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Adventurer, poet, priest, lover – John Donne


John Donne in 1595 at the age of twenty-three by an unknown artist.
Estate of the late Lord Lothian

I can’t resist a man who loves a woman body and soul. John Donne was at various times an adventurer, poet, Anglican priest, and lover. He was always a lover.

At the age of four, Donne lost his father; a little later he lost a sister. Two sisters died when he was nine. His older brother, jailed for sheltering a Catholic priest, died in prison of the bubonic plague when he was barely twenty. Death came quick and fast in late 16th century England, from politics, religious dissent, and disease. Donne attended both Oxford and Cambridge for three years each, but refused to take the Protestant Oath of Supremacy so was not graduated. At twenty-four he was with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh fighting against the Spanish at Cadiz and in the Azores. At twenty-five he seemed on course for an important diplomatic career when he was appointed chief secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, but just before he turned thirty he fell in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne. With his ring, he cut his name in the glass of her windowpane to remind her he was "Emparadis’d in you (in whom alone I understand, and grow and see)." They were about to experience the heights of love and the depths of poverty.

They married secretly, and her outraged uncle and father had Donne thrown into Fleet Prison. Released, Donne’s career was shattered and he and Anne fled to the country where he practiced law, and tersely wrote, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” For fourteen years, he and Anne struggled to support their children. They were so desperately poor that Donne noted in despair that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. Nevertheless, when he was first offered employment in the church, he refused. He was afraid he was being called by money, not by God. He doubted he was good enough. Perhaps he had another doubt, greater even than these. However, James I, that ribald and religious king who was graceful on horseback but so crippled he could barely walk, and who had already sat four score scholars down and told them to produce the great King James translation of the Bible, told Donne he would give him nothing but a post in the Church of England. Donne, who had been drifting away from Catholicism, finally accepted, but he doubted his abilities to preach.


John Donne painted by Isaac Oliver

His portrait, painted in 1616, just a year after he was ordained, when he was forty-three, shows him with hair soft enough to tousle, a strong nose, deep eyes, tender and half smiling, and, just visible inside his goatee, kissable lips. He was, by a friend’s account, “irresistible,” and understood well how

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.

Donne began preaching in small villages outside London, delivering his first sermon at the then rural parish of Paddington. His flair for drama and his wit quickly made him popular. He had a sense of humour as his account of practicing contemplation suggests –

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. . .A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world.

Six years later, after travelling on a mission to Germany, he was named Dean of St. Paul’s, London. By then he had become known as a man of integrity, generosity, and fiery passion, and thousands came to hear him preach. "No man is an island", he told them, and "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee" (Meditation 17).

All along he had been writing poetry that coupled body and soul. Unpublished, the poems circulated in manuscript form.

His poems are passionate, and adept at combining two vastly unlike ideas into the single idea called a conceit. In To his mistress going to bed, he writes,

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land. . .

In A valediction forbidding mourning he is sublime –

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.

He is no romantic fool. In Sweetest love I do not go, he ruefully observes –

O how feeble is man's power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall;
But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o'er us to advance.

Donne had been ordained barely a year when Anne died after the birth of their twelfth child, who was stillborn. A poet whose metre was ragged with the rhythms of casual speech, Donne’s grief can be heard in the stammering intensity of the lines – "She, she is dead; she’s dead; when thou know’st this, Thou know’st how dry a cinder this world is".

He never wrote another love poem. He never remarried. He did not, however, reject God. Somehow, despite his losses, Donne began to accept and love God in the only way another person can be loved, just exactly as he or she is. “Blessed be God,” he wrote, “that he is God, only and divinely like himself.” But who was his God? Was it possible he had willingly surrendered to the incarnation of love, but not to the incarnation of God on earth? With Anne gone, Donne wrote a holy sonnet of doubt –

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

He died on March 31, 1631. His friends, who loved him, took almost everything he wrote to the printer. The poems left in our hands sing of the union of soul and body, and fiercely address death – " Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. . ."