John Donne ... “...for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.”
The poet, priest and Anglican theologian John Donne (1572-1631) was the most outstanding of the English metaphysical poets and is best remembered today for his lines:
No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee. — John Donne, Meditation XVII
As a theologian, Donne ought to be remembered too for the classic Anglican aphorism on to the debate on the Eucharistic presence, which is sometimes attributed to Elizabeth I but is found in a poem by John Donne:
He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
and what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it.
John Donne was born between 24 January and 19 June 1572 in Bread Street, London, in the parish of Saint Nicholas Olave, to a prominent Roman Catholic family. His father, also John Donne, was an ironmonger and wealthy merchant, who in the following year became the Warden of the Company of Ironmongers, but died suddenly in 1576. His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the daughter of the playwright John Heywood, and was a great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Rastall, a sister of Sir Thomas More. His uncle, Ellis Heywood, was the secretary to Cardinal Pole, and died in banishment in 1578
As a child, Donne was so precocious that it was said of him that “this age hath brought forth another Pico della Mirandola.”
He matriculated from Hart Hall, Oxford, on 23 October 1584, at the age of 11. Hart Hall is now Hertford College. There Donne began his friendship with Henry Wotton. But he left Oxford in 1587 to go to Cambridge, it may have been there that he began his friendship with the poet Christopher Brooke.
Although there are no surviving records of Donne’s attendance at Cambridge, the Library of Saint John’s College holds an edition of Ovid’s Metamorposes published in Cambridge in 1584, with the signature of John Donne on the bottom right-hand corner of the title-page, lost among a riot of other scribbles and flourishes. The book has obviously been through the hands of numerous schoolboys, and it is likely that Donne was among them. It was donated to the library by the Nonjuror Francis Roper.
However, as a Roman Catholic, he could not take a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge – although he would later receive the degree DD (Doctor of Divinity) from Cambridge University in 1615.
From Cambridge, he moved back to London in 1591, and he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. There he studied law and was expected to embark on a legal or diplomatic career. But as a young trainee lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, he was something of a womanising libertine. His early poems mocked the hypocrisy of genteel society and celebrated his amorous conquests.
When Donne came of age, he inherited a considerable fortune, and it was probably about this time that he became an Anglican. He began to produce Satires, which were not printed, but eagerly passed from hand to hand; the first three are known to belong to 1593, the fourth to 1594, while the other three are probably some years later.
In 1596, Donne entered foreign service with the Earl of Essex, and “waited upon his lordship” on board the Repulse, in the victory at Cadiz on 11 June. Donne wrote several poems during this expedition, and during the Islands Voyage of 1597, in which he accompanied Essex to the Azores.
According to Izaak Walton, Donne spent some time in Italy and Spain, and intended to go on to Palestine, “but at his being in the farthest parts of Italy, the disappointment of company, or of a safe convoy, or the uncertainty of returns of money into those remote parts, denied him that happiness.” There is some reason to suppose that he was on the continent at intervals between 1595 and the winter of 1597.
His lyrical poetry was mainly the product of his exile, according to Ben Jonson, who said Donne “wrote all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.”
In 1598, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (later Lord Ellesmere), Keeper of the Great Seal, and remained with his family for almost four years. In the latter part of time living at Sir Thomas Egerton’s house, Donne wrote the longest of his existing poems, The Progress of the Soul, which not published until 1633.
However, in 1600 he fell in love to Lady Egerton’s 17-year-old niece, Anne More. He was elected MP for Brackley in 1601, and sat in Elizabeth I’s last parliament. In December 1601, John and Anne were married secretly. When the marriage was uncovered, he was dismissed. He wrote to his wife to tell her about his dismissal, and wrote after his name: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” He was thrown into the Fleet Prison in February 1602, and when he was released he was in much-straitened circumstances. His fortune had all been spent and “troubles did still multiply upon him.”
After his release from prison, Donne made a meagre living as a lawyer. Anne Donne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, offered the young couple an asylum at his Surrey country house of Pyrford, where they lived until the end of 1604. There they were helped by friends like Lady Magdalen Herbert, George Herbert’s mother, and Lucy, Countess of Bradford, women who also played a prominent role in Donne’s literary life.
Although Donne still had friends left, these were bitter years for a man who knew himself to be the intellectual superior of most, knew he could have risen to the highest posts, and yet found no preferment.
In the spring of 1605, the Donnes were living at Camberwell, and a little later in a small house in Mitcham. He had by this time “acquired such a perfection” in civil and common law that he was able to take up professional work, and assisted the religious pamphleteer Thomas Morton, later Bishop of Durham, in his controversies with Roman Catholics. Donne is believed to have had a considerable share in writing Morton’s pamphlets published between 1604 and 1607.
In 1607, Morton offered the poet certain preferment in the Church of England if he would only agree to being ordained. By this time, Donne had become seriously interested in religious matters, did he did not think himself fitted for the clerical life.
In 1607, Donne began a correspondence with George Herbert, Magdalen Herbert of Montgomery Castle. Some of these pious epistles were printed by Izaak Walton. Meanwhile, his income was extremely small. He speaks of his small house as his “hospital” and his “prison.” His wife’s health was broken and he was bowed down by the number of his children, who often lacked even clothes and food.
Donne’s principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607), La Corona (1610), from which today’s choice of poem is selected, and the prose work Biathanatos (ca 1608), which was published posthumously in 1644.
Eventually, in the autumn of 1608 Donne and his father-in-law, Sir George More, were reconciled, and More agreed to pay his daughter’s dowry and to make them a generous allowance. Donne soon after formed part of the gathering around Lady Bradford in Twickenham, and he wrote several verse letters to her.
In 1609, Donne was writing his great controversial prose treatise, The Pseudo-Martyr, printed in 1610, which was an attempt to convince Roman Catholics in England to take the oath of allegiance to James I.
In 1611, Donne wrote a curious and bitter prose squib against the Jesuits, entitled Ignatius his Conclave. To the same period, but possibly somewhat earlier, belongs the apology for the principle of suicide, which was not published until 1644, long after Donne’s death. This work, the Biathanatos, is an attempt to show that “the scandalous disease of headlong dying,” to which Donne himself in his unhappy moods had “often such a sickly inclination,” was not necessarily and essentially sinful.
Eventually, he was admitted MA at Cambridge in 1610. At that time, Donne had become acquainted with the wealthy Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted, who offered John, Anne and their children an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane, London. When Drury’s only daughter died, Donne published an extravagant elegy on her in 1611, An Anatomy of the World, to which he added in 1612 a Progress of the Soul on the same subject. He planned to write a fresh elegy new for the “blessèd Maid,” Elizabeth Drury, on each anniversary of her death, but refrained from this on the third anniversary onwards.
At the close of 1611, Sir Robert Drury visited Paris with Paris. When Donne left London, his wife was pregnant with their eighth child. Her anxiety at his absence led him to compose his poem:
Sweetest Love, I do not go
For weariness of thee.
While Donne was at Amiens, it is said, he had a vision of his wife, with her hair over her shoulders, holding a dead child in her arms. On that same night, Anne Donne gave birth to a stillborn infant. The incident caused Donne great anxiety that did not end until he reached Paris, where he received reassuring accounts of his wife’s health.
Donne left Paris with the Drurys for Spa in May 1612, and travelled in the Low Countries and Germany until they returned to London in September 1612. In 1613, Donne contributed to the Lachrymae lachrymarum, an obscure and frigid elegy on the death of the Prince of Wales, and wrote his famous Marriage Song for Saint Valentine’s Day, to celebrate the wedding of the Elector Palatine and the Princess Elizabeth.
About this time, Donne became friends with Robert Ker, Viscount Rochester (later the Earl of Somerset), and had his hopes raised for preferment at court, although Donne was now in weak health in body and in mind.
He was elected MP for Brackley again in 1614. At the close of that year, King James sent for Donne, and “descended to a persuasion, almost to a solicitation of him, to enter into sacred orders.” Donne baulked at the first suggestion that he should be ordained, believing the “irregularities” of his private life and his erotically-charged poetry made a career in ministry unthinkable. But Donne asked for a few days to consider the king’s entreaties.
Finally, early in 1615, Donne was ordained an Anglican priest when the Bishop of London, John King, “proceeded with all convenient speed to ordain him, first deacon, then priest.” He was, perhaps, a curate first in Paddington, before being appointed a royal chaplain later that year.
His earliest sermon before the king at Whitehall carried his audience “to heaven, in holy raptures.” In April, not without much bad grace, the University of Cambridge consented to make the newly-ordained priest a Doctor of Divinity. It is said that when King James I visited Cambridge he urged the university to confer a doctorate on Donne. The king’s request was refused at first, and was then enforced by mandate.
In the spring of 1616, Donne was presented as Rector of Keyston, in Huntingdon, and a little later he became Rector of Sevenoaks in Kent, where he remained rector until his death. In October, he was appointed reader in divinity or preacher to the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn. Of the many sermons he preached at Lincoln’s Inn, 14 survive.
His ordination and immediate preferment eased Donne’s anxieties about money, but in August 1617 his wife died, leaving him with seven young children. Perhaps as a consequence of his bereavement, Donne went through a spiritual crisis that inspired a fervour of religious devotion. In 1618, he wrote two cycles of religious sonnets, La Corona and the Holy Sonnets, the latter not printed in complete form until 1899.
His health suffered from the austerity of his life, and in May 1619 he was persuaded to accompany Lord Doncaster as his chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Germany. They visited Heidelberg, Frankfurt and other cities before returning to England early in 1620.
In November 1621, James I appointed Donne Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. In February 1622, he resigned from Keyston and as preacher in Lincoln’s Inn, but was the Rector of Blunham, Bedfordshire, from 1622.
At Saint Paul’s, Donne attained eminence as a preacher and his sermons were regarded by many as the most brilliant and eloquent of the day.
He became seriously ill in October 1623, and during his long convalescence wrote his Devotions, published in 1624. He was then appointed to the vicarage of Saint Dunstan’s in the West in London.
In April 1625, Donne preached before the new king, Charles I. His sermon was published immediately, and he then published his Four Sermons upon Special Occasions, the earliest collection of his discourses.
When the plague broke out, he retired with his children to the Chiswick home of Sir John Danvers, who had married Magdalen Herbert, for whom Donne wrote two of the most ingenious of his lyrics, The Primrose and The Autumnal. For a time, Donne disappeared so completely that rumours of his death began to spread.
When Donne returned to his pulpit, Donne’s popularity as a preacher reached its zenith and it continued until his death. Walton, who first got to know him in 1624, now became an intimate friend.
In 1630, Donne’s health broke down completely. He would almost certainly have been made a bishop, but that August his health broke again. He spent the greater part of that winter at Abury Hatch, in Epping Forest, with his widowed daughter, Constance Alleyn, and was too ill to preach before King Charles at Christmas.
It is believed that his disease was a malarial form of recurrent quinsy acting on an extremely neurotic system. He came back to London, and was able to preach at Whitehall on 12 February 1631. But this was his last sermon and was published soon after his death as Death’s Duel.
He stood for the sculptor Nicholas Stone before a fire in his study at the Deanery, with a winding-sheet wrapped and tied around him, his eyes shut and his feet resting on a funeral urn. The sculpture in white marble was placed in Saint Paul’s Cathedral after his death. It was one of the few monuments in the cathedral to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Donne died in London on 31 March 1631, after he had lain “fifteen days earnestly expecting his hourly change.” He was buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. He is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England on 31 March as “priest, poet and preacher.”
His aged mother, who had lived in the Deanery, survived him, dying in 1632.
Donne’s earlier works include The Anniversaries (1611-12) and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624). The principal editor of his posthumous writings was his son, John Donne the younger. His poems were first collected in 1633 and published as Songs and Sonnets (1633). They were published again in 1635, 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654 and 1669. Of his prose works, the Juvenila appeared in 1633; the LXXX Sermons in 1640; Biathanatos in 1644; Fifty Sermons in 1649; Essays in Divinity, 1651; Letters to Several Persons of Honour, 1651; Paradoxes, Problems and Essays, 1652; and Six and Twenty Sermons, 1661.
Izaak Walton’s Life was first published in 1640, and entirely rewritten in 1659.
Dryden gave the label “metaphysics” to Donne’s poetic philosophy. Borrowing the suggestion, Samuel Johnson used the title of the “metaphysical school” to describe Donne and the amorous and philosophical poets who succeeded him, and who employed a similarly fantastic language, and who affected odd figurative inversions.
His reputation almost disappeared in the 18th century but returned in the 19th century. His Poems were edited by EK Chambers in 1896. His prose works have not been collected. In 1899, Edmund Gosse published in two volumes The Life and Letters of John Donne.
In the 1920s and the 1930s, TS Eliot and William Butler Yeats discovered in Donne’s poetry the peculiar fusion of intellect and passion that they aspired to in their own work. Today, as Schmidt notes, he is almost certianly the most anthologised autyhor in Anglican history.
Donne as theologian
John Donne, the “reformed soul,” is not one of the heroic figures in Church History who stood valiantly for principles. He was willing to make adjustments to fit in with the Establishment, and was so alarmed when one of his sermons failed to meet the approval of Charles I, that he made a grovelling apology to the king for any offence caused. Yet he braved the disapproval of his Roman Catholic family when he became an Anglican. Nor was being ordained an easy decision, and he knowingly alienated one of his key patrons when he was ordained.
His “metaphysical” poetry gives expression to a profoundly Trinitarian spirituality. His insights penetrate the depths of the believer’s experience of the “three person’d God.”
During the time Anne and John lived in squalid housing with their growing family, Donne developed his interest in theology and his poetry took on a more spiritual flavour. The imprisonment and death of his brother Henry for his role in a Catholic conspiracy had made Donne distrustful of religious fanaticism, leading to his decision to conform to the Church of England.
Theologically, Donne was a middle-of-the-road Anglican. He disliked the Roman Catholic extremism that led to his brother’s untimely death, and did not have much time either for the growing Puritan movement, so that at one point he worked closely with William Laud, Bishop of London and a principal persecutor of the Puritans.
Donne’s poetry shows an intellectual courage, as he examines the intricacies of his own “labyrinthine soul.” He faced death, the “last enemy” with quiet confidence. His last sermon, “Death’s Duel,” concludes: “There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.”
Donne had a fine sense of the interconnectedness of human life and held that the death of one man diminishes the whole of humanity: “No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
His Holy Sonnets reveal the source of Donne's hope in the face of death:
Holy Sonnet I
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.
In Holy Sonnet X, Donne even taunts death:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
In the Holy Sonnets, Donne felt he needed to make it clear that some things are more important than strict form or rhythm.
For Donne, it was the theology that mattered most. It is clear in his poem that at imes he makes the abrasive choice, goes with the rough and urgent when he had the option of something smoother. Take this, for example:
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.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Some of the extra syllables in the lines of this poem can be elided without any loss of sense. This poem has been set to music twice by Sir Benjamin Britten in his selection of the Holy Sonnets – appropriately, as Donne talked of his hope of heaven as being “made thy [God’s] music”.
John Donne as poet
Donne is a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period, his works are notable for their realistic and sensual style, and they include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons.
His poetry is marked by its vibrant language and inventive metaphors. His masculine, ingenious style is characterised by abrupt openings, paradoxes, dislocations, argumentative structure, and “conceits” – images that yoke things seemingly unlike. These features, combined with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax, and his tough eloquence were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques.
His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of contemporary English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry was the idea of true religion, which he spent much time considering and theorising. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic poems and love poems, and is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Some of Donne’s poetry is sensual for his time – many critics attribute those verses to his years as a student. A few of his poems apparently express his love for his wife, and a number express religious sentiment using terms and imagery that are nearly as passionate as his love poems.
Rising to prominence about a generation after Shakespeare, Donne wrote at a time when “wit,” or a kind of poetic cleverness, was highly valued. He delighted in writing complicated metaphors (called “conceits”) that often make his poems exercise the mind more than the heart.
Nativity by John Donne
John Donne delighted in imagined “contraction” or shrinkage of space and time – a lifetime into moments, or all of the world’s empires into his lovers’ eyes.
Nowhere in his “Divine” poems is that “contraction” more poignant than in his sonnet ‘Nativity.’ In this poem, the Infinite becomes small enough to be contained in the most private of all chambers. Donne also points out with charming irony that God pitied us so much that he became vulnerable enough to elicit our pity toward him.
This early poem by Donne comes, from the collection La Corona (1610). The key to understanding it lies in contrasting the opening line “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,” with the contradictory “how He/Which fills all place, yet none holds Him.”
The Nativity Donne presents here is an historical reference, a few moments in time, standing for a message which is timeless and universal. The paradox moves in both time and space.
The image of tight confinement figures often in Donne’s writings, poetical and theological, and its significance is unfolded best here: “We are all conceived in close Prison; in our Mothers wombs, we are close Prisoners all; when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of Execution, to death.”
But the message of the Nativity, says Donne, is a message of purpose and direction on this path tread by endless humans across the ages: “Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sonne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebbles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinall Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumines us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion; and when he hath found them, loves them, not for the lights sake, but for the naturall and true worth of the thing it self.”
This is a “supernaturall light of faith and grace,” he writes, that made its appearance at the Nativity, but it is a light of reason that enables humankind both to understand its maker and itself.
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
No Man Is An Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The poem is a reworking of Donne’s thoughts in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623), XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris, “Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.” There he writes:
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.
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.
And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.
There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.
If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.
The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.
Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours.
Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.
If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.
Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.
Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
Holy Sonnets XIV
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.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Annunciation, by John Donne
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne
‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ a 42-line poem, written almost 400 years ago, is regarded as one of the finest devotional poems of the English renaissance period. WH Auden provides testimony to how hard a time his students had in interpreting poems like ‘Good Friday, 1613,’ when he writes:
And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne
This poem was written two years before John Donne’s ordination in 1615, and following Good Friday, 2 April 1613, when he made a journey on horseback from London westwards to Exeter. Donne’s brief title for the poem serves alone to reveal his shame and guilt at being on the road, instead of in church, on that particular Good Friday. The poem contains profound religious insights and a sincere expression of personal penance. The poem has a slightly jogging rhythm – a slightly irregular tetrameter, punctuated by largely end-stopped rhyming couplets. This intentional rhythm intentionally mimics the pace of the horse that Donne rode that day.
This poem is significant for what it tells us about the theology of the poet and for what it tells us about the spiritual psychology of that time. In 21 couplets, Donne writes an apologia for the faithless act on Good Friday that this poem recalls.
The poet gives five arguments, firstly blaming fallen Nature generally (lines 1-14). His riding, he says, follows the influence of the stars, which (from any observer’s perspective) move uniformly across the sky every night from east to west, from where Christ the Son of God took on humanity, from where he died on the cross at Golgotha. Secondly, citing the Bible, Donne explains that looking on God, face-to-face, is death to any creature (line 15-28). He averts his eyes because he dares not look. Thirdly, out of pity, Donne says he cannot bear to witness the sufferings of Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary sufferings (lines 29-32). Fourthly, he affirms that he observes the sufferings of Christ and Mary in his mind’s eye, in “memory” (33-35), as he should. Finally, he explains that, by turning his back on Christ, he also submits himself to deserved “Corrections” (lines 35-40), to a scourging. The poem’s final couplet then moves all responsibility to a God who, if he punished Donne as he should, would discover that he, unashamed, willingly turning his face to his creator.
Donne begins with a metaphor “Let man’s soul be a sphere” (line 1). He likens the soul to a “heavenly” sphere – a moon or a planet – and the “intelligence” that moves this planet (line 2) is the soul’s devotion to God.
The poet compares the devotion of the human soul to the force of gravity on a planet moving around the sun. The gravity of the larger body keeps the planets in orbit; therefore the devotion of humans to God keeps them on the right path. But, like planets in orbit, we can be distracted by things other than their devotion, and those distractions will lead them away from God:
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own. (lines 3-4).
On this Good Friday, while the poet is travelling to the west, his thoughts are in the east, towards Jerusalem, where Christ died. He is travelling when he ought to be praying, and so the west-east dichotomy is both literal and metaphorical.
Donne, who was fond of paradoxes, contrasts how he is looking towards where the sun sets, but Christ, by rising from the dead, made life eternal (lines 12-13).
He finishes this metaphor by averring that sin would have “benighted” all humanity had not Christ died for our redemption (line 14). After this, however, Donne is more concerned in the remainder of the poem more with the idea of looking toward.
In lines 15-24, he says he is glad that he did not have to look on Christ’s death on a cross because he could not have borne it. Donne shows how hard it must have been for anyone to have witnessed the Crucifixion, for Christ is God, and as he recalls in line 17, in the Exodus story God warns Moses that no-one could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33: 20). But the poet knows that in Christ God was clothed in “flesh” and therefore could have been seen safely by people in his own lifetime (line 27).
The poet is deeply impressed with spiritual anguish at imagining the Saviour on the cross.
In line 21, he alludes to the prophecy of Zechariah: “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12: 10).
In the Fourth Gospel, Christ’s crucifixion is seen as fulfilling this prophecy: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out ... These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled ... And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’.” (John19: 34-37).
Near the end of the poem, he is thankful that he could not have seen the horrors of the crucifixion: “Though these things, as I ride be from mine eye.” He reflects that these things are in his memory, and through that he can look towards God, and God can look towards him (line 33).
This final idea of “looking” is very important to Donne, for he ends the poem by saying that
I turn my back to thee, but to receive
He turns his back to God to be whipped and “corrected” of his faults (lines 37-38). He implores God to “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity” so that he can be made more in the likeness of Christ (line 40). Only when he is cleansed and corrected in this way may he then “turn his face” to God (line 42).
Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne
Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.
Holy Sonnets XVIII (‘Sonnet on the Church’), by John Donne
Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.
RC Bald, John Donne, a Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986).
John Carey, John Donne (London: Faber & Faber, 1990).
John Donne, Devotions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959).
John Donne, Sermons, 10 vols, ed Simpson and Potter (Cambridge, Cambrdge University Press, 1953.
DL Edwards, John Donne, Man of flesh and spirit (London: Coninuum, 2001).
Walter Eversley, ‘John Donne,’ pp 114-115 in Alister McGrath (ed), The SPCK Handbook of Anglican Theologians (London: SPCK, 1998).
Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).
RH Schmidt, Glorious Companions, Five centuries of Anglican spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002).
John Stubbs, Donne, The Reformed Soul (London: Viking, 2006).