John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility

By Dennis Flynn | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION:
PORTRAIT OF A SWORDSMAN

JOHN DONNE'S earliest portrait, comparatively accessible to its primary audience, requires us to recover intimations it silently assumes are common knowledge. The original portrait was the work of Nicholas Hilliard or Isaac Oliver, artists patronized by the Elizabethan Court. Like other Tudor portrait miniatures, it was artfully contrived to express a mute but poetic and intimate message about its courtly subject—a message that, although not immediately obvious, will speak volumes when at length discerned. Image and motto complement and explicate each other. Each can be fully perceived in little space or time. And yet they remain a puzzle to be solved. The present study attempts, through recovered facts and reasonable conjectures, to shape a probable (not certain) solution to this puzzle.

Donne's first biographer, Izaak Walton, by 1675 in his distracted way already unaware of the portrait's intimations, recalls:

I have seen one Picture of him, drawn by a curious hand at his age of eighteen; with his sword and what other adornments might then suit with the present fashions of youth, and the giddy gayeties of that age: and his Motto then was,

How much shall I be chang'd,
Before I am chang'd.
1

Apart from William Marshall's frontispiece engraving of the lost miniature (see fig. I), Walton's interpretation is our only eye-witness account of the original. However, Donne's appearance in the engraved portrait diverges considerably from Walton's description. For one thing, the sword does not seem to be worn merely as an adornment of gay fashion; rather as an emblem of honor, it is held up by its hilt in the foreground

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