John Donne

I’ve been concentrating my poetry reading on John Donne recently as he seems to be popping into my life. Firstly, back in February 2008 we rented the fabulous Coburg House in Old Hastings and one of our day trips was to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage on the remote deserted Dungeness beach. Well it would be remote and deserted were it not for the tourists like us flocking to Prospect Cottage. One of the beautiful and unusual things that Jarman had done was to quote a John Donne poem in jigsaw cut wooden font on the side wall, pictured above. It’s a quote from “The Sunne Rising”. Here’s the full poem [with the bits Derek Jarman missed out in square brackets].

The Sunne Rising

Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

[Thy beames, so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou thinke?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
Whether both the’India’s of spice and Myne
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.

She’is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this,
All honor’s mimique; All wealth alchimie.]
Thou sunne art halfe as happy’as wee,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.

I also found reference to this poem in Jeffrey Wainwright’s “Poetry: The Basics” where he includes this indelicate limerick as response to Donne’s poem:

There once was a poet called Donne
Who said ‘Piss off!’ to the sunne:
The sunne said ‘Jack,
Get out of the sack,
The girl that you’re with is a nun.’

Secondly, on Friday the 13th of March Will and I went down to London to see the recent Met / ENO production of John Adam’s opera Dr Atomic. At the heart of Dr Atomic is a poem, John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” that “provided the stimulus for Oppenheimer’s whimsical naming of the test site: Trinity”. It’s an amazing poem and you can see why Oppenheimer loved it.

Holy Sonnet XIV

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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d 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.

Wow. I was eager to follow that up with more of Donne’s Holy Sonnets so scanned our bedtime poetry reading bookshelf for an anthology that might have them in. A recent favourite came up trumps, Boris Ford’s anthology “Benjamin Britten’s Poets: An Anthology of the Poems He Set to Music”, a wonderful and eclectic set of poems, has Donne’s Holy Sonnets in.

Lastly, as speculation rose about Carol Ann Duffy’s possible ascension to Poet Laureate I spent the week re-reading some of her work. Before I get to her Donne choice here’s a quick limerick I wrote to condense to a tweet celebrating the announcement that she’d been appointed Poet Laureate:

Poet Laureates tend to be men
And certainly not lesbian
This Scots lass is bent
But with great enjambment
We love reading again and again


One of the Carol Ann Duffy books I love is called “Out of Fashion”. In it Duffy asks contemporary poets to choose an old poem about dress, fashion, clothing, or undressing and to set it against one of their own. The anthology ends with Duffy’s own poem “Elegy” followed by her choice of partner poem, John Donne’s “To his Mistress Going to Bed”.

To his Mistress Going to Bed

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright. 
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence. 
    To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.


2 Responses to “John Donne”

  1. me2watson Says:

    Holy Sonnet XIV is very good,
    and strikes a truthful chord!

    Hello there! I was browsing through the poetry section
    and saw Donne’s name. Just had to stop in and say HI!

    Before I wrote a piece for St. Patrick’s Day this year,
    I went to the library specifically looking for his works.
    Not being disappointed, I tried to get into the old English
    style from this Irishman’s point of view. It was a big help.

    I think it helped Carol Ann Duffy more than it did me.
    Where is she from, I wonder? Anyways,
    thanks for the read. Good stuff!

    Uncle Tree

  2. dumbledad Says:

    I think she’s from Glasgow, Uncle Tree. Just let me check … yep, Glasgow.

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