John Donne (b. 1572) was the son of a successful London merchant who died when Donne was only 4 years old. His family were ‘recusant’ Roman Catholics which means they remained loyal to the Catholic Church despite being persecuted by the English crown for so doing. Donne attended Oxford University from the very young age of 11 and also studied in Cambridge but he could not received a degree from either institution as he would have had to swear an oath against his faith if he had.
In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. Anne died tragically at the age of 33 giving birth to their twelfth child who was stillborn. In 1615, he became an Anglican priest because King James I persistently ordered him to do so. In 1621, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. He also served as a member of parliament in 1601 and in 1614.
His poems are noted for their passionate, sensual style and include sonnets, religious poems, love poems, elegies, satires, Latin translations and sermons. The Leaving Cert course features a representative collection of both serious and humorous love poems and a selection of his ‘holy sonnets’ where he addresses God directly.
Donne's style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. Batter My Heart demonstrates his use of paradox clearly. In it his soul can only be redeemed by being destroyed: ‘break, blow, burn and make me new’ and the speaker can only find freedom through imprisonment by God: ‘Take me to You, imprison me, for I, Except You enthrall me, never shall be free.’
He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits or extended metaphors. In The Flea the starring insect is compared to a church where the poet and his love have been married:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Another example of a conceit features in Thou Hast Made Me where God is compared to a magnet that will draw the poet up to Heaven: ‘And Thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.’
Much of Donne’s poetry concerns love between men and women both as a physical bond as in The Flea and as a deeper more emotional bond in The Anniversary, The Sun Rising and A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.
The Flea deals simply with the act of seduction. The poet’s goal is to lure a young woman to his bed and he will make any argument that might help him succeed, including that a flea has already mixed their blood so why are they waiting?!
Yet this enjoys before it woo…
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
The Flea demonstrates a one-dimensional view of love that consists purely of carnal lust but it has a teasing, humorous tone and isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously.
In A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning he argues that the love he shares with his wife is not merely physical but involves a merging of souls: ‘Our two souls, therefore, which are one.’ He compares their souls to the feet of a single compass. His lover’s soul is the fixed foot in the center, and his is the foot that moves around it. The firmness of the center foot makes the circle that the outer foot draws perfect: “Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end, where I begun.” He sees their love as eternal and permanent, a message which is repeated in The Anniverarie and The Sun Rising. In these poems love is a deep bond between two people that transcends time and is uneffected by the passing seasons:
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 day.
The Sun Rising demonstrates Donne’s use of hyperbole to emphasise the strength and power of his love. He states that love, “no season knows, nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time”. Also he claims that his love affair brings them such happiness that kings and princes are but pretending to be as happy as them: ‘Princes do but play us’ and that the whole world is contained within their bedroom:
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere.
Sin and Redemption
Donne’s later poetry, written when he was dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, is concerned greatly with religious themes, especially those of sin and redemption. His three ‘Holy Sonnets’ on the Leaving Cert. course all explore these themes.
In Batter my Heart he uses very striking conceits to depict the threat of sin in his life. Sin has hijacked his heart like invaders taking over a town, sin traps him like a woman betrothed to her true love’s enemy. He begs God to fight for him for it is only in God’s grace he can be free from sin:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
He also feels weighed down with sin in Thou Hast Made Me: ‘my feebled flesh doth waste/ By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.’ He depicts himself as being weak and unable to fight temptation without God’s help. In At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners he begs for more time before Judgement Day to make himself worthy of salvation.
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.
As many poets do, Donne explores the theme of death in great depth. In Thou Hast Made Me he questions why God created man only to destroy him later: ‘Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?’ This poem vivdly captures the frailty and indignity of old age with ‘dim eyes’ and ‘feeble flesh’. He is terrified of death and feels that his soul has been corrupted with sin and hell may await him after death: ‘Despair behind, and death before doth cast/ Such terror’.
In At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners he considers all who have died since the dawn of time and paints a dramatic picture of Judgement Day when, according to the Bible, the souls of the dead will return to their bodies.
At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
If he can repent and stay close to God he feels that death will hold no fear for him and begs God for help in Thou Hast Made Me:
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his [the devil] art
And Thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.
Regarded as one of the greatest poets of the sixteenth century, John Donne explored both the deeply spiritual and the raw physical aspects of life. His clear expression of inner conflict and passion for life remains vivid and relevant four hundred years on.