Sunday, June 28, 2015

Notes on John Donne, I

 John Donne's Poetry 

Song: Go and catch a falling star

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

John Donne, born in 1572,  is probably generally familiar for quotations from his writings. Perhaps his best-known line, from Meditation 17 in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a prose work, is often quoted as poetic: "No man is an island."
Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.
A division in Donne's poetry can be drawn between his early, sensual love poetry (often full of Christian imagery but carnal in tone) and his later, largely sacred poetry.   Many of his love poems, however , are considered from early in his career.  While publication dates may be available for some poems during Donne's lifetime, many of his poems were often circulated for many years in manuscript before publication was sought. Therefore, the dates of printing are meaningless as origination dates except as the latest possible date for any particular poem.  His hardships as an adult would eventually change him from the young spendthrift and sometime soldier who wrote "The Sun Rising" to the somber, almost death-obsessed writer of the Holy Sonnets and the Meditations of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.  In 1615, he became an Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Anglican orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621 at the age of forty-nine, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.  The importance of religion in his later writing does not mean that there were not religious references in his early love poetry.  For example in the song above, "Go and catch a falling star",  where he rejects the possibility of a "true and fair" woman.  The poem begins with rather brilliant lines declaiming the ephemeral and nigh impossibility of finding such a woman, but later  he suggests there may be hope:
"If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;"
While not necessarily a Catholic reference one does not have to dwell to long on the line to think of holy pilgrimages, even poetic ones like that made famous by Chaucer.  The insertion of this does not lead the poet to believe that a true woman could be found for him as the poem ends:

"Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three."

Another love poem has the poet battling with nature, the Sun in particular:

The Sun Rising

 Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

               She's all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world's contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

The poem begins with a bit of rant against the intrusion of the sun into the lover's bedroom lives.  It goes on to suggest their love is like an Arcadian ideal with lines like:  
"Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,"
And it continues with the suggestion that love is not bound by the artificiality of the linearity of time as measured by more civilized selves.  
The lover's have banished those bounds, and consider wealth mere alchemy, but cannot ignore the sun.  So instead the poet chides the sun with the news that the center of the world that the sun warms is that bed of the lovers whose happiness is indeed more than that of nature.

In these poems and others including "The Bait" and "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" Donne demonstrates unique metaphors and a wit that is intellectually pleasing with its contrariness.  For example his arguments against the Romantic idealism of Christopher Marlowe's lyrical "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"  prove as delicious as the fishes swimming after the bait proffered by the poet's beloved:
"When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him. "
The poem ends with an ironic line suggesting the fishes that do not succumb to the bait are wiser than the poet.  It is complexity like this that might leave the reader with the feelings of a twentieth century man who is "bewitched, bothered, and bewildered".   This is a far cry from the Romantic ideal of love.  The poem follows:

The Bait

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there the 'enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun or moon, thou dark'nest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light having thee.

Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.

Useful generalizations about so large and varied a body of work as Donne's are not easy. He was a profoundly religious poet, with a peculiarly strong hold on and interest in the physical things of life. He used a unique lens to view his world, creating spectacularly unlikely comparisons that enlightened the reader on the nature of both of the things compared, sometimes in surprising ways. He continues to be read and discussed today, four hundred years after he lived.  I will continue my comments on his poetry and prose in the coming weeks.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for this post James.

I should read more Donne and reread more of what I have read.

There is something about his verse that I particularly like.

I really like the Bait and the ideas and feelings that it conveys. Your analysis of it seems right on target.

James said...


Donne's poetry is intellectually challenging and aesthetically pleasing at the same time. I'll have more comments on his poems and prose over the next few weeks.

Priya said...

I read little poetry. But I developed a fascination for Donne's works a couple of years back in college. Require dedicated effort but give lasting rewards - that is so true of his works. Back then, in class, most discussions about Donne revolved around how patronising he seems to women - though there were those who believed it was part of the parody. For me, anyway, the poems have something of a charm because every read unearths some new ingenious play on words or allusion. Very intellectually challenging, you are right. I look forward to the upcoming posts on Donne!

James said...


Thanks for sharing your experience. His play with words is surely exciting to read and attempt to decipher. I hope to continue with my reactions and thoughts on Donne's poetry and prose.