restricted access Rhyme and Reason: The Poetry of John Donne
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[ 57 Rhyme and Reason: The Poetry of John Donne1 The Listener, 3 (19 Mar 1930) 502-3 [I believe that most people who have read even a few of John Donne’s poems know something about his life: and that is exactly the reason why, even in a half-hour’s talk, I must say something about his life as well as about his poetry. Donne is, to the common reader, as much a remarkable and enigmatic personality as he is the author of certain poems; therefore popular opinion about his poetry is influenced by popular opinion about the man; and popular opinion may not be altogether right. So I must give a brief outline of his life and character.] Donne was born in 1573, of a good prosperous middle-class family probably of Welsh origin, in London.2 His domestic associations were favourable ; in fact, he may be said to have belonged to the aristocracy of intellect. His mother was a Heywood, of a family closely associated with Sir Thomas More, that is to say with the most cultured society of Tudor times; and the Heywoods had shown literary ability for several generations. One was an early dramatist; another translated some of Seneca’s plays, became a Jesuit father, and suffered considerable hardship in that capacity.3 The domestic atmosphere was both literary and theological, and largely Roman Catholic (I say largely, because in those times people occasionally changed to and fro from one religious allegiance to another). Izaak Walton tells us that John Donne was both an indefatigable student and a man of pleasure.4 His studies certainly were very wide; but he applied himself particularly to theology and still more to law, both canon and civil. As for his pleasures, he may have been a man about town in a small way. [These two points are of some interest, because they have led many people to believe (1) that he was a deep philosopher, (2) that he was a mystic, (3) that he had a mediaeval mind, and (4) that in his youth he was a notable rake, and (5) that the second period of his life, when he abandoned poetry to become one of the greatest preachers England has ever known, represents the conversion of a penitent sinner.5 All five of these beliefs are picturesque, but I believe that all five are wrong, and mislead us in attempting to appreciate his poetry. At any rate, after a youth passed in various studies and no settled occupation , including one expedition with the forces of Essex to Cadiz, which Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 58 ] provided him with material that he used in poetry, he eloped with a young lady – she was only seventeen, named Ann More.6 She was the niece of the Chancellor, and daughter of the Lieutenant of the Tower; but her father did not approve her marriage to a young man who had spent all his patrimony and had no prospects and nothing but a reputation for learning and accomplishment to recommend him.7 Then follows a period of great poverty , emphasised by the appearance of one child every year; but apparently Donne and his wife made a very happy marriage of it, and he was a passionately devoted husband. His reputation of learning in divinity came to the ear of James I – the most praiseworthy of whose tastes was his taste for theology – and it became clear that the only way for Donne towards preferment and a steady income was through the Church.8 Holy orders are not nowadays the best means of increasing one’s income; but the reign of James I was a peculiar one, and the case of Donne a peculiar case. So into the Church of England Donne went; and in the Church he had every success short of a bishopric; but it was one of life’s ironies that his wife died at the outset of his career of clerical prosperity and success.9 By far the greater part of the poems which we read were written before he took holy orders, and while he was still quite a young man. So we have two distinct periods in his life: the first that of his amorous and other lyrical verse, his satires and epistles and several other odd poems; and the second, when his chief work is a great number of sermons, which rank with the finest prose in the language, and in which the same gifts...


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