John Donne has engaged the minds of poets and literary critics for centuries, but what makes him so engaging? Is it the play and paradox of his verse, the audacity of his meter, the range of complexity with which he grapples the world around him? Whatever the case, Donne has proven to be a complex character. From his Songs and Sonnets to his Holy Sonnets, his verse reaches deep in its exploration of the erotic psyche and shakes the heavens in its demand for deliverance. Eroticism and deliverance as they coincide with death are perhaps two of the most interesting elements we discover in Donne. Though it is well-known that Donne was obsessed with death throughout his life, the change in his response to death from his youth to later years is fascinating.
The son of a wealthy merchant, Donne frittered away his youth molesting and mastering a variety of Petrarchan, Platonic, and overtly Ovidian modes as he furiously scribbled away strings of sensual Songs and Sonnets; but when adult life slapped him in the face, Donne was forced to contend with a cruel world. The world was changing and with it Donne. His short military stint taught him to dislike the sea. His father-in-law's response to his secret engagement to Ann taught him to fear his father-in-law, lament a shattered career, and despise the Court, which he could never court. And finally, his continual encounters with death taught him to dread his own demise. These events and more incinerated the dross of his own "youths ranke lustinesse" (24); and though he most certainly felt that he could not "long beare this torturing wrong" (18), life had made him "deaths herald, and champion" (2) to "aske abundance of [God's] grace" (11). With "despaire behind, and death before" (6), Donne was a changed man.
These changes influenced Donne's attitude toward death, an attitude reflected in his poetry; but how, and in what ways? What is the change in his response to death between his Songs and Sonnets and his Holy Sonnets, and what does this change attempt to communicate to us? These are the questions that this essay will seek to answer. However, it must be remembered that this essay does not provide an exhaustive analysis of all Donne's work as it does not touch on every strand of poetry that he wrote, nor could it, to allow its case. Such a work is too large in scope to satisfy the constraints of this essay; and as a result, this analysis will undoubtedly leave out many important and interesting details that make up the complex individual that we know Donne to be; but this essay will open up a handful of poems in the Songs and Sonnets as well as the Holy Sonnets (all of which are taken from the acclaimed anthology of John Donne, The Complete English Poems compiled by C.A. Patrides) as a sample of the change in Donne that I suggest occurred.
In "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, / Being the shortest day," Donne adopts the persona of St. Lucy. The poem begins with the day's midnight, the dead of winter, or the shortest day of the year according to the calendar used in Donne's time, in which Lucy "scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes" (2). The sun in its weak arch over the southern horizon slips from sight. Darkness enshrouds us, and "the worlds whole sap is sunke" (5).
This leaves us questioning: why this scene? Why would Donne choose to place both himself and his reader in this moment? Of any poem he could write, he writes this one. What does it tell us about Donne? How does it reflect on him? St. Lucy's soul has departed her body and while all other things seem to laugh, Lucy is the "epitaph" of a shrunken life. Why? In answer, Lucy says: "study me then, you who shall lovers bee... /...For I am every dead thing, / In whom love wrought new Alchimie" (10; 12-13). Why is she every dead thing? What did love do to her? She continues with a cry of "emptinesse / He ruin'd mee, and I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness" (16-18) and that all too familiar word "death; things which are not" (18). Note here Donne's insistence, his focus on the negativity of death. The voice then changes at line twenty-eight. It is the voice of a man, a man who questions himself: "Were I a man, that I were one" (30). The sorrow in his voice is evident, almost unbearable, unbearable to the point that he would prefer he "were any beast" (32); and he continues by saying that he is less than nothing. Not any ordinary nothing: less than nothing, without "shadow," "light," or "body" (36). What could have caused the speaker to feel this way?
Thus follows the return to "you lovers" (38) to whom Donne whispers: "Enjoy your summer all" (41), enjoy it while you have it, because death, sorrow, despair, and nothingness, the dead of winter, the "dayes deep midnight" (45) will be your end. Donne's message is deep, which brings us back to the opening point. Why this scene? What does it tell us about Donne that he chose to wallow in this feeling? Donne focused on this feeling because it was something he had experienced. From these lines, we find that he had experienced the effulgent sexual recklessness of rank youth, and he had to spill his feelings about it; and by St. Lucy's warning to new lovers, he warns us of the feelings attended by unchecked sexual immorality. So why not tell us his feelings through a poem about himself? Why the persona? To that I reply, would you? Would any of us openly raise our hand and shout: I did it! I did the girl down the street! And now I feel like a heap of horse turds because of it!? No.
Exactly how much, or for that matter how many, Donne did, we don't know. Perhaps he merely skulked in a corner with his paper and pencil and scribbled dirty little fantasies. Consider both Donne's thought and voice in "The Expiration." Never a more rank scribbling of dirty matter splattered the page: "So, so break off this last lamenting kisse," Donne stutters,
Goe; and if that word have not quite kil'd thee,
Ease mee with death, by bidding mee goe too.
Oh, if it have, let my word worke on mee,
And a just office on a murderer doe.
Except it be too late, to kill me so,
Being double dead, going, and bidding, goe. (7-12)
May I politely draw our attention to his words: "...let my word worke on mee" (9, italics mine). One can only imagine. In this poem, Donne achieves nothing less than self-adulterated delight in the sexual insinuation of such words as "goe" (7), "kill" (11), "murderer" (10), and "death" (8). It would seem young Donne couldn't get enough of his own imagination. In any case, young Donne was by all means, for lack of better words, a dork; and I say that with all due respect, while at the same time, I don't. Sometimes, I want to seize Donne by his lapels and shout in his face: get your head out from under your lovers' bloomers! Can you, please! What is with you? At other times, I want to shake him and shout: you're a genius!
I said Donne was a complex character. Donne is a complex character, on the surface; but dig into Donne's love poems and we find nothing of any significant value, at least nothing of any worthwhile weight in matters of importance. C.S. Lewis writes, "I can see only one answer: that its interest, save for a mind specially predisposed in its favor, must be short-lived and superficial, though intense. Paradoxical as it may seem, Donne's poetry is too simple to satisfy. Its complexity is all on the surface-an intellectual and fully conscious complexity that we soon come to the end of" (Lewis 96). Others may have a different opinion, but it stands to reason that anyone who would write such indecorous lines as young Donne, let alone circulate them, would feel as much a sense of deep shame, pain, and grief as did Donne.
His shame, pain, and grief gush from the memorable lines of "The triple Foole" in which Donne himself affirms: "I am two fooles, I know, / For loving, and for saying so / In whining Poetry" (1-3). Donne says it all. In saying so, he questions himself and ultimately pins himself with guilt when he claps the page with the heavy pentameter line following a swift trimeter: "But where's that wiseman, that would not be I" (4). Both the length and placement of this line stress the thought; and by it, Donne gouges himself gloriously. The poem then continues with his egregious personal expressions of the trauma of love and all of its bodily pleasures. In the poem's twenty-two lines, "fetters" are once-mentioned, "paines" twice-mentioned, and "griefe" thrice-mentioned. Again, Donne gouges himself.
This self-gouging smacks of personal experience, of tampering with illicit sex acts and the torment that follows. Intending, as he claims, only to fetter his grief in verse, his emotional wounds are opened anew as "Some man, his art and voice to show, / Doth Set and sing my paine, / And, by delighting many, frees againe / Grief..." (13-16). If I could slap young Donne on the back and squeeze his shoulder and say: well, then, you shouldn't have written your dirty little poems, I would; but I can't, circumstances being as they are, so many hundreds of years packed between us. Accounting for his tone, I do admit that he engages my sense of empathy, slightly. It's as if Donne was in some hidden way crying out for someone, anyone, to raise him from his deplorable state. As we move into his Holy Sonnets, we will see this attitude even stronger in Donne; but for the present, as for young Donne, it is a faint, desperate cry.
Donald L. Guss asserts that Donne had a love theory. What is that love theory we might ask? According to Guss, "There are, then, three aspects of Donne's purely sexual poems which are of primary significance: their promiscuity; their abstract, naturalistic arguments; and their insistence that Donne is without illusion" (Guss 148). So what else is new? Guss continues, "Virtually all Donne's love poems share with these their acceptance of sex..." (I think we can all agree with that. Is it any wonder, then, that Donne was so full of sorrow? Excuse me. Guss was saying-) "...their abstract reasoning, their naturalistic bias, and their attempt at honest self-knowledge" (149).
Guss sums it up nicely. Thanks, Guss. In fact, Guss sums it up so nicely that we are again left wondering. Donne was so accepting of "sex" and "abstract reasoning" and "bias" and "self-knowledge" that he sorrowed to the point of death. No less than seventy-two times throughout the Songs and Sonnets do the words sigh, cry, pain, grief, and shame appear-eighty-three if you count his inclusion of fear-pulling ahead of the word death, which appears a whopping seventy-one times, by one or twelve whichever way you look at it.
So, why death? Why Donne's fixation with this subject? We know that he was surrounded by death. He experienced it on every hand. He was well-acquainted with it. On this subject, John Carey has a thought worth mentioning. According to Carey:
Donne was never more paradoxical than in his preoccupation with death. On the one hand, he felt drawn to suicide, and this morbid inclination shows itself in a number of his poems. On the other hand, he was so repelled by death and its nothingness, that he persistently and ingeniously animates it in his art, and loves to talk in his sermons as if he will be one of the few mortals exempt from dying....This superiority to death struck him, above all else, as a personal affront." (Carey 230)
Odd, I say. Why should death be a "personal affront?" What did Donne have to fear by death? Did he fear death? Ramie Targoff briefly confirms Donne's fear of death, referencing "A Valediction forbidding mourning," by saying, "The fear in this poem is not that death will make separation permanent. This is surely a fear that plagues Donne, and we have seen its expression on other occasions in the Songs and Sonnets..." (Targoff 72). Young Donne feared death of that we can be certain. But why? Carey continues:
The question most of us want to ask about death-Is it going to hurt?-never seems to have bothered him. It would have been beneath his dignity to worry about pain. Death was an insult to his ego. It threatened to turn him into an inanimate object. He refused to succumb to it passively, in art as in life.. He could tolerate any form of death, so long as it allowed him to remain alive. (Carey 230)
While I agree that Donne refused to succumb to death passively, I argue that it was not beneath his dignity to worry about pain. Why his relentless desire to "remain alive"? Donne quibbled over pain. He whined about it in his Songs and Sonnets so incessantly that I find Carey's statement ambitious in the extreme-"beneath his dignity to worry about pain." Listen to Donne's own voice in the matter. He says: "I thought, if I could draw my paines, / Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay" (8-9); but, as he later admits, "Both [love and grief] are increased by such songs." Someone might say, well, yes, but Donne was only speaking of the pain of love in that passage.
To that I reply, true; but it was still pain that he burbled over. Donne's cry of pain in love was his fear of pain in death, his fear of death itself. Love. Death. They were nearly inseparable to Donne. I suggest that any man who snivels at pain the way young Donne did only proves that he is not man enough for death. Death was a threat to Donne on account of pain. But it remains to clarify what kind of pain we are discussing here. Pain of physical death or pain of lasting shame for un-repented of sin at death? Perhaps for Donne it was both. Certainly, it was the latter. Young Donne presents a classic reminder of the debilitating effects bred in the human body as well as the mind by overt or covert (take your pick) unchecked sexual immorality. Yet again, someone might say, well, yes, but Carey was speaking of old Donne, Doctor Donne.
While it is true that Carey was wrestling to explain Donne's fixation with death in his later years, and while I agree that Donne did gain confidence over death, I adjure that Carey's premise-"Death was an insult to his ego" (230)-is inconsistent with Donne's character. Carey claims that Donne didn't fear pain, but he did fear pain. He complained of it as a youth, and he complained of it in his later years as a result of his "feeble flesh" (7). Pain. Shame. Grief. Sighs. Tears. They were everything to Donne. Donne was a torn man. It was because of his unchecked sexual immorality that he fretted at death, that death was such a negative subject to him in the subtext of his own life.
Donne's words throb in our ears in " Twicknam Garden ": "Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears" (1), and in "The Flea": "It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee" (3), and in "Loves Exchange":
Love, any devil else but you,
Would for a given Soule give something too.
Kill, and dissect me, Love; for this
Torture against thine owne end is." (1-2; 40-41)
And in "The Paradox": "Once I lov'd and dyed; and am now become / Mine Epitaph and Tombe. / Love-slaine, loe, here, I dye" (17-18, 20), and at last we approach "Farewell to love."
In "Farewell to love," we hear young Donne's despair of unchecked sexual immorality perhaps more clearly than in any other poem. In this poem, we detect the voice of awareness and remorse as Donne declares:
Whilst yet to prove,
I thought there was some Deitie in love
So did I reverence, and gave
Worship, as Atheists at their dying houre
Call, what they cannot name, an unknown power,
As ignorantly did I crave:
Things not yet knowne are coveted by men,
Our desires give them fashion...
...then the thing which lovers so
Blindly admire, and with such worship woo;
Being had, enjoying it decayes:
What before pleas'd them all, takes but one sense,
And that so lamely, as it leaves behind
A kinde of sorrowing dulnesse to the mind...
...Since so, my minde
Shall not desire what no man else can finde,
I'll no more dote and runne
To pursue things which had indammag'd me. (Lines 1-9; 14-20; 31-34)
This last poem stands for itself. It need hardly be said that Donne was plagued with "a kinde of sorrowing dulnesse to the mind" (20) and that he fixated on the idea of those "things which had indammag'd" (34) him. It is written for all to see. It was because of that aching within himself that young Donne felt compelled to commit it to verse, although not directly as we see his emotions associated with unchecked sexual immorality disguised by the dramatic difficulties between lovers.
Now that I have divested Donne's youthful character of moral stature to a limited extent, sufficient to demonstrate my point, my digression of Donne comes to an end. I will attempt to show the change in Donne between his youth and later years. His fixation with death continues, even spikes; however, it is his response to death that most interests me. I have attempted to demonstrate-how well is a matter of the reader's judgment-that when Donne defied sin and delighted in the sexual implication of death throughout his Songs and Sonnets, death was attended by a deep sense of anguish, sighs and tears, as well as shame, pain, grief, and fear. As I move forward, I will attempt to demonstrate that when Donne recognized his sinful state and the need for correction, though he first feared death, ultimately, he developed a sense of confidence over it, even defied it. For a second voice on the issue, Helen Gardner informs us that "the absence of ecstasy makes his [Donne's] Divine Poems so different from his love poems. There is an ecstasy of joy and an ecstasy of grief in his love-poetry; in his divine poetry we are conscious almost always of an effort of will" ( Gardner 134, brackets mine).
Will. That is a strong word. So what was this "effort of will" composed of? The will to live? The will to die? Donne willed both: to die and to live. The paradox in his will stems from a will to repent and come unto God and his Christ. In Donne's Divine Poems, we hear the voice of a man imploring God's grace in Holy Sonnets IV and V: "Drown my world with my weeping earnestly" (8), "yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke" (9). According to Gardner, "...The Divine Poems are not the record of discoveries, but of struggles to appropriate a truth which has been revealed..., [Donne] gives us a poetry whose intensity is a moral intensity....The image which dominates his divine poetry is the image of Christ as Savior, the victor over sin and death" (Gardner 134, brackets mine).
In Holy Sonnet I, Donne asks why God would let him rot in sin and death when he is one of God's creations, and it would seem that he shakes the heavens as he begs his maker: "Repaire me now" (2), for he is terrified by death while his "feeble flesh doeth waste / By sinne in it..." (7-8). Yet, it is in this poem that we first find an indication of Donne's growing confidence over death. While lines one through nine bewail sin and death, line ten suggests a startling change in attitude. It is slight, almost imperceptible, but it is there. Line ten: "By thy leave I can looke, I rise again."
Whose leave does he mention here? Christ's. As Donne immersed himself in religion, he learned "that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles" (Acts 26:23); he learned that Christ overcame sin and death; he learned that because Christ was resurrected all will be resurrected; and because of Christ's resurrection Donne's hope of surpassing the grave, of living, increased. Why else would he say by Christ's leave, or resurrection, "I rise again" if he was certain, or even believed, death was the end of life?
Donne continues: "But our old subtle foe so tempteth me" (11). Here he takes a sharp step back, recognizing the weakness of his flesh; but with renewed determination, he charges forward as if he were reaching out his hand to heaven, petitioning God to lift him above Satan's cunning and save him: "Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art, / And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart" (13-14). Donne's words are moving. At the same time, his expressions communicate something important to us. He came to realize what all of us will at one time or another that "wickedness never was happiness" ( Alma 41:10). Donne's self-awareness and transition from sin to repentance is communicated through his poetry, and we would do well to learn from his experiences rather than attempt to justify him or ourselves. Holy Sonnet VII is another earthshattering poem in which we hear the confidence in Donne's voice increase: "At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow / Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise / From death..." (1-3). We can hardly read these lines without feeling in some measure Donne's effulgent awe at the resurrection and his desire to join the angels. He ends with a pleading couplet: "Teach mee how to repent; for that's as good / As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood" (13-14).
Compared to the Songs and Sonnets, in which the word sin appears three times, the word sin appears in the Divine Poems a startling thirty-eight times. As Donne's recognition of sin increases so his association with grief, shame, pain, tears, and sighs declines from a shout at seventy-two times in the Songs and Sonnets to a whisper at twenty-three times in the Divine Poems. These shouts and whispers bring us to Donne's ultimate shout of defiance at death in Holy Sonnet X:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die. (1-14)
The power of this poem could not be better felt than by writing it out in long hand. Simply writing it out at the speed of thought and hand, we derive the sense of mighty power this poem possesses. Perhaps no other poem demonstrates the change in Donne's confidence over death as does this. Perhaps that is why this poem is so startling. Where did this come from, we ask ourselves? He seems to have given death the old one-two and beat it to the ground. When did Donne begin to feel this way about death, and what gives him so much confidence in the face of death? I assert that Holy Sonnets I and VII are a stretch in this direction, but only slightly; and then Donne slams death on the mat and tramples all over it with religious rhetoric. But is his reasoning that well-configured?
John Carey doesn't seem to think so. In Carey's words, "It is part of the strength of this poem that its argument is so weak" (Carey 199). Interesting, Carey. What makes you say that? According to Carey, "The speaker is plainly trying to convince himself, and failing so badly that he cannot even decide whether he wants to say sleep is better than death or vice versa" (199). Is that it then? That's how Donne fails to make his point? Do we detect a sense of bitterness in Carey's voice here, a sense of the stunned, shocked, and appalled that any Christian would dare slam death to the ground with an astounding hope in the resurrection of Christ? Carey's anger merely proves that Donne made a pretty strong dent in the armor of the self-lauding ignorant. Donne doesn't argue anything. Donne states his confidence over death with a ring of finality that is wholly and irrevocably undeniable by the world. In Christ, Donne achieved hope and confidence over death, and no amount of vehement backlash from pompous intellectuals like Carey will ever change that.
Let us consider the poem on its own merits. Donne clearly declares that death has nothing of which to be proud because even those whom it thinks to overthrow will not die. How so? Death, Donne says, is merely a picture of rest and sleep; but that sleep will shortly pass, and we will wake eternally. Where is the logic in that? How is that possible? It is possible because of the resurrection of Christ. Christ overcame death and by his resurrection all will rise again, so death holds no claim over any mortal. Though that sleep be long or short-be it the first or second resurrection-all will assuredly rise with immortal bodies and live forever.
It is the resurrection to which Donne refers. His point follows this idea through perfectly. Those self-acclaimed intellectuals determined to not accept the resurrection show their ignorance and desperation as Donne clearly states, speaking of death: "And soonest our best men with thee doe goe, / ...Thou art slave to... desperate men" (7, 9). In Donne's final words and apparent conviction we read: "And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die" (14).
His personification of death is an interesting choice. Why personify death? Personifying death allows Donne to attack it not as a subject of abstraction but a subject of tangible quality. Abstraction is difficult to grasp. Scratch that. Impossible to grasp. We can't pinch abstraction by the nose. We can't pat abstraction on the cheek. It doesn't have these qualities. How else could Donne successfully uppercut death in the heavy-weight finals if death were illusive and ungrappleable? He couldn't. Donne makes death tangible by personification; and by it, he ends the existence of death in fourteen swift strokes. Consider the words Donne uses to defeat death: "poore death" (4)-Donne gives it the first smack; "slave" (9)-ouch; we wince; "poyson," "warre," "sicknesse" (10)-these are death's comrades, miserable and pitiful; "short sleepe" (13)-a blow to the ego as Donne's opponent curls to the ground; OK, so I must admit, that was kind of a low blow; "soules deliverie" (8)-Donne raises his gloves in the air as his beaten enemy expires on the mat.
So we have it. The winner: John Donne. In all of this, we have witnessed Donne's change. From young Donne's reign of unchecked sexual immorality to Doctor Donne's zealous devotion to God, we find a reformed Donne, a humbled Donne, a changed Donne. And what was the cause of this mighty change?
Life changed Donne's attitude toward death. When once he feared it, loathed it, and would that he could wish it away, he eventually embraced it with all the defiance and confidence any man could possess. Yet, someone might say, well, yes, but it is well known that Donne was never a true convert to religious principles and ideals. Arthur F. Marotti argues, "I am suspicious of any scheme that has Donne moving gradually toward a serious religious commitment (since, for example, as late as 1614 he was still vigorously pursuing secular preferment)." (Marotti 91).
Others might note Donne's sustained sexual references in the Holy Sonnets and cite them as proof he didn't reform, that he was still the same-a pervert. Well, I wouldn't go as far as calling him a pervert, but the sexual references are strong. Helen Gardner enlightens us by stating, "Some religious poetry.can be regarded as a species of love-poetry; but Donne's is not of that kind. The image of Christ as Lover appears in only two of his poems" (Gardner 136). But the sexual references are there. How then do we explain them in Donne's Holy Sonnets? Marotti has an interesting point. He says,
Because the models of sonnet sequences were basically amorous ones and because Donne's own lyrics had been love poems, he turned to the language of love and to familiar erotic conventions to express religious desire in his Holy Sonnets, enlivening and testing the rhetoric of prayer and meditation as he alluded to his own past amorous experiences. (Marotti 88)
Some might continue to argue that neither of the points that I have made-Donne, guilty of unchecked sexual immorality, feared death; but Donne, becoming a devout Christian, changed and embraced death with a confidence little known to most men-are in any way valid for two reasons: how uncertain we are about how much Donne actually engaged the ladies -true, Sir Richard Baker said that Donne was "a great visitor of Ladies" (McFarland handout); but that is in no way specific, only a generality that tickles our imaginations- and how uncertain we are about how serious Donne actually was about his religion . Some might continue by asserting that Donne was not sincere in his religious career, that in his poetry we find evidence to the contrary, that he still wanted and longed for a secular career. According to Marotti, "All the biographical evidence suggests... he was still unwilling to relinquish his aggressive pursuit of secular preferment" (Marotti 97).
I agree. These points are valid. However, even if Donne didn't frequent the ladies as often as we'd all like to imagine and even if Donne wasn't truly converted or sincere in his religious zeal, I avow that his mere association with unchecked sexual immorality in his youth gave him cause for grief and fear of death and likewise his mere association with religious principles and doctrines gave him cause for a hope in Christ and greater confidence over death. He rose from the dirt of flesh-led despair to embrace the heavens and all its welcome glory. Donne's complexity may only be on the surface, but to a large degree I give his complexity credit for the range of people that his work has touched. It is his passions that undoubtedly draw the curiosity of both the religious and irreligious. Donne had a gift for words, a gift for divulging the workings of the human mind, a gift for drawing all kinds and classes to him-those obsessed with life or death.