By Gabriel Blanchard
From intricately composed love lyrics decorated with alchemical and astronomical images, to soaring meditations upon eternity and heaven, the poetry and prose of John Donne is an incomparable treasury.
Most of us have likely heard of John Donne, and may know a snippet or two from his work—the lines “No man is an island” and “For whom the bell tolls” are famous, albeit as much from being adopted as titles by other authors as for their original meaning. Which is a great pity, because Donne is not only a magnificent poet, but one of the finest writers in the English language.
Much of his life was unhappy. His family were recusants, a term applied to those Englishmen who refused to attend the services of the Church of England due to (confirmed or suspected) loyalty to Rome. This status hampered them in public life, even when it did not result in little things like executions for treason, and Donne had difficulties early in his career, such as being unable to attend Oxford or Cambridge. After much thought and hesitation, he became an Anglican, which allowed him to pursue his ambitions in politics, becoming secretary to the Lord Keeper (one of the highest officials in the country) by 1597.
Disaster struck when he fell in love with the Lord Keeper’s niece, a woman named Anne More, and married her secretly in 1601, against both the Lord Keeper’s wishes and her father’s. Donne was dismissed—and, in fact, briefly imprisoned—for the defiance, and he and his father-in-law did not reconcile for seven years. (Informing her of his dismissal, he ruefully wrote to his wife: John Donne, Anne Donne, un-done.) Scraping together a living practicing law and writing anti-Catholic pamphlets, he eventually found royal favor after the accession of King James I, who urged him to become an Anglican priest, which he eventually did. Much of his most celebrated poetry and oratory was composed during his ecclesiastical career and on theological themes, such as the notorious “Batter my heart, Three-person’d God,” or Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
The strong religious theming of his later work might have amused or startled some of his earlier audiences. His love poems dealt much with the torments of loves that both the Roman and the English clergy might have politely called uncanonical; and they were often quite openly sensual. (It was the Renaissance, after all, and whichever side of the Reformation a culture fell on, the Renaissance was like that!) Moreover, Donne wrote some pieces that expressed (and perhaps, in a way, enjoyed?) thoughts and sentiments which are really quite petty, but which becoming entertaining as raw material for him to build fantasticated verbal and conceptual structures out of. A splendid example can be found in the opening “Paradox” from his Juvenilia, “A Defence of Womens Inconstancy“: it is hard not to see it as an exquisitely elaborated insult to a current, or more likely former, mistress, but is so over-the-top that it may be at the same time (or have become while he was writing it) a piece of self-mockery too.
This “exquisite elaboration” is in many ways Donne’s chief characteristic, and gave rise to what later writers called the Metaphysical conceit. This should not be confused with conceit in the sense of vanity; in literary and poetic contexts, a conceit is an extended metaphor, often explored by the writer at great length and typically comparing two things that are mostly dissimilar. By his talent for this device, Donne became the brightest star in the constellation of Metaphysical Poets, a grouping made by later scholars (as opposed to being a self-conscious or ideological movement on the part of the poets themselves). These were devout Anglicans and English Catholics of the seventeenth century; many of them were associated with the Cavaliers, the king’s party in the English Civil War, and their poetry was frequently romantic and even erotic. Donne’s favorite topics were romantic love, theology, and death—almost always, one way or another, grappling with the mysterious relationship between the soul and the body.
He certainly had much occasion to think about that. His eighth child with Anne was stillborn; so was his twelfth, and his wife died in delivering this last child. The Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions were written while he himself was deathly sick (though he recovered from this particular illness), and contains some of his most overpowering passages. “All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated … some peeces are translated by age, some by sicknesse, some by warre, some by justice; but Gods hand is in every translation; and his hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe”. His final sermon (delivered during another illness which did claim his life) was along similar lines; preached in London before King Charles I at the beginning of Lent in 1631, it was titled “Death’s Duel: Or, A Consolation to the Soul Against the Dying Life and Living Death of the Body.” “Unto this God the Lord belong the issues of death; that is, that this God the Lord having united and knit both natures in one, and being God, having also come into this world, in our flesh, he could have no other meanes to save us, he could have no other issue out of this world, nor returne to his former glory, but by death“.
With Halloween here and All Hallows and Day of the Dead around the corner, Donne feels, in the strict sense of the word, festive: that is, appropriate to the current festivals. I close with a pertinent selection from a letter written in 1624, one of his loveliest, which has appeared on the CLT (though with modernized spelling!). It was addressed to the recently widowed Lady Kingsmel, to whose late husband Donne had been chaplain.
As they do yll, who add to his written wyll, hys Scriptures, a Scedule of Apocryphall books, so do they also, who to hys other wyll, his manifested Actions, add Apocryphall conditions, and a Scedule of such limitations, If God would have stayd thus longe, or If God would have proceeded in thys, or thys Manner, I could have borne it. … But, Madam, you who willingly sacrific’d yourselfe to God, in your obedience to him, in your own sicknes, cannot be doubted to dispute with him, about any part of you, which he shall be pleased to requier at your hands. The difference ys great, in the losse of an arme, or a Head; of a child, or a Husband: But to them, who are incorporated into Christ, theyr Head, there can be no beheadinge; upon you, who are a Member of the spouse of Christ, the Churche, there can fall no wydowhood, nor Orphanage upon those children, to whom God ys father.
Gabriel Blanchard, a freelance writer and mortal, has a bachelor’s degree in Classics from the University of Maryland; he has worked for CLT since 2019, where he holds the position of editor-at-large. He is a proud uncle of seven nephews, and lives in Baltimore.
Be sure to check out CLT’s podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate. If you’d like to read more here at the Journal, we have an ongoing series on the men and women of our Author Bank from Gilgamesh to Gandhi, as well as an overview of the history of the great ideas, each one with reading suggestions for those who want to dig deeper. Happy Halloween!
Published on 31st October, 2022. Page image of old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, painted by John Gipkyn (1614); Donne is buried at St. Paul’s, and his monument (still visible today) is one of the few which survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. Author image of a detail from Danse Macabre (1493) by Michael Wohlgemuth.