The atmosphere of London in the 1590s must have been decisive for the shaping of John Donne's character. The students in Lincoln's Inn (one of the law colleges) were reputed for their wild living; some of them were from rich families, and were preparing to administer their own vast estates or enter royal service, while others, like Donne, had no fortune but hoped to make one by attracting the attention of the powerful and getting a rewarding position through their influence. Drama and poetry were part of the ways in which the young law students entertained one another, and demonstrated their particular talents. The atmosphere was much more libertine than that found in Oxford or Cambridge, and it must have been fashionable to appear outrageous.
John Donne (1572 - 1631) was born into a family that had remained loyal to the old Catholic religion. His mother was the grand-daughter of Sir Thomas More's sister Elizabeth, and she had two brothers who were Catholic priests. The family considered itself responsible for a spiritual heritage descending from their martyr ancestor and Donne's mother remained faithful to this all through her life. The fact that John Donne turned away from the Catholicism of his family must be seen as part of a drama underlying his entire life and work. Donne's mother remained a staunch Catholic; she only died 3 months before he did, and in her later years she lived with him.
Donne's father, a London businessman of some importance, died when he was only four, and his mother remarried. Donne's first stepfather was a medical doctor who was associated with St Bartholíęemew's hospital. Perhaps he awakened Donne's interest in the sciences, there are references in several of Donne's poems to medical practices, including "anatomy". This stepfather died when Donne was still only 12, and there was soon another stepfather in his place. It was not possible for Donne's mother to live as an independent widow when she still had two young sons to educate and no personal fortune.
John Donne and his younger brother Henry went to study in Oxford for a couple of years, before Donne reached the age of fifteen.
After that age it was not possible for Catholics to attend lectures in the university without taking a Protestant oath. Then in the late 1580s the two boys shared a room in Lincoln's Inn before John moved to other lodgings. In 1592 a Catholic priest was found hiding in Henry's rooms; in the period after the Armada, such Catholic priests coming into England from the Continent were seen as enemy agents and executed as traitors in a very terrible way, their bodies being cut up while they were still alive. This duly happened to the man found in Henry Donne's room.
Henry Donne was imprisoned on suspicion of helping this priest, and he died of plague before coming to trial. John Donne became a leader among the students of Lincoln's Inn, and played a leading role in organizing some of the Christmas celebrations as Master of the Revels. It may be that Donne was able to travel in Europe in the 1590s, certainly he was not at once able to find a lucrative job.
In 1596 he joined a naval expedition organized by the Earl of Essex against the Spanish and took part in the very violent destruction of part of the Spanish fleet at Cadiz. This may have been done as part of a deliberate effort to prove that he was a loyal Englishman, for Donne could never have hoped for any important position in the royal service if he had remained a Catholic "recusant." In 1597 another similar expedition was organized and again Donne went on it. A violent storm drove the fleet back to Plymouth; from there they sailed towards the Azores, Spanish islands in the Atlantic, where the wind failed and they were becalmed. Finally they were forced to return without achieving anything.
Donne the secular poet
During or just after this journey, Donne wrote two verse epistles to a fellow-student, Christopher Brooke, one describing the storm, the second the calm. These poems are the earliest of Donne's that we can certainly date. The style of "The Storm" shows how strongly Donne had already been influenced by the epigrammatic style, imitating Martial, that was so popular with his contemporaries and that he himself attempted in his Epigrams:
Some coffinned in their cabins lie, equally
Grieved that they are not dead and yet must die;
And as sin-burdened souls from graves will creep
At the last day, some forth their cabins peep
And tremblingly ask what news, and do hear so
Like jealous husbands what they would not know. 50
Pumping hath tired our men, and what's the gain?
Seas into seas thrown we suck in again.
Hearing hath deafed our sailors, and if they
Knew how to hear, there's none knows what to say.
This poem is striking for the multiple sources of its imagery. Seasick men crawl to the deck like the dead rising from their graves on Judgement Day, but then turn into suspicious husbands being told that their wives are having affairs. The ship is seen as a sick body, feverish ('ague') and water-swollen ('dropsy'), before it turns into a lute on which the thinner strings easily snap if wound too tight.
Here already we see Donne reaching for a variety of verbal conceits to evoke suggestive parallel situations, looking for experiences to serve as metaphors for the fear of death that he is really talking about. This poem is clearly not the work of an amateurish beginner; its writing is skillful. It is also unconventional in being the direct relation of a private experience. There is no poet before Donne in whose poems the reader finds such a strong note of personal emotion.
Donne's poems, with few exceptions, are not dateable. It is usually thought that those known as Elegies are early works inspired by Ovid's elegies, the Amores, with their rich eroticism. The Latin elegy was not about death; it got its name from being written in elegiacs, a verse scheme of alternating dactylic hexameter and pentameter lines. Some of Donne's Elegies are erotic, obviously designed to show himself as an uninhibited libertine. One elegy intended to be appreciated by male readers is the 19th:
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, above, below.
O my America! my New-found-land!
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee! 30
Like many of Donne's most famous works, this poem is striking for its use of geographical imagery, its reference to explorations of the globe suggesting that the human body is itself a world. More significant, perhaps, is the tone of the speaking male persona. The woman is being dominated, seduced, with no expectation that she will have anything to say in return to what the man says. The sexual act is portrayed as an act of male colonial exploration/exploitation of a passive female ground.
In contrast, the 16th elegy is not at all erotic, but rather seems to be a verse epistle written on the occasion of a journey. It offers an exploration of themes that are found in the "Valedictions," but with the oddity that it spends a lot of time urging the woman not to disguise herself as a pageboy (as happens in Shakespeare's plays, and sometimes in real life) to go with the speaker/writer. References to a "father's wrath" and "our long-hid love" might seem to suggest that the poem is adíędressed to Donne's future wife, but this cannot be proved:
When I am gone, dream me some happiness,
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess;
Nor praise nor dispraise me, bless nor curse
Openly love's force, not in bed fright thy nurse 50
With midnight's startings, crying out "Oh, oh!
Nurse, oh my love is slain, I saw him go
O'er the white Alps alone; I saw him, I,
Assailed, fight, taken, stabbed, bleed, fall, and die."
Augur me better chance, except dread Jove 55
Think it enough for me t'have had thy love.
There are later poems in which Donne's speaker imagines a woman waking in the night. In each of these early poems we can sense Donne's dramatic skill; the words seem to be really spoken in the situation imagined, the tone is that of a dramatic monologue addressed directly to a particular woman. The readers are put in the position of eavesdroppers, people listening to a conversation not intended for their ears. This was to be Donne's normal strategy, and it is one origin of the sense of personal intimacy conveyed by so many of his poems.
Another group of poems usually thought to date from the 1590s are Donne's five Satires. These explore the theme of human folly familiar in Augustan satire, Horace's especially. The Third Satire, though, is much more deeply philosophical than the others, and may reflect something
of the religious crisis Donne underwent as he realized that he could not simply follow his mother's Catholicism. The poem begins with a very agitated portrait of a confused young man of his time, leading into a summary of the Christian combat against the Devil, the world, and the flesh. This in turn introduces the main theme of the poem, the question as to which if any church possesses the Truth:
Be busy to seek her (Truth), believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will 80
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so; (steepness)
Yet strive so, that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do.
The poem comes to no conclusion, but opens onto a further difficulty; "true religion" is God's own domain, but earthly rulers, be they kings, popes, or preachers, claim to be masters over it. Truth in religion and life in society go together and Donne suggests that it can be dangerous to make the wrong choice. There is no way for us to know how far this poem expresses Donne's own mind. It is a fact, though, that he slipped quietly away from Catholicism and became a member of the Church of England.
During the expeditions against the Spanish, Donne had the good fortune to become familiar with a young man, Thomas Egerton, whose father was a very high official in the government, and a rich man. Perhaps through his influence, in 1598 Donne became a private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, a modest but promising position. He was part of a noble household that had its main offices in London, as well as a large mansion in the country. The next year he was elected to Parliaíęment; elections were held each year and mostly those elected were sponsored by the powerful men of each region.
Donne was ambitious, he took care to cultivate good relations with powerful men. Yet he ruined his career. Lady Egerton had a niece,
Ann More, whose widowed father had entrusted her to her guidance. Ann More was living with the Egertons in London when one day, early in 1601, she and Donne were married secretly in a church where such ceremonies were legally possible. We have no information on how their relationship had developed, and why they resorted to such deceit instead of asking her family's permission. It must be said that she was from a rich family, it is almost unthinkable that they would have agreed. Donne had almost no fortune at all. Worst of all, Donne was nearly 30, Ann More was only 17!
For some weeks the marriage remained secret; then rumours spread and the truth came out. Ann's father, Sir George Moore, was furious, Lord Egerton was deeply hurt, for Donne's conduct was a clear abuse of trust. Donne was put in prison for a time at the demand of Sir George, and lost his position in Lord Egerton's household. During the years that followed, the Donnes had to live in a small house in the country and they depended largely on friends' gifts to survive. At times Donne was able to earn some money by accompanying wealthy people on journeys to the Continent, but for years he lived in poverty and was at times sick. His wife had twelve children, she died after giving birth to their last child in 1616; there is no indication in Donne's surviving letters that he was very much help in looking after the children.
There is nothing to show when most of Donne's secular poems were written, which of them pre-date his meeting with Ann More and which of them were written about her. It seems reasonable to think that many of the poems were written before the 1601 disaster, because it was in the late 1590s that Donne was most concerned to establish his reputation as a bold writer of ingenious conceits. Many of Donne's poems contain the fiction of being written for a single female person, but an underlying desire to impress a world of men is often clear, for example in such cynical poems as "Song" with its conventional antifeminist message: "Nowhere / Lives a woman true, and fair".
This kind of skepticism may be a reaction against the idealizaíętion of women fostered by the Petrarchan poets but it is characteristic of Donne's male-centred world. The poem has no personal touch beyond the brilliance of the comic invention. More intriguing is the attitude expressed in "The Indifferent" where the speaker seems to fear any form of constraining commitment in a relationship: "I can love any, so she be not true". This
poem is far from the laments over female fickleness that Wyatt was so fond of, but both poets end by imagining punishments for the women who dare represent a threat to their masculine wills. A fiercer tone appears in Love's Alchemy:
Hope not for mind in women; at their best
Sweetness and wit they are, but mummy possessed.
The last two lines are a puzzle, but clearly the conclusion is that sexual love brings none of the pleasures anticipated. Once again, in the first stanza, we find Donne using scientific imagery, this time the old alchemists' quest for the ultimate elixir of life that can never be obtained. This poem is particularly marked by a colloquial, rough, mocking tone, the feature that has made Donne so popular in the 20th century.
By contrast, there are seduction poems in which the speaker is busily trying to overcome female reluctance, in order to achieve sexual unity. At the start of "The Flea" the couple are imagined as sharing a bed although the woman seems to have insisted that there should be no sexual act. This form of Platonic love, with all its risks and pleasures, has probably always led to the kind of argument with which the man ends this poem:
Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
This poem stresses its own wit, for the obvious lack of correíęspondence between a flea and two lovers is overcome by the systematic exposition of the points of similarity. Yet by making a mere flea the centre of attention, the sexual act it represents is reduced in significance, although the reference to pregnancy at the end of the first stanza is there to recall one possible consequence.
There is a tremendous difference between these poems, in which sexuality and human relationships are not taken seriously, and the poems which celebrate the wonders of love. There is no basis for constructing a biographical framework to explain this difference; the sincere love poems may have been written after Donne's encounter with Ann Moore, and refer to her, or they may not. What is certain is that in them, there is a new coherence between the world-view (philosophy) that provides much
of their imagery and the experience of life that they record. The title of "The Ecstasy" refers to a world-view common in Donne, derived from Pythagoras and Plato, in which the soul has an almost separate existence from its temporary home, the body. The soul can go out on journeys away from the body, and directly experience union with other souls, or with God. Such a journey is an "ecstasy":
As 'twixt two equal armies Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls (which to advance their state
Were gone out) hung 'twixt her and me;
And whilst our souls negociate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day the same our postures were,
And we said nothing all the day.
This poem, too, is situated in a time when great intimacy exists between two lovers, but before they have consummated their union sexually. The poem is a seduction poem, but one so peculiar that readers usually assume that it has its origin in some actual experience. The theme of one-ness that this poem explores is a central one for Donne: he invents words like "interinanimates" to overcome separateness. Yet in the end this theme of "not two but one" represents a verbal challenge to the anxiety arising from the discovery of the partner's otherness. Donne has been accused to wishing to absorb the female into his own identity through such strategies.
Donne is fond of stressing the mutuality of a relationship in which only he speaks. His poems' speaking persona enjoys telling the woman, or another male friend, how much she loves him. Yet such poems are marked by an intense sense of loving union. There is a serious reflection on the role of the body, and on the union of loving souls familiar from Castiglione.
Donne often affirms that their love is different and special, that outsiders cannot understand it. He sometimes uses the language of Hermeticism, of mystery religions, to express it. Perhaps this has part of its origin in his childhood experience as a Catholic in a hostile society. It could only be confirmed by his realization during the 1590s that he
was particularly talented in ways that did not make life in society easy for him.
It was perhaps his sense of being a cut above the crowd that enabled him to write poems unlike any other writer's, and that attracted the sympathy of T. S. Eliot who had similar attitudes and problems. Certainly, the events of his marriage can only be understood if we assume in him a complete rejection of the customary norms of social decorum, an utter indifference to what people will think, that is dangerous in a person so dependant on other people's good opinion for a job.
One characteristic, then, of Donne's most ecstatic love poems is a sense of withdrawal, of isolation from general human society, as in "The Sun Rising"
She is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.
In the cosmology of this poem, where the sun is still imagined as revolving around the earth, Donne was being poetic as well as old-fashioned. The sun is a symbol of power and majesty, and part of the effect of this poem comes from the cheeky style in which the man scolds the sun, then patronizes it as being in need of some rest.
The climax of the poem depends on correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm. Once again Donne's search for unifying patterns is at work; the geographic image of the atlas, the map of the world stretched flat, is again applied to the woman's body over which the man exercises dominating and exploitative power. The poet finds the source of his understanding of the word "rule" in his relationship with the woman, so that from his viewpoint all other uses of the word derive from his experience, he is all rulers (princes) and she is everything that is subdued.
The paradoxical element in Donne comes from an awareness that the words are doomed to remain without effect. The supremely self-centred image of the last stanza, where the couple has become the whole world and the sun's course can be limited to the walls of their room, is patently not true in any kind of reality. This contradiction between what the words say and what will in fact happen gives the poem a touch of the magic spell. Donne's words become a spell designed to exorcise an anxiety that he otherwise may be overwhelmed by.
The farewell poem addressed by one lover to the other, as they lie together in bed at daybreak, is a conventional form known in medieval France as the aubade. Donne is attracted by the intimacy of this situation, and the way in which the outside world is excluded. Another similar daybreak poem is "The Good-Morrow":
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then,
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den? (snored)
'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
The editors of the second edition of Donne's poems, in 1635, put this as the first in the collection. It has many of the characteristic features of the intense love poems, the insistence on the mutuality of their love, the way it makes the world of them, the confident male mode of address. Yet what a dangerous course the speaker treads in the first stanza.
In his present happiness, the man evokes the past, saying that he/they never knew happiness until now. It was as if adulthood has suddenly dawned on the heels of infancy, like waking from prolonged sleep. Only now is real. Whether or not the poem arises in the biographiíęcal situation uniting the 17 year-old Ann Moore with the 29 year-old John Donne, the last two lines of the stanza are a tricky moment skillfully negotiated. For as he looks back into his past life, he realizes that, no matter what he says, he has been in this same position in bed after sex with a woman in times gone by. More than once, with various women. In a line suggested by something Astrophel says, he quickly wipes the slate clean, complacently telling the woman that those others were only a dream of her, a prophetic prefiguration, not real.
The question of how a pure young woman could love a man with such a past provokes the theme of trust and untroubled love that the speaker is determined to impose in the second stanza. The theme of maps returns, and worlds in persons. This last theme is developed in the third stanza, with the idea that since together they make a world, each of them must be one hemisphere, just as in the maps of the time,
the complete world was mapped in two adjacent hemisphere-maps that converged at the equator.
In his enthusiasm, he eliminates from their private world the "chill North" of the polar regions and the "declining West" of sunset. The evocation of winter and nightfall, though, leads him to recall their symbolic value as signs of human mortality. Hastily he negates the possibility of death; here, more even than in the first stanza, he has stumbled onto a topic too frightening for him to deal with. The poem ends in a verbal game designed to prove by a reference to Greek scientific ideas that if their love remains perfect, it cannot change and so they will not die. Death was for Donne the ultimate threat to personal identity, and we find him inventing similar verbal strategies in other poems in order to challenge the power of death.
In one or two poems, Donne uses in a playful way imagery derived from the rites of the Catholic religion. "The Canonization" begins as a defence of love against the criticism of a friend, echoing a few of Sidney's sonnets. The opening is in dramatic style, as the speaker suggests a few alternative activities that the friend might undertake.
For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune, flout...
The second stanza is a witty legal defence: his love has not caused harm to anyone's property, while it has not inspired a wider social peace that might have taken work from soldiers and lawyers. In the third, the speaker looks for images to express their love, and comes up with several that involve death, like the fly in the candle, or dying and rebirth, like the Phoenix. To "die" was a word commonly used for sexual climax, and the end of the stanza has strong ambiguity in its Christian language of death and resurrection.
Death is the main thought of the poem, and guides its structure. One cannot live by love, in the sense that it does not provide food and clothing; so comes the idea of dying of love, and the consequent fame people get from that. He anticipates the poems written about them, love-sonnets rather than heroic epics, calls them "hymns" and so arrives
at the idea of canonization, they being celebrated by hymns as saints in Love's "church" as saints are celebrated in the Catholic Church.
The last stanza, then, formulates the prayers that people will address to them. The two saints like many Catholic saints, lived in solitary hermitages; their hermitages, though, were each other's person. Their love was perfect harmony, while fashionable literature celebrates love as conflict. Above all, love wrought a miracle in them by reducing the whole world's geography of power ("Countries, towns, courts") to an image in their eyes, an image also found in "The Good Morrow." All who invoke them ask them to obtain by their intercession (like Catholic saints) a special grace from God. All will want to get a pattern of their love, in order to be able to love like them. A pattern allows many identical copies of something to be made, for example the paper patterns used when making clothes.
Two other poems may be related to this one by the theme of posthumous veneration, "The Funeral" and "The Relic." For the image of reflections in eyes or tears, though, we should turn to "A Valediction: Of Weeping":
Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Here it is not the eyes but the tears which by reflection take an image and so become significant. The "Valediction" is a poem of consolation spoken as a person is setting out on a journey. Yet here the speaker, who is setting out on a journey overseas, seems most in need of comfort. If Donne's most intense concept is "all," then its opposites most appall him, "nothing" and "death." Each of his tears is stamped with the woman's reflection which is destroyed as it falls, becoming an image of absence.
Once again he turns to maps and the making of a microcosm, a little world, by fixing maps to a sphere to make a globe. Each tear is a globe in shape, and since she is all his world, his tears are worlds by her image. Now she too begins to weep, and her tears flow over his, like Noah's flood.
The departing traveller's fears of drowning overshadow the last stanza; he fears that the floods of the woman's tears may inspire the sea, her sighs the winds to imitate her. This poem is marked by strong anguish, not simply at being parted from a loved person, but at the thought of death far from home. We do not know if this poem has a particular journey of Donne's behind it, or who it is addressed to; what is striking is the comparison with the other, more famous, "A Valedicíętion: Forbidding Mourning":
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say, No;
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th'other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th'other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
We know nothing of the relationship between the two Valedicíętion poems: who the woman is, which was written first, or if they refer to
the same event, or to any real event. The contrast between them is clear. This second Valediction is determined to be positive, to exorcise by its affirmations some of the anguish more openly shown in the first. That the anguish is still there, may be seen by the opening lines where dying is employed as a simile to represent their parting; the soul of a good man is thought to part quietly from the body, and the speaker wishes them to part in this quiet way. A reason is given: secrecy is important, those watching must not perceive their love. The vocabulary is religious, suggesting some kind of exclusive mystery that only the specially initiated can participate in.
Then, characteristically, there is a shift to rather obscure science: earthquakes were thought to be signs of some kind, everyone is eager to talk about the earth moving. Yet according to late medieval astronomy, based on the Ptolemaic system of concentric spheres, there are also "sky-quakes": "trepidation" (oscillation) or unexpected movements in the outer, crystalline sphere affecting the other spheres but not noticed by ordinary people on earth.
Donne's hieratic view of the universe continues with the distinction between their love (sublime) and "Dull sublunary lovers' love" that is physical and fickle, subject to change and decay like everything in the spheres below that of the moon. Here, unlike in the other Valediction, the speaker denies that their separation can have any real effect on their love. As in "The Ecstasy," their love is seen as essentially a matter of soul-union, with the physical aspects of little significance. Again Donne invents a word to express mutuality: "Inter-assured of the mind."
The rest of the poem is a series of conceits in which the speaker struggles to find metaphors to support his contention that although they will be separated during his journey (which has not yet been mentioned directly), there will be no real separation. He first uses the affirmation that love has united their two souls into one. Then comes the image of gold that can be beaten into remarkably thin gold leaf without breaking; in Donne's time there was no elastic rubber, and the associations of gold with scarcity and value are important.
The last three stanzas develop the too-familiar exploration of the correspondences between a compass ("pair of compasses") and their two souls which are closely linked while each retaining independent identity. Each stanza has a separate idea. The first introduces the correspondence;
in the second he places the point on paper then opens and closes the compass, noting how the "fixed foot" is forced to lean at an increasing then decreasing angle. In the third, he draws a circle, the moving foot arriving back precisely at the starting point after its long voyage in the final line, an image of the hoped-for safe return.
Donne's Metaphysical style
The last section of this poem, the compass image, is often cited as the prime example of a "metaphysical conceit." The responsibility for the common use of this not very helpful term lies mainly with John Dryden (1631 - 1700), who in his essay Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), wrote of Donne: "he affects the metaphysics . . . and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love." There was a radical difference in literary sensitivity between the age of Donne and that of Dryden, that accounts for the neglect of Donne's poetry until the present century. In the same essay, Dryden distinguishes between "wit" and "poetry," allowing Donne to have more wit than himself, but claiming that he and his contemporaries have more poetry.
Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) developed Dryden's ideas in his life of Abraham Cowley (1618 - 1667) in Lives of the Poets (1779):
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.
(. . . .)
Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances
in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together, nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections.
The expression discordia concors is itself a witty use by Johnson of a technical expression in philosophy, usually applied to the way in which the universe retains a fundamental harmony despite all its inner contradictions.
Dryden and Johnson are reacting to the older forms of conceit by invoking standards of good taste. They would have been shocked to know that in the 20th century the poetry of Donne and Herbert, at least, if not the other so-called "metaphysicals," would be generally ranked far above that of the Augustans. T.S.Eliot did much to bring Donne's poems back into the canon. In 1921, in the Times Literary Supplement, he noted the agility of their flow of associations. Then he put forward his famous theory of "the dissociation of sensibility" to account for the fusion of feeling and thought found in Donne, but not much after him. By 1927, Eliot had reached different conclusions, abandoning his earlier hypotheíęsis and stressing the way Donne differs from Dante in his vision of love involving a dualism between body and soul.
There is a very strong critical resistance today to any use of the word "metaphysical," especially if it suggests that there was a formal "school" grouping Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Crashaw, Vaughan etc. The "conceit" or witty exploration of unexpected correspondences, was common in Italian, Spanish, and French poetry from the 15th century, and is often known as "Marismo"; it is not something specifically English.
If the word "metaphysical" is applied to Donne at all, it should be because his imagery derives from a pattern of "metaphysics" or unified picture of the universe under God. In this case, the image of the compasses is not a truly "metaphysical" conceit, since it has no transceníędent or spiritual dimension. It might be argued that Donne's truly metaphysical vision is to be found in his forceful affirmations of essential permanence when
directly faced with patterns of decay and death; he is constantly in search of the unchanging something that resists all the powers of destructive nothing:
Cities are sepulchers; they who dwell there
Are carcasses, as if no such there were.
And courts are theatres, where some men play
Princes, some slaves, all to one end, and of one clay.
(To Sir Henry Wooton)
Often quoted is his negative response to the beginnings of the scientific revolution of his times in The First Anniversary:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies. (205 - 12)
One of the main characteristics of Donne's style is found also in Shakespeare, especially the soliloquies: a precise human experience leads the subject the reach out for terms by which to comprehend it and respond to it. The search for appropriate terms involves rapid transitions of association and metaphor, and has no proper conclusion in words, since the words are only a means to an effect. The passage into words, though, is vital for by them the individual experience and response becomes communicated, getting transformed inevitably into the universal. In Shakespeare and Donne, poetry comes alive in new and dramatic ways.
Donne and the Church
In the secular poems, Donne affirms the value of physical and spiritual union between man and woman, while often stressing the vanity of the world and the society around them. An intense dissatisfaction is latent in Donne, as well as a great thirst for life. It seems that King James
quite early decided that the Church was the only place for him, and this was a very perceptive insight. If Donne had been given any kind of other position, he would probably have demanded far more of it than it could offer; whereas God has always more to offer than anyone can demand.
In 1607, Donne was already under pressure from friends at court to become a clergyman in the Church of England. It may be that his Holy Sonnets date from 1609-10, when the idea was again making its way. In 1610 and 1611, he published two elaborate texts attacking the Catholic Church (Pseudo-Martyr, 1610; Ignatius his Conclave, 1611) which seem to have been an attempt to show that he could be useful in the royal service.
At this time he was being helped by Sir Robert Drury, a man of some wealth. In 1610 Sir Robert's little daughter, Elizabeth, died and Donne wrote two long poems to celebrate the anniversaries of her death in 1611 and 1612. These Anniversaries, also known as An Anatomy of the World, were published at once, almost the only poems by Donne to be printed in his lifetime. They provoked hostility, since Donne used the death of a little girl he had never met to illustrate the philosophical and moral theme of the world's decay.
Equally, during these years, Donne was trying to gain support from powerful women, patrons of poetry, especially Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and Magdalen Herbert, to whose elder son, later Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Donne was very close. Her younger son was the poet George Herbert, whom Donne may have met and even influenced, although the poems for which Herbert is famed were only written in the 1620s.
Finally, in early 1615, Donne was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Very soon he was given positions that meant he preached to the Court several times a year, as well as to the students at Lincoln's Inn, and in a London parish regularly. We can only imagine what impact his wife's death had on him. She was pregnant for the twelfth time in 1616. The child died at birth and she died a week later, on August 15, aged thirty-three.
In 1621, the king appointed Donne to be Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London, a post from which many went on to become bishops; here he often preached to the citizens of London from an outdoor pulpit, sometimes with the king attending.
The Holy Sonnets
These poems are true sonnets, while none of Donne's love poems uses the form. There are ten forming La Corona and nineteen with the general title Divine Meditations, mostly marked by an acute awareness of his own fallen nature and his need for God's saving grace. There is an intense anxiety arising from uncertainty as to whether or not he can be saved, and it is this that gives the sonnets their power. As in the love poems, there is only one person speaking, who verbalizes the hoped-for response. The speaker's egoism is sometimes breath-taking, as in the 7th Sonnet:
At the round earth's imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go:
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these, my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou hadst sealed my pardon with thy blood.
The main conceit of this poem is the way it asks God to delay the last Judgement and give the speaker room to repent first. Like most of these poems, the last line scrambles for an assurance of faith that ought to be there, but obviously is not. One reason for these poems' anguish is to be found in an anxiety about the nature of God that is often characteristic of Calvinism, although it derives from St Augustine and the Bible. Donne echoes Marlowe's Dr Faustus in Sonnet 9:
If poisonous minerals, and if that tree
Whose fruit threw death on else-immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned, alas, why should I be?
But who am I that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory.
That thou remember them some claim as debt;
I think it mercy if thou wilt forget.
The "forget" of the last line sounds weak; the speaker clearly does not want God to forget him, but his faults.
In several poems the poet struggles with the contradiction between what he would wish to become, and what he has been. The desire to be re-made is frustrated by an awareness of what he is, expressed in the very powerful 14th Sonnet:
Batter my heart, three-personed 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.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed 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.
This is the most often read of all, on account of its powerful, violent language with its ambivalent sexual overtones. The struggle in each poem ends in a turning towards God, who alone can do something effective to save the sinner from his predicament. Donne is bold in making God so directly responsible for his salvation. The first set of images seem to be inspired by the metal-worker's craft; the speaker is beyond mere patching, he will have to be melted down and recast. The second quatrain describes him as a city occupied by God's powerful enemy against his will. This climaxes in an affirmation of love, that turns into bridal imagery.
The soul being, like the whole Church, traditionally the bride of Christ, in the sestet the speaker casts himself in a female role inspired by romances: she has been forced into an engagement with the enemy; she asks God to break that contract ("divorce me" from the enemy) and shut her up in his own castle. The poem closes in a double paradox, and a very clever play on words: since God's love is perfect, to be made his servant (enthrall) gives perfect freedom (but "enthrall" also means "fascinate"). Since God is perfect purity, union with him gives purity, only the word "ravish" has the remarkable double meaning of "draw my soul out of me in mystic rapture" and "rape."
It is important to recall that these poems were probably written at a time of inner crisis, when Donne was trying to come to terms with himself before God and make some kind of new beginning.
Other religious poems
There are other religious poems written later, including the two Hymns, that represent Donne's attitude to death. He could never easily consent to the idea that his identity might be put to an end; death was a shadow that he tried to exorcise by affirming that after death the Christian's soul passed immediately into eternal life in Heaven.
The first is the Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness that Isaak Walton in his Life says Donne composed in his last days but that many critics would date to his very serious sickness of 1623. This poem begins with an anticipation of heaven where "I shall be made thy music" before Donne returns once again to the familiar imagery of maps and geograíęphy, the sick man being himself a map. He plays with the way the two sides of a flat map of the world coincide: "As West and East / In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection". He also plays with the word "strait" which is a narrow sea passage but also a serious condition. He evokes the ancient tradition by which Christ's cross stood on the spot of Adam's tree of knowledge, as a way of evoking salvation.
The Hymn to God the Father also dates from 1623. It is a simpler poem, a prayer evoking Donne's fear of God's judgement but exorcising that fear by the final line's "I fear no more". Most notable is the way even such a poem, addressing God, cannot resist making puns on Donne's name in its refrains: "When thou hast done thou hast not done, / For I have more" ending the first two stanzas, "And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more".
In the winter of 1623-4 John Donne was seriously ill. As he recovered, he composed a series of meditations, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, tracing the course of his sickness. With his own private experience as the starting point, he offers a series of thoughts on the nature of human life, society, and morality. The style of these chapters is close to that of the poems, full of complex and startling images, bringing together quite conventional ideas in unusual combinaíętions. The work was published at once and was very popular. A few words from Meditation 17 have become familiar, even to people who do not know their origin.
The starting point of Meditation 17 is the experience of hearing the church bell ring to announce that someone in the neighborhood is dying. The sick man wonders for a moment if the bell is not ringing for him. From there Donne passes to a characteristically unexpected image of Heaven as a library:
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that!
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is, not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
... No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,as well as if a promontory were,as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminíęishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. (....)
The style of Donne's sermons is similar. Donne was a noted preacher, in an age when the public sermon was a recognized form of art. Donne published many of his sermons during his lifetime, others were published after he died. What we cannot know is how similar his spoken style was to the written text. The texts published were carefully written up from the bare notes that were all Donne had with him in the pulpit. Not untypical is this meditation on how we shall know when we come to Heaven:
There our curiosity shall have this noble satisfaction, we shall know how the Angels know, by knowing as they know. We shall not pass from Author to Author, as in a Grammar School, nor from Art to Art, as in a University; but, as that General which Knighted his whole Army, God shall Create us all Doctors in a minute. That great Library, those infinite Volumes of the Books of Creatures, shall be taken away, quite away, no more Nature; those reverend Manuscripts, written with God's own hand, the Scriptures themselves, shall be taken away, quite away; no more preaching, no more reading of the Scriptures, and that great School-Mistress, Experience, and Observation shall be remov'd, no new thing to be done, and in an instant, I shall know more, than they all could reveal unto me.
R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1970.
The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry: Donne to Marvell, edited by Thomas N. Corns. Cambridge University Press. 1993.