At ten o’clock one morning while a servant was lighting the fire, Donne wrote to his closest friend, Sir Henry Goodyer. Apparently referring to an unknown document written by himself, and enclosed with his letter, he stated that this work had been
I cannot say the weightiest, but truly … the saddest lucubration and night’s passage that ever I had. For it exercised those hours, which, with extreme danger of her, who I should hardly have abstained from recompensing for her company in this world, with accompa?nying her out of it, increased my family with a son.
The initial effect here is typical of that produced by some of Donne’s most compressed and tortuously phrased poems. At first glance we are unsure quite what is being said. Yet the lines are also representative, not simply of Donne, but of the relations between men and women during his lifetime. For the second sentence, on closer examination, refers to a particularly difficult childbirth. It is already telling that what is (to us) the most important information in the letter should be so oddly obscured. Three other implications are perhaps still more striking.