John Donne’s poetry proves that attitudes to love and death remain unchanged even after 400 years.
The poet was born on the 22nd of January, 1572, into a wealthy Catholic family who were the direct descendants of Thomas More. He grew up in and was shaped by the tumultuous period of the time in which Catholics were heavily persecuted simply for practising their religion openly. Donne’s own brother died in prison in 1593 after being convicted of Catholic sympathies. This often dangerous life that he led was inconceivably different to the life of many readers of his poems today. He was a complex character who even at some points appeared to recognise that in himself there was an aspect of a split personality: the infamous ‘Jack Donne’ of his youth (a passionate lover of women, wine and decadence) and ‘Dr Donne’ (the older and morally sound Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral). The experiences of his life, and the society in which he lived, could not be further removed from our lives today. Excluding the persecution and possible death that he risked every day that he continued to live his life as a Catholic, the England that Donne lived in was a chaotic one. Western medicine was not yet even in its earliest infancy, public executions were practiced daily and were attended by those wishing to be entertained by the torture and gruesome death of criminals, and England was constantly at war with the majority of Europe.
In the midst of this turmoil and bloodshed, John Donne was writing poetry that still resonates today with the modern reader.
John Donne was a remarkably progressive character in the 17th century. He felt that torture was a hindrance to the legal process and his poetry shows a greater respect for women than many of his contemporaries. However, he was still writing to reflect the attitudes of the day towards many important subjects. Two themes that he addressed regularly throughout his career were love and death; often intermingling the two in one complex poem.
Jack Donne, the earlier character that he felt he had assumed in his youth, was a poet who’s work was bawdy, irreverent and often bordering on blasphemy. The character of Donne at this time was no different from the young and wealthy playboys of the 21st century. He was described by one contemporary as “A great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses.”. It is easy to find a kindred spirit in this young and light-hearted man who used poetry often as an attempt to gain access to the bed-chamber of a young woman. Although the medium and style of message used today by young men around the world is different, at its core the same principle still applies. His verses are often tongue-in-cheek and hyperbolic in an attempt to woo a lady into forgoing her chastity. In “The Flea”, Donne used the ridiculous argument of a flea sucking on the blood of both him and the object of his affections as a way to convince the lady to sacrifice her “honour” for him. These complex arguments are humorous but the basis of the poem (longing and lust) are easily read in this and other early poems by Donne. “The Good-Morrow” (often considered thematically to be one of Donne’s earliest works), explores love in a way that is realistic and moving. The wish for the lovers to remain together, isolated from the world and all of the responsibilities that it entails is something that has not changed for the last four hundred years and Donne effectively conveyed the yearning for this in a way that is still easily interpreted by someone reading it in this day and age.