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.
Dr Donne, the moral Dean and faithful husband, wrote another set of poems that explore a different type of love but more importantly the problem of death and the fate of Donne’s immortal soul. In the “Holy Sonnets”, written during his post as the Dean of St Paul’s, the anxiety and guilt that he felt for abandoning his Catholic faith in favour of ascending through the social ranks of the English court is depicted through a set of deeply emotive sonnets. Although the remorse he felt was due to a possible punishment of eternal damnation after his death, when whittled down it is the conscience of a man who worries that the act of casting aside an intrinsic value that was integral to shaping his character in favour of gaining material success will be detrimental to the ultimate destination of his soul following that last “busy day” (Judgement Day). Donne clearly felt a true and mortal terror over his own death, worrying that all of the sins of his life could physically drag him down to hell if he was not redeemed by God. Yet, in a vein that is reminiscent of many theists today, Donne also seemed to hope that there would be some form of universal salvation.
The legacy of John Donne lives on even today, over 400 years later. Quotes from him remain relevant and are frequently used. The phrase “No man is an island” has comfortably slipped into the modern vernacular and popular culture. Perhaps one reason why his poetry is still so well-studied is because the emotions conveyed in each stanza, when all of the historical context has been stripped away, are the same raw human fears, hopes and yearnings that are still felt today by people all over the world.