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John Donne John Donne


Poet and Priest


Part 4: Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and the Courting of Ann More

NARRATOR: One of Donne's comrades on the voyage to the Azores was a former Lincoln's Inn man, whose father, Sir Thomas Egerton, was Lord Keeper of the Seal.  In 1598 Donne was appointed as his secretary, moving into the opulent York House, which had formerly belonged to Cardinal Wolsey.
The Watergate to York House
To occupy this position Donne had to abandon his Catholicism.  His political decision was made, yet his inner spiritual journey was only just beginning.  He attempted to resist both present Protestant and past Catholic affiliations, but to look for a truth of his own, as expressed within his Third Satire.
DONNE:           On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
NARRATOR: Izaak Walton his friend and first biographer declared:
WALTON: He was such a secretary as was fitter to serve a king than a subject.
NARRATOR: However in his late twenties Donne became attracted to Ann More the fifteen year old niece of Egerton.  This could be playing with fire.  One of his most famous poems, The Flea, describes the frustration of what he could feel:
DONNE: Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest 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.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
NARRATOR: It would have been very difficult to make love.  Each day at York House began in a separate chamber: Donne pulling on his clinging breeches, fastening himself in his doublet, clamping his neck in a ruff; Ann undergoing a still more rigorous ordeal, being combed, bodiced and gowned, probably in chaste white, with her neck covered.  They could not stay together, talk openly or touch for long.  Their respective supervisors deprived the couple of many chances to inspect each other's fleas.

In 1600 Ann's aunt died and her uncle's grief and distraction probably meant that Donne and Ann had less supervision.  Another poem that might have been inspired by his love - or lust - for Anne is The Ecstacy.  Helen Gardner has written:
HELEN GARDNER: The proposal made in the poem is the perfectly modest one that the lovers' souls, having enjoyed the rare privilege of union outside the body, should now resume possession of their separate bodies and reanimate their virtual corpses.
DONNE: Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swell'd up, to rest
The violet's reclining head,
Sat we two, one another's best.

Our hands were firmly cemented
By a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.

So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the 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, both 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 know not what,
Love these mix'd 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
Interanimates 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 not we ; we are
Th' intelligences, they the spheres.

We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses' force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.

On man heaven's influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air;
For 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
To 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 reveal'd 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're to bodies gone.
NARRATOR: When Egerton re-married, Donne moved out of York House to lodgings near the Savoy, while Ann moved back to live with her widowed father, Sir George More, at Losely Park, his mansion in Surrey.

During the year they spent apart in 1601 the impetuous Earl of Essex led an inept and unsuccessful rebellion against the Queen.  His trial at Westminster Hall was swift.  He was condemned to death.  Donne may have watched the execution.  Years later he described a beheading in an elegy.
DONNE: His eyes will twinkle, and his tongue will roll,
As though he beckned and call'd back his soul,
He grasps his hands, and he pulls up his feet,
And seems to reach, and to step forth to meet
His soul; when all these motions which we saw,
Are but as Ice, which crackles at a thaw:
NARRATOR: When Sir George came to London to attend parliament, he brought Ann with him.

Sir George was a social climber and in attempting to impress gave some very long winded speeches.  A contemporary referred to the House of Commons as 'an assembly of fools'.

Donne admitted:
DONNE: At her lying in town, this last parliament, I found means to see her twice or thrice.
NARRATOR: They had probably been able to write to each other.  In his Valediction to His Book, he offered their correspondence as an example to future lovers.
DONNE: Study our manuscripts, those myriads
Of letters, which have past 'twixt thee and me;
Thence write our annals, and in them will be
To all whom love's subliming fire invades,
Rule and example found ;
NARRATOR: Their love letters were no doubt too dangerous to keep, but now they were able to touch.  Was this the love that Donne had been waiting for, as in his poem, The Good Morrow?
DONNE: I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

Part 5: Marriage to Ann More

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.