John Donne Changes What It Is To Read Poetry.

I will never forget the effect of reading John Donne for the first time.

Donne (1572-1631) may have lived three hundred and more years before but he speaks with a living force on love and sex, and to me, a distinctly naive nineteen year old second year university student with little experience of what is called life, his poetry had and continues to have, startling immediacy.

Songs and Sonnets provided an astonishing range of love poetry from lustful to sensuous to playful to platonic to loving and it did so with a direct urgency of voice that made the poems truly living.

You just need to look at some of the opening stanzas :

I wonder , by my troth, what thou, and I 
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then 
But sucked on country pleasures childishly 
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den? 
'Twas so; but this all pleasures fancies be. 
If ever any beauty I did see 
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee. 

  
  

( “Did” and “got”; two of the most common verbs in English speech, but hardly poetic sounding; has ever a poet given them more force than here? Look at “Weaned”, sucked”,” “snorted”:all strongly physical sounding Anglo-Saxon verbs considered non-poetic in times where more “poetic” sounding euphemisms might have been preferred).

Or:

 Busy old fool ,unruly sun, 
Why dost thou thus 
Through windows and through curtains call on us? 
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? 
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide 
Late school boys and sour prentices 
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride 
Call country ants to harvest offices: 
Love, all alike, no season knows or clime, 
Nor hours, days , months  which are the rags of time.



 

(Notice the shocking scorn with which the sun, regarded traditionally as splendid, often in Elizabethan times aggrandised by classical references to Phoebus or Apollo. There is a wide view of society that suggests the wide sweep of Jacobean drama; the influence of Shakespeare is hinted at by – “Late school boys and sour prentices” which reminds one of the Seven Ages of Man speech In “As You Like It” -and the dismissive “country ants to harvest offices” suggests the royal indifference of say, a Richard ii. ).

Or:

For god's sake hold your tongue, and let me love, 
Or chide my palsy or my gout,
 My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune flout ,
With wealth your state, your minds with arts improve 
Take you a course, get you a place, 
Observe his honour or his Grace 
Or the King's real, or his stamped  face, 
Contemplate; what you will, approve, 
So you will let me love.  
 

(The influence of the dramatic voice speaking forth is presented here; it is as if the the voice is arguing against the restraining influence of friends, from out of the midst of conversation as if it is an excerpt from a play of voices. Notice , here, and throughout the three examples the command of rhythm that makes the verse flow.).

John Donne (along with other so-called Metaphysical poets) was a shaping influence on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Eliot saw his poetry, as showing a combination of intellect, wit and feeling at play and it was this combination he sought to recapture in his own verse. F.R. Leavis demonstrates how Donne’s language follows the rhythms of the the “speaking voice”: “the subtleties of Donne’s use of the speaking voice and spoken language are inexhaustible ….The art has evident affinities with Shakespeare’s”.

It is little wonder I was so startled by John Donne when I first read him.

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