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John Donne John Donne

JOHN DONNE

Poet and Priest

1572-1631







Part 7: Absence from Family and Ann's Ghost

NARRATOR: It was a relief to receive an invitation to travel to France with Sir Robert Drury, a pugnacious extravert who had once been a brave and loyal follower of Essex.  He coveted an ambassadorship, and not being the most politic or intellectual of men, needed someone with a good command of languages and the art of letter writing.  This would give Donne an occupation.
DONNE: I am now in the afternoon of my life and it is unwholesome to sleep.
NARRATOR: Anne was dismayed at his deserting her, when she was yet again pregnant.  Donne wrote her one of his greatest poems: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.
DONNE: As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."
So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear - floods, nor sigh - tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;

But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
- Whose soul is sense - cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove

The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat
If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam

It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
NARRATOR: On the death of Sir Robert's daughter Elizabeth Donne wrote On the Progress of the Soul, as John Stubbs describes it: 'another masterpiece of active, aggressive, suffocating darkness'.  Donne had never known Elizabeth Drury and the poem seems to be written to an idealized woman, reminiscent perhaps of the Mary of his Catholic childhood.
DONNE: Forget this rotten world, and unto thee
Let thine own times as an old story be.
Be not concern'd; study not why, nor when
Do not so much as not believe a man.
For though to err, be worst, to try truths forth
Is far more business than this world is worth.
The world is but a carcass; thou art fed
By it, but as a worm, that carcass bred;
And why shouldst thou, poor worm, consider more,
When this world will grow better than before,
Than those thy fellow-worms do think upon
That carcass's last resurrection?
Forget this world, and scarce think of it so,
As of old clothes, cast off a year ago.
To be thus stupid is alacrity;
Men thus lethargic have best memory.
Look upward; that's towards her, whose happy state
We now lament not, but congratulate.
She, to whom all this world was but a stage,
Where all sat heark'ning how her youthful age
Should be employ'd, because in all she did
Some figure of the golden times was hid.
Who could not lack, what'er this world could give,
Because she was the form, that made it live;
Nor could complain that this world was unfit
To be stay'd in, then when she was in it;
She, that first tried indifferent desires
By virtue, and virtue by religious fires;
She, to whose person paradise adher'd,
As courts to princes; she, whose eyes enspher'd
Star-light enough t' have made the South control,
(Had she been there) the star-full Northern Pole;
She, she is gone; she is gone; when thou knowest this,
What fragmentary rubbish this world is
Thou knowest, and that it is not worth a thought;
He honours it too much that thinks it nought.
Think then, my soul, that death is but a groom,
Which brings a taper to the outward room,
Whence thou spiest first a little glimmering light,
And after brings it nearer to thy sight;
For such approaches doth heaven make in death.
Think thyself labouring now with broken breath,
And think those broken and soft notes to be
Division, and thy happiest harmony.
Think thee laid on thy death-bed, loose and slack,
And think that but unbinding of a pack,
To take one precious thing, thy soul, from thence.
Think thyself parch'd with fever's violence;
Anger thine ague more, by calling it
Thy physic; chide the slackness of the fit.
Think that thou hear'st thy knell, and think no more,
But that, as bells call'd thee to church before,
So this to the Triumphant Church calls thee.
Think Satan's sergeants round about thee be,
And think that but for legacies they thrust;
Give one thy pride, to'another give thy lust;
Give them those sins which they gave thee before,
And trust th' immaculate blood to wash thy score.
Think thy friends weeping round, and think that they
Weep but because they go not yet thy way.
Think that they close thine eyes, and think in this,
That they confess much in the world amiss,
Who dare not trust a dead man's eye with that
Which they from God and angels cover not.
Think that they shroud thee up, and think from thence
They reinvest thee in white innocence.
Think that thy body rots, and (if so low,
Thy soul exalted so, thy thoughts can go)
Think thee a prince, who of themselves create
Worms, which insensibly devour their state.
Think that they bury thee, and think that rite
Lays thee to sleep but a Saint Lucy's night.
NARRATOR: In Paris Donne was beginning to get very worried, as there was no news from Ann.  He did not know whether he had a child or a dead wife.  And then a terrible thing happened.  He told Drury:
DONNE: I have seen a dreadful vision.  I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms.
DRURY: Sure sir you have slept since I saw you, and this is the result of some melanchoy dream.
DONNE: I cannot be surer than I now live, that I have not slept since I saw you; and am as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopt, and looked me in the face, and vanisht.
NARRATOR: Ann gave birth to a stillborn child, according to Izaak Walton, about the very hour that Donne had the apparition.  Returned to England Donne continued his agonised soul searching.
DONNE: In so strict obligation of parent or husband or master I am not the less alone for being in the midst of them.
NARRATOR: As a poet, he was very sensitive to sound.
DONNE: I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.

Part 8: Ann's Death, The Dean of St. Paul's and For Whom the Bell Tolls


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.