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Posts Tagged ‘good works’

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been too busy thinking up that pun for my title. Isn’t it good? Good, isn’t it.

(I’m sorry – it’s not good. I am donne with puns).

BY THE WAY – today is the shortest day of the year and Donne wrote a poem about it. Read the poem here. It’s almost like I planned it! (I didn’t)

DONNE

JohnDonne

While revising for A Level English, my sister once remarked that Donne was a “filthy pervert.” Her annotations comprehensively circled all the rude words, double entendres and naughty bits that were probably about sex. She could merrily trill away about ‘Jack Donne the love poet’ and had committed to memory a good number of sixteenth century euphemisms. (This marks the only time I’m glad none of my family has bothered to read my blog).

How smugly I cast away her book! Good luck passing your A Level, I thought. I know so much more about Donne, I assured myself, cooing over my highly important arts degree. Donne is like, all about religion. And stuff.

donne meme

But the moral of this tale is that we are BOTH RIGHT. One of the most striking aspects of Donne’s poetry is this dichotomy (a division into two) of sex and religion. Is he talking about feeling up a woman? Or talking about Christianity? Is it ever either/or? A lot of his poetry – especially that which seems addressed solely to God – slyly suggests another kind of history. These poems represent a constant, and often confusing, interchange of meaning. But there doesn’t have to be a definite answer. If you think Donne’s just talking about loving God DUCK, WATCH OUT, he might be thinking ruder stuff as well.

Donne’s emotional rollercoaster of a life-changing journey

x factor

These facts are ESSENTIAL to keep in mind when analysing the religious parts of Donne’s work.

  •  He was born a Roman Catholic. In sixteenth century England, this was ILLEGAL. Nonetheless he remained a Roman Catholic for quite a while. He also came from a family line that had a history of producing Catholic martyrs.
  • But, in 1615, Donne became an Anglican priest, taking holy orders at the order of the less holy King James I. 7 years later he even became the dean of St Paul’s cathedral, which meant he was a pretty big name on campus.
  • Crucially – Donne went from being a Catholic to a Protestant. He was an APOSTATE: a person who abandons a belief. This religious switch can be seen behind much of Donne’s imagery.
  • The usual story goes that young, reckless, womanising Donne wrote a lot of erotic love poetry, but as he got older, and became ill, his tone shifted to become more pious and more grave. John Donne for God’s eyes only. BUT it’s too neat a pattern; poems from the beginning and end of his career throw up his famously ‘metaphysical’ metaphors – his ability to crush two different ideas together in what is technically one image. Erotica and religious contemplation.

But can you give us an example?! I hear you cry my own words reverberating around hollow cyberspace.

av yes

Opening 4 lines from Elegy: Change

Although thy hand, and faith, and good works too,

Have sealed thy love which nothing should undo,

Yea, though thou fall back, that apostasy

Confirm thy love; yet much, much I fear thee.

♦ The secular read – LOVE

So, Donne suspects his lady of being unfaithful. Even though she’s put in a lot of effort, and maybe loves him, Donne can’t shake the idea that she’s putting in a lot of effort elsewhere too. The tone is implicitly sexual: her “hand” has been hard at work, and all these “good works” certainly sound like they’ve kept Donne happy. She “fall[s] back”. Does it mean she changes her mind? Perhaps it means she shies away from him. It also retains its most literal meaning: she lies on her back to have sex with him. So here we have the first four lines of Change – easily a love poem.

♦The religious read – FAITH

But the language used is also loudly Christian. The reference to “good works” has a Catholic ring; for Catholics, performing ‘good works’, i.e. doing charitable deeds for your fellow man –  was considered necessary for salvation. Juxtaposed with “faith” in the same line, the Catholic connotations are even more pronounced. “Sealed” in the next line could also be understood in this context; in the Roman Catholic Church the Seal of the Confessional is the oath taken by priests not to disclose what they hear from sinners during confession.  Donne is clearly aware of what he’s doing. He’s got Catholicism on the brain. You don’t even need to use the word ‘apostasy’ because he does it for you. In this religious reading, “fall back” is no longer literal but metaphorical. Donne, Catholic turned Protestant, has ‘fallen back’ from – turned his back on – the Catholic church. He’s an apostate; in this context Donne is the one whose fidelity can be questioned.

Another really easy poem to do this with is The Expiration

So, so, break off this last lamenting kiss,

Which sucks two souls, and vapours both away; 

Turn thou, ghost, that way, and let me turn this,

And let ourselves benight our happiest day;

We asked none leave to love, nor will we owe

Any, so cheap a death as saying, Go;

All this kissing and sucking and parting – is the persona separating from a lover, or has his approaching death prompted a meditation on the nature of his soul?

Here are some places and bloggers that might be able to give you more answers.

Here’s an English student like me posting about words and books and things!

♦ For a handy bio of Donne click here.

♦For a more detailed look at Donne as Anglican priest go here.

Guardian article by Roz Kaveney on Donne’s romantic relationship with God

….. And donne forget – I can ponne with the best of them. X

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