* Prices may differ from that shownMore Offers
The poems in this selection have been divided into five sections: Songs and Sonnets, Elegies, Epithalamions, Satires, Verse Letters, and the Divine Poems. The study of Donne typically focuses on the love poetry of his earlier years, and the religious poems he wrote having entered the church (he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1621). Thankfully, this collection is fairly comprehensive – if you need a good checklist, this list is taken from the A-Level syllabus The Good-Morrow Song (‘Go, and catch a falling star’) The Sun Rising The Canonization Air and Angels The Flea A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day The Apparition A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning The Funeral The Relic The Prohibition Elegy 9: The Autumnal Elegy 19: To his Mistress Going to Bed Holy Sonnets Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness A Hymn to God the Father This book is good value at £2. The introduction provides a fairly basic overview but manages to touch on most of the poems while quoting, among others, Smith, Johnson, Dryden and Coleridge. More illuminating, perhaps, is a chronology of Donne’s life set against a chronology of his times, both in terms of artistic context and historical events. In 1610, for example, we learn that Donne, now 38, obtained an honorary MA from Oxford, that Jonson’s Alchemist was first acted, and that Galileo reported on his telescopic view of the heavens. Given Donne’s wide-ranging metaphors (which often touched on scientific breakthroughs and home life) this resource could have been invaluable, but unfortunately no dates are given for when he published his poems. The best thing about this book is, inevitably, the poems. Donne, the most well known of the metaphysical poets, came to greater prominence through the twentieth century as critics began once again to admire the curious power of a poem that
combines complex conceit with immediate sensuality. Donne’s manner is tortuous, or ‘harsh’ as he chose to describe it; as Carew wrote, ‘to the awe of thy imperious wit, our stubborn expression bends’. His tone is forceful, not least in his religious poetry: Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend: Donne was highly valued in his time for his acutezza or wit. In his love poems especially, Donne speaks with a ‘masculine persuasive force’ in a relentless argument, trying to seduce the object. To aid his case, he often draws upon scientific metaphor – but crucially syllogism containing a logical error. The Flea: Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deny’st me is; It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be; Thou know’st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, Yet this enjoys before it woo, And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do. Donne is trying to get this woman into bed, but she resists wishing to preserve her honour. We cannot be sure if this is based on an actual event, or even written to a real woman (both seem unlikely), but the effect is that Donne is thinking on his feet. In desperation he turns to a flea and turns it into a sex symbol – having suck’d both of them, their bloods have already mingled. And the flea has suck’d before it marry, ‘enjoys before it woo’, has even swelled as if pregnant ‘with one blood made of two’. It is an ingenious poem, but those hoping to find a die-hard romantic in Donne may be disappointed. Even in his straighter love poetry, (e
g. the Valediction: Forbidding Mourning), where the two points of a compass are brought to represent their two souls platonically linked, Donne cannot resist a bit of juvenile innuendo… If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two, The soul the fix’d foot makes no show To move, but doth, if th’other do. And though it in the centre sits Yet when the other far doth roam, It leans, and hearkens after it And grows erect, as that comes home. …the closing two lines are unashamedly dirty. To my mind, genuine emotion is more evident in the religious poems. Donne, afflicted with sickness, grew increasingly preoccupied and a desire to atone for his sins; Holy Sonnet 19 is riddled with self-doubt (‘Those are my best days, when I shake with fear’). Sexual energy remains from the earlier poetry; but this time, rather than conquest, he looks almost to be raped by religion and ‘quake with true fear of his rod’. Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthral me, never shall be free Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. Donne is complex to say the least, and the notes at the end of the book are very useful in explaining ambiguous or obscure references. Especially in explaining the last of the selected poems, A Hymn to God the Father, which contains two puns; the obvious one on his name (Donne/done) and the less obvious one on the maiden name of his wife Ann (More/more). When thou has done, thou has not done, For, I have more
I think most students of ‘Lit Crit’ have a crush on John Donne at some time, I know I did. I still do. His work is intense and highly emotional, dealing with love, sex, spirituality and mortality. It’s perfect for the young, burning, passionate idealist, preferably in love, and preferably for the first time! John Donne is the most famous of the metaphysical poets, writing in the early seventeenth century at a similar time to William Shakespeare. Both poetry and religion informed his life, he renounced Catholicism and joined the early Church of England, becoming a minister. His most famous works include sermons as well as poems. At this time it was almost possible for a member of the cultured literati to hold almost the sum of Western knowledge, scientific and literary, inside his head. The arts and the sciences still converged in that long ago post-Elizabethan world. Religion and sex were still compatible; a spiritual man could talk of the physical without appearing worldly. In a collection of John Donne’s poems you will find uplifting verses, mostly about love interspersed with references to the nascent disciplines of navigation, astronomy and physiology. It’s heady stuff, reading this man who is trying to relate his personal passions with the ‘big ideas’ of his day. The mix, to my mind, is always successful - after all, many of us dream of love all-consuming don’t we? Let me try you on a few lines: “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch one another not out of fear; For love all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere.” Beautiful. My favourite work by John Donne is not a poem, it’s a sermon. Do ‘No man is an island’, or ‘For whom the bell tolls’, sound familiar? This sermon is from where those famous quotes were taken. To me it’s the m
ost incredible, moving and beautiful piece of writing the English language has to offer. I’ll give you a few words that say, in a way I could never hope to, the way I feel about ‘it’, ‘life’, ‘the big picture’: “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... Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The problem with poetry is that it is often regarded as too difficult, and sometimes it is. If you read a poem, unlike a novel, your mind works to expand its condensed references, meanings and ideas. You don’t HAVE to do that - you can just sit down and bathe your soul in the beauty of the words on the page. If you’ve had an awful day at work, if the children have been horrid brats, if your partner just doesn’t get it, read John Donne. He is sure to remind you exactly why you’re doing it all, he makes MY spirit sing.