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About this book

John Donne's poems are some of the most challenging and stimulating in the English literary heritage. This book looks at the entire range of his poetic output, from the erotic to the divine, from satires to sonnets. Through detailed analysis of a large number of individual poems, Donne's intellectual vitality and unique poetic voice is entertainingly explored. The practical techniques are explained clearly, and when applied to the work of other poets, will enable the reader to feel confident in understanding and discussing even the most demanding verse.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
John Donne was born some time between January and June 1572. Before we begin to study his poetry, it will be helpful to us to be aware of a few crucial features of his time and his own life.
Joe Nutt

Analysing John Donne’s Poetry

Frontmatter

1. Elegies and Lust

Abstract
In this chapter we will look at a number of poems which exhibit an uninhibited, imaginative pursuit of sexual experience. The following elegy, To his Mistris going to Bed, was considered indecent enough to be omitted from the first printed edition of his poetry after his death, but manuscript evidence places it firmly before 1599 so we can ascribe it to Donne’s early twenties. For ease of use as we begin our study, it is quoted in full.
Joe Nutt

2. Satire

Abstract
A number Donne’s poems are formally titled Satyres, although in this chapter we are not going to restrict ourselves to them. Many other poems freely employ satire and this should not surprise us given that Donne was an ambitious young man, restrained by his religion inside circles he could not quite break until he turned his back on his Catholic faith and embraced the Church of England. The poetic satire was a recognised method to draw attention to oneself. Circulated in manuscript amongst friends and potentially useful acquaintances, it was often the means to further a court career. Donne employed it in this way, and the Satyres themselves belong to the period of his twenties when he was at Lincoln’s Inn and eager to find a place in the world. They are his earliest poems and exhibit clear signs of frustrated energy and ambition. Satire is naturally the preferred method of the young. It is easier to expose folly in others when one has had precious little time for folly of one’s own. The first poem we will look at under the satire mantle is the Song, ‘Goe, and catche a falling starre’, which is quoted in full. Its relative simplicity and brevity make it easier to deal with than the formal Satyres, and so a more encouraging place to begin.
Joe Nutt

3. The Intensity of Love

Abstract
A cursory glance through Donne’s Songs and Sonnets would convince most novices that Donne is a love poet. Poem after poem dives in with the word and several use it openly in the title.: Loves Usury, Lovers Infinitenesse, Loves Growth, Loves Alchemie, Loves Deitie. Yet, as we have already discovered, Donne is no Petrarch or Dante, persistently adoring a Laura or a Beatrice. The experience of love fascinates him, and stimulates him to engage with it in a variety of forms. The conventional eulogy, the poem which sets out to adore or worship the woman by praising her, is one Donne rarely attempts. And as we have seen in Elegie XIX, To his Mistris going to Bed, even when he does so, he is incapable of settling for mere physical beauty, and we end up no wiser about her looks or character than we began.
Joe Nutt

4. Confusion and Doubt

Abstract
Some writers on Donne have made much of the unstable and shifting nature of his verse. John Carey describes him as ‘fiercely schizoid’1 and any analysis of his work which did not take into account those poems which overtly exhibit this tendency would be failing its readers. In this chapter we will be analysing some of those poems and trying to cope with their unsettling effects. In many of them what we find is Donne openly grappling with the ideas himself. Perhaps one of his strongest and most hotly disputed qualities is this readiness to admit his own confusion, and to include it in his verse. It is, after all, far easier to walk away from confusion than confront it with hard thinking. Donne not only acknowledges difficult thought, he articulates it. The Prohibition is a valuable place to start this chapter because it is so self-consciously puzzling and confusing. Even the wording and structural use of repetition challenges the reader to keep up. It is reproduced below.
Joe Nutt

5. The Poet and Mortality

Abstract
That death figures excessively in Donne’s poetry is undeniable. No other English poet comes close in this respect. Even Thomas Hardy, whose vast poetic output is often criticised for its gloominess, exhibits nothing like Donne’s fascination with death. His writing is permeated with images and ideas about death, and from his prose works and letters we know he suffered serious bouts of depression which led him to feel suicidal on occasions. In one letter to his friend Sir Henry Goodyer, he admits that suicide attracted him even when his prospects looked good and he was uninfluenced by tragic events. He wrote the first defence of suicide to be published in English, Biathanatos, and this passage from it gives us a taste of how seriously he regarded his own susceptibility. Referring to the attempted suicide of a contemporary theologian, Donne confesses:
I have often such a sickely inclination. And whether it be, because I had my first breeding and conversation with men of a suppressed and afflicted Religion, accustomed to the despite of death, and hungry of imagin’d Martyrdome; Or that the common Enemie finde that doore worst locked against him in mee, Or that there be a perplexitie and flexibilitie in the docrine it selfe; Or because my Conscience ever assures me, that no rebellious grudging at Gods gifts, nor other sinfull concurrence accompanies these thoughts in me, or that a brave scorn, or that a faint cowardliness beget it, whensoever any affliction assailes me, mee thinkes I have the keyes of my prison in mine owne hand, and no remedy presents it selfe so soone to my heart, as mine own sword.1
Joe Nutt

6. From Secular to Divine

Abstract
Donne’s poetry has, in the past, been the object of censorious editors and critics. The simple truth that he wrote a large number of poems dedicated to the worldly experience of men pursuing women, yet as many entirely set on the divine, has frustrated and annoyed many earlier readers who frequently ignored one or the other in their confusion. We live in a less censorious age, but the dichotomy is one the twentieth century has been every bit as eager to demolish. It is not hard for us, in our post-Freudwinian heaven, to see that a man can write about love and God, and indeed seek both. Yet the tradition still persists that, in some odd way, the John Donne who wrote the love poetry had to become a different, chastened individual for him to write the divine poetry. His ordination is already neatly in place to act as the perfect explanation, as though after it he somehow became, not only obsessed with eschatological thought (concern for the fate of one’s soul) but celibate into the bargain.
Joe Nutt

7. Divine Poetry

Abstract
In this final chapter of analysis we will examine some of the poems which have won Donne a reputation as a religious poet second only to Milton. The history of the term ‘Metaphysical’ when applied to Donne is dealt with in Part II of this book, but the term seems apt even without that critical history, since Donne is unique amongst English poets for the sincerity and depth with which he contemplates his relationship with his God and the universe. We might even be surprised when we reflect that, in the entire canon of English poetry, no other poet shows such concern for the state of his spiritual health. Whether we conclude this says more about Donne than it does about English poets is a matter for much broader critical debate.
Joe Nutt

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

8. John Donne’s Life and Works

Abstract
Both Donne’s parents were Catholics. His father was a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City, and was one of those influential Catholics who managed somehow to avoid government attention. His mother was the youngest daughter of the poet and playwright John Heywood, and Heywood’s wife was the niece of Sir Thomas More. As a young, ambitious, well-connected young man, living with others of his kind in Lincoln’s Inn, fresh from university where his faith had meant he was forbidden to graduate, John Donne none the less had access to the very heart of Elizabethan culture and power. He travelled, although precisely when and where are subject to dispute, although we do know that he fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz, famously witnessing the destruction of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe, and her crew in the burning seas. By the age of 25 he had all the gifts and experience necessary for a stunning diplomatic career, and this appears to have been what he wished for himself when he was appointed chief secretary to Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. It was a privileged position, one which gave him knowledge of the central political events of the time. Donne was established at Sir Thomas’s London home, York House, close to the Palace at Whitehall where he worked, and which was at the time the most influential social site in Europe. But the glittering career failed to materialise because, while living at York House, Donne fell in love with one of its occupants, Sir Thomas’s niece, Anne More, the daughter of Sir George More whose seat was Loseley Park near Guildford.
Joe Nutt

9. The Critical History

Abstract
In 1633, two years after his death, a small volume of Donne’s poetry was printed and it was enough to take him out of the coterie he had been confined to all his adult life. Although in the subsequent years, his poetry was undervalued compared to Cowley’s imitations of him, Donne influenced a number of poets sufficiently for the term ‘Metaphysical school’ to have arisen. But not until Coleridge championed him in the early eighteenth century, and later Browning, did his unique qualities begin to be fully appreciated. The Victorians also prized him for his prose, especially his sermons, but it was T.S. Eliot who, in the early years of the twentieth century, injected the critical impetus needed to push Donne to the front rank as an English poet. Sir Herbert Grierson published the first authoritative edition of Donne’s entire poetical output in 1912, and it remains the definitive edition, although the steady rise in Donne’s popularity has fuelled new editions and collections. In this chapter we will look at that critical history and bring it absolutely up to date.
Joe Nutt

10. Contemporary Critical Views

Abstract
In any critical overview of recent work on Donne, it would be impossible to ignore John Carey’s provocative book, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, which draws heavily on history, biographical material and psychology to explore Donne’s mind. In it he uses paradox and Donne’s love of it to reconcile the two traditional faces of the poet: love poet and religious supplicant. Carey offers some detailed analyses of a number of key poems and continually provides stimulating observations, but they tend to be overwhelmed by his handling of Donne’s life and interests which combine to create the impression that the study is more interested in the poet than the poetry. Yet it has to be said that readers of Donne commonly find themselves drawn into a fascination with their sense of the poet’s identity which the poetry itself stimulates, and so Carey’s emphasis is in a way not surprising at all.
Joe Nutt
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