A Copernicus in Poesie: A Consideration of the Life & Writings of John Donne

Chaired by Janet Cunliffe-Jones

Ann Watkins

Once actress, once teacher, always a curious & delighted reader

13 July 2005

The talk began with an evocation of a graveyard scene: two men digging a grave, a young chap who seems to be learning the job, and the gaffer, who’s obviously been at it for the best part of a life time. It’s thirsty work, and the young one down tools after a bit to go down to the nearest pub and fetch them up some cans of beer. Two more men come into the cemetery – youngish, posh. As soon as you hear them talk you know they’re posh. And they do talk – they get into conversation with the Gaffer. He’s pleased to share some titbits of info about his trade, and out of the grave that he’s digging, he produces one of these: [a skull was produced]

- Here’s a skull now hath lien you i’th’earth three and twenty years.

- Whose was it?

- A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?

- Nay, I know not.

- A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! ’A poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head

- once. This same skull, sir, was, sir, Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.

- This?

- E’n that.

- Let me see. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of

most excellent fancy. He hath born me on his back a thousand times. And now how

abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have

kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs,

your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to

mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my Lady’s table and

tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at

that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

- What’s that, my lord?

- Dost thou think Alexander looked o’this fashion i’th’earth?

- E’en so.

- And smelt so? Pah!

- E’en so, my lord.

- To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the

noble dust of Alexander till ’a find it stopping a bunghole?

- ’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

Now, of course you all know what that is: it’s the graveyard scene from Hamlet - a bit of it. A dramatic beginning fits well into a talk about John Donne, who has magnificent beginnings:-

Busy old fool, unruly sun, . . .

I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost . .

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love . . .

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow/ Your trumpets, angels . . .

They drop us, as it were, into the middle of a play, a conversation, where we’re hearing one voice only, Donne’s, not the voice of the woman, or of God, to whom he is talking. He is writing in the great age of English drama; Shakespeare is alive; Donne is, in his poetry, in his presentation of himself, a great dramatist. John Hayward, in his introduction to the 1950 Penguin Selected Poems tells us, ‘There is, one feels, more than a tenuous resemblance between Donne and Hamlet’.

He’s talking about the Donne who lived in Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn after he came down from Oxford, ‘not dissolute, but very neat; a great Visitor of Ladies, a great Frequenter of plays, a great Writer of conceited Verses’. From the early poems and letters, says Hayward, we can imagine him, ‘excellent company, at times perhaps too clever by half, yet uncommonly witty and well-informed, much given to highly sophisticated fantasy and with a keen critical appreciation of the ridiculous’. And Hayward finds in his ‘unabashed delight in describing sensual pleasure... an essential quality of Renaissance Man’.

But I didn’t choose to begin with Hamlet because he is arguably like Donne, or just for the drama of the opening. I want two things from that prolonged quotation: first, an image, or per-haps several, to set us off, before we return to Donne himself, on an exploration of the use Metaphysical poets make of imagery, and what indeed is meant when a piece of writing is called metaphysical; and secondly, a motto for the journey, a kind of text, as preachers when I was a child always had a text for their sermons. These days they don’t, not always, but Donne certainly did, as we’ll see. And Hamlet, or rather Horatio, gives us our text, our motto: it is Horatio’s last speech, ‘ ’twere to consider too curiously, to consider so’. This is the complaint always made about metaphysical poetry by those who don’t like it.

Our first image is a literal one: this chap from the cellarage. Death is, of course, one of the great topics for art, and specifically for poetry, and Donne was notoriously, like Webster, ‘much possessed by Death’. Death is one of his great interlocutors, and John Carey’s chapter on death in his Life of Donne is by no means the shortest.

Hamlet himself can also function as an image for us - an image of a metaphysical poet. He’s well born, well bred, highly educated, intellectual – a word man. He enjoys word games and usually wins them – with Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius. (One of the points of the scene I’ve just read, is the comedy of Hamlet’s not winning the word games – the gravedigger does.) Hamlet feels himself to be, and indeed is, a member of an intellectual elite. Only his own chosen friends, who share his vocabulary of words and ideas, can really understand him. This is what metaphysical poets are – a conscious elite, who write something that is, and is meant to be, difficult. What they write can only be understood and appreciated by other members of the elite – so that can be one of the satisfactions of reading this poetry – the reader feels clever, special. It’s also one of the reasons why the people who don’t like it, don’t like it.

Let’s look at what Hamlet is saying. He is not, in fact, using any comparative imagery – what has seized his imagination and his intellect is a vivid apprehension of a literal truth – (‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay/ Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’) However, for him, the force of that truth comes from an absurd, immense, paradoxical comparison – the comparison between the funny man he used to know, who carried him about when he was a child, and made everybody laugh at dinner, and this thing, the skull. He uses this horrific perception of a true absurdity in the way a metaphysical poet uses a conceit – that is, he uses it to persuade Horatio that a particular line of thought is justified. He is, as T.S. Eliot says, ‘teasing the thought’.

Let’s now remind ourselves what is meant by a ‘conceit’, the most noticeable characteristic of the style of a metaphysical poem. We’re all familiar with the idea of comparative imagery, in which the writer, attempting to describe, shall we say, the woman he loves, compares her to something which in fact is very different, a rose, perhaps. Roses are not at all like women – they can’t walk about, or talk, they have thorns and only last a few weeks – but for the poet there is a similarity in that both woman and rose smell sweet and look beautiful. A conceit, like an ordinary metaphor or simile, makes a comparison of this kind. The comparison, however, is very far-fetched – its ‘ingenuity is more striking than its justness, or at least it’s more immediately striking’, says Helen Gardner. What makes a conceit metaphysical, however, is not its absurdity, but the use to which it is put; it’s used to persuade, to argue, to define, or to prove a point.

The form of a metaphysical poem, then, is argument or persuasion, using conceits. The content is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience, or a situation out of which arises the need to argue, persuade or define. As Huck Finn says, ‘the statements was interesting, but tough.’ If Huck is going to understand he needs to think – to allow himself to be held to an idea or line of argument – with no space for emotionally indulgent wandering. The poem may be expressing, as Dryden says, deep thoughts in common language. Helen Gardner reminds us that Donne is equally remarkable for having extraordinary thoughts in ordinary situations.

Poems like The Goodmorrow, The Anniversary, The Canonisation have the right to the title ‘metaphysical’ in its true sense also, since they raise, even though they do not explicitly discuss, the great metaphysical question of the relation of the spirit and the senses. (‘Metaphysical’ in this sense, comes from the ancient classification of the works that Aristotle wrote, after The Physics, which were about ontology "the science and study of being" as the 1978 Shorter Oxford has it.) Grierson, whose 1912 edition of Donne helped to bring Donne back to popular notice, takes "metaphysical" in this sense; in his introduction to his 1921 Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century he says, ‘Metaphysical poetry . . . is a poetry which, like that of the Divina Commedia (Dante) the De Natura Rerum (Lucretius), perhaps Goethe’s Faust, has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence’. Helen Gardner, the second great editor of Donne in the 20th century, looks at the way the poem is written – its style – as the defining characteristic. ‘Argument and persuasion, and the use of the conceit as their instrument, are the elements or body of a metaphysical poem. Its quintessence or soul is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience or of a situation out of which the need to argue, or persuade, or define arises.’

Before we turn to the consideration of Donne’s life and what he was writing in each period, I’d like to glance at the way the word ‘metaphysical’ got tagged onto this kind of verse. It came from Dr. Johnson, who had picked it up from John Dryden. Dryden says, in his Discourse on Satire, 1692, ‘Donne affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations in philosophy, when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softness of love’. Dr. Johnson didn’t like these poets much – he found them too far-fetched – but in his life of Cowley there’s a famous mitigating judgement which he puts in after all his complaints: ‘Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost; if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think.’

It is necessary for the reader also to do that.

To call Donne ‘A Copernicus in Poesie’ is to suggest that what he did as a poet was new. He is still in some ways unlike other English poets. He didn’t publish his work – except for the Anniversaries, written to commemorate the death of Elizabeth Drury, and he regretted doing that – he circulated poems among friends from time to time, urging those friends to keep the poems secret. He was writing in the great age of English drama, and his poems read more like extracts from plays than lyrics. One of the games Donne’s later admirers sometimes enjoy is trying to attach the poems to particular circumstances, people, or dates. How far – if at all – are they autobiographical? And what did he really believe? Which of the ideas that lead him into images drawn from law, theology, astronomy, chemistry, geography, physiology, claimed his allegiance – if any? And are there, as it were, two people, the licentious young Jack Donne skittering around in the city, and the reverend Doctor Donne?

I think he was one person. As we shall see, his divine writings share many of the characteristics of what he wrote when he was young – the same concerns, the same kinds of imagery, the same fears and obsessions about his own place in the world, the same ‘ferocity of language’ (Eliot). As to how far the ideas of, say, the Ptolemaic or Copernican system agreed with his own beliefs, it doesn’t, in the last resort, matter. His 1970 biographer Professor Bold aptly quotes W H Auden, who said, ‘what makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities’. The poet will use whatever serves his turn, and if one day it’s Copernicus and the next Ptolemy, so what? His own belief is not involved. He uses images to ‘define the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel’, as Joan Bennett says. In his writing there is no segregation between the commonplace and the sublime. Each poem creates its own world and generates its own images, true to the internal laws of that world. Within that world, we accept the validity of the image. If we’re to appreciate A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while we watch or read the play we have to believe in fairies; that doesn’t mean that outside the play we do believe in fairies; or that we don’t: and it doesn’t mean that Shakespeare believed in fairies; or that he didn’t. The poem creates its own imagic space and laws. T S Eliot says, ‘It is never quite certain what Donne believes, or whether he believes anything.’ Reading him, it’s difficult not to think that he believes everything he says – when he says it.

He was born in 1572. Raleigh and Edmund Spencer were young men of twenty in that year, Shakespeare was eight, Ben Jonson would be born next year. Elizabeth was fourteen years into her reign, which would continue for another thirty-one years. Two years previously she had been excommunicated by the Pope. Her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots still had fourteen or fifteen years before Elizabeth would finally be driven to consider her so dangerous that she would have to be killed. Drake’s voyage around the world would begin six years after Donne’s birth and they’d be home again two years later.

That list of dates doesn’t just set Donne among his contemporaries; it reminds us of one of the big political and spiritual issues of the day – Roman Catholicism. Donne’s family was Roman Catholic. John Carey, in John Donne – Life, Mind and Art reminds us that to be a Roman Catholic in England in the 1570s and 80s, when Donne was growing up, was roughly similar to being a Jew in Nazi Germany. If you were immensely discreet and circumspect, you might keep yourself alive, but you wouldn’t get much of an education, unless you went up to University more or less as a child, because students were required to subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles at the age of sixteen. You could not hope for a job of any importance in the professions; you might be subject to blackmail; your house might be raided, searching for priests, or hiding places, and you would not only have to pay for the cost of repairing your house if floors were torn up or walls knocked down, but you would have to pay the searchers too. Someone who didn’t attend Anglican services would be liable for a fine per month, which was the equivalent of a year’s salary for a schoolmaster; non-payment would lead to the confiscation of possessions. It was high treason for a Roman Catholic priest to be in the country – the penalty if he was caught, was a peculiarly horrible death – to be partially hanged, cut down alive, emasculated, disembowelled, and to have his heart cut out. To harbour a priest was of course also a crime. Catholics in prison were victimised and subject to appalling legal torture – the Faber Book of Reportage has an account by John Gerard, a member of the Jesuit Mission to England, of what he suffered in April 1597. (He actually escaped from the Tower in October by a rope suspended over Tower ditch.)

Donne’s family had a strong tradition of suffering – indeed of martyrdom. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More. An uncle of hers, a priest, Thomas Heywood, was executed in 1574; two of her brothers became priests and one of them, Jasper Heywood, became head of the Jesuit Mission in England. He may have hidden in his sister’s house for a time. In 1583 he was arrested, tried, condemned and held in the Tower, where Mrs. Donne visited him – on one occasion with another Jesuit priest, taking an immense risk, and Donne, at the age of twelve, went along too. He later recalled being present at a ‘consultation of Jesuits in the Tower, in the late Queen’s time’. Later, Donne’s condemnation of the Jesuits was extreme – as though he was blaming them for all the terrible things that happened. They allowed no compromise for English Catholics. In a sermon he describes his tutors as ‘men of a suppressed and afflicted religion, accustomed to the despite of death, and hungry of imagin’d martyrdom’. As Carey says, ‘Donne was born into a terror, and formed by it.’

John and his younger brother Henry went up very early to Oxford, when they were twelve and eleven, and lied about their ages, saying they were younger than they were. This was common Roman Catholic practice, to avoid subscribing to the Thirty Nine Articles. It suggests, of course, that the two boys were pretty bright. As a member of this persecuted culture, Donne already was marked out as different from other intelligent English boys of his age. His reading was that of a European intellectual (Dante, for instance, Rabelais in the original). He despised the English bourgeois – as his satires and elegies show. (The term ‘elegy’ had not yet come to be associated exclusively with a poem of mourning or a lament – the word referred to the metre, and an elegy could be written on various topics – death, love, war...)

He had a strong sense of his own uniqueness and superiority. He matriculated at Oxford – and may then have travelled, and perhaps also studied at Cambridge. His first biographer, Isaac Walton, says he did.

In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn – not a mere factory turning out lawyers, but a sort of club for young intellectuals who dabbled in poetry and involved them-selves in theatrical events like masques and revels – not popular with the authorities - a place where Catholic missionaries were likely to operate. The persona of Donne’s elegies is a seductive, swaggering outsider, irresistible to women, mercenary, lewd; that of the satires is serious, responsible, moralistic, deploring vice and corruption especially in the prosperous and powerful. None-the-less, Carey suggests, we don’t have to take these at face value and might consider them partially compensatory fantasies. Inexperienced and poor, excluded from rewarding employment and influence, Donne may have delighted the Inns of Court students with his writings by turning up-side down the way things really were.

In 1593 a young priest, William Harrington, was arrested in the rooms of Donne’s brother, Henry. Under threat of torture Henry betrayed Harrington, who was executed. Henry did not live to come to trial but died of the plague in Newgate. John was now in particular danger – the eyes of the authorities would be drawn to him. His prospects of a successful career in public life were practically nil if he remained a Catholic. If he changed his faith, the prospect from a Catholic point of view was eternal damnation; that is what his family would believe. It is the prospect he accepted. In moods of despair he perhaps saw damnation as the only prospect. In the preface to his Pseudo-Martyr he writes of his struggle to choose his belief.

I had a longer work to do than many other men; for I was first to blot out certain impressions of the Roman religion, and to wrestle both against the examples and against the reasons, by which some hold was taken; and some anticipations early laid upon my conscience, both by persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will, and others who by their learning and good life, seemed to me justly to claim in interest for the guiding, and rectifying of mine understanding in these matters. And although I apprehended well enough, that this irresolution not only retarded my fortune, but also bred some scandal, and endangered my spiritual reputation, by laying me open to many misinterpretations; yet all these respects did not transport me to any violent and sudden determination, till I had, to the measure of my poor wit and judgement, surveyed and digested the whole body of Divinity, controverted between ours and the Roman Church.

(Donne may talk of his ‘poor wit and judgement’ but look at the arrogance of his claim to have ‘surveyed and digested the whole body of Divinity’!)

In Satyre: of Religion he writes of the choices of forms of religion available:

. . . but unmoved thou

Of force must one, and forc’d but one allow;

And the right; ask thy father which is she,

Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busie to seek her, believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. 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;

Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy Soul rest, for none can work in that night.

There are contradictions here, which were part of Donne’s life. It seems, in the main body of the poem, to be very difficult to decide which religion is right – yet he begins by saying, ‘your father taught you easy ways and near’. If only one religion is the way to salvation, then either Donne, or his family is damned. Yet Donne could not shake off the inbred Catholic idea that one, and only one is right. So we shall see in his writing two contradictory strains – first, the intense awareness of singularity, the desire for a single viewpoint (along with the desire to be nasty to those who don’t adopt it) and secondly, an urge towards unity and assimilation.

In his love poems we find doubts about women’s fidelity and the permanence of human relations:

Woman’s Constancy


Now thou hast loved me one whole day,


Tomorrow, when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?

Wilt thou then antedate some new made vow?

Or say that now

We are not just those persons, which we were?

Or, that oaths made in reverential fear

Of love, and his wrath, any may forswear?

Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,

So lovers’ contracts, images of those,

Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose?

Or, your own end to justify,

For having purposed change, and falsehood, you

Can have no way but falsehood to be true?

Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could

Dispute, and conquer, if I would,

Which I abstain to do,

For, by tomorrow, I may think so too.

This is balanced in the divine poems by his disappointment with a lover, who is now God – as he says in one of the Holy Sonnets:

Oh, I shall soon despair, when I do see

That thou that lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,

And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

In the love poems he doubts whether he is worthy of stable affection – and in the divine poems his insatiable nature can never believe he is loved enough, even by God:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

In The Dream the poet acquires worth, loveableness, from the woman – he does not have it of himself.

Image of her, whom I love, more than she,

Whose fair impression in my faithful heart,

Makes me her medal, and makes her love me,

As kings do coins, to which their stamps impart

The value: go, and take my heart from hence,

Which now is grown too great and good for me:

Honours oppress weak spirits, and our sense

Strong objects dull: the more, the less we see.

When you are gone, and reason gone with you,

Then fantasy is queen and soul, and all;

She can present joys meaner than you do;

Convenient, and more proportional.

So, if I dream I have you, I have you,

For, all our joys are but fantastical.

And so I 'scape the pain, for pain is true;

And sleep which locks up sense, doth lock out all.

After such a fruition, I shall wake,

And, but the waking, nothing shall repent;

And shall to love more thankful sonnets make,

Than if more honour, tears, and pains were spent,

But dearest heart, and dearer image stay;

Alas, true joys at best are dream enough;

Though you stay here you pass too fast away;

For even at first life's taper is a snuff.

Filled with her love, may I be rather grown

Mad with much heart, than idiot with none.

(That is not one of the best-known poems, said the speaker, which is why I particularly wanted to read it. I do like it. It is dramatic, with a shift from addressing the image, to addressing the woman. The line, ‘All our joys are but fantastical’ is poignant, and there is ferocity in the final couplet – all monosyllables, except for ‘idiot’ with its emphatic ‘d’. – Lovely poem.

In the 1590s, Donne was writing the satires and elegies to be distributed secretly among his friends. He always speaks of his poems slightingly – they are ‘light flashes’ or ‘evaporations" or a ‘rag of verses’. (Perhaps this talking them down is a way of protecting them, from other people, or himself.) Here’s a bit of a letter to Sir Henry Wotton:

Sir, Only in obedience I send you some of my paradoxes. I love you and myself and them too well to send them willingly, for they carry with them a confession of their lightness and my shame. But indeed they were made rather to deceive time than her daughter truth . . . If they make you find better reasons against them, they do their office; for they are but swaggerers, quiet enough if you resist them. If perchance they be prettily gilt, that is their best, for they are not hatched ... Yet, Sir, though I know their low price, except I receive by your next letter assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect of these or any other of my compositions sent to you, I shall sin against my conscience if I send you any more. I speak that in plainness which becomes (methinks) our honesties, and therefore call not this a distrustful but a free spirit. I mean to acquaint you with all mine, and to my satires there belongs some fear, and to some elegies, and these perhaps, shame. Against both which affections though I be tough enough yet I have a riddling disposition to be ashamed of fear and afraid of shame. Therefore I am desirous to hide them, without any over-reckoning of them or their maker.

At this time, Donne is struggling to get a foothold in the world, particularly the court, though he writes with hatred about both. Carey describes the person who emerges from these poems as a young man "who survives on the fringes of society, a master of back stairs and side-alleys, hard up, outcast, victorious."

In 1596 and1597 Donne volunteered for two naval expeditions against the Spaniards, with Essex and Raleigh. His only purely descriptive poems, The Storm and The Calm, were written about the second of these voyages. At this time also he met young Thomas Egerton, whose father, Sir Thomas, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas and all now seemed to be going well. He had a responsible job of some importance and was in a fair way for advancement. However, he dished his chances with great thoroughness in 1601, when, just before Christmas, he secretly married Egerton’s niece Ann More. Her father was furious – Donne lost his job and was thrown into prison. He never regained any justifiable hope of worldly success. He had renounced his religion for nothing, since his career was now ruined. Donne was 29, Ann 16 or 17. What had happened is best summed up in the epigram:


John Donne – Ann Donne – undone.


When Ann’s father’s fury abated, Donne was released from prison but there was no hope of his getting his job back. Neither could he afford still to live in London – he moved to a damp cottage in Mitcham where he and his rapidly-increasing family endured poverty, ill-health and bad luck. At this time he was writing letters to friends from ‘my hospital at Mitcham’.

There seems to be no doubt of the true and continued love between him and Ann, and what might be called the ‘true love’ poems have been attributed to that relationship. Let’s read the poem that contains the famous compasses image:

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls, to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

The breath goes now, 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

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refined,

That ourselves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips and ands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul the fixed 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.

At this time Donne was struggling to gain the help of someone influential. It took him just under two hours to ride from Mitcham to London Bridge, and his horse got to know the way so well that Donne was able to give him his head and devote his own energies to thinking. He wrote continually to friends and possible patrons. His closest friend was probably Sir Henry Goodyer, to whom he wrote every week, every Tuesday, in fact – a detail I find moving. Sir Henry was a generous, truly helpful friend to Donne, sending him books, offering him refuge sometimes at Polesworth, his country house in the forest of Arden (I don’t suppose Ann and the children went too) and able to put in a good word for him with the right people. Among the ‘right people’ was Lucy, Countess of Bedford. She was young and brilliant, a star at the court of King James, and a Lady of the Bedchamber to his Queen, Anne. The great poem of Donne’s, which is connected with her is Twicknam Garden. Only the title effectively links this to the Countess of Bedford, who had a house in Twickenham, and it is highly unlikely that Donne was in love with her. But the stance of the lover is more interesting and dignified than that of yet another beggarly dependant. He didn’t, in fact, get much out of her in either money or influence.

Another woman who did become a friend and offered him something more like real help, was Mrs. Magdalen Herbert, the mother of George Herbert and of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. The great poem he wrote for her was The Autumnal – which has about as much of a link with her as Twicknam Garden does with Lady Bedford – almost none at all.

The Donne of this period is perhaps not a man we might admire – toadying, crawling for fav-our, more like Yorick than Hamlet perhaps, selling his wits. Yet what else was he to do? As Carey says, "What we require in a writer is not amiablity but the power to show us alternative ways of living in the world." He did his best to get cash or preferment wherever he could, travelling abroad with noblemen in 1605–6 and 1611–12. He wrote an elegy (really about death, this time) for Elizabeth Drury, the fifteen year old daughter of Sir Robert Drury, one of his patrons. He’d never seen the girl but her father liked the poem and Donne produced two Anniversaries as the day of her death came round. Donne and his family were able to move into London, to a house belonging to Sir Robert, in Covent Garden (Drury Lane, of course, part of the present site of Bush House).

Some of the effects of Donne’s ambition are shown in his poetry; it can be callous, pitiless; it is self-absorbed and analytic (not self-admiring though); there is an urge to dominate, and rank and riches are clearly to be valued; it is exorbitant – "the upsurge towards the unmatchable is a constant mark of his poetry"; and there is an urge to express the inexpressible – to outsoar the boundaries of the mind. Thinking of these qualities, let’s read a brief extract from the Second Anniversary.

This is the world’s condition now, and now,

She that should all parts to reunion bow,

She that had all magnetic force alone,

To draw, and fasten sundered parts in one;

She whom wise nature had invented than

When she observed that every sort of men

Did in their voyage in this world’s sea stray,

And needed anew compass for their way;

She that was best, and first original

Of all fair copies; and the general

Steward to fate; she whose rich eyes and breast,

Gilt the West Indies, and perfumed the East;

Whose having breathed in this world, did bestow

Spice on those Isles, and bade them still smell so,

And that rich Indy, which doth gold inter,

Is but as single money, coined from her;

She to whom this world must itself refer,

As suburbs, or the microcosm of her,

She, she is dead; she’s dead; when thou know’st this,

Thou know’st how lame a cripple this world is.


This is a good example of his urge to excess – the girl had been fifteen when she died. He finally got a reasonable job in 1613, twelve years after his marriage, as secretary to Robert Carr, the King’s favourite.


I want to make a brief digression now, and think about the life of Ann Donne. We don’t know very much about her, in the sense of what sort of person she was, but we do know what happened to her. Married in 1602, she bore children as follows:

1603 Constance 1611 Mary

1604 John 1612 a still-born child

1605 George 1613 Nicholas (died in infancy)

1606 Francis 1614 Mary & Francis died

1608 Lucy 1615 Margaret

1609 Bridget 1616 Elizabeth

1617 .daughter, still-born on August 10th

– August 15th Ann died.

Isaac Walton tells a story, that when her husband was in Paris with Sir Robert Drury, and she, in London, was brought to bed of a still-born child, alone in his room in Paris Donne saw his wife twice walk through, her hair about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms. News from England confirmed that the child had been born at the time Donne saw the apparition. Ann has no voice, now, but the 20th century novelist and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner gave her one in her imagination. I’d like to read you this poem of hers:

Ann Donne:

I lay in in London;

And round my bed my live children were crying,

And round my bed my dead children were singing.

As my blood left me it set the clapper swinging;

Tolling, jarring, jowling, all the bells of London

Were ringing as I lay dying -

John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone!

Ill-done, well-done, all done.

All fearing done, all striving and all hoping,

All weanings, watchings, done; all reckonings whether

Of debts, of moons, summed; all hither and thither

Sucked in the one ebb. Then, on my bed in London,

I heard him call me, reproaching:

Undone, Ann Donne, Undone!

Not done, not yet done!

Wearily I rose up at his bidding,

The sweat still on my face, my hair dishevelled,

Over the bells and the tolling seas I travelled,

Carrying my dead child, so lost, so light a burden,

To Paris, where he sat reading

And showed him my ill news. That done,

Went back, lived on in London.

After Donne had got the job with Robert Carr, he was able more effectually to petition King James, who felt that he had made himself unfit for confidential employment by his rash mar-riage, and urged him to enter the Church. Donne had already, in 1610, claimed James’ attention by dedicating Pseudo-Martyr to him and presenting a copy; this work supported government policy, maintaining that Catholics ought to take the oath of allegiance, and that if they did not, and died for it, they were not, properly speaking, martyrs. It also attacked Jesuits. James liked the book, and Donne got an honorary MA from Oxford for it.

In 1611 Donne wrote Ignatius his Conclave translated it into English. Century Three Latin and four English editions were published in the 17th century. This book, widely read in England and on the Continent, describes a debate in Hell, in which Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, maintains his claim to the highest rank in hell against Copernicus, Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus, among others. The devil’s fear of Ignatius is such that he sends him off with the Jesuits to set up an infernal colony on the moon.

In 1615, Donne gave in to the urging of James after being assured that he would get a job if he did take holy orders. In fact, he got several jobs, his first main appointment being a Div-inity Readership at Lincoln’s Inn, which gave him an adequate regular income and a sophis-ticated audience for his sermons. It was too late, however, for Ann to enjoy the new security. She died a few days after giving birth to her twelfth child, born dead, in 1617. A Nocturnal Upon St Lucie’s Day, often thought of as one of Donne’s greatest poems, is possibly – probably – related to her death.

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,

Lucie’s who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world’s whole sap is sunk;

The general balm th’hydropitique earth hath drunk,

Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,

Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be

At the next world, that is, at the next spring;

For I am every dead thing,

In whom love wrought new alchemy.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations, and lean emptiness;

He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,

Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;

I, by love’s limbeck, am the grave

Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood

Have we two wept, and so

Drowned the whole world, us two; oft did we grow

To be two chaosses, when we did show

Care to ought else; and often absences

Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)

Of the first nothing, the elixir grown;

Were I a man, that I were one,

I needs must know; I should prefer,

If I were any beast,

Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest

And love; All, all some properties invest;

If I am ordinary nothing were,

As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.

You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser sun

At this time to the Goat is run

To fetch new lust, and give it you,

Enjoy your summer all;

Since she enjoys her long nights festival,

Let me prepare towards her, and let me call

This hour her vigil, and her Eve, since this

Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

Again we see the urge to excess. There can’t be a hierarchy in nothingness, but Donne has to be, not ‘an ordinary nothing’, but ‘of the first nothing, the elixir grown’.

Not wanting to be ordained, or to be a preacher at all, he became a famous preacher. In 1621 he became Dean of St. Pauls, where he was preaching for a more varied audience of simpler people, and his sermons changed accordingly, and gained a feeling of authority. He took the job seriously and worked hard at it. The authority he claimed was the authority of his office and his vocation, not his own.

As a preacher, Donne has a message to deliver which is not his own, and he must make it understood. He worked all week on his sermons, resting on Saturday, and though the sermons were written down (so that if it was for an important occasion it would be there for others to consult) he learned them by heart, and left the text at home, as he was expected to read, not preach. We associate Donne’s poetic manner with excess; but words used by contemporaries to describe the effect he made in the pulpit include, "humility, gravity, mildness, holy fear." He knew how to speak, and how to put over what he was saying with his whole persona. Helen Gardner says of him as a preacher, "He was a man of great personal charm, and his carriage and gestures reinforced his eloquence."

The sermon would proceed from a text; the task of the preacher was to help the listeners to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest... the Holy Scriptures, which God had caused to be written for our learning. The text is basic to the whole discourse, and, after an introductory passage about the context, the translation, or the appropriateness to the occasion, the text will be divided – a splitting up into words or phrases or a division into the different senses of scripture the literal, moral and mystical meanings that the text can sustain. There may be further sub-division. This can be perceived as a clever game, leading us round in a circle – for we end where we began. On the way the argument may pick up from other passages the Bible, and from the writings of the Fathers and any other theologians. I can’t do better than quote Helen Gardner again: ‘the chosen text in the end becomes a kind of window onto the revelation Donne believed to be contained within the Scriptures. The text is thus the ‘particular foundation’ to the discourse but it is not its ultimate foundation. It is the instrument by which Donne tries to open the Scriptures to his congregation. The relation of the text to the living substance of revelation is not unlike the relation of the argument of one of Donne’s poems to the poem’s living core of feeling. The poem could not exist without the argument, but the argument is not its real substance. As for what the substance of the sermons is, it is not doctrine, and it is not morality, though doctrine and morality abound; it is the whole Biblical conception of man as created, kept in being, redeemed, and sustained in grace by God’s mercy. Donne is often spoken of as a preacher whose great subjects were sin, death, and damnation. This conception seems to me as false as a description of him as a court preacher laying a ‘flattering unction’ to the souls of fine gentlemen and ladies. He announced what was to be his great theme in the last sentence of the first sermon of his that has survived’.

‘As we cannot carry our thoughts to so high a time, but that God elected us before that, so we cannot continue our sins of infirmity so long, but that God have mercy upon us after that; I cannot name a time, when God’s love began, it is eternal, I cannot imagine a time when His mercy will end, it is perpetual.’

The ultimate instability, of course, is death. Donne’s health was not good; in 1623 he was seriously ill with relapsing fever and anticipated his own death – which wasn’t to come for another eight years. In 1625 he stayed in Chelsea with Magdalen Herbert, now the wife of Sir John Danvers, while plague raged in London – the worst epidemic since the Black Death. The epidemic passed and the family could return to the Deanery. But death was close – his second daughter, Lucy, aged eighteen, died suddenly in 1626 and in the following year Lady Bedford died in May, now outside Donne’s circle but a landmark personage to him. Lady Danvers, a true and constant friend, died in June, and Donne came to Chelsea to preach her funeral sermon. Perhaps the greatest blow was the death of Henry Goodyer, who had sustained and encouraged him for so long, since well before the time of the Tuesday letters from Mitcham.

Donne himself was ill in the summer of 1627, with a bad tonsillitis, which he recovered from, despite debilitating treatment of bleeding and starving, and in August 1630, visiting his married daughter Constance, he had a serious fever, which obliged him to decline the usual invitation to preach before the King (Charles, by now, who had succeeded his father in 1626) in November. Rumours circulated that Dr. Donne was dead.

He got back to London early in February 1631, weak, deaf, suffering from toothache and a sore throat. His elderly mother, who had been living with him, died, divorcing him yet further from the relationships of this world. Donne was determined to preach before the King at Whitehall on the first Friday in Lent – in that year on 12th February. Although he hated milk, he struggled to get it down, as doctors advised. Isaac Walton tells us, ‘When to the amazement of some beholders he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face... Yet, after some faint pauses in his zealous prayer, his strong desires enabled his weak body to discharge his memory of his preconceived meditations, which were of dying: the text being: "To God the Lord belong the issues from death". Many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professing they thought the text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon.’ We know the sermon as Death’s Duel.

His remaining life now turned absolutely towards death. His will was already made. Dressed only in his shroud, knotted at head and foot, he stood on a wooden urn while an artist made the sketch from which Nicholas Stone later carved the stone statue which still stands in the new St. Pauls. It is one of the few monuments to have survived the fire. He died on March 31st. Walton says, ‘as his soul ascended and his last breath departed from him, he closed his own eyes, and then disposed his hands and body into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those who came to shroud him.’

We’ll end with an epitaph from Ben Jonson – not the famous Monarch of Wit, but a gentler one:

Donne, the delight of Phoebus, and each Muse,

Who, to thy one, all other braines refuse;

Whose every work, of thy most early wit,

Came forth example, and remains so, yet:

Longer a knowing than most wits do live;

And which no affection praise enough can give!

To it, thy language, letters, arts, best life,

Which might with half mankind maintain a strife.

All which I mean to praise, and yet, I would;

But leave, because I cannot as I should!


In spite of limited time, several points were raised: One member asked if the speaker thought that Donne, approaching death had returned to his Catholic roots. There was some discussion of this; the speaker felt that in some sense he had remained a Catholic at heart.

There was a comment on the fierceness – sometimes anger - of Donne's language. The speaker said this might be partly the way she had read the poems, but it was the way she felt them. This quality was suggested as another reason why his work was so much admired by some, disliked by others. The word ‘grandeur’ was also suggested.

Why was he so disinclined to have his poems published, or even circulated? – very unusual, if not unique among poets, the speaker agreed. She could only speculate that it might be connected to his arrogance – and a need to control. This led on to a general discussion of ‘arrogance’, some of the audience feeling it was a harsh word to use. It was suggested that some of his apparently arrogant claims might be made tongue-in-cheek. Certainly clever people, and Donne is nothing if not clever, fall easily into irony. There was also sense of triumph in being able to do such difficult work, so well.

As a counter to that, the speaker referred to an article published in The Times in May 2005, suggesting that a number of Donne's love poems had been set to music, and widely circulated as songs in his life time.

Another listener suggested the word ‘passion’. The speaker warmly agreed, saying, yes, it was indeed a defining word, which she should have used before, his work being passionate, in every sense of the word.

There was a little talk of the literary tradition of the time, and the differences between Donne and the gentler Herbert, the very reverse of arrogant. By contrast to Herbert, who was open to the world of Nature, (‘Sweet day, so calm, so cool, so bright’), Donne seemed essentially an urban – indeed a London poet.

The audience had clearly been very much engaged by the talk, and the speaker was warmly applauded.


John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. (Faber 1981)

R C Bald, John Donne (Oxford)

Helen Gardner, Introduction to The Metaphysical Poets (Penguin 1957, still in print)

Lecture, published in City Tribute to John Donne, Poet and Dean of St Pauls

(booklet, 1972 possibly published by St Paul’s Cathedral)