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John Donne John Donne

JOHN DONNE

Poet and Priest

1572-1631







Part 6: Thwarted Ambition and the Journal of a Soul

NARRATOR: James I of England and VI of Scotland James I accession in 1603 coincided with another plague.  Many who visited London seeking for preferment from the new king succumbed.  The King visited both Pyrford and Losely and Sir George was delighted to be made Treasurer of the Household of the Prince of Wales.

But by 1605 Donne had achieved no position at court or any other employment, so he set out to travel on the continent as companion to Sir Walter Chute, leaving Ann with two children.
DONNE: Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee, Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me;
But since that I
At the last must part, 'tis best,
Thus to use myself in jest
By feigned deaths to die.

Yesternight the sun went hence,
And yet is here to-day;
He hath no desire nor sense,
Nor half so short a way;
Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
More wings and spurs than he.

O how feeble is man's power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall;
But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o'er us to advance.

When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind,
But sigh'st my soul away;
When thou weep'st, unkindly kind,
My life's blood doth decay.
It cannot be
That thou lovest me as thou say'st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
That art the best of me.

Let not thy divining heart
Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
And may thy fears fulfil.
But think that we
Are but turn'd aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
Alive, ne'er parted be.
NARRATOR: Was Ann happy to remain behind?  Did she suggest, as in a play by Shakespeare, that she should disguise herself as a boy that she might accompany him?  His poem On His Mistress would seem to belong to the time, before this first extended absence of his married life.
DONNE: By our first strange and fatal interview,
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my words masculine persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts, which spies and rivals threaten'd me,
I calmly beg. But by thy father's wrath,
By all pains, which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee, and all the oaths which I
And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy,
Here I unswear, and overswear them thus;
Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.
Temper, O fair love, love's impetuous rage;
Be my true mistress still, not my feign'd page.
I'll go, and, by thy kind leave, leave behind
Thee, only worthy to nurse in my mind
Thirst to come back; O! if thou die before,
My soul from other lands to thee shall soar.
Thy else almighty beauty cannot move
Rage from the seas, nor thy love teach them love,
Nor tame wild Boreas' harshness; thou hast read
How roughly he in pieces shivered
Fair Orithea, whom he swore he loved.
Fall ill or good, 'tis madness to have proved
Dangers unurged ; feed on this flattery,
That absent lovers one in th' other be.
Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change
Thy body's habit, nor mind ; be not strange
To thyself only. All will spy in thy face
A blushing womanly discovering grace.
Richly clothed apes are call'd apes, and as soon
Eclipsed as bright, we call the moon the moon.
Men of France, changeable chameleons,
Spitals of diseases, shops of fashions,
Love's fuellers, and the rightest company
Of players, which upon the world's stage be,
Will quickly know thee, and no less, alas!
Th' indifferent Italian, as we pass
His warm land, well content to think thee page,
Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage,
As Lot's fair guests were vex'd. But none of these
Nor spongy hydroptic Dutch shall thee displease,
If thou stay here. O stay here, for for thee
England is only a worthy gallery,
To walk in expectation, till from thence
Our greatest king call thee to his presence.
When I am gone, dream me some happiness;
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess;
Nor praise, nor dispraise me, nor bless nor curse
Openly love's force, nor in bed fright thy nurse
With midnight's startings, crying out, O! O!
Nurse, O ! my love is slain ; I saw him go
O'er the white Alps alone ; I saw him, I,
Assail'd, fight, taken, stabb'd, bleed, fall, and die.
Augur me better chance, except dread Jove
Think it enough for me to have had thy love.
NARRATOR: It was customary for men to complete their liberal education by travelling.  Wives could not join this male tour of Europe.  Besides Ann was already pregnant with their third child.

Donne returned from the Continent in time for the execution of a Catholic priest.  In 1605 the famous attempt was made to blow up Parliament and with it King James.  Donne commented:
DONNE: If the explosives had gone off, all the isle of Britain had flown to the moon.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile Sir George, perhaps softened by the naming their second boy George, agreed to give the couple an income of 80 a year - enough for them to set up a home of their own in the village of Mitcham nearer to London.   By 1607 Donne had two houses; his family home at Mitcham and lodgings for himself at his old stamping ground near the Savoy in the Strand.

Unable to obtain either a position or employment, he went through much depression and soul searching.   In his poetry he was turning to religious themes. The Annunciation and the Passion was written in a year when Christ's conception, the Catholic Feast of the Annunciation, and Good Friday coincided.
DONNE: Tamely, frail body, abstain to-day; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who's all;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen;
At once a son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th' abridgement of Christ's story, which makes one -
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east -
Of th' angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God's Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix'd Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th'other is, and which we say
- Because it strays not far - doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one;
Or 'twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood's extremes ; He shall come, He is gone;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
NARRATOR: He was also embarked on writing Pseudo Martyr an essay on the importance of civil obedience to the Crown.   The King was impressed, but instead of offering him the worldly position he craved, recommended he should enter holy orders.   Donne was not ready.   He was enjoying the companionship of those intellectuals who met at the Mermaid Tavern.   There Thomas Fuller described the 'wit combats' between Ben Jonson and Bill Shakespeare.
FULLER: Ben is like a Spanish great Galleon, solid, but slow in his performance, while Bill is more akin to an English man of war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing.
NARRATOR: But in his inner life was Donne beginning to undergo, what St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of his parents' generation, termed 'the dark night of the soul'?   In the first of his Holy Sonnets he implores God:
DONNE: Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
NARRATOR: Yet he continues with greater hope:
DONNE: Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.
NARRATOR: And in Holy Sonnet 10 he writes his famous lines:
DONNE: 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 picture 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'rt 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.
NARRATOR: These sonnets mostly written between 1609 and 1614 are the journal of a soul that finds itself alone; a Protestant soul stripped of the spiritual support of the Catholic Church.

Part 7: Absence from Family and Ann's Ghost


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.