Since the moment that I was told to study “Song” by John Donne, I was in love.
“Go and Catch a Falling Star”
What a beautiful opening to a poem; go and achieve the impossible, go and attain the unattainable, go and literally catch a heavenly body that has plummeted to earth. A poem lay before me that introduced me to Donne’s language – a language filled with earthy, romantic, base and fantastical syntax – an entirely new realm of speech and writing that could be so paradoxical in its imagery and opinion.
As much as I relished the words, the lyricism, the poetic language of the piece, I recall my small secondary-school mind thinking, did poets really write such incredibly misogynistic stuff in such a beautiful manner?
…swear, nowhere, lives a woman true, and fair.
So according to Donne, as translated by my pubescent teenage mind, women cannot be both faithful and beautiful? Was this the romantic future I had ahead of me? Well… thank you for the warning, John?
I had at this point not yet suffered the pain and mental anguish of being rejected by a partner or object of desire, and did not have the ability to empathise with Donne or understand why he’d write such a poem. A few years down the line, and a few awkward failing conquests later, and I totally got it. The poor sod had his heart broken, and was feeling decidedly negative towards the entire opposing gender.
What fully-formed individual hasn’t felt that way? From personal experience as well as from my friends and acquaintances, I am certain that we have all, at some point, been rebuffed by the apple of our eye and suffered the sting… we just don’t all have the ability to conjure beautiful metaphysical extended conceits before the inevitable time when the passionate scorn at rejection ebbs away and we become rational human beings again.
Fortunately this, the introduction of the poet and this poem in particular, at such an influential time in my life, didn’t mould me into a woman-hating Lothario at all, but a lot of Donne’s early poetry did begin to strike certain chords in me. I, through reading more and more of his work, began to create this figure in my head of who John Donne was, assisted by my own personal development and my experience of this sudden ‘adulthood’ into which I had entered, I crafted John Donne, the Man: The Man’s man. The Man’s man who, in a sizable portion of his poetry, just wanted a little bit more… physical intimacy.
John Donne, like his parents before him, was a noted Catholic as he grew up (which was a dangerous thing at the turn of the 17th Century – many of his contemporaries, and indeed relatives, suffering persecution and sadly execution under the rule of Elizabeth), and almost the entirety of his work produced in his later life was religious; sort of unavoidable really, when your career path takes you from being a church cleric to being Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. There is no end to the depth and breadth that can be discussed of his religious writing, which itself inspired such figures as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Merton – For Whom the Bell Tolls and No man is an Island both lines from Meditation 17 of Donne’s “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”. However, as time is limited, and your attention is waning, I am now going to focus on the… saucier aspects of Donne’s poetry, to which I alluded earlier.
Reading from Penguin Classic’s “The Complete English Poems”, we stumble onto my first example very early on: the sixth poem of the collection, titled “Break of Day”,
‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be?
O wilt though therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down, because ‘twas night?
In this poem we can assume he has already lured a woman to recline with him, and now that the sun arrives for a new day, she attempts to leave him. Not overtly sexual in action – for all we know, they’ve just been cuddling. There is no mention of nudity, and no famous Donnesque earthly metaphors to suggest they ‘did the deed’, but we do see here the figure of a man trying to coax his lover into staying in bed. He goes on to make fun of the fact that she has ‘business’ to attend to, and that business be ‘the worst disease of love’. I like how there is no specification as to what the business was exactly, as it makes it sound more like she’s fobbing him off with a lousy excuse, “Oh, errr… I have… ‘Business’ to take care of… goodbye!”
We take a short step to his next poem, “The Sun Rising”. From the title alone you can glean similarity with the “Break of Day” – in fact, waking up with your loved one is a theme in Donne that pops up a fair amount. I love this! I really do – again as a young man coming to understand John Donne the Man, my favourite time of the whole day is waking up next to my partner. “The Sun Rising” was written after Donne’s marriage to Anne More, and it can easily be assumed that he was writing it for her; the language and metaphor here being far more exotic and descriptive – one of the greatest examples of Donne’s romantic abilities,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine,
Be where though left’st them, or lie here with me.
Donne is so completely and utterly infatuated with his partner, he suggests that his lover’s wink outshines the sun’s rays, and that Kings and Princes are merely pretenders compared to how these two lovers feel together. He brings the whole world into his talk of love, and his love is its own world. In conversation with the sun, he tells it to,
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
A metaphor into which he delves deeper with his poem “The Good Morrow”,
For Love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room, an every where.
The imagery, the language, unparalleled in its beauty, as these two lovers lie together one morning,
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears
This poem was also written with Anne in mind, and written with such pride, sincerity and believability, which modern poetry often shies away from out of embarrassment. It was around this time in his life that he also produced “The Canonization”, another poem hailed as one of Donne’s greatest love poems.
And here is where the paradoxical, contradictory genius of Donne can be highlighted. Amongst all the beautiful descriptions of love and the beauty of women and the world, we find such gems as his Elegy number 8, “The Comparison” which really pulls out all the stops,
As the sweet sweat of roses in a still,
As that which from chafed musk cat’s pores doth trill,
As the almighty balm of th’ early east,
Such are the sweat drops of my mistress’ breast.
And on her neck her skin such lustre sets,
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl carcanets.
Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils.
Thine’s like worm-eaten trunks, clothed in seal’s skin,
Or grave, that’s dust without, and stink within.
And like a bunch of ragged carrots stand
The short swoll’n fingers of thy grotesque hand.
Are not your kisses then as filthy, and more,
As a worm sucking and envenomed sore?
Doth not thy fearful hand in feeling quake,
As one which gathering flowers, still fears a snake?
These are but a few choice selections from the poem, throughout which he goes into great description on how grotesque this other figure’s lover is, ending on the (rather meta-poetical) advice to,
Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus,
She, and comparisons, are odious.
Then we read his second elegy, “The Anagram”, with which he argues that ugly & dull are beautiful things to have in a woman, including use of the excellent farming metaphor,
Beauty is Barren oft; best husbands say
There is best land, where there is foulest way.
The second Donne poem I ever had to annotate in Mr Allinson’s English class (that’s right – name drop much) was “The Flea”; another prime example of desperate Donne-the-man trying to coax a lover, this time using ugly and visceral imagery in what can only be described as a love poem between two people and a parasite,
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be
Donne is trying to persuade his prospective lover that within this hideous flea, they come together as one, almost as if a monstrous marriage were represented by this nasty act. She, thankfully, is having none of it, and he has to beg her to stay her hand from squishing this little bug, as killing it would be killing them both as well. She, persistent in her sanity, squishes the thing to death, and Donne then comments that she has,
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence
It certainly seems that he isn’t getting lucky tonight. Funnily enough, this was another poem written after he began to court and woo Anne, so we assume it did not dissuade her entirely. I would like to add that the two of them went on to conceive twelve children and were, by all accounts, very happily married.
Let us go back to before he and Anne became an item, where we can discover, much like “Song” that introduced my discussion, a series of poems written by the young Donne about the inconstancy of women and the all-too-real disaster of having one’s heart broken.
“The Broken Heart” is a good place to start, a poem that opens stating how stupid love is, and that,
He is stark mad, who ever says,
That he hath been in love an hour
You can see again the young man who has been hurt in love,
…what did become,
Of my heart, when I first saw thee?
I brought a heart into the room,
But from the room, I carried none with me
So it sounds at first as though she had taken his heart when they first met, which is a relatively lovely thing to say and all, but it soon transpires that this love was ruined, or else altogether unrequited, as in one instant his heart was shattered like glass. He then states that he still carries these shards with him, and can never love to such an amount again,
And now as broken glasses show / a hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, adore / But after one such love, can love no more
Eugh – Get over it, Johnny-boy. Such a whiner! Again, we have all had friends who have been at the height of distress and gloom from a fresh break-up. What a soppy bunch.
“The Message” is a note to a cheating lover – I enjoy the name of this poem, as it suggests that the ‘message’ itself was delivered to this unfaithful so-and-so through a courier, rather than Donne wasting the vocal energy and effort of actually saying to her in person;
Send me back my heart and eyes,
That I may know, and see thy lies,
And may laugh and joy, when thou
Art in anguish / And dost languish
For some one / That will none,
Or prove as false as thou art now.
Meeeee~ow! Again, he won’t be present to take back his heart, so she must send them to him – passive-aggressively incurring postage fees! Burn.
But Donne isn’t always so dismissive of his inconstant lovers – not by a long shot! We discover multiple accounts of his own inconstancy and contrasting views on the matter. Elegy 19, titled “Variety” is an argument complaining about why the heck we need to be so monogamous and singular in our choice of lovers,
…with many youth and love divide?
Pleasure is none, if not diversified:
Rivers the clearer and more pleasing are,
Where their fair spreading streams run wide and far;
And a dead lake, that no strange bank doth greet,
Corrupts itself and what doth live in it.
Sure, this lengthy poem pulls a 180-spin to conclude that once beauty and true worth are found in one person,
We’ll love her ever, and love her alone
But the language of his argument is so enjoyable when he’s trying to convince us of the former. If we want a poem that whole-heartedly endorses the liberal multiple-lover lifestyle, we need only read his poem, “Confined Love”, which begins by suggesting that monogamy only became a law because
Some man unworthy to be possessor
Of old or new love, himself being false or week,
Thought his pain and shame would be lesser,
If on womankind he might his anger wreak,
Essentially he is saying that because some louse was rejected and dejected, he spitefully banned the practice of sleeping around. The poem continues, asking if the sun and moon only shine on one thing; if animals only find one mate, if boats are made to only dock in one harbour, and if houses are erected without the intention of allowing many multiple people through its doors. Thank you again for the amazing world-example imagery, John.
Donne’s first elegy, “Jealousy” contains a juicy narrative: Donne is talking to his lover about how happily they had discussed her leaving her husband – yes, John Donne is the ‘other man’ in this one – but how unhappy she actually is now that her husband is wretched and dying. Thanks to this Florence Nightingale syndrome, she has realised where her heart truly lies, with her husband, and John is trying to convince her to leave the poor man. This poem, although hinting at some involved cheating in the past, shows the faithfulness of this one woman that Donne thought unfaithful! The suggestion seems to be that, her husband in this condition,
Thou wouldst not weep, but jolly, and frolic be,
As a slave, which tomorrow should be free;
Yet weep’st thou, when thou seest him hungerly
Swallow his own death, heart’s-bane jealousy.
In his Elegy 15, “The Expostulation”, Donne opens with the much-repeated theme,
To make the doubt clear, that no woman’s true,
Was it my fate to prove it strong in you?
And what follows is another drawn-out argument on the inconstancy of women, upon which he relies! The woman in this narrative has previously cheated on Donne, and he is now requesting that she leave her current lover so that they might ‘give it another shot’, the verse culminating with the fact that bedding a woman is the easy part, but keeping her faithful is tricky and requires work:
For thou ’tis got by chance, ’tis kept by art.
Before we completely brand the younger John Donne as a penis-driven pig, it is important to stress the great variety of opinions he presents through his poetry, not even taking into account his religious works. If we are assigning John Donne as the speaker of each of his poems, then we do find a multi-faceted and complicated individual, whose ideas and conduct differ greatly from one poem to another; I must stress that I have in this piece purposefully selected poems which create this complex, rakish John the Man’s man, with whom parallels can be drawn throughout contemporary media and people we experience in our daily lives. Saying this, I present the final of his ‘songs and sonnets’ in the Penguin Classics collection, “Women’s Constancy” – a title you probably guessed Donne would write eventually, but a poem that ends with the subversion of Donne admitting his self-awareness at being himself inconstant in love,
…having purpose change, and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by tomorrow, I may think so too.
So Donne is aware of his being a deviant scallywag and inconstant lover – what a rogue!
My final evidence for this ‘Donne the Man’s man’ is another of his most printed poems, Elegy 19, “To his Mistress Going to Bed”. From the title alone you know what sort of poem to expect; an account of the speaker, Donne, saying something to his lover as they head to, or as they may already be inside, the boudoir. What follows is a beautiful poem; the speaker slowly verbally undressing his partner and detailing how utterly and exotically beautiful she is; each and every one of her visible and intimate parts. Despite how well-crafted and romantic his conceits are throughout, it seems that he isn’t all that successful, and towards the end has to go to some desperate measures to coax her into his bed,
…Then since I may know,
As liberally, as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first, why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man?
And that is all I have to say on the lad, John Donne, whom I grew to respect, love and mostly empathise with. I urge you all to pick up some Donne as soon as possible and have a good read – The language, the metaphors, extended conceits, imagery, poetry and beauty in what he wrote remains bounteous, unique and still relevant today. I absolutely love reading Donne; perhaps above my love of reading any other poetry.
As a man who enjoys poetry, much like Donne did throughout his life, I wish to end on a wonderful two-line response he produced when one woman mocked him for his love of the poetic form, entitled “Manliness”:
Thou call’st me effeminate, for I love women’s joys;
I call not thee manly, though thou follow boys.
Thank you for reading.