John Donne has engaged the minds of poets and literary critics for centuries, but what makes him so engaging? Is it the play and paradox of his verse, the audacity of his meter, the range of complexity with which he grapples the world around him? Whatever the case, Donne has proven to be a complex character. From his Songs and Sonnets to his Holy Sonnets, his verse reaches deep in its exploration of the erotic psyche and shakes the heavens in its demand for deliverance. Eroticism and deliverance as they coincide with death are perhaps two of the most interesting elements we discover in Donne. Though it is well-known that Donne was obsessed with death throughout his life, the change in his response to death from his youth to later years is fascinating.
The son of a wealthy merchant, Donne frittered away his youth molesting and mastering a variety of Petrarchan, Platonic, and overtly Ovidian modes as he furiously scribbled away strings of sensual Songs and Sonnets; but when adult life slapped him in the face, Donne was forced to contend with a cruel world. The world was changing and with it Donne. His short military stint taught him to dislike the sea. His father-in-law's response to his secret engagement to Ann taught him to fear his father-in-law, lament a shattered career, and despise the Court, which he could never court. And finally, his continual encounters with death taught him to dread his own demise. These events and more incinerated the dross of his own "youths ranke lustinesse" (24); and though he most certainly felt that he could not "long beare this torturing wrong" (18), life had made him "deaths herald, and champion" (2) to "aske abundance of [God's] grace" (11). With "despaire behind, and death before" (6), Donne was a changed man.
In Holy Sonnet I, Donne asks why God would let him rot in sin and death when he is one of God's creations, and it would seem that he shakes the heavens as he begs his maker: "Repaire me now" (2), for he is terrified by death while his "feeble flesh doeth waste / By sinne in it..." (7-8). Yet, it is in this poem that we first find an indication of Donne's growing confidence over death. While lines one through nine bewail sin and death, line ten suggests a startling change in attitude. It is slight, almost imperceptible, but it is there. Line ten: "By thy leave I can looke, I rise again."
Will. That is a strong word. So what was this "effort of will" composed of? The will to live? The will to die? Donne willed both: to die and to live. The paradox in his will stems from a will to repent and come unto God and his Christ. In Donne's Divine Poems, we hear the voice of a man imploring God's grace in Holy Sonnets IV and V: "Drown my world with my weeping earnestly" (8), "yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke" (9). According to Gardner, "...The Divine Poems are not the record of discoveries, but of struggles to appropriate a truth which has been revealed..., [Donne] gives us a poetry whose intensity is a moral intensity....The image which dominates his divine poetry is the image of Christ as Savior, the victor over sin and death" (Gardner 134, brackets mine).
Donne continues: "But our old subtle foe so tempteth me" (11). Here he takes a sharp step back, recognizing the weakness of his flesh; but with renewed determination, he charges forward as if he were reaching out his hand to heaven, petitioning God to lift him above Satan's cunning and save him: "Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art, / And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart" (13-14). Donne's words are moving. At the same time, his expressions communicate something important to us. He came to realize what all of us will at one time or another that "wickedness never was happiness" ( Alma 41:10). Donne's self-awareness and transition from sin to repentance is communicated through his poetry, and we would do well to learn from his experiences rather than attempt to justify him or ourselves. Holy Sonnet VII is another earthshattering poem in which we hear the confidence in Donne's voice increase: "At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow / Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise / From death..." (1-3). We can hardly read these lines without feeling in some measure Donne's effulgent awe at the resurrection and his desire to join the angels. He ends with a pleading couplet: "Teach mee how to repent; for that's as good / As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood" (13-14).
Now that I have divested Donne's youthful character of moral stature to a limited extent, sufficient to demonstrate my point, my digression of Donne comes to an end. I will attempt to show the change in Donne between his youth and later years. His fixation with death continues, even spikes; however, it is his response to death that most interests me. I have attempted to demonstrate-how well is a matter of the reader's judgment-that when Donne defied sin and delighted in the sexual implication of death throughout his Songs and Sonnets, death was attended by a deep sense of anguish, sighs and tears, as well as shame, pain, grief, and fear. As I move forward, I will attempt to demonstrate that when Donne recognized his sinful state and the need for correction, though he first feared death, ultimately, he developed a sense of confidence over it, even defied it. For a second voice on the issue, Helen Gardner informs us that "the absence of ecstasy makes his [Donne's] Divine Poems so different from his love poems. There is an ecstasy of joy and an ecstasy of grief in his love-poetry; in his divine poetry we are conscious almost always of an effort of will" ( Gardner 134, brackets mine).
This last poem stands for itself. It need hardly be said that Donne was plagued with "a kinde of sorrowing dulnesse to the mind" (20) and that he fixated on the idea of those "things which had indammag'd" (34) him. It is written for all to see. It was because of that aching within himself that young Donne felt compelled to commit it to verse, although not directly as we see his emotions associated with unchecked sexual immorality disguised by the dramatic difficulties between lovers.
In "Farewell to love," we hear young Donne's despair of unchecked sexual immorality perhaps more clearly than in any other poem. In this poem, we detect the voice of awareness and remorse as Donne declares:
Compared to the Songs and Sonnets, in which the word sin appears three times, the word sin appears in the Divine Poems a startling thirty-eight times. As Donne's recognition of sin increases so his association with grief, shame, pain, tears, and sighs declines from a shout at seventy-two times in the Songs and Sonnets to a whisper at twenty-three times in the Divine Poems. These shouts and whispers bring us to Donne's ultimate shout of defiance at death in Holy Sonnet X:
In the poem “The Flea” by John Donne, the speaker uses clever sexual innuendo and metaphors in an attempt to manipulate a certain girl into losing her virginity to him....
Donne's words throb in our ears in " Twicknam Garden ": "Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears" (1), and in "The Flea": "It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee" (3), and in "Loves Exchange":
The power of this poem could not be better felt than by writing it out in long hand. Simply writing it out at the speed of thought and hand, we derive the sense of mighty power this poem possesses. Perhaps no other poem demonstrates the change in Donne's confidence over death as does this. Perhaps that is why this poem is so startling. Where did this come from, we ask ourselves? He seems to have given death the old one-two and beat it to the ground. When did Donne begin to feel this way about death, and what gives him so much confidence in the face of death? I assert that Holy Sonnets I and VII are a stretch in this direction, but only slightly; and then Donne slams death on the mat and tramples all over it with religious rhetoric. But is his reasoning that well-configured?
To that I reply, true; but it was still pain that he burbled over. Donne's cry of pain in love was his fear of pain in death, his fear of death itself. Love. Death. They were nearly inseparable to Donne. I suggest that any man who snivels at pain the way young Donne did only proves that he is not man enough for death. Death was a threat to Donne on account of pain. But it remains to clarify what kind of pain we are discussing here. Pain of physical death or pain of lasting shame for un-repented of sin at death? Perhaps for Donne it was both. Certainly, it was the latter. Young Donne presents a classic reminder of the debilitating effects bred in the human body as well as the mind by overt or covert (take your pick) unchecked sexual immorality. Yet again, someone might say, well, yes, but Carey was speaking of old Donne, Doctor Donne.