John Donne (1572–1631) was praised in his own time, yet his significance as a major poet was not clearly acknowledged until the twentieth century. His poetry is quite different than that of those who went before, or even of his contemporaries — abandoning the flowery cliché conceits of the Elizabethans for more intellectual and concentrated images. He is associated with other “metaphysical poets” who followed him, such as George Herbert and Henry Vaughan.
Born and raised in an English Catholic family, he chose to shift his allegiance to the Anglican church in the 1590s. He was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621 — a post which he held until his death.
Besides his poems, John Donne is admired for his sermons and meditations — such as Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). Number 17, from this series, is the source of the famous lines “no man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” which Ernest Hemingway selected as the title of his novel.
As can be seen within much of his poetry, Donne was obsessed with death. He preached his own funeral sermon “Death’s Duel” shortly before he died. He also posed in a shroud for a painting which was completed a few weeks before his death. This painting was the model for the effigy which was later completed of him. When I visited St. Paul’s, I could clearly see the scorch marks at the bottom of this statue, from the great fire of London in 1666.
The following poem is from his Holy Sonnets.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca