JOHN DONNE, A MAN OF COMPLEXITY


Jan 25, 2003


The Bottom Line He was a poet and I know it

With so many accomplished poets that write in the writer’s corner, I thought I would like to write a little about John Donne. After a night school study course a few years ago, I considered Donne my third favorite all time poet.

I hope you find his life and some of his works as interesting as they are to me.

John Donne, poet, was born eight years after Shakespeare in 1571. Although both Shakespeare and Donne inhabited the same literary and emotional atmospheres, some historians believe that his scientific images, and his colloquial directness appear to be equal to those of the seventeenth century.

His background, though, explains a lot about Donne. He spent most of his life around London, as sort of an aspiring wannabe of the Royal court.

His mother was related to Saint Thomas Moore, and an uncle led the Jesuit Mission in England. Donne was born a Catholic at a time when Catholics were severely restricted and persecuted in the exercise of their faith.

While still very young, John attended both Oxford and Cambridge, but was refused a degree because of his faith. In 1593 his brother died in prison for harboring a Catholic priest. About that time John denounced his Catholicism.

This, certainly, removed a barrier to Donne’s ambition, but it should not be seen as simply opportunistic. Donne’s faith and creed were probed throughout his life – at first in satire. He had a real fear of damnation and believed in a real hell fire, and it shows throughout much of his work, especially in his later years.
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, TRUTH stands,
And hee that will
Reach her,
About must, and about must goe


Modern version by Russ Manford

Truth Stands
On a high and
rugged hill.
To find that truth
I must go around the hill
And around and around
And around


In the days of Shakespeare and Donne, most artists and poets needed the patronage of aristocratic or religious leaders to further their career, or even to subsist. As a young man Donne went on buccaneering expeditions with both Essex and Raleigh. He then became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, a wealthy and important member of the Government. His work was going well,when career be dammed, he blew it all away by marrying Sir Thomas’ wife’s niece, young Ann Moore. This was in 1602.

Ann’s father was furious when he learned that John Donne had secretly married his daughter, and he retaliated. John was dismissed from his position by Egerton, and was sent to prison for a short period. This was followed by fourteen years of poverty and worry. Donne characterized this bleak period by this little triple –“ John Donne/Ann Donne/undone.” It serves to give us the correct pronouncement of his last name.

John and Ann would have twelve children before she died after the last birth in 1617. They had been married for fifteen years. During the fourteen years of poverty, Donne was retained by wealthy patrons to write Eligies and poetry to fit certain occasions. He intertwined these with satire – often unspotted by the patrons. He wrote erotic love poems – that sound , well, let me quote a few parts from one he wrote shortly after his marriage. Speaking of the marriage night –

Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals, as from flowry meads th’hills shadow reveals. . .
….
Off with that wyrie (wirey) coronet and shew
The hairy Diademe which on you doth grow.
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this loves hollow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels us’d to be
Received by men. Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mohomet’s Paradise, and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easly know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but These, our flesh upright.

License my roving hands and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below
Oh my America, my newfound land
My kingdom, safest when with one man, manned.
To enter in these sacred bonds, is to be free
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
…..(I must)
see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self cast all, yea, this white hymen hence
There is no penance due to innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou more covering then a man


Fifteenth century porn? Or the joys of awakening sex. Or did the modesty of the time cause his bride to want to retain her night gown? Considering the time period, it was probably not meant to inspire poets in future generations, although it has.

Again and again Donne surprises by his turns of phrase. “For Godsake hold your tongue and let me love.” “Goe tell Court-huntsman that the King will ride.” “Oh Batter my heart, three personn’d God. “ “Death, be not proud”

I first started reading Donne through the songs and sonatas – trying to interpret the old English into language that I could comprehend. His work could be light when he tells his reader to Goe catch a falling star to Lucie’s Day written during the illness of his beloved Patroness, Lucy Countess of Bedford.

Eventually the efforts of Donne’s friends and patrons commended him to King James. The king insisted that his advancement must be through the church. Although reluctant, Donne was ordained in 1615. He traveled to Germany on a diplomatic mission before high-placed friends influenced his appointment as Dean of St. Pauls. It was here, in the last ten years of his life that he preached with a passion and eloquence that bought him renown and respect. He died in March, 1632, at age 60.

Strangely, Donne’s work did not garner too much attention until the 20th century. His religious tormented poetry could not have been popular during his life span. His almost modern phrases must have raised many a fifteenth century eyebrow. From one of his rapt love poems “The Extasie” comes:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes, upon one double string


Much of Donne’s poetry influenced our modern day poets. T. S. Elliott admitted he copied much of Donne’s style. As did Cummings, and even Ezra Pound – although it is said that Ezra admitted it with a tongue in cheek manner.

I find it a pleasure to read of Donne’s unexpected phrases – such as

“This bed thy center is – these walls thy sphere”

…”cloystered in these living walls of jet”

“At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow your trumpets, Angela” I know there is some hidden meaning there that I don’t get, but I love the sound of it.

How about, “A bracelet of bright haire above the bone”

Donne is my third favorite poet of all times. I know he was philosophical in his later poetry, and was tortured by the notion of hell. I have read that he was, but I have yet to wade through all of that. Historians speak of the amazing science knowledge that shows up in Donne's poetry. I confess, I haven’t gone into that very much.

Give me the love poetry and the sonnets and I will leave the religious works and the scientific discoveries in his writings to people more erudite then I am.

As a side note when Ezra Pound was asked if he was influenced by John Donne, he replied, said my teacher, that of course he was – and offered the following ditty to prove it. It was, of course, part of Pound’s dry humor.

“Winter isicummen is,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ream!
Sing: goddam

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham,
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you sing: goddam

Goddamn, goddamn, ‘tis why I am, goddam
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddam, damn, sing goddam,
Sing goddamn, sing goddamn, damn
byEzra Pound

If you are interested in more work by Donne I researched him through the net instructional services.

Try Gary A Stringer, Donne, John – World Book Online American Edition.
http:www.aolsvc.World book AOL.com/ar?/no/ar/co/ar 163980 htm, or just click onto Instruction on AOL and type in John Donne.

I realize that a fifteenth century poet might be boring for many of you, but for those that do read this, accept my thanks.

Virginia

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