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Born into a Catholic family at a time when it was illegal to openly practice the Roman Catholic faith, John Donne is the chief figure in a group that has come to be known as the Metaphysical Poets. Donne held a series of clerical positions and enjoyed a prosperous life until he secretly married a relative of his employer. Fired from his position and imprisoned, Donne pleaded with his father-in-law not to punish him and his new wife, but to no avail. Because of his father-in-law’s influence and because of his Catholic background, Donne and his wife lived in poverty for many years until reconciled with his father-in-law.
Donne’s effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Donne began to question his faith after his brother died while in prison for harboring a Roman Catholic priest, and he continued his struggle with his religious beliefs until he renounced his Roman Catholic faith. Two works in which Donne denounced Roman Catholicism caught the attention of King James I. Donne became an Anglican clergyman at the King’s insistence, later becoming the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a prestigious and well-paying position, but one in which Donne was never completely comfortable.
John Donne(click to see video)
Also go to 1630s in the British Library’s English Language and Literature Timeline to read about John Donne.
As previously noted, John Donne is the most noted member of a group of poets known as the Metaphysical Poetspoets whose work explores subjects beyond the physical world, including spiritual matters, poets whose work explores subjects beyond the physical world, including emotional and spiritual matters. They were not recognized as a group or given that name until Samuel Johnson applied it to them in the 18th century. Their poetry shares the following characteristics:
use of literary devices
|AS virtuous men pass mildly away,|
|And whisper to their souls to go,|
|Whilst some of their sad friends do say,|
|“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”|
|So let us melt, and make no noise,||5|
|No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;|
|‘Twere profanation of our joys|
|To tell the laity our love.|
|Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;|
|Men reckon what it did, and meant ;||10|
|But trepidation of the spheres,|
|Though greater far, is innocent.|
|Dull sublunary lovers’ love|
|—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit|
|Of absence, ‘cause it doth remove||15|
|The thing which elemented it.|
|But we by a love so much refined,|
|That ourselves know not what it is,|
|Inter-assurèd of the mind,|
|Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.||20|
|Our two souls therefore, which are one,|
|Though I must go, endure not yet|
|A breach, but an expansion,|
|Like gold to aery thinness beat.|
|If they be two, they are two so||25|
|As stiff twin compasses are two ;|
|Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show|
|To move, but doth, if th’ other do.|
|And though it in the centre sit,|
|Yet, when the other far doth roam,||30|
|It leans, and hearkens after it,|
|And grows erect, as that comes home.|
|Such wilt thou be to me, who must,|
|Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;|
|Thy firmness makes my circle just,||35|
|And makes me end where I begun.|
According to tradition, this poem has an autobiographical significance: that Donne wrote the poem to comfort his wife when he was planning to be away on a business trip for an extended time.
The word valediction means farewell. It shares the same Latin root as the term valedictorian, the person who traditionally gives a “farewell to high school” speech at graduation ceremonies. The title states that this is a farewell that forbids mourning—that the speaker does not want his beloved to mourn when he leaves.
The poem begins with a vivid image: a virtuous man dying so peacefully that the friends gathered around his bed aren’t sure when his breath ceases.
The entire poem is a series of images describing the lovers’ parting:
God as Architect medieval image of a compass.
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.
But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.
In the first two lines, the speaker compares himself to a “little world” made of the physical (“elements”) and the spiritual (“sprite”). Both parts, however, have been betrayed by sin, and the speaker will therefore die both physically and spiritually. In line 5, the speaker addresses God, asking him to pour “seas” of tears into his eyes that will drown or wash away his sin. In the last six lines, the speaker, addressing God, suggests an alternative to washing away his sin: to burn his sin away. The fires of lust and envy made his soul dirty, as smoke and flames leave stains, but paradoxically God’s fire will cleanse and heal his soul.
At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dea[r]th, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space ;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that’s as good
As if Thou hadst seal’d my pardon with Thy blood.
This sonnet begins with a biblical image, angels blowing their trumpets at the four corners of the world to announce the last judgment. The speaker pictures the souls of the dead throughout the ages rising and returning to their bodies. In the next four lines, the speaker recounts numerous ways in which these souls may have met their death: flood, fire, war, dearth (famine), age, sickness, tyrants (executions by tyrants), despair (a word which in the 16th and 17th centuries suggested suicide), law (executions ordered by the legal courts), and chance (accidents). Line 7 addresses one last group of people who will hear the trumpets: those who are still alive, whose “eyes shall behold God” even though they have never experienced death. In the last six lines, the speaker asks God to let the dead sleep awhile longer. His reason for this request is that he needs time to repent.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell’st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Holy Sonnets, “Holy Sonnet X” begins with a statement to death personified, a forceful statement ordering death not to be proud. The speaker continues to address death, claiming that those death thinks it has conquered have not really died. Death, the speaker asserts, is subject to a list of causes: fate, chance, kings, suicide, poison, war, and sickness. In the last two lines, the speaker makes his final statement of victory over death. In line 2—”for thou art not so”—and in the final sentence—”Death, thou shalt die” the use of one-syllable words emphasizes the power of the words with an accent on each word.