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John Donne

John Donne in his twenties

John Donne in 1595 at the age of twenty-three
Artist unknown

Estate of the late Lord Lothian

Love’s mysteries

John Donne was at various times an adventurer, poet, Anglican priest, contemplative and lover. If his writing was any guide, he was also and always a lover.

A tumultuous start

Born in 1572, Donne was four years old when his father died; a little later he lost a sister. Two sisters died when he was nine. His younger brother, jailed for sheltering a Catholic priest, died of the plague. In a period when death seemed to stalk families, Donne's experience was not unusual, but it must have been painful.

Donne attended Oxford, but refused to take the Protestant Oath of Supremacy so was not graduated. At loose ends, he travelled abroad, went to London to study law and spent time writing mocking satires. At the age of twenty-four he found himself with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh and fighting against the Spanish at Cadiz and in the Azores.

According to his friend Izaak Walton, who wrote the first biography of Donne, he "returned perfect" in Spanish and Italian. At twenty-five he seemed on course for a diplomatic career. Though he had not been called to the bar, his knowledge of common and canon law was considerable. He was appointed chief secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. It was then that love struck, out of the blue, with the force of a thunderbolt. Donne fell in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne. With his ring, he cut his name in the glass of her windowpane to remind her he was

Emparadis’d in you (in whom alone I understand, and grow and see).

They married secretly. Her outraged uncle and father had Donne, the priest and the wedding witness thrown into Fleet Prison. All three were shortly released, but Donne's career was shattered. He and Anne fled to the country where he tried to support them by practicing law. Of their dire straits he quipped - “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done”.

Poor but irresistible

For fourteen years, Donne struggled to support a growing family. They were so desperately poor that Donne noted in despair that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. They were lucky to have friends who opened their houses to them.

Nevertheless, when he was first offered regular employment in the Anglican Church, he refused. By then he had accepted the Anglican Church, but he was afraid he was being called by money, not by God. He doubted he was good enough. It's possible he doubted God.

James I, who had already sat four-score scholars down and told them to produce the King James translation of the Bible, told Donne he would give him nothing but a post in the church. Donne finally accepted, though doubting he would ever be able to preach well enough.

John Donne in his forties with goatee

John Donne painted by Isaac Oliver
after a painting in The Royal Collection

His portrait, painted in 1616, a year after he was ordained, shows him at forty-three with hair soft enough to tousle, a strong nose, and deep eyes, tender and half smiling. He was, by a friend’s account, “irresistible,” and understood well how

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.

Donne began preaching in small villages outside London, delivering his first sermon at the rural parish of Paddington. His flair for drama and his wit quickly made him popular. He had a sense of humour, too, as his account of practicing contemplative prayer suggests –

I throw myself down in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door. . .

A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow's dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world.

Words for lovers

All along Donne had been writing poetry that coupled body and soul. Few knew of these works. They circulated among friends in manuscript form.

In A valediction forbidding mourning Donne transformed the distance between parted lovers into golden beauty -

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

In The Good-Morrow, he wakes at dawn to find the one he loves lying beside him. He begins with several funny, true questions, then brings us heartbeat close,

. . .And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

. . .My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp North, without declining West?

Donne is a realistic romantic. In Sweetest love I do not go, he ruefully observes –

O how feeble is man's power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall;
But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o'er us to advance.

He concludes with some of poetry's best-loved lines -

Let not thy divining heart
Forethink me any ill ;
Destiny may take thy part,
And may thy fears fulfil.
But think that we
Are but turn'd aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
Alive, ne'er parted be.

Loss, illness and curiosity

Not long after his portrait was painted, Anne died in childbirth. A poet whose metre was ragged with the rhythms of casual speech, Donne’s grief for her can be heard in the stammering intensity of lines written years later to remember another death –

She, she is dead; she’s dead; when thou know’st this,
Thou know’st how dry a cinder this world is.

He never wrote another love poem. He never remarried. Somehow, despite his losses, he began to accept and love God in the only way another person can be loved, just exactly as he or she is.

In 1621, Donne was named Dean of St Paul’s, London. By then he had become known as a man of integrity, generosity, and fiery passion, and thousands came to hear him preach. "No man is an island", he told them, and "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." (Meditation 17)

During the winter of 1623, Donne fell seriously ill. After he recovered he published essays about his experience - Devotions upon Emergent Occasions -

The book, organized into a series of twenty-three meditations, expostulations, and prayers, follows the progress of the illness through Donne's body as he observes himself and considers himself as a type of mankind. It is striking in its dogged pursuit of the possible meanings, spiritual and physical, of the symptoms Donne observes as he works away at the questions of the relation between internal and external, the corporeal and the intellectual, the human and the divine (Oxford DNB).

Incarnation of love

“Blessed be God,” Donne wrote, “that he is God, only and divinely like himself.” But who was his God? Was it possible that Donne had willingly surrendered to the incarnation of love, but not to the incarnation of God on earth?

Donne's holy sonnet of doubt and passion - Sonnet XIV - is one of the most gripping poems ever written, and suggests an answer -

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne died on March 28th 1631. His friends, who loved him, took everything he wrote to the printer. The poems he left in our hands sing of the union of soul and body. They give no quarter to death –

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. . . (Holy Sonnet X).


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