Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Song

John Donne (1572 - 1631)

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
                        And find
                        What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be’st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
                        And swear
                        No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find’st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet:
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
                        Yet she
                        Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

[By the way, this poem plays a crucial role in Diana Wynne Jones’ book Howl’s Moving Castle. If you haven’t read that book, stop right now and put it on your TBR list. If you've seen the movie, it's a good movie and all that, but it DOES NOT COUNT. You must read the book, O Best Beloved. You’ll thank me this summer when you need some light reading. Jones is the one who put me onto Donne in the first place (he’s quoted or alluded to in many of her stories), and I like many of her books, but I don’t recommend them all -- she’s sort of like the girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead.]

Since I’m writing about Donne’s early life, this poem seems more in keeping with the popular idea of him as a young man, doesn’t it? A ladies’ man made cynical by so many disappointments in love. But I hope by describing his religious upbringing and his desire to be a good Christian in my two earlier posts to counter-balance that idea. There’s an illuminating passage from Mr Walton’s biography that I think is worth quoting at length:

About the nineteenth year of his age, he, being then unresolved what religion to adhere to, and considering how much it concerned his soul to choose the most orthodox, did therefore, – though his youth and health promised him a long life – to rectify all scruples that might concern that, presently laid aside all study of the Law, and of all other sciences that might give him a denomination; and began seriously to survey and consider the body of Divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church. And, as God’s blessed Spirit did then awaken him to the search, and in that industry did never forsake him – they be his own words [in his preface to Pseudo-Martyr] – so he calls the same Holy Spirit to witness his protestation; that in that disquisition and search, he proceeded with humility and diffidence in himself; and by that which he took to be the safest way; namely, frequent prayers, and an indifferent affection to both parties; and indeed, Truth had too much light about her to be hid from so sharp an enquirer; and he had too much ingenuity, not to acknowledge he had found her.


Note that when Walton says “being then unresolved what religion to adhere to,” he doesn’t mean Donne was trying to decide whether to be a Christian. There was no question of that. He was trying to decide which church, or as we would say, which denomination, to join as an adult, and I think this is a testimony of a young man who desired to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith he was called, however imperfectly.

It is well known that during his years in London, Donne spent a lot of time at Queen Elizabeth’s court, and that couldn’t have been a good influence on anyone’s morals. But I hesitate to assume that all of his Disappointed in Love poems are biographical. The one quoted above was set to music, as were several others, and courtly love ala Eleanor of Aquitaine was the mode of Elizabeth’s court. Nearly all of his early poetry was distributed among his friends for their amusement, as Walton says:

The recreations of his youth were poetry, in which he was so happy, as if nature and all her varieties had been made only to exercise his sharp wit and high fancy; and in those pieces which were facetiously composed and carelessly scattered, – most of them being written before the twentieth year of his age – it may appear by his choice metaphors, that both nature and all the arts joined to assist him with their utmost skill.


I don’t want to excuse what Donne himself called “irregularities of [his] life,” but I do want to place it into its proper context. Flirtation was an expected part of life at court, and so was the poetry of disappointed love. It was as common to Elizabethan poetry as it is to our country western music. Even though Donne felt he had much to repent of, I don’t think we have to assume that he was completely dissipated, the way he’s often portrayed.

I want to leave you with another song he wrote, this one to his wife when he was facing an absence of two months from her, after ten years of marriage.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Song

Sweetest love, I do not go,
    For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
    A fitter love for me;
        But since that I
At the last must part, ’tis best,
Thus to use myself in jest
    By feigned deaths to die.

Yesternight the sun went hence,
    And yet is here to-day;
He hath no desire nor sense,
    Nor half so short a way;
        Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
    More wings and spurs than he.

O how feeble is man’s power,
    That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
    Nor a lost hour recall;
        But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
    Itself o’er us to advance.

When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,
    But sigh’st my soul away;
When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,
    My life’s blood doth decay.
        It cannot be
That thou lovest me as thou say’st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
    That art the best of me.

Let not thy divining heart
    Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
    And may thy fears fulfil.
        But think that we
Are but turn’d aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
    Alive, ne'er parted be.

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