T/K : The Passion of John Donne

By Morrow, Laurie | The World and I, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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T/K : The Passion of John Donne

Morrow, Laurie, The World and I

Laurie Morrow is the host of the talk radio show True North with Laurie Morrow, heard on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1 FM, Burlington, Vermont. A former English professor, she is the president of the Vermont Association of Scholars.

Bad poets don't intend to write bad poetry. Too often, imagination, the stuff of poetry, betrays them. They build flowery castles in the air, with no foundation other than a rhyming dictionary and the yearning to convey their profound feelings to others. Although their impulses may be admirable, their efforts often are not, for it takes more than imagination to create great verse. Great poetry is founded in genuine experience, in the struggles of everyday life. Such was the case with John Donne. The events of his tumultuous life were the substance of his work.

Two passions governed Donne's life: his passion for his wife, Anne, and his passion for God. His devotion brought him both ecstasy and self-recrimination so grave that, for a time, he contemplated suicide. Through it all, his devotion was recorded in poetry as remarkable for its brilliance of intellectual play as for the passion that produced it. Donne is one of the few poets who appeals not merely to the emotions but to the intellect; both his secular and his sacred poems are intricate metaphorical puzzles fused with reasoned argument. In later years, his romantic passion was sublimated and transfigured into sermons whose religious passion and metaphor continue to move us.

Donne (sometimes spelled "Dunne," as it is pronounced) was born in 1572 to John and Elizabeth Donne, a Catholic couple who lived on Bread Street, in London. His father, a successful ironmonger, died in 1576, leaving Elizabeth with three young children. A member of a prominent family, Elizabeth was the daughter of playwright John Heywood, and the niece of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More.

Rearing children in the Roman Catholic faith was no easy thing to do in the Protestant England of Elizabeth I. At the age of eleven, Donne entered the University of Oxford. He studied there for three years, then at the University of Cambridge for the following three years. Because he was Catholic, Donne was unable to receive a degree from either institution, as doing so would have required his taking the Oath of Supremacy, an oath of loyalty to the Protestant church. Using all the money he had inherited from his father, Donne studied law at Thavies Inn (1591) and Lincoln's Inn (1592). Brilliant and charming, he believed himself fit for a distinguished future at court.

Some of Donne's brilliance found expression in poetry. It was around this time that he began circulating manuscript copies of his poems among his friends. One of the difficulties in studying Donne is that it is unusually difficult to date his poetry with any precision. It is generally believed that most of the love poetry, elegies, and early satires that would later be published as Songs and Sonnets were written before he was twenty-five. Though the subject is often love, Donne presents its every mood: desire (requited and unrequited), cynical obsession, playfulness, idyllic love, and erudite eroticism.

Early scholars read this verse as if it were autobiography, concluding that Donne was a thoroughly libertine youth. This may or may not have been the case. Certainly, he was a clever law student who loved to toy with ideas and words.

During his law school years Donne began seriously to question the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Were they really so great as to warrant dying for, or to continue to handcuff his chances of worldly success? He began considering converting to the dominant Protestant faith. Donne wrote poems, later published as Satires, in which he explored the question of religious truth. In the most famous of these, Satire III, he describes how such truth is best apprehended through quiet, but persistent, questioning:

" To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;"

"To sleep, or run wrong, is.

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