It’s that week I’ve been waiting for all semester. What, the mythical time when I have finished all my reading for class and my grading, and still have hours leftover for guiltless gardening? No, it’s John Donne week in History of Brit Lit. Could life get any better?
Which brings me to the purpose of my post. Admit it, some authors you just have a little bit of a crush on. For me it’s John Donne. To begin with, I can’t help but love how he threw away his career to elope with his wife. The fact that he spent the next several years in penury, showed signs of despondency and bitterness (he wrote a tract in support of suicide at this time), and had twelve children is a little less romantic, I agree. He apparently once commented that if one of the children died he would at least have one less mouth to feed except that he would then not be able to afford the burial costs. Again, not quite so romantic. Also his wife, after enduring all those pregnancies along with other miscarriages, died only sixteen years after they married.
Donne’s poetry, though, seems to offer everything an academic could want. It is deliberately difficult, and so rewards repeated years of reading by making you feel super-smart. And he achieves all this with comparatively little allusion to other texts, especially those pesky classical and biblical texts that pop up unannounced all over the place in British literature. I hate to echo New Critical notions about metaphysical works, but Donne is a place where you can sit back and just get on with the poetry (assuming that you know enough about Early Modern language and literary conventions, that is). Frankly, I’m just a sucker for all the classic John Donne poetic moves: the vividly realized situation; the imagery; the sense of a speaking voice; the extended argument; the surprise of the conceit. This latter makes the reader work, and therein lies the pleasure of the Donne poem: it’s like a bicep curl for your brain.
And it’s Spring, and the reverdie tells us that in Spring thoughts turn to love. Who else but Donne could describe the solipsism of love so aptly, and show so concretely the ways that love makes “one little room an everywhere,” in which “Nothing else is.” Love is a phoenix; love is a flea; love is a candle; love is a hermitage; love is a pair of compasses; love is a John Donne poem.
So here is probably everyone’s favorite John Donne poem (I should also mention that Donne rocked the big floppy hat look).
A Valediction Forbidding Mourning
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,
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 ;
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
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.
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
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,
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,
And makes me end where I begun.
So, on this spring day, which author are you a little in love with?