John Donne’s Proto-Modernism

In his poetry, Donne seduces and mocks; in his sermons and tracts, he ponders sickness and sin and death. He was aware of the dichotomy, describing one of his books, in a letter, as “written by Jack Donne, and not Dr. Donne.” The problem for biographers, from Walton to Rundell, is how these two phases or faces fit together.

Rundell observes that Donne was born within sight of the cathedral where he would later preside—the old St. Paul’s, which burned down in 1666 and was replaced by Christopher Wren’s dome. But he was hardly destined to rise in the Church of England. The Donnes were a Catholic family, who kept the old faith at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was determined to make England a Protestant realm once and for all. Through his mother, the poet was related to Thomas More, the author of “Utopia,” who died as a martyr in 1535 for resisting Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Half a century later, being a Catholic was still a matter of life and death. In 1593, when Donne was twenty-one, his younger brother Henry was arrested for hiding a Jesuit priest in his rooms in London and died in jail of plague. (The priest was hanged, drawn, and quartered.)

Donne’s Catholic background meant that certain doors were closed to him. He attended Oxford as a teen-ager but didn’t take a degree, since doing so required swearing an oath of allegiance to the Church of England. As a young man, however, he converted to Anglicanism—whether out of sincere belief, the desire to get ahead, or (most likely) a combination of both. Donne was set on a career at court, and the right faith was a prerequisite, along with intelligence, boldness, and the ability to flatter.

In a system where power was personal, flowing down from the Queen to her favorite noblemen to their protégés, a winning appearance was equally important. A portrait painted in his early twenties shows Donne as the perfect courtier; his pencil-thin mustache, Rundell writes, reveals “a man who understands that even facial hair has to it an element of performance.”

Writing poetry was another part of that performance. In later literary eras, the poet came to be thought of as a solitary figure communing with his soul. “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills,” Wordsworth wrote. For the Elizabethans, however, poetry was a social art. Gentlemen often wrote poems to win over a lover or a patron, and a number of figures known in their lifetimes as diplomats or soldiers would be surprised to learn that they are remembered solely for their poetry.

“Got to go—my mom jeans and dad jeans are here.”

Cartoon by Edward Koren

Donne’s poems were written to be passed hand to hand. Manuscript copies from his lifetime are still being discovered. This intimacy helps to explain one of their most recognizable features: the casually forceful first lines that seem to reach out and shake you by the shoulder. “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love,” Donne demands in “The Canonization”; “Busy old fool, unruly Sun,” he chides in “The Sun Rising.” He’s no more polite toward himself. “I am two fools, I know / For loving, and for saying so / In whining poetry,” begins “The Triple Fool.”

Once Donne has your attention, he’s unafraid to make demands on it. Another of his favorite techniques is the “conceit,” a complex extended metaphor. Ordinarily, poetic comparisons are brief and easy to grasp. “My love is like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June,” Robert Burns wrote. Donne’s classic poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” in contrast, takes twelve lines to explain why parting lovers are like the two legs of a pair of compasses, observing:

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Donne’s conceits are often as artificial and far-fetched as this. In “The Flea,” for instance, he compares an insect that has bitten both the poet and his mistress to their “marriage bed,” because their blood mingles inside it. But the metaphors aren’t merely virtuosic; in elaborating them, he discovers surprising new aspects of his subject. “The Ecstasy” begins by likening the reclining poet and his lover to a pillow on a bed, then to a violet drooping on a riverbank. Their clasped hands are cemented together by a balm; their eyes are threaded together on a string. These inanimate comparisons are undeniably weird—the kind of thing Samuel Johnson had in mind when he complained about images “yoked by violence together.”

The uncanniness is deliberate. Donne turns the lovers’ bodies into objects to emphasize that their souls have escaped and are now merging in the air to create a new, joint soul. (“Ecstasy,” he counts on the reader to know, comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which literally means “standing outside oneself.”) As Donne explains:

When love with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.

When lovers come together, in other words, they form a new being free from “defects” such as maleness and femaleness. But that isn’t the end of the poem’s chain of reasoning. After achieving this ecstasy, Donne urges, the lovers should return to their gendered bodies so they can reënact their spiritual union on the physical plane. Love without sex would be invisible, and therefore incomplete:

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

“The Ecstasy” can be read as a seduction poem that takes a long detour to reach the customary plea—“Sleep with me.” It can also be read as a theoretical statement about the bisexuality of the spirit, in the tradition of Plato’s Symposium. Above all, however, it is the poetic equivalent of a gymnast’s floor routine: a demonstration of literary agility, as Donne leaps from idea to image and back without ever putting a foot wrong. Shakespeare, Donne’s contemporary, amazes us by making great verse seem so easy to write, as if it simply spoke itself. Donne amazes us by making it look almost impossibly hard.

Even so, his love poems weren’t as challenging as his actual love life. After fighting in two naval expeditions against the Spanish in the mid-fifteen-nineties, Donne was offered a job as a secretary to Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper, one of the highest-ranked legal officers in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Donne moved into his employer’s London mansion, where the household included Egerton’s niece by marriage, Anne More. Soon they fell in love. “Something in her face or manner bludgeoned John Donne in the heart,” Rundell writes in a typically vigorous metaphor.

Anne was around fourteen and Donne was in his late twenties, but that wasn’t why the affair had to be clandestine—such an age difference wasn’t unusual for the time. A more serious obstacle was the imbalance in wealth and social status. Anne’s father hoped she would marry into a titled family, and would never have considered the middle-class Donne as a suitor. So the couple presented him with a fait accompli: in 1601, after four years of courtship, they were secretly married by a priest who was Donne’s friend.

It was a gambit straight out of “Romeo and Juliet,” and, while it didn’t end quite as badly, the lovers paid a high price. When Anne’s father found out about the marriage, he had Donne fired and thrown in jail. The poet was soon released and eventually won his father-in-law’s grudging acceptance of the marriage, but the damage to Donne’s professional standing was irreparable. He had betrayed his employer’s trust, and no one was willing to take the risk of hiring him again. The couple moved out of London and endured years of poverty as their family grew. His career in government was over before it had really begun.

It took Donne a very long time to reconcile himself to the fact. Not until 1615 did he finally give up his secular ambitions and take holy orders, at the suggestion of King James I and some high-ranking churchmen. The sequence of events leaves the distinct impression that, for Donne, the priesthood was less a calling than a consolation prize. Rundell compares the deanship of St. Paul’s to a piñata: “hit it, and perks and favours and new connections came pouring out.”

Izaak Walton’s biography worked hard to combat this mercenary interpretation, finding precedents for Donne’s reluctance to become a priest in Moses, who resisted God’s call out of humility, and St. Augustine, who had to overcome inner “strifes” before he converted to Christianity. Once Donne was ordained, Walton insists, he became a different man: “Now he had a new calling, new thoughts, and a new employment for his wit and eloquence. Now all his earthly affections were changed into divine love.”

But the intellectual restlessness and addiction to metaphor that made Donne a great love poet are just as evident in his religious verse and his sermons. The continuity comes into sharp focus in one of his favorite puns—his own name, which sounds like “done,” and in an age of variable orthography could be spelled the same way.

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