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John Donne

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[ Written by James Kiefer. ]

(Transferred this year to Sat 30 March)

(Note: In order that Christians may concentrate their attention and devotion on the Resurrection of Our Lord, and on the events leading up to it and following it, it is customary to omit or transfer all commemorations of departed Christians that fall in the week just before, or the week just after, the Feast of the Resurrection. Accordingly, this present commemoration, sneaked in a day early, will be the last one posted until Monday 15 April. The Kal posts, on the other hand, will come thick and fast.)

Donne (rhymes with "sun") was born in 1573 (his father died in 1576) into a Roman Catholic family, and from 1584 to 1594 was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn (this last a highly regarded law school). He became an Anglican (probably around 1594) and aimed at a career in government. He joined with Raleigh and Essex in raids on Cadiz and the Azores, and became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. But in 1601 he secretly married Anne More, the 16-year-old niece of Egerton, and her enraged father had Donne imprisoned. The years following were years of poverty, debt, illness, and frustration. In 1615 he was ordained, perhaps largely because he had given up hope of a career in Parliament.

From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne's professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love. His poetry, mostly written before his ordination, includes poems both sacred and secular, full of wit, puns, paradoxes, and obscure allusions at whose meanings we can sometimes only guess, presenting amorous experience in religious terms and devotional experience in erotic terms, so that I have seen one poem of his both in a manual of devotion and in a pornography collection.

After his ordination, his reputation as a preacher grew steadily. From 1622 until his death he was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and drew huge crowds to hear him, both at the Cathedral and at Paul's Cross, an outdoor pulpit nearby. His prose style is in some ways outdated, but his theme continues to fascinate: "the paradoxical and complex predicament of man as he both seeks and yet draws away from the inescapable claim of God on him."

Various collections of his sermons (a ten-volume complete edition and a one-volume selection) have been published. Most anthologies of English poetry contain at least a few of his poems, and it is a poor college library that does not have a complete set of them. His friend Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) has written a biography.

Three poems and a portion of a meditation follow.


Rajan, Tilottama. "'Nothing sooner broke': Donne's Songs and Sonets as Self-Consuming Artifact." New Casebooks: John Donne. Ed. Andrew Mousley. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pages 45-62.

Rajan offers a poststructuralist interpretation of Donne's Songs and Sonets, focusing on language and its "contradictions." He argues that this is not anachronistic, pointing out that Renaissance sonnet sequences (including Shakespeare's) are often about act of writing, working as a group to tell a story of their composition.

Rajan's interpretation of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" provides an example. He argues that the poem's circular form reinforces its "central image" of the circle - thus unifying form and content (46). After pointing out the poem's fairly obvious ambiguities, he argues that the very metaphysical conceit of disparate metaphors makes the poetic artifice clearer - or, to use Rajan's jargon - "the assertions of art remain within the prison-house of language" (47). Rajan makes his point well in one particularly readable passage on "The Sunne Rising" and its final (at the end of the poem and, as we may be inclined, at the end of a "mutual love"-affirming sonnet sequence) transformation of the lovers into the literal center of the universe, referring to the

belief that the alchemy of language can actually transform the world of fact represented by the motions of the sun, and create through rhetoric what cannot be affirmed through logic. That the extravagant hyperbole of the

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