The Book of Sonnet Sequences

By Houston Peterson | Go to book overview
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III -- JOHN DONNE
[1573-1631]

IN THE last decade of the sixteenth century thousands of mellifluous lyrics poured from the throats of English poets while young Jack Donne, almost entirely alone, sang in caustic, jagged accents.

I sing not, siren-like, to tempt, for I
Am harsh.

As full-blooded and brilliant as the best of his contemporaries, he lacked their solid satisfaction, their general confidence. His mind was a turmoil of precocious erudition -- of the Latin fathers, Spanish mysticism, jurisprudence, and the new physics of Copernicus and Galileo. He hung impatiently between the Catholicism which he had abandoned and the Protestantism which he could not yet accept. He was a sensualist, with the saint's suspicion of the flesh. He was a scholar, desperately curious of the crude elements of life, and he sought them out with sardonic recklessness.

When he was twenty-four, Donne sailed with an English fleet to intercept the Spanish plate-ships off the Azores. During "a stupid calm" after a severe storm, he wrote to his best friend:

Whether a rotten state and hope of gain,
Or to disuse me from the queasy pain
Of being beloved and loving, or the thirst
Of honour or fair death, out-push'd me first,
I lose my end; for here, as well as I,
A desperate may live, and coward die.

On returning to England Donne became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper, and re

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