John Donne (/dʌn/ DUN; 22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English scholar, poet, soldier and secretary born into a catholic family, a remnant of the Catholic Revival, who reluctantly became a cleric in the Church of England. He was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (1621-1631). He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His poetical works are noted for their metaphorical and sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires. He is also known for his sermons.
Donne’s style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. These features, along with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax and his tough eloquence, were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering and about which he often theorized. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. In 1615 he was ordained deacon and then Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Holy Orders and only did so because the king ordered it. He also served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614.
The following are great poems by John Donne:
DEATH BE NOT PROUD (From Divine Meditations)
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
A pregnant bank swelled up, to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best;
Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes, upon one double string;
So to’ intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
As ‘twixt two equal armies, Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls, (which to advance their state,
Were gone out), hung ‘twixt her, and me.
And whilst our souls negotiate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And we said nothing, all the day.
If any, so by love refined,
That he soul’s language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
Within convenient distance stood,
He (though he knew not which soul spake,
Because both meant, not spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take,
And part far purer than he came.
This ecstasy doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love,
We see by this, it was not sex,
We see, we saw not what did move:
But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they knew not what,
Love, these mixed souls doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this and that.
A single violet transplant,
The strength, the colour, and the size,
(All which before was poor, and scant,)
Redoubles still, and multiplies.
When love, with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.
We then, who are this new soul, know,
Of what we are composed, and made,
For, th’ atomies of which we grow,
Are souls, whom no change can invade.
But O alas, so long, so far
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though they are not we, we are
The intelligences, they the sphere.
We owe them thanks, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us.
Nor are dross to us, but allay.
On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air,
So soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair.
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man:
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
T’ affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change, when we’are to bodies gone.
SONG: 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,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be’est 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,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
If thou find’st one, let me know,
Such 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,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
I will allow,
Usurious God of Love, twenty to thee,
When with my brown, my grey hairs equal be;
Till then, Love, let my body reign, and let
Me travel, sojourn, snatch, plot, have, forget,
Resume my last year’s relict: think that yet
We had never met.
Let me think any rival’s letter mine,
And at next nine
Keep midnight’s promise; mistake by the way
The maid, and tell the Lady of that delay;
Only let me love none, no, not the sport;
From country grass, to comfitures of Court,
Or city’s quelque-choses, let report
My mind transport.
This bargain’s good; if when I’am old, I be
Inflamed by thee,
If thine own honour, or my shame, or pain,
Thou covet, most at that age thou shalt gain.
Do thy will then, then subject and degree,
And fruit of love, Love, I submit to thee;
Spare me till then, I’ll bear it, though she be
One that loves me.
TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you, that now ’tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow;
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou angel bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. 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.