Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Rave on, John Donne ...

John Donne's memorial at St. Paul's
If there is any rival at all for Shakespeare as the most gifted, fluid, clever, and yet substantive poet of the English Renaisance, it can be no other that John Donne. In the secular world, his racy, seductive verses positively pulsed with vivid life, and if they had been his only literary remains, his reputation would have stood nearly as high. But it is his sacred verse, sermons, and meditations, all composed after he had turned toward a religious life, that secure his ultimate reputation, and which have leant the language some of its most memorable phrases. "Ask not, for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!" Death, and its anticipation, were as great a gift to Donne as life had been; he famously posed in his funeral shroud for his own coffin's portrait, and had the lid propped up in his study at old St. Paul's cathedral, where he was Dean. The carved effigy above is based on that same portrait, and had a miraculous second life of its own: When old St. Paul's was destroyed by fire in 1666, his was the only effigy that survived intact, falling into the crypt but remaining upright. It was, of course, installed in the new St. Paul's, where it remains to this day.

Donne's poetry, along with that of his fellow "metaphysical" poets, was for some time neglected, but was salvaged by no less a fellow poet than T.S. Eliot, whose 1921 essay brought them back into high esteem. It was no coincidence that Eliot, like Donne, had had a mid-life conversion to the Anglican faith, one which at once abstracted and heightened both their spiritual dimensions. But Donne, it seems likely, was a more comfortably ribald and lively poet, pre-conversion, than the awkward Eliot ever was; part of the pleasure of his verse lies in contrasting a beautiful piffle such as "The Flea" with the sonorous sentiments of the Holy Sonnets. Along the way, we'll pause to consider "Song (‘Go and catch a falling star’)," "The Sun Rising," "Love's Alchemy," and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."


  1. I have read both and I like Shakespeare better. I don't know why. Elliot seems a bit more on the religious side. They are beautifully written but maybe not a fan of such heavy poetry. I tend to lean more towards Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson which were much later and easier for me to digest. . .

  2. While all the metaphysical poets are some of the most significant figures in English literature, none can displace Shakespeare as the ultimate author, poet, and playwright. He has penned a larger quantity of significant works than any other. However, rather than comparing all poets and authors, one should take an individual work and appreciate it for what it is, regardless of authorship.

  3. Not being a big fan of poetry, these readings from both Shakespeare and John Doe are both great insights on how certain poets write. I agree with James that we shouldn't compare and contract both writers but rather appreciate what we as readers, get out of them.

  4. I agree with my classmates above- it is difficult to compare the two poets because there is plenty to take and observe from both their poems. Until now, I had only read Shakespeare and not John Donne, but I appreciate viewing them both now. It really makes me consider that classrooms in high school and even middle school need to read and consider a larger variety of texts for an ultimate effect.

  5. I Die, and if I cannot be beleev'd,
    My deaths more certaine, as it is most sure...
    ...And yet even there shall in my bosome pure,
    The shape of thy faire face ingraude be eyed.
    For that's a relique, which I do reserve
    For the last traunces, my countentions threaten,
    Which midst thy rigour doth it selfe preserue.
    O woe's the wight! That is by tempests beaten
    By night in unknown Seas, in danger rise
    For want of North, or haven to lose his life.

    This is a poem written by John Donne (Don Quixote I, 4, VII The history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha.

    Compare it with THE DAMP.. when i'm dead.. Donne wrote all the poems in the Don Quixote. It was an english book.

  6. I am totally not surprised that it was Eliot that seems to have "brought back" the poetry of John Donne. He was notorious for "borrowing" verse from poets that he liked or admired.

  7. Again I am going to agree with my classmates above. High schools often avoid any other poet with the exception of Shakespeare. The poem by Donne is a great way of showing us how other poets write.

  8. Much like what Mike said, high schools rarely touch upon (in detail) any other poet other than Shakespeare. I agree with my classmates above in saying that the two works should be appreciated for what is given to us, especially since many of us probably don't have much exposure to other poets.

  9. I think it's funny that John Donne used a flea to represent the marriage bed of the narrator and his wife. The newlyweds seem to be already having trouble, with parents who are unhappy with their union and the wife not making love to her husband. The flea is the only thing that brings them together, mixing their blood and making them become one inside of it. The most random little thing becoming a symbol for their relationship and the wife kills it.

  10. Brandon BinegarMay 2, 2017 at 1:24 PM

    I couldn't help but chuckle as I transitioned between the first and second stanzas of The Flea. The whole time I was thinking how this sounds like some kind of connection,this mixing of blood, it almost sounded like marriage. What does the second stanza say? "Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
    Where we almost, nay more than married are."
    Donne really knows how to tickle me.

  11. I disagree with my classmates who are saying it is difficult to compare the two poets only because everyone has a right to their own opinion. Some people are going to prefer Shakespeare while others might prefer John Donne. In literature, as a reader you have to constantly make comparisons and connections with other authors and texts. I find that by comparing those two authors, it causes readers such as ourselves to put in more thought to both of them. When it comes to opinions everyone likes to make sure that theres is heard, and when someone makes a comparison such as this there will be people who agree and disagree, which sometimes results in people doing more research on them.