John Donne, Poems (many before 1597? / published 1633), "Expostulation #19" (1624), and "Meditation #4" (1632)

Genre: songs in a wide variety of meters, rhyme schemes, and stanza structures; a sermon or moral argument.

Form: See entries for individual assigned works.  Donne acknowledged his indebtedness to Mary Sidney Herbert and Philip Sidney for their translations of the Psalms in a poem dedicated to them, and he also appears to have developed some of his wildly inventive stanza structures by following their lead.  See, for instance, the Sidney/Herbert translation of Psalm #139.

Characters:  "Jack Donne"'s persona, a brash young courtier-lover who will use any rhetorical strategy to attain his end, not excluding truth when it suits the occasion; Dr. John Donne's persona, a weary, passionate, ferocious intellect with a profound commitment to the religious faith of his flock.  Note that this is an extremely difficult set of personae to puzzle out.  "Jack"'s humor is so antic that there is no guarantee he is addressing a real woman at all, but rather he may be playing a game with words, not unlike Sidney's "Astrophil" (or Herrick, especially!).  The second persona is more likely to be "on oath," since he speaks from a pulpit, but in the Holy Sonnets he says shocking things that may remind us of Margery Kempe or Julian of Norwich.  How does he mean us to read?  If you want to consult one of the best sources for contemporary evidence about the life of Donne as a historical person, the library has a 1796 edition of Izaac Walton's life of Donne, George Herbert, and other C17 poet-scholars.  Want to read an early edition of Donne?   The library's C17 edition contains many poems of interest, including two poems (one Latin and one English) written by Donne to George Herbert.

Individual Songs:


Holy Sonnets--all are "English" or "Shakespearian," most rhyming abbaabbacddcee.  Compare this rhyme scheme with the sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth for some sense of Donne's communication with Wroth and other members of the Sidney circle at Penshurst.  These are the first experiments in what will become a major trend (see Herbert, Herrick, Crashaw, and Vaughan) adopting secular poetic forms which used to discuss sexual desire and transforming them to media for discussing divine love and the desire to be at peace with a God whose demands are not less frustrating than those of the old erotic Beloveds.

Main Examples--

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Donne's lyrics can be profitably compared with those of George Herbert, whose The Temple was also posthumously published in 1633, the same year as the first print edition of Donne's collected poems.  When we compare Herbert's and Donne's lyrics, you should be struck by how amazingly different their diction is from the poems of their contemporaries, like Jonson's or Herrick's, though Herrick shared their interest in striking experiments in the shapes of poems' stanzas and their meters.  Particularly in poems like "To the Sun Rising" and "Canonization," by Donne, and "Redemption," the two "Jordan" poems and "The Collar," by Herbert, you suddenly hear the ordinary spoken Early Modern English of the street in a poem about erotic love and love of God.  The rhythms also are spectacularly vernacular, which produces some of the exotic variations in line length and meter we see in the poem's shape on the page.  "The Modern is coming!," both poets proclaim, though in other ways their verses still hark back to Medieval values.  If you think about the poems as verbal "dances," moving on their verbal "feet" (iambs, trochees, etc.) in sudden thrusts and spins, you also can get a feel for what will become known in later generations as "Mannerist" style, a precursor to Milton's (and Bach's) "Baroque" super-plenitude.   
  2. Donne wrote two long elegiac poems for a patron, Sir Robert Drury, whose daughter, Elizabeth, had died young.  "The First Anniversary" (1108-1114) is a part of one.  See the introduction to that portion of the poem (1108) and consider Ben Jonson's criticism of the intense emotion reflected in the poem.
    • How do you interpret a poem's intense emotional expression of grief when you know the poem is written for profit?
    Note, especially, the strategy by which Donne attaches the death of a single woman to a more far-reaching sense of the degradation of the entire world, even the universe, since the Fall in Genesis.  Wylie Sypher (Four Stages of Renaissance Style, 1955) uses Donne as his primary example of "Mannerist" style, one characterized by a "circling examination . . . in a world thrown off center, wanting repose and safety" (104).  With Donne in this Mannerist canon of art produced in a state of profound disorder, Sypher includes Shakespeare's character, Hamlet, Webster's Bosola (Duchess of Malfi), Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets, and the visual art of El Greco, Velazquez, and Rembrandt.   Consider this expression of the mood from Donne's "First Anniversary," and try to find the sources of its chaos:
    So did the world from that hour [The Fall] decay,
    That evening was the beginning of the day,
    And now the springs and summers which we see
    Like sons of women after fifty be.
    And new philosophy calls all in doubt:
    The element of fire is quite put out,
    The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man's wit
    Can well direct him where to look for it.
    And freely men confess that this world's spent,
    When in the planets and the firmament
    They seek so many new; they see that this [world]
    Is crumbed out again to his atomies.
    'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
    All just supply, and all relation:
    Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
    For every man alone thinks he hath got
    To be a phoenix, and that these can be
    None of that kind of which he is, but he.
  3. For a larger collection of Donne's work than that in the Norton, click here.   After his death, Donne's Collected Poems were published in an authoritative volume edited by the poet's son, John, who also edited and published in three volumes a total of 156 of Donne's sermons from drafts and notes his father had left to, him at his death.  Together with Ben Jonson's publication of his own works in 1616 and Shakespeare's friends' publication of the first folio edition of his works in 1623, this marks a significant moment in the development of English literature--the emergence of an "authorized edition."  Standards for editing authors' works remained somewhat loose, depending on the scholarly acumen of the heir(s) and the accuracy of the printers they hired, but finally we have the whole corpus or body of an author's life work available for study in a form we may be reasonably sure the author intended it should have.  The appearance in print of an authorized "life" of the poet, written by Izaac Walton, also demonstrates the public interest in having poets' properly laid out for acquaintance and study.  These are another of sorts of the events which mark the end of the "Middle Ages" and the beginning of the Modern Era. 

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