John Donne was an English poet, cleric and politician of the late 1500s and early 1600s. His poetry is still considered a leading example of the metaphysical poets – poets who significantly influenced the forms and possibilities of poetry for hundreds of years. I might go so far as to argue that the metaphysical poets’ laid foundations which we benefit from today, four hundred years later – whether modern poets themselves are aware of it or not.
What continues to surprise me is the fresh and clear voice which Donne managed to establish. I usually expect poetry of a different age to be relatively anonymous and distant. But Donne carved out a character. The character was often more than a bit whiny, manipulative and irritating…but a character nonetheless. Consider these lines from The Apparition,
When by thy scorn, oh murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to my bed
The lines are consciously petulant, creepy and malicious. But, as I’ve already stressed, the voice is not anonymous – Donne was able to uniquely willing to cast an unflattering picture of himself and achieved a unique voice in the doig. The balance of that poem is creepily, impotently humorous. Donne makes it clear that he was aware of the character he displayed in his poetry in The Triple Fool
I am two fools I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry
An art as frequently self-serious, earnest and idealistic as poetry doesn’t (or perhaps more pointedly, didn’t) often leave room for the kind self-contempt that Donne lays out. His direct voice and unexpected, unique tone makes Donne believable. Even, perhaps, when he shouldn’t be. His startling, abrupt approach should be suspicious. I view the narrator of the poems as real, and often untrustworthy. He’s an effective communicator with some smooth lines (any smooth-lined communicator deserves a certain amount of sensible skepticism, right?)….Sonnet 10
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so
Wow. Tell me more, John! What a magnificent way to draw the reader in. In contrast to his more petulant voice, here Donne is taking a much stronger and braver stand. Still that directness is there. How about The Undertaking
I have done one braver thing
Than all the worries did
Oh, yes and what was it? Donne was great with opening lines that draw you into wherever he’s going. A handy skill for a cleric or poet of any age, I imagine. One of the greatest challenges at any time is to just be heard. Now, In the year 2016, public discourse was never as freely available nor as equitably distributed and yet it is extremely common to hear people speak of not being heard. And some of the clearest voices, the voices who are heard the most have that ability to grasp attention quickly and wholly. Four hundred years after Donne lived, a lesson to be learned is to get a lot of punch right off the starting line – and to have a different voice.
A few more examples:
For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love. (The Canonization)
Now thou hast loved me one whole day (Woman’s Constancy)
When I am dead, and doctors know not why (The Damp)
As a study of poetry in English, Donne remains a worthy subject. And on that point, it must be clear that an effective example of the form need not always be one with whom you agree. Any poets should be thrilled to think that their work might be recalled four hundred years after their death – that their words were still able to impress a reader with individuality and presence.