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John Donne John Donne


Poet and Priest


Part 2: His Early Life, More Love Poems and the Death of his brother Henry

NARRATOR: He was born in 1572 to a London ironmonger father and a mother who counted Thomas More Henry VIII's Chancellor and famous Catholic martyr, among her ancestors.  At the age of 12 John was sent up to Oxford.  This was due not only to his brilliance, but also because his parents wanted to avoid his taking the oath of loyalty to the reformed Protestant Church, as required at the age of 16.  At 19 he was admitted to study law at Lincoln's Inn in London, as he described in his fourth satire:

The Gateway to Lincoln's Inne                            Me thought I saw
One of our giant statutes ope his jaw
And suck me in

A contemporary portrayed him as:
BAKER: Not dissolute, but very neat; a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of conceited verses.
NARRATOR: Some of his earliest poetry about his sexual exploits dates from this period.  In To His mistress Going to Bed, he imagines a prolonged and elaborate disrobing:

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Come, Madame, come, all rest my powers defie,
Until I labour, I in labour lye.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir'd with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering
But a farre fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled brest-plate which you weare
That th'eyes of busy fooles may be stopt there:
Unlace your selfe, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now 'tis your bed time.
Off with that happy buske, whom I envye
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gownes going off, such beautious state reveales
As when from flow'ry meades th'hills shadow steales.
Off with that wyrie coronet and showe
The hairy dyadem which on you doth growe.
Off with those shoes: and then softly tread
In this loves hallow'd temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heavens Angels us'd to bee
Receiv'd by men; Thou Angel bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we eas'ly know
By this these Angels from an evill sprite:
They set our haires, but these the flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them goe
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree,
How blest 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 joyes are due to thee.
As soules unbodied, bodies uncloth'd must bee,
To taste whole joyes. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's balls, cast in mens viewes,
That when a fooles eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soule may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like bookes gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arraid;
Themselves are mystique bookes, which only wee
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see reveal'd. Then since that I may knowe,
As liberally as to a midwife showe
Thy selfe; cast all, yea this white linnen hence.
Here is no pennance, much less innocence.

To teach thee, I am naked first: Why than,
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.
NARRATOR: His law studies were diverted by by what he called his immoderate desire of humane learning and language.   Though living slightly beyond his means he denounced those who studied for 'mere gain', as being 'worse then imbrothled strumpets.'

Teaching at Lincoln's Inn was done through oral disputation; and through the moot, a mock trial in which the students took the part of attorneys while the senior members known as Benchers sat as judges.  This training fuelled Donne's gift for the trenchant spoken word.

Later in one of his sermons he described his pastimes at Lincoln's inn.
DONNE: A fair day shoots arrows of visits and comedies and conversations; and a foul day shoots arrows of gaming and chambering.
NARRATOR: By which he meant visiting brothels.

But weightier matters intervened.  1592 and 1593 were years of plague; and in the spring of 1593 Topcliffe's papist hunters turned their attention to Henry, Donne's younger brother, now also a gentleman of the Inns of Court.  They raided his lodgings and found he was harbouring William Harrington, a Catholic priest.  Both men were beaten, racked and questioned. Harrington refused to recant and was executed at Tyburn.  Henry was imprisoned in Newgate, where most inmates were packed together in chains.  Swarming with vermin and creeping things, prisoners lay like swine upon the ground, and one upon another.  In such conditions the spread of the plague was unstoppable.

No mention by Donne of his brother's death survives, but at this time he acknowledged his hollowness:
Dirth read by Shaun MacLoughlin
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Now pleasures dirth our city doth possess,
Our theatres are filled with emptiness.
As lank and thin is every street and way
As a woman deliver'd yesterday.
Nothing wherein to laugh my spleen espies
But bearbaiting and Law Exercise.

Part 3: The Sacking of Cadiz and the Voyage to the Azores:   His Picture, The Storm and The Calm

Contents of Donne Pages.

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We recommend four biographies: the outstanding Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs.  Robert Nye writes: "It is the best life of Donne, which I for one have ever read.  If this marvellous book doesn't win one of the major literary prizes,then we have the wrong judges."  We also recommend Man of Flesh and Spirit by David L Edwards, former Speaker's Chaplain in the House of Commons, and John Donne, Life, Mind and Art by John Carey, former Chairman of the Manbooker Prize and very successful beekeeper, and of course the first biography by Izaak Walton, who also wrote the classic, The Compleat Angler.