In my British literature class, we have recently discussed the poems of John Donne, a metaphysical poet during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He is perhaps my favorite English poet; his poetic style is very beautiful and his poems are incredibly well thought out. His poetry is divided into two main periods and genres, romantic poetry and religious poetry; however, the two main thematic elements of his poetry, religion and erotic love, are found in both periods. His love poems are especially erotic but if brought into the proper marriage context, his poetry is good and beautiful.
The Good Morrow
John Donne makes any interesting point about how he and his love lived before they fell in love. He states that, “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I/Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then,/But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?” It would seem he’s talking about how more mature they became once they fell in love. So then according to Donne, manhood and womanhood is not truly achieved until one has fallen in love. This does remind me a bit of what it says in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened. It seems Donne thinks the same about love and maturity.
This poem has a very interesting rhyme scheme and meter which makes it unlike any other poem I’ve ever read. “Song” has trochaic and manometer lines wherein the first six lines are of trochaic meter followed by two very odd manometer lines and finished off with another trochaic line. This poem reads rather fast due to the odd meter and is less formal than the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or Marlowe. The rhyme scheme is also peculiar since it is unlike anything else we’ve seen in Sidney’s works or Shakespeare. It can be shown as ababccddd. As with most of Donne’s love poems, there is the element of sexuality in the midst of the poem, here found in the second line of the whole poem.
According to the footnote, this poem is meant to parody certain Roman Catholic doctrines of making things sacred and indeed Donne does a good job destroying that. It seems he writes this as a warning to those who would leash his love or even hate to just let him be and “let him love”. Each stanza has a remarkable pattern where each first and last line ends in love, this is certainly used to emphasis his point. The poem also seems to suggest the audience or authorities watch his love life to decide whether he and his bride be “canonized” for love.
Elegy 16. On His Mistress
While most elegies are written in unrhymed couplets, this poem is written in rhymed couplets that talks about the memory of a previous lover. Instead of talking about her beauty and describing her, Donne goes through a commentary on how he lost her and how he longs for her. It describes the situation where his love tried to go abroad with the speaker but he denied her because it would make him long to come back, “Thirst to come back.” Donne also speaks of how loved ones, since they are united as one by God, “that absent lovers one in th’ other be”. He also warns that if she comes with him, certain peoples will find out she’s not a page and seek to capture her. Moses would have done well to listen to this poem and he wouldn’t have had the problem with his wife and Pharaoh.
Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed
This is quite an erotic love poem and almost as vivid as Song of Solomon. As I read this poem I couldn’t help but think that this poem would be excellent to use on a wedding night. There are myriads of sexual metaphors in this poem which would make quite an R rated poem but nonetheless a good poem. It seems that this poem calls his wife to come to bed and make love with him but she is reluctant to do so. This can seen in line 3-4 where he says, “The foe ofttimes having the foe in sight,/ Is tired of standing though he never fight,/”. He immediately follows that with the command for her to undress. I must say that his commands are not very genteel but perhaps his wife doesn’t mind his gruff tone. One would expect for him to describe his wife’s naked body (as is done in Song of Solomon) once her bodice and dress is off but all he writes after her body is unveiled, “Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals/ As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals”.
Holy Sonnet 5
Once again John Donne includes the traditional belief in his writing that the human body is a microcosm of the universe I would think has some validity since the whole world has order that reflects the presence of the Creator. This is not the only allusion that Donne fits into the poem from his own poetry. Once again he includes the fascinating image of different kinds of “sprites”. In his elegy entitled, “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, he had mentioned the idea of an evil sprite and a good sprite being exposed by women and how the former makes his hair stand up on end and the latter makes his flesh stand or have an erection. I cannot help but think of this when he mentions “angelic sprite” in this Holy Sonnet. While this image may have a holy and sexual connotation, as do most of the imagery in his erotic and religious poems, this one I would think is more spiritual than sexual. The third line is quite interesting where Donne says that “black sin hath betrayed to endless night/ My world’s both parts, and O, both must die”. This reflects Romans 6:23 where Paul says, “the wages of sin is death”.
Holy Sonnet 10
After having read several of Donne’s religious poems, I noticed that death and assurance of salvation are major topics in his poems. In this sonnet, Donne expostulates that death has no victory over the Christian, bringing to mind a hymn which says, “O death where is thy sting?” When suffering from doubt I go to the Scriptures find assurance from the impending “threat” of death but even this poem is comforting and gives the reader a surge of knowing that in Christ we are victorious. In fact the last line of the poem is victorious in tone as it says, “Death, thou shalt die”.
Holy Sonnet 14
This sonnet reminded me of several verses from Scripture. On is from Romans 5:3-5, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” There are many other verses which implore God to create in us a contrite heart or to break into our hearts to bring us humbly before Him. On the sixth line there is a little bit of poetic license where Donne says, “Labor to admit you, but O, to no end”. In normal speech we would say, “I labor to admit you” or something like that.
So much of this meditation is quite famous and is used profusely in other works of literature, especially Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is nice to read a bit of older literature to find that they believe the same things you do and have the same doctrine; for instance, in this meditation Donne mentions the issue of baptism and the church being universal: “When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member”. His “concern” in that sentence is not a concern of distress or something bad; I think it means the action of baptism affects him because now the infant is brought into the covenant body, the same covenant body that Donne is a part of and consequently, I’m a part of it too. His phrasing of the second half of that sentence does make me wonder whether or not he believes that baptism grants that child salvation or if the child is simply brought into the covenant family whereby baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant. I’m not quite sure what the Anglican view on the subject is but my thoughts are coming from a Presbyterian view.