John Donne 101
John Donne was a poet and a man of many contradictions. Born in 1572 to an ironmonger, Donne often endured financial hardship, but he was educated as a gentleman scholar. If he seemed an amorous rogue in his writing, he was a devoted husband in life—his long marriage, which began in secret and violated canon law, briefly landed him in jail. He suffered for his Catholic birthright but eventually converted to Anglicanism and became a renowned minister. Now an essential part of the poetic pantheon, his poetry remained relatively obscure until the 20th century. The very things earlier readers disdained are what drew modernists, such as T.S. Eliot, to Donne’s verse: its keen intellect, irregular meter, everyday language, and striking analogies. Though a major influence on poets ranging from George Herbert to D.H. Lawrence, Donne remains inimitable. A rare mix of head and heart, body and soul, his verse offers vital insights into the exigencies of ecstasy.
Donne wrote largely for himself and his friends. Very few of his poems were published during his lifetime, which makes dating his compositions difficult for scholars. This early piece is one exception. Written during his student years, it serves as an excellent introduction to Donne’s preoccupations: thorny, unusual imagery; the conundrums of romance; the connection between the sensual and the spiritual. His lines here are essentially pillow talk, but it’s the kind that applies intellect to the intimate, that ties the erotic to the existential and “makes one little room an everywhere.”
One of the defining features of Donne’s poetry (and metaphysical poetry in general) is its unusual conceits, its extended metaphors through which, as Samuel Johnson once put it, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” The “violence” of these metaphors is often their very point: in this famous example, the flea is not only a figure for sexual intercourse but also a prop in the drama between two characters. “This flea is you and I, and this / Our marriage bed,” the speaker insists, but the poem ends with its addressee refusing this metaphor, literally crushing his symbol, the bug. Donne’s life was not without drama, but this final gesture is a helpful reminder: many of his poems are dramatic monologues in which speaker and poet are not necessarily commensurate.
Where does Donne belong in the literary canon? Is he an earnest maker of the “well-wrought urn,” of dense and hallowed odes that serve as monuments to their subjects? This poem’s speaker affirms a devotion to his beloved so total that it’s ascetic, even saintly—“all shall approve / Us canonized for Love,” he imagines. Or are his flights of fancy mere rhetoric, the repartee of a promiscuous wit? His more amorous, playful poems, such as “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” certainly lend credence to the latter argument. Perhaps it’s possible to consider all parts of Donne at once—after all, his work often wrestles with paradoxes, returning again and again to the question of how love lasts and departs, vexes and illuminates. “Ecstasy,” he writes elsewhere, “doth unperplex,” but “love’s mysteries in souls do grow.”
“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
The virtuosic analogy that closes this poem, in which Donne compares two lovers to the legs of a drafting compass, manages to be both moving and bawdy. It simultaneously alleviates the poem’s anxiety about separation with a tidy metaphor and deflates it with sexual innuendo. It also features a meta-poetic pun: the “fixed foot” of the compass suggests the fixed iambic measure of English verse. Though Donne often flaunted traditional prosody in his work, his poems reward close attention to their meter, with his deviations—dropped iambic feet, for example—sometimes buttressing his speakers’ arguments, sometimes subtly undercutting them.
“Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God”
Later in life, Donne grew increasingly absorbed with questions of faith. Written during this period, his 19 holy sonnets often mix the charged, erotic language of his secular verse with religious subjects. Here Donne figures his relationship to the divine in terms that are virtually sadomasochistic—the speaker begs the “three-person’d God” to “break, blow burn,” “o’erthrow,” and ultimately “ravish” him. His string of imperatives mimics his desires on a formal level, forcing extra stresses into the sonnet’s iambic frame. These highly accented passages anticipate the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins, another religious aesthete writing poems over two centuries later.
“Holy Sonnets: Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt”
The 17th poem in the holy sonnets sequence is among Donne’s most personal; likely written after his wife’s death in 1617, it is a moving meditation on faith as a form of solace. Though among his more restrained works, it retains Donne’s skepticism and spiritual “thirst.” It mostly follows the outline of the Petrarchan sonnet—the latter sestet wrestles with the problem of faith set up by the initial octave. Its surprising ending, though, has a Shakespearean flair, with a final rhyming couplet that figures God as a jealous lover, covetous of Donne’s worldly desires.
“Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”
After joining the Anglican ministry in 1615, Donne largely turned away from poetry, focusing instead on his sermons and prayers, which became an impressive (and oft-quoted) body of work in their own right. This poem’s final stanza refers to that shift: “As to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,” he writes, “be this my text, my sermon to mine own.” Donne’s expert end rhymes (crown/own/down) drive home the poem’s lesson, his reminder to himself: pain and suffering ultimately bring us closer to God. Donne’s route to the divine is, as ever, sensory. If the poem begins with the speaker as a map, it ends with Donne himself as the destination: with his own body, crowned with thorns, standing in for his redeemer’s.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.