The other day, I received books from home that I’d forgotten about; in particular, John Donne’s collection of selected poems. I studied the man for A Level, and whilst at the time, I resented him somewhat, because he reminded me of a long and stressful examination that was coming up, I realised today, that I had rather missed his company.
John Donne represents an age in poetry before anxiety, and before modernity began to swallow up literature as a whole. The poems are to some extent, simple representations of a world of love and sex, and of faith. John Donne’s poetry is divided into two distinct categories: the secular, and the divine; the latter was written in the later part of his life, during his time as a protestant minister. The former was written during Donne’s youth, when the man was an excellent example of Elizabethan sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
My favourite poems tend to be the secular ones; they are playful, and imaginative, and continually toy with boundaries that no longer exist to the modern world. However in the Elizabethan period, these boundaries formed the basis of social propriety, and to Donne in the earlier part of his life, were something to be rejected, in favour of sensuality. An example of the seductive poetry is “Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed”. Donne states:
“To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,/What need’st thou have more covering than a man?”
If there was ever such a thing as the Elizabethan striptease, then this was it; the poem describes his mistress getting ready for bed, and undressing completely. As the above quotation states, Donne explicitly alludes to the pleasures of sensuality, and of female company. The poem is playful, and most certainly defied the education he received as a child, growing up as a devout Catholic. Donne however abandoned Catholicism in favour of Protestantism in the early seventeenth century, and was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1615.
Donne became much more contemplative after the death of his wife, Anne More, during childbirth, in 1617. The responsibilities of fatherhood to no less than twelve children, and his bereavement, led him to write poems rooted in mortality, and feelings towards God himself. Many of his later poems also focus on redemption, especially for the sins of his youth. In Holy Sonnet XIV, Donne declares:
“But I am betrothed unto Your enemy;/Divorce me, untie me, or break that know again, Take me to You, imprison me, for I,/Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,/Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.”
This rather striking quotation represents the shift in Donne’s perception of himself; his desire to be forgiven for his sins extends to wanting divinity to take full possession of him. The sexuality and passion that dominates his earlier poetry is matched in later work; the passion however is no longer directed towards pursuing carnal fulfillment, and instead, moves towards divine fulfillment. The passion with which Donne writes is in my opinion at least, unmatched by other poets of the period.
Undeniably, Donne was passionate; a poet who used linguistic devices to portray a passion that was by no means reserved for the page; it was a passion that dominated his adult life, and goes on to make his poetry very special. The move against formulaic expressions of romance captured my impressionable literary heart; he was a rebel, just as Oscar Wilde was, three hundred years later. There is nothing more seductive in literature as an author with no respect for boundaries.