as a map. In this ingenious figure, his physicians ("by their love," he adds
tongue-in-cheek) have become map-readers, studying him to discover the cause of
impending death, just as cosmographers of the Age of Discovery studied the charts
to find a passage through the American Continent to the Indies. (He puns on the
word straits, meaning a water-passage as well as an unfavorable situation. Donne
finds comfort that whatever "southwest discovery" might be (and he cites the names
of all the famous straits), all such straits take him into the Western Sea (the
sea of eternal peacefulness), just as all modes of death lead to the next life.
"What shall my west hurt me?/ As west and east In all flat maps (and I am one)
are one,/ So death doth touch the Resurrection." The poem concludes with a reference
to an old Catholic tradition that the Cross was made from wood that grew from
the Edenic Tree of the Knowledge of Good and evil. The dying man becomes a meeting-place
for both the First and Last Adam: his fevered grow shows the curse of Adam, while
his soul is embraced by Christ. In his sickbed suffering, Donne sees his imitatio
Christi and he calls for the crown other than the crown of suffering, i.e., the
crown of eternal life.
"A Hymn to God the Father" is a death-bed confessional, written, Walton claims,
right before Donne's passing. The poetic voice lists all the sins that he has—original
sin, sins of commission, omission, and collusion. Readers will hear echoes of
the penitent voice of Jack Donne the Elizabethan rake in the stanza. "Wilt thou
forgive that sin which I have won/ Others to sin, and made my sin their door?/
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/ A year or two, but wallowed in a
score?" In each instance, he concludes his catalogue of sins with "When thou hast
done, thou hast not done," punning on the word done meaning completed and as a
homonym for his name. In the last stanza, this consummate Renaissance man, poet
and prelate, who had reason to be proud, confronts in himself the sin of pride.
He fears that his ultimate sin will be to doubt the efficacy of Grace of God through
Christ to save such a titanic sinner as himself, and that he will "perish on the
shore." He asks for a reaffirmation of the Covenant (punning on "sun"/"Son") by
which he is saved through the light of Christ. Only then, in what a later 17th
century preacher would call Grace Abounding, can he die secure: "And having done
that, thou hast done./ I fear no more."
'Let them sleepe': Donne's personal allusion in 'Holy Sonnet IV.' Hester, M. Thomas. Papers on Language & Literature
v.29 no3. p346-351. 22.06.1993.
Editors and commentators have remarked on the biblical authority for the curious,
of place which opens John Donne's fourth Holy Sonnet (fourth in the 1633 first
printed edition and in
the early Westmoreland manuscript).(1) The poetic mediator's figuration of Judgment
At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow Your trumpets, Angells ... (1-2)
—Recalls the precise details of the prophetic vision of the Apocalypse in Revelations:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth,
holding the four
winds ... (7:1)
rendered in more poetic terms in The Vulgate,
Post haec vidi quatuor angelos stantes super quatuor angulos terrae, tenentes
It has not been pointed out, however, that the crucial turn of the sonnet which
initiates the surprising
sestet also recalls the precise details of St. John's vision--details that would
have struck a sensitive
personal note for the author by recalling general as well as personal conditions
of his situation.
Attention to the significance of this biblical allusion in the poem helps to explain
the chord of frustration
with which this poetic meditation concludes.
As Louis Martz pointed out in his seminal study of the meditative character of
Donne's Holy Sonnets,
the opening composition of Judgment in this poem (ll. 1-4) leads to an analysis
of "the causes of death
throughout human history: a summary of sin and a reminder of its consequences"
All whom the flood did, and the fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold death, and never tast deaths woe. (5-8)
Typical of Donne's verbal dramatizations of his ideas, here the causes of death
"flood" the lines, the
waves of Justice carrying the sentence of the poem relentlessly forward to the
finality of "death woe."
But the next movement of this visionary meditation, which supplies (Martz explains)
that "part of a
traditional colloquy with God after a visualization of the Day of Doom," when
the rational soul of the
poetic meditator "prays for Grace" (52), and "the scene shifts from the general
to the specific, the
objective to the personal, the exterior to the interior" (Low 63), Donne's speaker,
in a turn that might
well recall the damned Dr. Faustus's eleventh-hour plea that time, motion, and
Justice cease, begs for a
"space" outside the scheme of Justice:
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
'Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When we are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent for that's as good
As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood. (9-14)
The "lowly ground," as Martz suggests, may bear "theological overtones relating
to the Catholic
sacrament of Penance" (52)--most significantly the sole Catholic sacrament
not retained by the
Protestant Church as either a sacrament, rite, or ordinance. From this perspective
it might be argued
that the fear and frustration with which this meditative exercise concludes reflect
the situation of Donne
as the heir of a long-suffering Catholic family which traced its confessional
sacrifice from the death of
his younger brother for harboring a priest back to the execution of his great-grand-uncle,
More. As Donne wrote in the "Preface" to his first published work, Pseudo-Martyr
I have been ever kept awake in a meditation of martyrdom, by being derived from
such a stock and
race as, I believe, no family (which is not of far larger extent and greater branches)
hath endured and
suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the teachers of Roman
doctrine, than it hath
done. (sig. B; italics added)
What has not been pointed out by editors and commentators about the poem is the
which leads to the meditator's recollection of the absent Penance and to the fervency
of his concluding
plea in the poem. Recognition of the biblical text which initiates these supplications
helps to show why
Donne might well have feared himself to be outside the "seal" of selection which
contemplates. The vision of his own place in the divine scheme derives from the
juxtaposition of those
who "sleepe" to his own desire for the additional "space" to "mourne." This structural
bridge from the
meditative, general composition of Doomsday in the octet to the analysis of his
own situation in the first
tercet of the sestet, it has not been pointed out, also recalls St. John's vision:
And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar, the souls of them that
were killed for the
word of God, ... and it was said unto them that they should rest for a little
season until the number of
their fellows, and brethren, and of them that should be killed as they were, were
fulfilled. (Rev. 6:9-11)
The Vulgate version:
Et cum aperuisset sigillum quintum, vidi subtus altare animas interfectorum propter
verbum Dei, et
propter testimonium quod habebant; Et clamabant voce magna dicentes; Usquequo,
(sanctus et verus), non iudicas, et non vindicas sanguinem nostrum de iis qui
habitant in terra? Et
datae sunt illis singulae stolae albae: et dictum est illis ut requiescerent adhuc
donec compleantur conserve eorum, et fratres eorum qui interficiendi sunt sicut
Recognition of the precise biblical text which Donne's poem recalls in its meditation
of the poet's
"space" or absence from the "pardon" of Christ's sacrifice goes a long way towards
apparent confusion, fear, and shame with which the poem concludes. Recollection
of this passage from
Revelations might well inhibit the descendant of St. Thomas More and the frater
of Henry Donne from
being able to figure himself within the circle of "them that were killed for the
word of God." It is an
inhibition that seems to animate and underlie the tensions not only of the Holy
Sonnets but many of
Donne's works; the uncertainty as to whether he should "mourne" his not having
"suffered [the fate of]
more"/More remains central to all he "hath done."(2)
In his helpful corrective to "Protestant" readings of Donne's Holy Sonnets, Claude
Summers point out
that Donne's most famous poetic meditation on the character of English denominational
"Show me dear Christ," refuses to endorse "any quest for true religion that identifies
with a temporal institution. The courtship of the 'amorous soul' and the 'mild
Dove' can take place only
in some future time and place" (81). In a similar vein, R. V. Young points out
that Donne's meditations
in his Essays in Divinity are "Thomistic, his view of the human will far more
Tridentine than Calvinist"
and that his Holy Sonnets disclose a Donne who "has abandoned Catholic sources
without yet discovering or devising acceptable alternatives" (31). Holy Sonnet
IV, I would suggest,
would confirm these readings, although without necessarily affirming the "scepticism"
towards which they would incline the poet, for this poem is representative of
the Holy Sonnets as the
site for Donne's meditative attempts to appraise the moral virtues of the rivals
Counter-Reformation debate, a site where Donne is "trying out different versions
of grace" (Young 23)
from the perspective of his personal place in the divine economy. The Holy Sonnets,
that is, might just
be the fullest and most intense record of the "space" in which Donne the heir
of Catholic martyrs
struggled to become "the Arminian John Donne" (Tyacke 174n) without betraying
his family tradition.
(1) All citations of Donne's poems are to the edition of John T. Shawcross, The
Complete Poetry of
John Donne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).
(2) See Dennis Flynn's account of Donne's suffering the guilt of the survivor,
"Donne the Survivor,"
in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry
(Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986), 15-24; M. Thomas Hester, Kinde Pitty and Brave
Satyres (Durham: Duke UP, 1982), esp. Chps. 2 and 4; and John Carey, John Donne:
Life, Mind, Art
(Oxford UP, 1981), Chp. 1.
Davies, Horton. Worship and Theology in England: From Cranmer to Hooker 1534-1603.
Princeton UP, 1970.
Donne, John. Pseudo Martyr. London, 1610.
Flynn, Dennis. "Donne the Survivor." In The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John
Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 15-24.
Hester, M. Thomas. Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn: Donne's Satyres. Durham: Duke
--. "The troubled wit of Donne's 'blacke Soule.'" Cithara 31 (1991): 16-27.
Low, Anthony. Love's Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English
York: New York UP, 1978.
Martz, Louis. The Poetry of Meditation. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954.
Shawcross, John T., ed. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
Summers, Claude J. "The Bride of the Apocalypse and the Quest for True Religion:
and Spenser." In Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse: The Seventeenth-Century Religious
Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987. 72-95.
Tyacke, Nicholas. Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590-1640.
Oxford: Oxford UP,
Young, R. V. "Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Theology of Grace." In Bright Shootes
Everlastingnesse: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Eds. Claude J. Summers
Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987. 20-39.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Board of Trustees Southern Illinois University
Love Poems and Rock'n'Roll
Love, an emotion that could be said to be almost as old as humanity itself,
and the pursuit thereof has been defined in many ways throughout the ages. Perhaps
the most vivid experiences of this feelings is documented in love poetry, and
it is through this poetry that each era of a society can be analyzed as to its
principles and values of love and, subsequently, relationships between men and
women. For the Seventeenth century poet, John Donne, his writings reveal the integrity
of his love as a force of Nature, empowered by lust, which seeks to induce a private
universe encompassing himself and the object of his affections. Modern day culture,
while still retaining its poets, has a unique mode of artistic freedom in the
institution known as rock and roll. While contacting a much broader audience than
that of Donne through mass media dispersal of poetry in the form of song, rock
still reaches back through the ages to use some of the same ideas, such as the
forces of lust and Nature which can be found in Donne's poetry, while seeking
to establish an identity for itself. It is through this use of images which transcend
not only modern times, but also Donne's era as well, that a culture's views on
an idea, such as love, can be interpreted and extrapolated upon.
It is evident in much of Donne's writings that the power of love
was a force at least as powerful as that of Nature. In "The Good-Morrow", Donne
describes himself and his love as "two...hemispheres" (Norton, 1063), which, when
joined together, have no poles to divide them, unlike the Earth. This primal
attraction is also evident in "Hawkmoon 269" by the band U2, as the relationship
between the author and his love is described by
the inseparable ideas of heat needing the sun, a person needing oxygen,
and thunder accompanying rain. While these basic premises that lie in man's perception
of his cosmos reinforce the idea of inseparable lovers, this love also enables
man to challenge Nature and rise above it. In "The Sun Rising", Donne tells the
sun to shine its beams elsewhere instead of upon him and his lover because he
"could eclipse and cloud them with a wink" (Norton, 1066); his lover is also powerful,
as she can warm rivers with her eyes "more than the sun" (Norton, 1074), according
to "The Bait". He further expounds on the idea that love transcends Nature in
"Break of Day" when he declares, upon his love's leaving with the rising of the
sun, that "Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither, should in despite
of light keep us together" (Norton, 1069). Even cataclysmic events, such as the
"trepidation of the spheres" (Norton, 1075) described in "A Valediction: Forbidding
Mourning" cannot disturb the lovers; this idea is richly illustrated by the band
Led Zeppelin in their song "Thank You", because even "if the sun refused to shine"
or "when mountains crumble into the sea", the bond between the lovers cannot be
broken. Although Nature is sometimes seen as a kind of enemy of the lovers, it
is also portrayed as a device for joining them together, as in "Yes, the River
Knows" by The Doors and "I am stretched on your grave" by Sinead O'Connor. In
the former, the river is seen as a joining force when the narrator tells the woman
that it is the river's wish for "you to hold me". For O'Connor, the fact that
her lover smells "of the earth" and is "worn by the weather" are sufficient reasons
to have him join her in her grave. Nature, regardless of what guise it adopts,
joins the lovers through their denial or acceptance of it.
As the love expressed between a man and a woman grows to overpower
Nature, it fuses their realities into one world. Donne declares, in "The Good-Morrow",
that "For love all love of other sights controls, and makes one little room an
everywhere"; furthermore, Donne implores his woman to "let us possess one world;
each hath one, and is one" (Norton, 1063). Even the sun itself cannot escape,
as it is captured in "The Sun Rising" by shining "here to us, and thou art everywhere;
this bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere" (Norton, 1066). Also, "A Valediction:
Of Weeping" portrays each tear of Donne's lover as "a globe" (Norton, 1070) which
dissolves the heaven of Donne's world. The prime example of this fusion and genesis
into one world lies in the embodiment of Donne's argument in "The Flea", for it
"pampered swells with one blood made of two, and this, alas, is more than we would
do" to be "almost, nay more than married" in holy walls of the flea's black body
(Norton, 1072). This concept of the lover's world as a macrocosm is also exhibited
in some of the modern rock lyrics. O'Connor's lover seeks to be her "shelter through
rain and through storm", and the world of the narrator of "Thank You" smiles with
the harmony of the two lovers. In T. Rex's "Life's a Gas", the singer sought to
love his woman "like a planet". All these images are used to create the idea of
a private universe which exists purely for the lovers.
With the many similarities existing between the poetry of Donne and
the poetry of Twentieth century rock lyricists, it is interesting to note that
the poetry of Donne is more sexually explicit in its content than the modern day
songs. His love, driven by an almost mind-numbing lust, could take many forms.
Conceivably, it could "slacken", as it is still bound by Time, resulting in the
effect that "none can die [experience orgasm]" (Norton, 1063) in "The Good-Morrow",
but Donne's love is also so meek when compared to something as trivial as the
bite of a flea that his amorous advances could not result in "a sin, or shame",
although the loss of maidenhead is a strong point of conjecture. The O'Connor
song is the only one from the rock group which has sexual overtones; however,
they are somewhat weak, as her maidenhead still remains her "pillar of light",
heated physical interaction between the two lovers was unlikely. "Hawkmoon 269"
initially seems to suggest a kind of physical craving of a lover, compared to
the addiction of drugs; however it, along with Donne's poetry, has the additional
aspect of the physical realm exceeding Nature, which allows it to transcend the
normally limiting aspect of physical interactions to produce a truly harmonious
situation which appears to be a basic natural state.
In conclusion, the Seventeenth century of Donne is not so far removed
from the Twentieth century as most people would think. The forces of Nature which
motivated Donne still actively motivate the writers of modern rock music; lust,
while extremely active for Donne, does exist in rock music, but in a slightly
different style which identifies it with the Twentieth century. Most rock songs
either deal with a romanticized notion of love or totally plunge into the reasoning
of lust, creating songs which are also characteristic of the times, but less meaningful
than songs which fuse lust to other ideas, such as Nature. For Donne's world,
the relationships between men and women were supposed to be, at the same time,
both exceeding of the world in which they took place and trapping the lovers in
the same physical plane; it was by no means as stylized as courtly love. The same
holds true for the modern day world, creating problems for most men and women,
while occasionally freeing others to truly interact in the union of two souls.
The ideas from one culture continue along to another in a cycle which both reinforces
older ideas and changes some of those ideas to allow the culture to adapt them;
love, which is fully embedded in this cycle, continues to change as cultures and
the humans within them change, but it will always be around, as love "makes my
circle just, and makes me end where I begun" (Norton, 1076).
DONNE AS A POET OF DEATH
John Donne, a great metaphysical poet,
is fascinated with the idea of death. He lived during an interesting and difficult
time. It was the age of great discoveries, a time when old and new collided. Beside
the old world picture new ideas developed and the feeling of pessimism, aging
and decline spread. The world was supposed to be drawing towards its end and there
were forecasts when it would happen(1). This was the age of
plague, illness and death: "The sense of disaster pervading the period had to
take apocalyptic proportions, and one of the favourite themes of late Renaissance
poetry is that of the Last Judgement" (Ford 93). It is obvious that a topic so
overwhelming had to affect such sensitive minds as Donne’s:
Death, as all of Donne’s contemporaries readily
recognized, was not simply inevitable and all-pervasive, it was a familiar presence
in an unstable, unhygienic, and disease-ridden world. The tolling of the passing
bell for a dying parishioner was to Donne not simply a stimulus to pray for a
troubled soul but a personal memento mori. (Sanders 196)
He is afraid of death and therefore attempts
to domesticate it as much as possible by considering every aspect of it. He studies
himself, his own progress towards death, and also the death of his beloved and
the death of the world (order) and universe.
sees decomposing and decay everywhere. His relationship with death is very personal.
His argument that life is a slow process of dying is best illustrated by the paintings
of him, in which his aging (his bodily decay) is captured. Donne saw that death
may be in a way overcome by pictures:
Here take my Picture; though I bid farewell,
Thine, in my heart, where my soule dwels,
‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ‘twill be
When wee are shadowes both, than ‘twas before.
( Poems "His Picture" 1-4)
He believes that pictures will say what he was.
But it was not only his poems and the paintings that were made of him which are
used to convey the ideas he has about death and decomposing: the obsession with
decay, appearing in almost every work he wrote, carried on till his last sermon(2)
which he delivered 1631 and where he described death as "an entrance into the
death of corruption and putrefaction and vericulation and incineration, and dispersion
in and from the grave, in which every dead man dyes over againe" (Prose,
Penguin 315). He admits that "beauty and trimme decayes" ("The Calm" 13). Donne
compares the unhappy state of man with the state of Christ and it is obvious that
he would like to be in command of death just as he is in command of language when
he preaches or writes poems.
is as a preface to death. Donne was often seriously ill and believed that he would
die. He had enough time to pore over death and decay and follow the changes that
took place in his body (Winny 40). He had time to get used to death, "accustom
himself to death" (Carey 202). Out of that come poems, for example "Hymn to God
my God, in my Sickness" and "A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s last going into
Germany". In "A Fever" the ideas of death and sickness are brought close together.
One state could melt into the other without this really being noticed.
Lingering between illness and death, or sleep
and death is like balancing on a cliff-edge. In "Woman’s Constancy" Donne calls
sleep death’s image: "Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,/ So lovers’ contracts,
images of those,/ Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose?" (8-10). Sleep
can be compared to death and bed to grave. In one of his sermons Donne says: "Death-bed
was as quiet as her grave" (Prose, Penguin 285). In "The Ecstasy" the two
image groups appear in the same poem ("bed" in the first line, "firmly cemented
hands" in the fifth as if to suggest the statues, possibly sepulchral statues,
which indeed appear later in the eighteenth line). In "Divine Meditation 10" ("Death
be not proud...") death and sleep are interchangeable, sometimes one of them is
dominant, sometimes the other: "Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;/
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be/ Much pleasure" (4-6). Death and
sleep are placed very close together in one of Donne’s sermons where death as
death melts into death as sleep:
Till Christ’s time death was called death,
plainly, literally death, but after Christ, death was called but sleepe; for,
indeede, in the old-Testament before Christ, I thinke there is no one metaphor
so often used, as Sleepe for Death, and that the Dead are said to Sleepe. (Prose,
For Donne this is not only a theological concept
deriving from the Bible. He believes that death and sleep are locked into each
other. He sees the movement from the state before birth into this world as a movement
from death to life (Prose, Penguin 312)(3) and the state
after death is called deep sleep: "though death be but a sleepe, yet it is a sleepe
that an Earth-quake cannot wake" (Prose, Nonesuch 650). Donne is afraid
that during some illness or sleep his passing into death will be as unnoticeable
as was his birth into this world.
from one’s beloved is as bad as death, but parting is not sad; it is energetic
and active. In "The Expiration" death lurks in parting and the poem is full of
motion (active verbs underlined by me):
So, so break off this last lamenting
Which sucks two souls, and vapours
Turn thou ghost that way, and let
me turn this,
And let ourselves benight our happiest day,
We asked none leave to love; nor will we
Any, so cheap a death, as saying,
Go; and if that word have not quite
Ease me with death, by bidding me go
Oh, if it have, let my word work
And a just office on a murderer do.
Except it be too late, to kill me
Being double dead, going, and bidding,
Parting becomes the matter of life or death in
But think that we
Are but turned aside to sleepe;
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be. (37-40)
and in "A Valediction: of Weeping" and "A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning" the same idea that parting is like death can be traced. In
"A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day" the death of his beloved makes him desperate,
he becomes almost nothing, he cannot find any positive purpose to his life. The
poem has a strong negative atmosphere:
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which
are not. (15-18)
The poem carries on in the same mood, "nothing"
and "nothingness" appear side by side with "chaos" and "death" (he is "every dead
thing" in the second stanza). And again death is full of struggle; he does not
want to "slip peacefully into oblivion" (Carey 186). In this poem the season itself
is dead, life has "shrunk back to earth" (Ford 103). "He must prepare to join
his dead mistress" (Ford 104) but he moves around: the poem has a circular movement
and he manages to touch metaphysics, cosmology, natural science, medicine and
alchemy. He is attaching universal importance to his life and deeds; he wants
to be studied: "study me then" (10). The vigorousness with which Donne attempts
to convince the readers that he has "less existence than is implied by such an
‘ordinary nothing’ as a shadow" (Ford 103) makes the poem active. Donne’s mourning
of his beloved is lasting in "The Computation", where it seems to be eternal.
His lamenting of her is restless in "Divine Meditation 17". Donne uses love to
neutralize death: "Love is strong as death, stronger, it drew in death that naturally
is not welcome" (Prose, Penguin 322). In "The Anniversary" love has become
Only our love hath no decay;
This, no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting
He has to keep loving in order to have some kind
of a balance for death. The separation of lovers is separation only because there
are separate graves, but from there the dead will rise and therefore the separation
is not final. There is still the "last busy day" ("The Relic") to come.
Donne is afraid of dissolution and being
forgotten. Death would mean both of these more or less. By writing about death
he tries to rechannel his fear and tries to minimize death (Carey 184). "Divine
Meditation 10" is one example of this:
Death be not proud, though some have called
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou
kill me; (1-4)
At the end of the poem, Donne claims "Death thou
shalt die". By this statement he has overthrown death’s "simple, inert deadness"
(Carey 187) and isolated death by making it unable to kill. And thus Donne preaches
the end of death; he seems to suggest that death will become superfluous: there
will be no need for him any more. There will be no more dissolution.
Death is a suitable subject for speculations
(Carey 205). Nobody knows what exactly will happen after death, what potentialities
and limitations one will have. Donne invents the most wonderous adventures that
take place after death. The dead "levitate with dizzying speed: they fly straight
through the sun; they turn into gold underground" (Carey 189). In his poem "The
Relic" he pokes his nose into his own grave:
When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
. . .
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies
Though the word "bone" appears, the poem does
not indicate that the inhabitants of the grave are rotten. They are given an adventure
instead: "Then, he that digs us up, will bring/ Us, to the Bishop, and the King,/
To make us relics;" (14-6). In "A Valediction: of My Name in the Window" he manages
to intervene in the beloved one’s life as the name in the window: "And thou begin’st
to thaw towards him, for this,/ May my name step in, and hide his" (53-4). In
"The Apparition" he returns as a ghost to disturb his beloved. In "The Damp" he
influences the living(4):
You think a sudden damp of love
Will through all their senses move,
And work on them as me, and so prefer
Your murder, to the name of massacre. (5-8)
He refuses to be still: death has to be active.
In "The Damp" he uses military language and images of war: "cut up", "murder",
"massacre", "victories", "conquest", "kill", "slain", "deface", "triumphs" that
make the poem active and full of motion and struggle but also similar to an adventure
– a war campaign. Again the aspect of activating death by all means becomes the
dominant characteristic. In "The Legacy" he has activated death by making it a
continuous, repeated process. The opening statement: "When I died last" is supported
some lines later by "when I felt me die" (11). In "A Valediction: of my Name in
the Window" the dying has become a daily habit (42). What he seeks is to remain
active and influential; he abhors the idea that he might be forgotten or that
the death he dies may be final. To escape these possibilities Donne uses his dramatic
To draw attention
to himself he is ready to leave in a theatrical manner or to practice dying (Carey
201) as if in practice for his great first night. An example of this appears in
But since that I
Must die at last, ‘tis best,
To use my self in jest
Thus by feigned deaths to die. (5-8)
Donne uses the image that the world is a theatre
(Prose, Penguin 298). In "The Funeral" he looks at himself after death
(as he might have looked at his picture which depicts him in the shroud). In "The
Canonization" future generations are used as the observers of the dead lovers.
In "The Paradox" he cherishes his own death caused by love:
Once I loved and died; and am now become
Mine epitaph and tomb.
Here dead men speak their last, and so do
Love-slain, lo, here I lie. (17-20)
He is dead yet very talkative and the things
he says are demonstrative. He is showing the action and by this he makes it very
vivid. Poking his nose into his own grave shows his keen interest in his own survival
after death – as Stevie Davies puts it he is "insatiably curious about the possibility
of his own survival" (Davies 4). The idea of dissolution and becoming elements
again or disappearing into chaos ("The Dissolution", "The Ecstacy") do not appeal
to Donne. He would rather be kept whole, as in "The Funeral", by a thin strand
of hair. He has nothing against death as long as he stays alive and as long as
he does not have to give up the body that has felt so much. He would like to die
the stage-death that is not final and stand up as soon as the curtain is drawn.
Donne is reluctant to leave the stage.
most serious of the group of ideas connected with death is the idea of resurrection
and Judgement Day. It is something final and the ideas of the last day and judgement
dog him in many of his poems ("Holy Sonnets") and in his sermons. For Donne (as
surely for all religious authors) God is closely related to death, and the thought
of either God or death brings the other into his mind (Carey 188). In his sermons
Donne often expresses the idea that mercy or judgement is up to God to decide(5):
"Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death" (Prose, Penguin 310). It
seems that sometimes he felt that death was being delayed for him: "One reason
for his death-craving is that death will put an end to suspense"(Carey 188): will
he be saved or doomed? He had to wait his whole life without knowing what is to
come: "I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun/ My last thread, I shall perish
on the shore" ("A Hymn to God the Father" 13-4). He thinks it inevitable that
he will have some sin for which he will be doomed and if there is nothing else
to be found then there is the sin of fear. As may be seen from Biathanatos
he was afraid that "God in his judgements hath almost made us his assistants,
and counsellers, how far he shall punish; and our interpretation of anothers sinne
doth often give the measure to Gods Justice or Mercy" (Prose, Penguin 62)
and he certainly was aware of the abundance of sins. In "A Hymn to God the Father"
the word "sin" appears eight times. No wonder he is afraid that God will reject
him, and therefore he challenges God:
If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned; alas, why should I be?
("Divine Meditation 9")
In the "Holy Sonnets" he is afraid of being "cast
off and cast away" (Davies 62). This is "apocalyptic horror" (Davies 57), fear
that time will end and there is nothing more to be done to better his situation:
Neither say to your selves, we shall have
preparatives enough, warnings enough, many more Sermons before it come to that,
and so it is too soon yet; you are not sure you shall have more; not sure you
shall have all this; not sure you shall be affected with any. (Prose, Penguin
In "Divine Meditation 13" Donne asks: "What if
this present were the world’s last night?" (1), in "Divine Meditation 6" he believes
that he has reached his play’s last scene (1). Donne seemed to hear a bell toll
in his ears and mind (Prose, Penguin289-90). He does not know what
will happen to him (and where it will happen) but he does not have time to do
anything more, change anything, because the end may come suddenly "as a thief"
(Prose, Penguin 278-9) and he is not sure in what state he will be found.
He declares the terror of that day: "Many, and very many, infinite, and infinitely
infinite, are the terrours of that day" (Prose, Penguin 280). Donne seems
to be sure that he would not like immediate judgement. In his "Divine Meditation
7" he asks God to delay Judgement Day:
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a
For, if above all these, my sins abound,
Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace,
When we are there; (9-12)
The delay would give him enough time to repent.
Yet even then there is no certainty: "he may be responsible for his sins, but
he is not responsible for his salvation" (Corns 141). Donne is anxious, his conscience
is torturing him. He cannot be sure that he will get what he asks for and that
it would help. It would be a relief for him if the process were the other way
round and when he dies "it will be the world, not he, that will perish" (Carey
188). And so he promises to "undo the world..." ("The Will" 47)
Some sources claim that Donne hoped
that time would end soon and he would be the last generation to live before Judgement
(Carey 213). Therefore he would have no need to die, but he might change from
one state of being into another without being decayed in between. He would accept
the Last Judgement which would relieve him of dying and rotting (Carey 215), and
since he thinks himself worthy of it he does not hesitate to call for immediate
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, ("Divine Meditation 7", 1-4)
His soul and body do not have to be separated
from each other if he does not have to be dead and buried. The idea that his body
would start to produce worms appals him ("Satire 5"; Prose 318) but even though
immediate judgement might save him from decomposition it still might not ensure
his salvation. He would like death to be over soon:
May then sin’s sleep, and death’s soon from
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last, and everlasting day. ("Resurrection"
What Donne so vigorously protects is his ego,
his own self. Donne considers unfair what happens to man’s dust, that it will
be mingled with "the dust of every high way, and of every dunghill, and swallowed
in every puddle and pond" (Prose, Penguin 318). He tries to figure out
a system which would unite all the interesting and active aspects of dying but
which would keep his body and soul together (Carey 214). He wants to be like Christ
– in command of his own death, not rot, be saved.
ideas and feelings about death were diverse. All his life Donne was afraid of
being cast away and he saw that the same possibility was lurking in death. He
does not know what will happen to him after death, he cannot be secure. There
is no stability. But Donne needs some hope, he has to be sure that death is interesting
and active. He can activate death in the pieces he writes and he attempts to approach
it as if death were a form of life. He can smooth and domesticate death; he can
convince himself that death is no worse than parting or sleeping or dying on the
stage. The only problem is he cannot escape his fears. To neutralize and rechannel
them he has to write on and preach on. He has to convince himself that death is
more positive than life.
Carey, John. John Donne. Life, Mind and
Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Corns, Thomas N., ed. Donne to Marvell:
The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Davies, Stevie. John Donne. London:
Northcote House, 1994.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems.
London: Penguin, 1986.
---. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose.
Ed. John Hayward. London: Nonesuch Press, 1942.
---. Selected Prose. London: Penguin,
Ford, Boris, ed. From Donne to Marvell:
A Guide to English Literature. London: Penguin, 1956.
Gardner, Helen. The Metaphysical Poets.
London: Penguin, 1985.
Gurevitsh, Aron. Keskaja inimese maailmapilt.
Tallinn: Kunst, 1992.
Haydn, Hiram. The Counter-Renaisance.
Glocester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1966.
Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History
of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
Winny, James. A Preface to Donne.
London: Longman, 1990.
In Shakespeare's As You Like It (IV
i) the poor world is said to be six thousand years old. One possible date for
the end of the world was 1604 (Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, Gloucester,
Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1966) 528.
It may be asked why I have included Donne's
sermons in this piece of writing which is supposed to deal with his poetry, but
like Boris Ford I think that Donne's sermons have "a dramatic urgency and poetic
power recalling his verse" (Ford 72).
Carey introduces this as Senecan argument,
186. Donne has probably adopted this concept.
Carey has some interesting comments on "The
It seems that the two concepts of God are
equally extant in Donne: the Old Testament God is vigorous and jealous and the
New Testament God is merciful and loving.