John Donne is perhaps best known for tormenting high school students everywhere. I’m willing to bet that many of you remember reading and analyzing, under threat of a poor grade, Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Or, if you don’t remember it, I’ll still bet that you had to do it, and promptly filed it under “I will never use that” in the circular file of the mind.
Not so fast. For all the supposed scars of students everywhere, Donne’s work tends to be, well, downright erotic – though sometimes not the bits read in high school classrooms.
Back on Valentine’s Day, Caroyln Corman over at the New Yorker’s blog ran a piece on Donne that, by my lights at least, is just as interesting on less romantically-charged days of the year. Drawing on several of his poems, Corman notes that:
Donne was, in fact, a rake and a bawd before he became a preacher and, in the fullness of time, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, famous for his sermons and celebrated at court. He wrote poetry throughout this checkered, picaresque career. Almost none of it was published in his lifetime. But the range of the work that survives does include not only canonical love poems like ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ but erotica also both intricate and raw.
She’s right on, and a quick glance at some of the excerpts she quotes will prove it.
And yet Corman neglected a fascinating feature about Donne’s poetry: the erotic charge of his verse was by no means directed solely at his mistress, or his beloved wife Anne. He is also the author of some of the most erotic poetry ever addressed to God. Years before he was a preacher, he cries out:
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 an usurped town, to another due,
Labour 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 loved 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.
Donne’s not alone in casting the spiritual life in erotic terms (see also: the Song of Songs…brought to you by The Bible). And yet he was probably the only poet I read in high school (or was supposed to read in high school) who knew the depths of human love for God and others…and taught the rest of us about it as well.