Academic journal article
By Brown, Piers
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 49, No. 1
Composition (Language Arts)--Portrayals
Composition (Language Arts)--Psychological Aspects
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning (Donne, John) (Poem)--Criticism and interpretation
Goodfriday, 1613: Riding Westward (Poem)--Criticism and interpretation
Satire One (Nonfiction work)--Criticism and interpretation
Donne, John--Criticism and interpretation
During the first decade of the seventeenth century, John Donne used letters and journeys to stitch the disparate pieces of his life together. His secret marriage to Ann More in December 1601 had led to his dismissal from the service of Sir Thomas Egerton--the Lord Keeper and Ann's uncle--and the frustration of his hopes for preferment. Donne and his wife were reduced to dependence on her relatives and forced to live in the countryside away from London--first at Pyrford, from 1602 to 1606, and later at Mitcham, from 1606 to 1610. (1) In these difficult circumstances, Donne's correspondence took on a central importance, both as the medium through which he maintained friendships and sought out patronage and as a form of imaginative escape. His letters from this period often emphasize the sites in which they were written, describing the countryside as a place of banishment or exile from which he could turn his attention only when writing to his correspondents. Donne's attempts to bridge this distance, however, were practical as well as epistolary. His search for a place and his need for company led not only to an extensive correspondence, but also to a semiperipatetic lifestyle, which divided his time between London and his family home in the country.
It is during this period that Donne first begins to mention his habit of composing while riding on horseback. (2) Perhaps surprisingly, Donne describes the interstitial space of the highway as one of his "two ordinary forges of Letters"--a site suited, like the study, to the act of composition. On the road, freed from the distracting cares of society and family, Donne could be "contracted, and inverted" into himself, and, thus, able to give his full attention to both composition and addressee. (3) His portrayal of writing on horseback draws attention to the simultaneous presence of correspondent and site of writing. In a verse letter to Sir Henry Goodyere, for instance, Donne calls up his addressee and makes him present as a riding companion, telling him.
But thus I make you keepe your promise Sir, Riding I had you, though you still staid there, And in these thoughts, although you never stirre, You came with mee to Micham, and are here. (4)
By doing so, Donne makes presence from absence and, by this imaginative exercise, succeeds in bringing his friend home with him to Mitcham, though Goodyere "staid" elsewhere and "never stirre[d]"--with the implication that the letter will stir Goodyere to emotion, and perhaps to travel, when it arrives.
The importance of the relationship between exterior place and interior mental activity in these epistolary exchanges is suggested by a letter to Sir Henry Wotton, in which Donne uses a striking, offhand metaphor to describe composition while riding. "I pray read these two problemes," he writes, "for such light flashes as these have been my hawkings in my Sorry [Surrey] journies." (5) The image of hawking offers a metaphor for the process of composition that, while it is grounded in composition on horseback, is applicable to writing carried out in other places. The metaphor functions directly as a description of the process of invention necessary to the composition of "problemes" by suggesting the perceptiveness and precision necessary to the selection of appropriate material from the wide landscape of his memory and imagination. As an image of the flight of the soul, however, it also suggests the complex set of images that Donne uses to describe the process of writing, particularly the ecstatic connection of souls that passes between correspondents. Most importantly for this essay, this image presents composition as not one, but two imbricated movements: the spiraling flight of the hawklike mind, which ranges upwards and outwards, hunting material, and its center, the riding falconer whose forward motion orders and disciplines the ranging imagination. This double movement insists upon the importance of both to Donne's poetry, both the ranging mind and the writer's bodily grounding during the process of composition. …