Priest + Poet + Preacher
31 March 1879
From the Satucket Lectionary
“All mankind is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is torn out of the book and translated into a better language. And every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators. Some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But God’s hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to another.”
Donne (rhymes with “sun”) was born in 1573 (his father died in 1576) into a Roman Catholic family, and from 1584 to 1594 was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn (this last a highly regarded law school). He became an Anglican (probably around 1594) and aimed at a career in government. He joined with Raleigh and Essex in raids on Cadiz and the Azores, and became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. But in 1601 he secretly married Anne More, the 16-year-old niece of Egerton, and her enraged father had Donne imprisoned. The years following were years of poverty, debt, illness, and frustration. In 1615 he was ordained, perhaps largely because he had given up hope of a career in Parliament.
From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne’s professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love. His poetry, mostly written before his ordination, includes poems both sacred and secular, full of wit, puns, paradoxes, and obscure allusions at whose meanings we can sometimes only guess, presenting amorous experience in religious terms and devotional experience in erotic terms, so that I have seen one poem of his both in a manual of devotion and in a pornography collection.
After his ordination, his reputation as a preacher grew steadily. From 1622 until his death he was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and drew huge crowds to hear him, both at the Cathedral and at Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit nearby. His prose style is in some ways outdated, but his theme continues to fascinate: “the paradoxical and complex predicament of man as he both seeks and yet draws away from the inescapable claim of God on him.”
Various collections of his sermons (a ten-volume complete edition and a one-volume selection) have been published. Most anthologies of English poetry contain at least a few of his poems, and it is a poor college library that does not have a complete set of them. His friend Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) has written a biography.
Three poems and a portion of a meditation follow.
THREE POEMS BY JOHN DONNE
NOTES ON PRONUNCIATION: Since this is an international list, and not all listmembers are familiar with the traditional conventions of English poetry, a few explanations may be useful.
All of the poems that follow are written in iambic pentameter. That is, a line normally has ten syllables, with five stresses, which normally fall on the even-numbered syllables, although their position may vary (in particular, the stress on the second syllable is often transferred to the first).
A sonnet has fourteen lines: an octet of eight lines, followed by a sestet of six.
In some of these poems, Donne uses a convention that is a requirement of classical Latin poetry: the elision. If a word ends in a vowel (or diphthong) and the next word begins with one, the first vowel is omitted and the number of syllables in the line reduced by one. As an aid to the reader, I have inserted an “=” sign at each elision.
In modern English the “e” in the ending “-ed” of a verb is usually silent. Sometimes in older English it is sounded, creating an extra syllable. When this happens, I have capitalized the “-ED”
Batter my heart, three-personed 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 a usurped town to= another due,
Labor to= admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy= in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly= I love you,= and would be lov-ED fain,
But am betrothed 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.
Death, be not proud, though some have call-ED thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go–
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou= art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy= or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke, Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!
HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS
(Numbered footnotes below.)
Since I am coming to that holy room
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore
I shall be made thy music, as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.(1)
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers(2), and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my southwest discovery,(3)
PER FRETUM FEBRIS,(4) by these straits to die,(5)
I joy that in these straits I see my west;
For though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection. (6)
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan,(7) and Magellan, and Gibraltar,(8)
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,(9)
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.(10)
We think that Paradise, and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;(11)
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d receive me, Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore, that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
(1) That is: “Since I am on the verge of death, let me prepare my thoughts.”
(2) Cosmography is the study of the basic structure and constitution of the world.
(3) “Southwest discovery” refers to the fact that from England one can reach the riches of the Orient by sailing southwest around South America through the Straits of Magellan, or northwest around North America through the Bering Straits, or southeast around Africa, or northeast around Norway and Siberia. One can also go east through the Straits of Gibraltar and then across land, either across the Isthmus of Suez and then again by sea to India or else by the Silk Road to China along the route of Marco Polo. Donne here speaks of the “southwest discovery,” the route taken by the explorer Magellan.
(4) “Per fretum febris,” by the wearing away of a fever (Latin). The explorer Magellan, who made the “southwest discovery,” died “per fretum febris” before he could complete his goal of sailing around the earth. Donne, at the time of this writing, is ill with a fever.
(5) “Strait” means “narrow, constricted, or tight” (as in “strait-laced,” referring to the extremely tight corsets that were once fashionable, and thence by analogy to someone considered to be inflexible in his behavior). It is not to be confused with “straight”, meaning “not crooked”. A strait is a narrow passage, a tight squeeze, especially a narrow sea passage connecting two larger bodies of water, and bounded closely on either side by land. The
word also refers, especially in the plural, to a situation of distress, deprivation, difficulty, perplexity, misfortune, or the like. (A man lost in the desert is said to be “in dire straits”.) Hence Donne, playing on the double meaning of the word “strait,” says that he is about to die of his present distress, meaning his fever and his illness.
(6) On a flat map of the whole world the far east (the rightmost edge of the map) and the far west (the leftmost edge of the map) are places that touch on a globe or in the real world.
(7) “Anyan” is another name for the Bering Straits.
(8) We place the stresses in this line as follows:
“AN-yan, and MA-gel-LAN, and GIB-ral-TAR”.
(9) No matter what desirable and fabled country is my destiny, I must sail through a narrow strait to reach it. The same is true of Heaven, which I shall reach by passing through the strait of death.
(10) The three sons of Noah were named Shem, Ham and Japheth. (The initial sound of “Ham,” or “Cham” is a throaty breathing as in the name “Bach.” Neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Latin has the sound of “ch” used in English words like “church,” and therefore a name in the Bible with a “CH” in it should always be pronounced in English with a “K” sound or a German “CH” sound, unless the name has been thoroughly assimilated into English (like “Rachel”, for example). The three sons are thought of as ancestors of the inhabitants of the thee continents known to the ancients: Asia, Africa, and Europe.
(11) A common Christian usage, going back to the Apostle Paul (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-22,45-49), is to contrast Adam and Christ, or to call Christ the new Adam. The old Adam is the beginning of the fallen and wounded race of humanity; the new Adam is the beginning of the restored and healed race. What Adam did, Christ has undone. Hence the common supposition in poetry that the Cross was cut from the wood of the Forbidden Tree that once stood in the Garden of Eden, and that the hill of Calvary (“Skull Hill”) where Christ was crucified was so called because that was where Adam was buried.
MEDITATION 17, BY JOHN DONNE
NUNC LENTO SONITU DICUNT, MORIERIS
[Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.]
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he know not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.
There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarcely any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick unto death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
by James Kiefer
Note: John Donne’s complete poems appear in collections published by Viking Press (paperback), and as part of Everyman’s Library and the Modern Library Series. A collection of his poems, plus sermons and other devotional prose works is also available as part of the series Classics of Western Spirituality. Also, there is another book of two of his best prose works, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel(which includes the excerpt immediately above).
Clicking on the links will take you to Amazon.com, where you may buy the books if you wish. Many of his works are also online)