Iif you were gentleman of Elizabethan London, a gentleman of more or less regular ways and habits, your typical day went something like this: you got up at 4 a.m., you wrote 14 letters and a 30-page treatise on the non-existence of purgatory, you fought a duel, you composed a sonnet, you went to see a Jesuit get publicly disemboweled, you invented a scientific instrument, you composed another sonnet, you attended the premiere of As you like ityou had a romantic relationship with someone else’s wife, then you caught the bubonic plague and died.
They packed a lot of things, the Elizabethans, that’s what I mean. Perhaps posterity, given our age, will judge that we are packing a lot, with fascism and COVID and melting glaciers. Maybe. But there was a particular paradoxical density of ugliness and beauty in life as the Elizabethans lived it. The Reformation was right behind them; the civil war was coming; Elizabeth, the virgin queen, may have been semi-celestial, but her subjects lived in a police state. They had the passion for virtue and the genius for cruelty. They had wonderful manners and barbaric inclinations, beautiful clothes and terrible diseases. They oscillated madly between the abstract and the corporeal. And among his contemporaries, no one swayed wilder than John Donne.
Donne was made of contradiction, or transformation. Foreign-born, Catholic at a time when being a Catholic in England was illegal – his uncle and then his brother went to prison for their faith, and his brother would die there – Donne worked his way inside, moving and losing as it went.
He was a book-loving poet who went to sea with the doomed and dashing Earl of Essex and had a vision of hell when he saw Spanish sailors being burned to death in the port of Cadiz. (Son Rutger Hauer–in–blade runner moment: “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. Attack the burning ships on Orion’s shoulder. He was a splenetic satirist, all-seeing, all-condemning, who was also a world-class flatterer/ingratiator. He had a sharp, cutting, predatory wit that he applied with equal force to sex, politics and finally a religious vocation. Young Donne had an inflamed libido, old Donne an inflamed conscience. The man who wrote “Licence my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below” will become, like the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the divine divine who warns his faithful that “a man may be adulterous in his wife’s womb, although he does not seek foreign wives.
As for his poetry, it is not pleasant and it is irresistible. The English verse is not the same after Donne. Harmony and kindness – Spenser’s music – go out the window, and in is fierce, sometimes grating, intellectual energy and intense superiority. You can read pages of Donne and record only the oppressive closeness of his throbbing brain. But then he will catch you. “Busy old fool, unruly sun,” grumbles the lover as daylight streams in through the bedroom window. “Naughty sassy pedant, go scold / Schoolboys late.” As ingrained as his vocabulary was, he had a shocking talent for immediate, everyday speech. For a moment his verses are foreign, twisted, full of tricky wiring and strange mechanical conceits (Dr. Johnson: “Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?”); the next, he writes “For the love of God, shut up and let me love” or “I run to death, and death meets me as quickly”, and we hear him speaking to us through four centuries in resounding monosyllables.
super-infinite is the title of Katherine Rundell’s new biographical study on Donne. It looks like a Monster Magnet album. And indeed, Rundell responds to Donne in a kind of hyperbolic heavy-metal register. Read the first verse of “Love’s Growth,” she promises us, and “all the oxygen within five miles rushes in to greet you.” Another poem, “The Comparison”, in which Donne contrasts his mistress’s charms with those of another woman, picks up the tradition of poets praising female beauty “and stabbing her in a dark alley”. Etc.
But excessive praise, or praise with reverberation, is very Elizabethan and very, very John Donne, as Rundell shows us. “Compliments,” she wrote, “were the basic motto,” and Donne was loaded. He launched admirations; he sowed praise. “Your departure,” he assured in a letter to Lady Kingsmill, “has made London a dead carcass.” Rundell calls this Donne’s “delight in extravagance”. When Sir Robert Drury’s young daughter Elizabeth died, Drury (the sort of tall Donne was always sucking) commissioned an elegy. And though Donne never met Elizabeth Drury, he went about it with a vengeance: In two slightly bonkers long poems, “The First Anniversary” and “The Second Anniversary,” he unfurled the full, screaming panorama of human existence and almost beatified the deceased daughter. “She, she is dead; She is dead; when you know / You will know how dry this world is. It was heavenly hackwork. “If he had written it about the Virgin Mary,” Ben Jonson said, “it would have been something.”
Donne’s love poetry is extreme: bodies melt, souls mingle, genres are eliminated, death is an atom away. For pure piercing morbidity, what image can match the “bracelet of shiny hair around the bone” he summons in “The Relic”, his fantasy of being exhumed while bearing the marks of his love? His religious poetry is equally extreme: “Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce me in the side”, runs one of his Holy Sonnets (rather of those hammering monosyllables), in which he prays to take the sufferings of Christ. “Buffe, mock me, whip me and crucify me, / For I have sinned, and I have sinned.” On a good day, Donne saw the world as an organic biological and spiritual unity, the famous whole where “no man is an island”. On a bad one, it has become a slaughterhouse, a Boschian mill: “The race of the earth is only your table; there are sets / Plants, cattle, men, dishes to eat for Death. / In gross hunger now, he draws millions / Into his bloody, or plagued, or starving jaws” (“Elegy on Mistress Bulstrode”).
It is finally at one extremity of perception that the two Donnes meet: he was mystical in bed and mystical in the pulpit. The almost tantric lover, in search of an essence beyond the body, was also the preacher of the desire for eternity: “As soon as my soul enters heaven, I will be able to tell the angels, I am of the same stuff that you. ”
He made his way out as David Bowie, stripping naked in the weeks before his death and wrapping himself in his shroud so an artist could sketch for the posthumous sculpture of a marble monument. As a preacher, Rundell tells us, Donne’s “specialty” was his gift for riffing on infinity. One imagines his followers at St. Paul’s creaking and tossing in their pews as he laid the vision upon them: “There shall be neither cloud nor sun, neither darkness nor glare, but an even light; neither noise nor silence, but equal music. And there it is, the final chord of resolving power: the radiant wave in which all the contradictions – of the time and of the man – would be consummated.
This article appears in the September 2022 printed edition with the title “Heavenly Hackwork”.