John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit
By David L Edwards
CONTINUUM pounds 25
When the grim reaper came calling for John Donne, Dean of St Paul's, on 31 March 1631, he must have been miffed to find himself upstaged by his victim, who had spent most of his life rehearsing for their rendezvous. "I runne to death, and death meets me as fast," he had written with amorous relish, two decades before the event. Once he knew that the real thing was only days away, he posed for a portrait of himself in his shroud, took leave of his friends, and retired to his deathbed to close his own eyes and compose himself for his supreme performance.
Death was the last of the mighty antagonists Donne subdued through self- dramatisation. Love, notoriously, was the first. Armed with "a naked thinking heart" and the "masculine perswasive force" of his verse, he conquered the empire of desire and taught its citizens his seductive tongue. No English poet before Donne had written with such fierce honesty and eloquence about "the queasie paine / Of being belov'd, and loving", and every English love poet since Donne has written in his shadow.
In poem after poem, whether pious or profane, he stalks the stage of his "ridling, perplexed, labyrinthical soule", revelling in its idiosyncrasy. Not a few readers have found Donne's swaggering egotism too much to stomach and dismissed him as a glib poseur. But the fact remains that, unlike his dull detractors, Donne had a self that repaid absorption, because it contained "a little world made cunningly", an intricate epitome of the human sphere. Nor need one probe far beneath the bravado to discover a hunger for more than solipsism can supply.
That there's plenty in Donne to attract the wrath of the politically correct goes without saying. "Women are like Flyes which feed amongst us at our Table, or Fleas sucking our verie blood," he complained as a young connoisseur of "the Centrique part", without which women wouldn't matter to men at all. And the casual misogyny of the jaded rake survived Donne's ordination as an Anglican priest intact, mutating into the revulsion of the pulpit from "the Curse that lyes upon women for the transgression of the first woman, which is a painfull and dangerous child-birth".
Yet the man whose mantra was "hope not for minde in women", and who berated new mothers in his congregation for giving birth to a "barrell of dung", was the same man who had blown his secular prospects by his secret marriage to Anne More, whom he loved till the day of her premature death at 33, which left him inconsolable. He and Anne had "adventur'd equally", he recalled, and "had not one another at so cheap a rate, as that we should ever be wearye of one another." In the hard-won mutuality of his marital union he seems to have found a foretaste of the kind of love he could only imagine …