VI. JOHN DONNE: 1573–1631

At the Hampton Court Conference a Puritan delegate proposed a new translation of the Bible. The Bishop of London objected that existing versions were good enough; King James overruled him and ordered “special pains taken for a uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned in both universities, then reviewed by the bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by royal authority, to be read in the whole Church, and no other.”49 Sir Henry Savile and forty-six other scholars undertook the task, leaning on earlier translations by Wyclif and Tyndale, and completed it in seven years (1604–11). This “Authorized Version” became official in 1611 and began its immense influence on English life, literature, and speech. A thousand pithy phrases passed from it into the language. The adoration of the Bible, already so strong in Protestant lands, took on fresh fervor in England, raising the Puritans, then the Quakers, then the Methodists, to a knowledge and worship of the text equaled only by Moslem devotion to the Koran. The influence of the translation on English literary style was completely beneficent: it broke up the long and fanciful involutions of Elizabethan prose into sentences short and strong and clear and natural; it replaced foreign terms and constructions with racy Anglo-Saxon words and English idioms. It made a thousand mistakes in scholarship, but it transformed the noble Hebrew and the common Greek of the Testaments into the finest monument of English prose.

Two other works of distinguished prose honored the reign: Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (of which more later), and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)II—the massive matrix in which the vicar of St. Thomas’ at Oxford set his garnered fragments of theological, astrological, classical, and philosophical lore. The dons at first thought him “very merry and facete,” but later in life he became so melancholy that nothing could make him happy but the ribaldry of the bargemen on the Thames.50 To relieve his “black bile” Burton “devoured authors” supplied to him by the Bodleian Library. With these, and his manuscript, and astrology, and priestly ministrations, he passed his gloomy days and starry nights. He calculated his own horoscope, and predicted therefrom the day of his death with such accuracy that Oxford lads suspected him of having hanged himself to prove his prescience.51

He is very much alive in his book. Setting out to examine and prescribe for hypochondria, he finds digression more pleasant than his plan. With eccentric humor Rabelaisian only in its pathless wandering, he discusses everything as casually as Montaigne, peppering his pages with Latin and Greek, and genially beckoning his reader on and on to nowhere. He disclaims originality; he feels that all authorship is pilfering: “We can say nothing but what has been said; the composition and method is ours only.”52 He confesses that he knows the world only through books, and through the news that filters into Oxford:

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumors of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain … shipwrecks, piracies, and sea fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations … opinions, schisms, heresies … weddings, masquings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees … burials53

and he feels (like Thoreau) that if he reads the news of one day he may take it for granted the rest of the year, merely changing names and dates. He doubts that man progresses, yet “I will make an Utopia of mine own … in which I will freely domineer,” and he describes it in fanciful detail; actually, however, he prefers browsing at peace in his study or on the banks of the Thames to going forth to reform mankind. Meanwhile all the authors in the world bring sweetmeats to his feast. He gets clogged with quotations, becomes dismal again, and after 114 fat pages he resolves to come to grips with the causes of melancholy, which are sin, concupiscence, intemperance, demons, witches, stars, constipation, venereal excess … and its symptoms, which include “wind rumbling in the guts … sour belchings … troublesome dreams.”54 Having completed two hundred digressions, he prescribes cures for melancholy: prayer, diet, medicine, laxatives, diuretics, fresh air, exercise, games, shows, music, merry company, wine, sleep, bloodletting, baths; and then he digresses again, so that every page is a disappointment and a delight—if time would stop.

Now, in poetry, the sonneteers subside and the “metaphysical poets” come: Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, John Donne, George Herbert—who phrased with gentle grace the peace and piety of an Anglican parsonage. Samuel Johnson called them metaphysical only partly because they inclined to philosophy, theology, and argument, chiefly because they adopted—from Lyly or Góngora or the Pléiade—a style of linguistic novelties and conceits, verbal wit and involutions, classical excerpts and labored obscurities. All of which did not prevent Donne from becoming the finest poet of the age.

Like Jonson and Chapman, he overspread three reigns. Under Elizabeth he wrote of love, under James of piety, under Charles of death. Brought up a Catholic, educated by Jesuits, Oxford, and Cambridge, he knew the sting of persecution and the brooding of concealment. His brother Henry was arrested for harboring a proscribed priest, and died in jail. Sometimes John fed his melancholy on the mystical writings of St. Teresa and Luis de Granada. But by 1592 his proud young intellect had rejected the marvels of his faith, and the third decade of his life revolved around martial adventures, erotic pursuits, and skeptical philosophy.

For a time he dedicated his muse to candid promiscuity. In Elegy XVII he celebrated “Love’s sweetest part, Variety”—

How happy were our sires in ancient time,

Who held plurality of love no crime!55

In Elegy XVIII he swam “the Hellespont between the Sestos and Abydos of her breasts.” In Elegy XIX, “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” he undressed her poetically and bade her “licence my roving hands.” He mixed entomology with love and argued that since a flea, by biting both, had mingled his blood with hers, they were now married in blood and might sport in sinless ecstasy.56 Then, surfeited with surfaces, he found fault ungenerously with generous women, forgot their dated charms, and saw only the tricks they had learned in a heartless world; he flayed his Julia with a raging litany of execrations, and counseled his reader to choose a homely mate, since “love built on beauty soon as beauty dies.”57 Now, singing antistrophe to Villon, he drew up a poetic testament in which each stanza struck a blow at “love.”

He shipped with Essex in 1596, helped raid Cádiz, and shipped with him again in 1597 to the Azores and Spain. Back in England, he found a good berth as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal; but he ran away with the Lord Keeper’s niece, married her (1600), and set himself to support her with poetry. Children came as easily as rhymes; often he could not feed or clothe them; his wife’s health broke down; he wrote a defense of suicide. At last relenting, Egerton sent the family an allowance (1608), and in 1610 Sir Robert Drury gave them an apartment in his mansion in Drury Lane. A year later Sir Robert lost his only daughter, and Donne published anonymously, as an elegy for her, his first major poem, “An Anatomy of the World.” He enlarged the death of Elizabeth Drury into the decay of man and the universe:

So did the world from the first hour decay …

And new philosophy calls all in doubt.

The element of fire is quite put out;

The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to look for it.

And freely men confess that this world’s spent,

When in the Planets and the Firmament

They seek so many new, then see that this

Is crumbled out again …

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,

All just supply, and all relation.58

He mourned to see “how lame and cripple” this earth is, once the scene of divine redemption, now, in the new astronomy, a mere “suburb” of the world. In one mood he had exalted the “sacred hunger of science”; in another he wondered whether science would destroy mankind:

With new diseases on ourselves we war,

And with new Physic a worse Engine far.59

And so he turned to religion. His repeated illnesses, the ominous death of friend after friend, led him to the fear of God. Though his reason still questioned theology, he had learned to distrust reason too as but another faith, and he decided that the old creed should be accepted without further argument, if only to bring peace of mind and security of bread. In 1615 he became an Anglican priest; and now he not only preached sermons in somber and stirring prose, but composed some of the most moving religious poetry in the English language. In 1616 he was made chaplain to James I; in 1621 he became dean of St. Paul’s. He had never published the erotic lyrics of his youth, but he had allowed copies to circulate in manuscript; now he “repenteth highly,” Ben Jonson reported, “and seeketh to destroy all his poems.”60 He wrote, instead, “Holy Sonnets” and, whistling in the dark, challenged death:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou thinks’t thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me …

Our short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.61

In 1623, recovering from a serious illness, he wrote in his diary some famous lines: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”62 On the first Friday in Lent, 1631, he rose from a sickbed to preach what men were soon to call his own funeral sermon; his aides had tried to dissuade him, seeing how (said his devoted friend Izaak Walton) “his sickness had left him but so much flesh as did only cover his bones.”63Having delivered his sermon, eloquent in the confidence of resurrection, and “being full of joy that God had enabled him to perform this desired duty, he hastened to his house; out of which he never moved till… he was carried by devout men to his grave.”64 He died in the arms of his mother, who had borne patiently with his sins and lovingly with his sermons, March 31, 1631.

It was a full, tense life, running the gamut of lust and love, of doubt and decay, and ending in the warm comfort of old faith. We of today, who sleep so readily over Spenser, find ourselves startled on almost every page by this strangely fanciful realist and modern medieval soul. His verse is rough, but he wished it so; he rejected the affected graces of Elizabethan speech, and relished unworn words and arresting prosody; he liked harsh discords that could be resolved into unwonted harmonies. There was nothing trite in his verse, once he had graduated from the stews; and this man, who had polished obscenity like another Catullus, grew to such delicacy and depth of feeling and thought, such originality of phrase and sentiment, as no other poet could match, in that amazing age, but Shakespeare himself.

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