John Donne Introduction

JOHN DONNE Intro 2019




Chapter One






A young man is leaning out of a window. It is a warm night in late summer 1588, loud with bells, and made still warmer by the bonfires crackling up and down the length of every street, as far as his eyes can see. His expression, to any who can read it under the wavering light and shadow of the fires, or the torches brandished by streams of drunken revellers, is ambivalent. The Spanish Armada has just been defeated. A massive navy, the pride of by far the most powerful nation in the world, lies broken on the coasts of the small island nation which routed it, or is limping back to Spain. The terror of invasion which had haunted England – perhaps as intensely as it would later in the years of Napoleon or Hitler – has been at least temporarily banished. But not only that. While the Spanish might tell themselves that their military power and valour had merely been frustrated by bad weather, the Englishmen who sang and shouted beneath John Donne’s window had very different feelings. Probably more important than the bare thrill of victory or liberation from fear was the sense that they – only quite recently confirmed among the few nations adhering to the new, reformed Protestant religion – had been undeniably marked as God’s chosen people. Like so many events we would now understand as accidental, the storm that dashed the enemy fleet was no ordinary one for Donne’s English contemporaries. As the commemorative medals stated, ‘God blew and they were scattered.’ The feelings that stirred the heart and mind of the sixteen-year old Cambridge student at this moment are hard to precisely imagine.[1] We can reasonably guess, however, that they were as complex and disturbing as the poetry that now survives him. Donne’s country was England, his religion Catholicism. He might live for forty, for ten, for two more years in England: he would certainly spend eternity in heaven or hell.

By February 1602 Donne has been – nominally – Protestant for some years. But his troubles are by no means over. Sick, cold, and dismayed at the bleakness of his future prospects, he sits in the Fleet prison on the south bank of the Thames. Even here his grace, composure and eloquence do not fail him. Secretly married some two months since, he owes his imprisonment to the fury of his wife’s father, Sir George More; and by the thin light seeping into his cell he now writes to More the kind of letter in which eloquence really earns its keep:


How little and how short the comfort and pleasure of destroying is, I know your wisdom and religion informs you. And though perchance you intend not utter destruction, yet the way through which I fall towards it is so headlong, that, being thus pushed, I shall soon be at bottom, for it pleaseth God, from whom I acknowledge the punishment to be just, to accompany my other ills with so much sickness as I have no refuge but that of mercy, which I beg of Him, my Lord, and you, which I hope you will not repent to have afforded me, since all my endeavours and the whole course of my life shall be bent to make myself worthy of your favour and her love, whose peace of conscience and quiet I know must be much wounded and violenced if your displeasure sever us.[2]


Whether for the sake of his daughter, or with some feeling also for his unexpected new son-in-law, More did eventually soften. Later that same month Donne was released from the Fleet. He remained, however, confined in his room in the Strand, and in a sense he was to suffer this kind of genteel imprisonment in varying degrees for the next thirteen years. While More – who seems to have been hot-tempered and proud rather than stubbornly vindictive – grew increasingly mild, Donne’s no less eminent employer, Sir Thomas Egerton, felt differently. Despite the appeals not only of Donne but of More himself, Egerton refused to restore the post of secretary which Donne had occupied since winter 1597-8. In a way very characteristic of Renaissance society, what seems to us a spirited romantic exploit (compare, for example, the similar secret marriage and dramatic elopement of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, centuries later) was to largely determine Donne’s fate for well over a decade.

Ultimately, it may have determined his life. The third and last phase of this can be dated to one more pivotal moment, in November 1614. Aged forty two, Donne is pacing, with as much composure as he can muster, amid the ornate – if rather bare – surroundings of a Renaissance garden.[3] With not only a wife, but six children dependent on him, he has been without formal employment now since the harsh echo of a closing door welcomed him into the Fleet prison back at the turn of the century. Though presently in finer surroundings, he is once again waiting on the uncertain whims of the great. For he is about to enter the presence of the greatest man in the whole British Isles – a learned, bisexual, slightly bow-legged Scotsman whose tongue is too large for his mouth, and whose extravagance is too great even for the large resources that his position commands. Fortunately he has enough time, respect and money for John Donne. The latter’s heart perhaps wavers as his patron, the Earl of Somerset, reappears in the garden of Theobalds, the Essex residence of King James I. He is hoping that Somerset has been able to secure him an administrative post in the royal household, one of the clerks of the Council having conveniently died just the previous night. In fact, Somerset has been over-ruled by James, into whose presence both men now go. Upon the king’s insistent persuasion – as more than one account has it – Donne agrees to become a minister of the Church. In the remaining fifteen years of his life, he not only succeeds but excels as a London preacher, becoming Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621, and delivering a last, famous sermon just over a month before his death in 1631.


In all of these three moments – and in the more general circumstances which flowed into and from them – we can discern the outlines of a triangular relationship. The points of that triangle are religion, the individual, and society. The lengths of respective sides may have shifted at different points in Donne’s life: in 1614, for example, he as an individual seems to have had more power than he did in 1588 or 1602, and from the pulpit he was able to speak to the aristocracy and gentry as he could never have spoken to Sir George More. It is fair to say, though, that Donne could not break that triangle. Just as he depended on the forces of social and political power throughout his life, so he was powerfully saturated with a sense of identity derived first from the stubborn Catholicism of his family, and later from the Protestant faith which he seems genuinely – if not unproblematically – to have embraced. And Donne himself? T.S. Eliot stated that ‘Donne would have been an individual at any time and place’.[4] Even the briefest glance at the substantial and varied body of writing Donne left seems to confirm this. A changing but forcefully recognisable voice persists across poetry, letters and sermons, just as certainly as the musical signature of Bach or Mozart stamps the numerous different forms in which they worked. At the same time, it is hard not to feel that much of Donne’s distinctive energy and attraction comes from the peculiar pressures of both his personal life and his more general historical era. In what follows I will try to show how Donne reflected not only the more dominant religious attitudes and beliefs of his lifetime – towards women, the natural world, and to those strange, heathen peoples of the new Americas – but also how he ambivalently responded to the first stages of scientific, social and cultural change.

While I will look explicitly at Donne’s problematic religious identity, and at the more secular forms of self-definition obliquely written into his poetry, it can be said that Donne’s self, ultimately, is not easily fixed. Rather, all of Donne’s writings are his self. In one sense these are more reliable than biographical information. We are on the whole certain that they belong to Donne, as we are not always certain about the accounts of his wayward chronicler and sometime acquaintance, Isaac Walton.[5] Secondly, where even the most plausible facts of Donne’s outer life are little more than a skeleton, his writings are the living blood, flesh and guts. Literature gives us life with a vibrancy, complexity and fineness equal to that of the living body itself. And thirdly – to return to the writer as an individual – Donne seems to have fused his self and his writing in a quite special way. He seems, indeed, to have been most fully himself only when he wrote or when he spoke. This was true of many of his contemporaries in a way that we can never quite recover. In an age without radio, photography or moving film, and when few people could easily afford paintings, literature had an authority, a cultural privilege, and a psychological value now hard to imagine. And the relationship between self and language seems in Donne’s case to have been an especially strong one. Writing to his closest friend, Sir Henry Goodyer, in August 1607, he argues that ‘letters have truly the same office as oaths’. Therefore,


as I never authorised my servant to lie in my behalf … so I allow my letters much less that civil dishonesty, both because they go from me more considerately and because they are permanent; for in them I may speak to you in your chamber a year hence before I know not whom and not hear my self.[6]


Because both Donne’s world, and his whole habit of thought, are in many ways immensely alien to us, it is necessary to reconstruct something of his life and his society in what follows: partly to guard us against misunderstanding the distinctive registers of Renaissance psychology, and partly because we need to see how certain basic details of everyday life conditioned the minds of Donne and his peers. But in doing so it is equally necessary to move carefully between life and literature, and to continually realise that the latter offers us truths and nuances that at once include and transcend those of documentary history.


To start, then, by shading some more colour and texture between those three stages of the life indicated above. Donne was raised as a Roman Catholic. His mother’s family was descended from the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, who had died for the old faith under Henry VIII. While Donne’s father died in 1576, his mother, Elizabeth, remained secretly faithful to Catholicism until her late death, just a few months before Donne’s own. Other members of the family incurred more than the minor embarrassment caused by Elizabeth. Donne’s great-uncle, Thomas Heywood, was executed in 1574 for saying mass. Just under twenty years later, in 1593, Donne’s brother, Henry, was arrested for harbouring a Catholic priest. This latter, tried under the rigorous anti-Catholic laws of the period, was ‘hanged, cut down alive, struggled with the hang-man, but was [disem]bowelled, and quartered’.[7] Henry himself died in Newgate prison, a victim of the plague that blighted London severely in 1593. This loss must have marked Donne heavily: although no longer a child, he was still young enough to be impressionable. People matured early in the Renaissance. But at twelve Donne was unusually young to go up to Oxford. He did so, in 1584, because his youth allowed him to avoid subscribing to the ‘Thirty-nine Articles’ of the Protestant faith. Donne’s College, Hart Hall, ‘had the reputation of being a centre for Catholics’ and conveniently had no chapel (meaning that he and his brother Henry could evade religious services without suspicion).[8] Again, Donne’s fugitive religion caused him to leave Oxford in 1597 – without formally taking a degree – because longer attendance would have made him old enough to sign the Articles, and so precipitate a social and personal dilemma which as yet lay some years in the future.

During his Oxford days Donne may, indeed, have had an especially memorable brush with Catholic outlaws. Many years later (now writing on behalf of the Protestant king, James I) he tells of how ‘at a consultation of Jesuits in the Tower, in the late Queen’s time, I saw it resolved, that in a petition to be exhibited to her, she might not be styled Sacred’.[9] Some debate exists as to exactly when Donne visited these Jesuits (the most learned and often fearless intellectual élite of the Catholic religion) imprisoned in the Tower of London. If, as Dennis Flynn believes, it was in 1584, then it seems that the encounter was indeed an unhappy kind of family reunion: Donne was accompanying his mother, making a legitimate but undoubtedly oppressive visit to her captured brother, the Jesuit priest and missionary, Jasper Heywood.[10]  However, if, as R.C. Bald claims, the meeting occurred in 1591, family ties were not involved (the prisoners being the poet Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet), but the atmosphere must have been hardly less furtive and bleak.[11] And even at this later date, Donne himself was still a Catholic. Following a conventional path for an aspiring gentleman of the time, he began studying law, and the kind of sharp-witted, ambitious and fashionable milieu in which he lived between 1591 and 1594 survives not only in the tone and content of certain poems, but in his earliest portrait.[12] Here, dashingly clothed, with long hair and an ear-ring, and wearing a sword, he stands under a Spanish motto whose language alone has been viewed as a provocative assertion of his outlawed identity.[13] And the message – ‘Sooner dead than changed’ –  is no less defiant than the medium.[14] Indeed, even the ear-ring, in the form of a cross, was an ‘inconceivable’ symbol for an English Protestant of this time.[15]

In some ways, and to some observers, Donne could have looked much like any other relatively privileged, talented young man of the 1590s. True, he had not taken a degree. But other students used Oxford or Cambridge in the same way – something hard to understand in our own age of obsessive validation – simply as a place to acquire cultivation and make useful social connections.[16] From 1591 he studied law at the Inns of Court, the legal training centres of London which have been said to more precisely resemble our own universities as places where education was completed.[17] Suave, charming, elegant, witty and – if the Lothian portrait is to be believed – good-looking, he seduced young women and captivated young men. He wrote poems that were passed to friends and acquaintances in manuscript form; attended comedies where he saw ‘a comedian… turn over [his] shoulder, and whisper to the Devil’, and tragedies where one could observe a character ‘weltring, and surrounded in his own blood’.[18] He made friends. At once repelled and fascinated by the hard glitter of power, he attended the royal court, where he looked with contempt on the sham beauty of women and sham wit of the men who attempted to ‘board’ them as if they were ‘weak ships fraught with cochineal’.[19] Most of all, perhaps, he read voraciously, ‘coffined’ in the ‘standing wooden chest’ of his tiny legal study with his friend Christopher Brooke, and overlooked by the ‘grave divines’, ‘Nature’s secretary, the Philosopher’, ‘jolly statesmen’, ‘gathering chroniclers’, and the ‘giddy fantastic poets’ he refers to in a youthful poem.[20]

Even here, Donne must have acquired some of his unmistakable psychic edge from the ongoing friction between his soul and his society. But it was in the near future that the real crisis lay. He could train himself at Oxford, Cambridge and the legal Inns (where, indeed, he seems to have had Catholic tutors).[21] But he could not progress into the ordinary adult employment suited to someone of his background and abilities: ‘As a Catholic the gates of preferment and success were barred to him … his religion offered him nothing in this world but exile or the patient endurance of persecution.’[22] We must therefore surmise that at some time in the late 1590s he made the decision to formally abandon Catholicism and accept the Protestant faith of England. In chapter four I will argue at greater length that he did so with some degree of sincerity. For now, what we know is that by 1597, when he took a very promising post as secretary to the eminent state official, Sir Thomas Egerton, his employer would have wanted to be assured that Donne was no longer a Catholic. It is also possible that Donne may have privately made the decision to convert some months earlier. In 1596 and 1597 he sailed on military expeditions against the Spanish, and it might have been important to his conscience and his sense of personal integrity to feel that he was not aiming to sever the souls of his fellow believers from their bodies in the battles of Cadiz and the Azores.[23] Whatever the exact date and nature of this decision, Donne was to remain a Protestant – and in later years a very eminent Protestant – for the rest of his life.

Two broad points must be emphasised here. First: as the case of Donne’s mother shows, English Catholics did not always surrender easily. Eamon Duffy has illustrated at persuasive length how the early switches of monarch and religion (Catholic-Protestant, Protestant-Catholic, Catholic-Protestant in just twenty two years, under Henry, Edward VI, Mary, and finally Elizabeth) allowed many of the Catholic faithful to view the new religion as a passing – if traumatic – aberration.[24] And Patrick Collinson claims that ‘Protestant England was born’ only ‘some considerable time after’ the accession of Elizabeth in 1558.[25] By the 1580s it must have been clear that Elizabeth and many senior churchmen were serious about Protestantism. Yet even then a number of powerful old aristocratic families were able to defy the state and the Church to a considerable extent – as they had explicitly and violently done back in 1571, the year of the Catholic rebellion known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’. In 1564 Donne’s great uncle, William Rastell, left in his will a sum of money which could only be received so long as the beneficiary ‘should not fall into heresy [Protestantism] or return to England until that land had been reconciled to the Catholic faith’.[26] The Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth I, and denied her legitimacy and therefore her status as monarch. Jesuit missionaries, acting as Catholic secret agents, were vigorously seeking to restore Catholicism to Britain, and in some cases to assassinate Elizabeth (these attempts persisting into the reign of James I, who narrowly escaped death in the abortive Gunpowder plot of November 1605).

Second: Donne himself must have developed a certain distinctive psychology as he became conscious of the strange and fraught atmosphere which uneasily charged both his home life and his experiences in the wider society of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Before attending university he had private Catholic tutors. He apparently refers to them as well as to his family when he later admits,


I was first to blot out, certain impressions of the Roman religion, and to wrestle … against some anticipations early laid upon my conscience, both by persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will, and others who by their learning and good life, seemed to me justly to claim an interest for the guiding … of mine understanding.[27]


At Oxford Donne had probably mixed with fellow Catholics. At the age of either 13 or 19 he had mingled with Jesuits in the Tower of London. In 1593 his brother had died for his faith. These and other experiences would have been enough to harden the stubborn resolve seemingly encoded in his Spanish motto of 1591. Added to these, however, was the early sense that his family must have conveyed, of Protestantism as a dangerous but merely transitory heresy.

If we match up these personal and historical circumstances with certain of Donne’s writings we can gauge three things. One is the self-reliance of one who lives on wits, nerves and charm all ground and polished by the gritty frictions of life outside the recognised social world. The fact that Donne felt he deserved so much more would only have heightened this quality. A second result was a degree of religious and intellectual relativism: a lingering feeling that something else might be true, and that those who believed it might indeed have had good reasons and pure hearts in doing so. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Donne imbibed a certain fundamental restlessness. The details and the expressions of what is often a positive force of mobile energy will be set out in all of the following chapters. To sum up one tough vital thread of that quality we might for now say that Donne never quite expected to be believed, or to be right. He never, perhaps, quite believed himself, raised as he was in one religious tradition, and forcibly repositioned in another. Had he done so, he might well have been yet another charming, graceful, yet essentially faceless and voiceless gentleman of the English Renaissance. But like Shakespeare, like Marlowe, Jonson, Nashe and Spenser, he came from somewhere else. He could not depend on existing family or social connections to secure his future career. And he knew, not only that the margins of society are cold and hard, but – a knowledge not available to everyone – quite simply that the margins are real.[28]


And he had plenty of time in which to absorb that knowledge. This phase of his life (1602-14), and that ‘headlong’ fall that brought him to it, give us a sharp insight into the harshness and rigidity of Renaissance social structure. Where Sir George More could ultimately allow personal resentment to fade appreciably, Egerton remained immune to the pleas of both son and father-in-law not so much through hurt pride, but because – though in fact sympathetic to Donne as a fellow ex-Catholic – his own general reputation was at stake if he should relent and take back a disgraced employee. Here is Donne’s assessment of the situation, in a letter to Egerton of 1 March 1602:


How soon my history is despatched! I was carefully and honestly bred; enjoyed an indifferent fortune: I had … the sweetness and security of a freedom and independency, without marking out to my hopes any place of profit … I was four years your Lordship’s secretary, not dishonest nor greedy. The sickness of which I died is that I began in your Lordship’s house this love. Where I shall be buried I know not … To seek preferment here with any but your Lordship were a madness. Every great man … will silently dispute and say, ‘Would my Lord Keeper so disgraciously have imprisoned him and flung him away if he had not done some other great fault of which we hear not?’ … I know mine own necessity, out of which I humbly beg that your Lordship will so much intender your heart towards me, as to give me leave to come into your presence. Affliction, misery, and destruction are not there; and everywhere else where I am they are.[29]


If this letter stands as one of the rare instances where the web of artifice and wit fails to hide the intensity of personal feeling, we need not be surprised. Donne was right. After his disastrous marriage of 1601 (someone, though probably not him, summed it up pithily in the line ‘John Donne – Ann Donne – Undone’) he spent years away from London, in relative isolation and poverty. From 1602-1606 he depended partly on the kindness of rich friends who let him stay on their estate at Pyrford in Surrey; and from 1606-1611 – gaining some independence and losing some comfort – languished in a small and humble cottage in Mitcham, surrounded by children who were often sick, and not infrequently dying. His prophecy about his own reputation seemed directly borne out on at least two occasions, when he unsuccessfully sought the posts of Secretary to Ireland in 1608, and to the Virginia Company in 1609.

            Four hundred years ago, the countryside was not a pleasant retreat from the wild pressures of urban life – at least, not if you were poor. For Donne, a considerable ride out of London, it was an exile: ‘all retirings into a shadowy life’, he tells us, ‘are … alike subject to the barbarousness and insipid dullness of the country.’[30] In 1605 and early 1606 Donne broke the monotony by visiting Europe as a travelling companion to Sir Thomas Chute.[31] As Bald notes, he had lodgings in London from perhaps as early as 1607; and he and his friends did occasionally exchange visits.[32] But it has been plausibly claimed that even these were limited because – especially until 1609 – Donne’s poverty prevented him from dressing with the grace and luxury thought essential to even making an appearance in certain circles.[33] In one important sense, though, Donne’s loss in these years has proved our gain. While his poetic output is said to have been very low between 1602 and 1607, his letters are not only plentiful, but marked with a certain quality that those of more pressured years were to lose.[34] Donne’s own claim, much later, that in poetry he ‘did best when I had least truth for my subjects’, might almost apply to the thin subject matter and effortlessly graceful style of his letters between 1602 and 1614.[35] Writing to Henry Goodyer, the closest of a network of influential friends who were vital in sustaining him in these years, he contrasts the dynamic blur of social activity with the ‘insipid dullness’ of his own home:


To your life full of variety nothing is old, nor new to mine; and as to that life all stickings and hesitations seem stupid and stony, so to this, all fluid slipperinesses and transitory migrations seem giddy and feathery. In that life one is ever in the porch or postern, going in or out, never within his house himself: it is a garment made of remnants, a life ravelled out into ends, a line discontinued, and a number of small wretched points, useless, because they concur not: a life built of past and future, not proposing any constant present; they have more pleasures than we, but not more pleasure; they joy oftener, we longer …[36]


We notice here that the initial opposition between himself and Goodyer all but seamlessly shifts, with the two friends themselves (‘we’) coming to oppose a transient, illusory social froth. Donne’s attitude to friendship will be considered in chapter three. What has to be admitted just now is that friendship was probably for Donne the greatest gain of this period. As for the stoic virtues and ascetic ‘joys’ of isolation and reflection: Donne may have believed that when he wrote it. But he may equally have been – as suggested – simply writing himself back to life once again, in any way he could. St Exupery’s notion that ‘it is what we are worth when motionless that counts’ does not seem to have applied to Donne:


if I say that I have passed [the last week] without hurting any, so may the spider in my window … I would fain do something, but that I cannot tell what is no wonder. For to choose is to do; but to be no part of any body is to be nothing.[37]


It has been remarked that Donne’s writing a book in defence of suicide – his Biathanatos – at this time was no accident.[38] And images of death do indeed sound a dull refrain throughout the letters up to 1609 in particular.

Relief came just in time. Finally, in autumn 1608, Donne’s father-in-law granted the dowry which had so long been withheld.[39] From now Donne’s life becomes easier and more varied. We are still in some danger, though, of over-estimating his own sense of security and direction. We, of course, have hindsight. Donne did not know that in 1615 he would be made a royal chaplain and an honorary doctor of divinity. Hence, as late as May 1614 he explains to his friend Sir Robert Ker that, while ‘others may have told you, that I am relapsed into my fever’, rather ‘that which I must entreat you to condole with me, is that I am relapsed into good degrees of health … and … am fallen from fair hopes, of ending all’.[40] In general terms, though, his prospects had been steadily advancing since late 1610, when he was commissioned by Sir Robert Drury to write a memorial poem for his prematurely deceased daughter, Elizabeth.[41] Ultimately, Donne in fact wrote two long memorials, An Anatomy of the World, and a companion-piece, Of the Progress of the Soul (1611 and 1612). Tellingly, he did not produce his best work in this case. In a sense it is a kind of tribute to Donne’s independence and self-integrity that he wrote badly to order. Indeed, the poems seem not to have been any more popular on their first publication than in later centuries. Most famously, Ben Jonson stated that they were ‘profane and full of blasphemies’, and (perhaps tellingly) that ‘if it [sic] had been written of ye Virgin Mary it were something’.[42] Yet the poems are also interesting just because Donne, a little off his guard, talks revealingly about so many other things beside his dead subject. Thanks to Robert Drury he now finally moves back to London (in 1612) after travelling with that family on the continent earlier in the same year. In 1614 he briefly acts as a Member of Parliament, and – as seen above – is finally brought back into public life and prosperity by Somerset and by James (though not, it would seem, before he had been compelled to write with evident resentment to the former).[43] We will hear more about Donne’s later life (1615-31) and the transition from secular obscurity to ecclesiastical eminence in further chapters, and especially in the conclusion. As we will see, security did not destroy either Donne’s restless creativity, or his peculiar ambivalence.


For now, the life summarised here can be broadly split into three parts. There is, first, Donne’s bright and promising youth – a brilliant career shattered and darkened by the results of his rash marriage in 1601. Within that first phase itself, his relatively late rupture from his native religion is one of the most important events. From 1602-1614 Donne existed in varying degrees of obscurity and poverty. Long as that period was (and perhaps especially so in an era when average life expectancy was around forty), the nadir appears to have fallen some time around its centre. From the time of the dowry to his meeting with James I, Donne was slowly but increasingly moving outward and upward. And it is important to remember that throughout those twelve-odd years Donne retained and acquired many influential friends. Finally, we have Donne the preacher: a more successful and worldly figure, but one who seems never to have forgotten his friends or his own older selves as he delivered the words of God to ever more attentive and eminent London audiences.

This triptych is, of course, partly convenient and artificial. To the person living it, life does not feel so neatly structured. But it is also artificial in another way. Donne’s life was lived in pre-scientific, pre-industrial world whose notions of social order, politics and justice would now strike many as intolerable, and at times barbaric. To fully appreciate his writings, we need to set them in this context, and to restore some of the living drama of that environment. Let us spare just a few moments, then, to spill those painstakingly recovered and isolated drops of biography back into the rich, disorderly and simmering froth from which they were extracted. What might we have seen, some four hundred years ago, in Elizabethan London?





Bells are ringing. The buildings are timbered, plastered not white but a softer, muted shade of pale beige. The glass in the windows is rough, heavily-textured. As far as you can see, the air is filled with spires – perhaps a hundred, and effortlessly the tallest things that pierce the sky, save perhaps one or two of the thick forest of masts swaying gently down on the Thames. The streets are filled with mud. At certain points, with no warning whatsover, the air is clotted with an indescribable stench of decaying human waste. Impossible as this is to avoid, the mud soon proves no less so. A thin strip of relatively clean space runs along each wall of the street (though even there carriages can flick one’s clothes easily). But this sacred zone, it transpires, is reserved for others than yourself. A large man – not so much fat as impressively bulky – makes this forcefully clear as he approaches you, brow darkened, hand reaching for the hilt of a sword that gleams against the deep pile of a gorgeously crimson-lined cloak. (Well, he can have the wall if it means that much to him.[44])

There is, after all, sufficient distraction to compensate for mud and stench. Perhaps the best way to sum it up in a single word is this: contrast. Little flurries of filthy and underfed children break like human surf around your knees; women carrying baskets of oranges cry their wares in an accent resembling nothing you have ever quite heard. Beggars rot in the mouths of alleyways.[45] An occasional pig is seen snuffling through the mud. Ragged youths stoop under long wooden chutes of water. People’s clothing varies: sometimes plain but clean, rough but pure linen; sometimes shredded, unimaginably soaked with the blood, mucous, dirt and excrement of ages; but generally, colourless or very muted. And amidst all this vital yet humble traffic of London life there suddenly appears a wild vision of something all but otherworldly: horses whose very sweat seems to shine and varnish their beautiful coats like the gleaming panels of the coach they draw; an immaculately uniformed driver, occasionally flicking a whip at a slow pedestrian. Within, behind flawlessly shining glass, a glimpse of unusually pale skin, a flash of jewellery, the soft gleam of a velvet glove: a countenance so staggeringly, effortlessly arrogant that it might belong not so much a to a different class as a different species …

It is perhaps some slight comfort, briefly mingling with the crowd outside St Paul’s, to listen to the austere but luridly compelling denunciations of the preacher, spitting chill breath and hot damnation on such luxuries. (Nor does he seem keen on the bright new theatres to which he gestures across the water.) Instinctively breaking away from the intensely monochrome figure (all black in the body and tautly white about the lips and jaw) you glance quickly into the church itself. For a moment, subconsciously linking its neglected rough exterior with the oddly busy, irreverent atmosphere within, you indeed wonder if it is a working church at all. The water-carriers are here again, and seem undeniably as they pass one another briskly, whistling and singing, to be using it as a short-cut. Groups of people whisper in a businesslike rather than awed manner against the pillars, certain of which are blotched by what can only be advertisements. The combined mass of all these hushed voices imparts a restless aural pressure, a kind of bee-swarm filling the air. A weary verger is swiping at the head of a small boy to discourage him from stoning pigeons. And that faintly steaming dark patch there is … yes – undeniably – urine.[46]

Threading between rolling barrels  and the shouts of labourers you head east along the waterside. Little rowing-boats nip bravely across the crowded river between cargo ships; passengers flow in varying degrees of colour and haste up and down the steps cut into the bank. Reaching Tower Bridge you are pleasantly surprised at the nearness of green spaces to north and south of you, bounding in the tight boisterous little network of streets and churches. The bridge itself, once entered, is largely a city in its own right. Looking back from the south side you see rotting and discoloured heads jammed onto poles, here and there crowned by a raven or kite briskly jabbing at the jelly of a sightless eye. No one else seems to have noticed this  – nor, for that matter, the skeletons in ragged coats of flesh which hang suspended over the river (pirates, you later learn). There again, an awful lot of people do seem to be drunk, or much less than sober. This is clear not only from their gait but from the ubiquitous bursts of song brightening the air above the rushing water. And so you stagger on, sword clinking on your side, through this city whose stinking gutters suddenly open on unexpected visions of heaven. A bear roaring, bloodied, wild with rage and pain, is torn at by dogs darting toward the stake that binds it. Angelic voices rise and fuse against the stone vaulting of a nearby church. The plaintive chords of a lute rise, in the strangely blank, open soundscape, through a tavern window.


Amidst this riot of gorgeous luxury, unimaginable poverty, violence, cruelty and hunger Donne moved from day to day. His world is a lost country into which we can only make rapid brief forays – and even then, not without a strenuous effort of imagination.[47] As much of the above indicates, we would probably not want to live there. And it may well have been partly because much of life was so uncertain, harsh, and difficult that the Renaissance so doggedly wove between itself and these grim realities innumerable screens of delicacy, wit, and beauty – often seeming to strike the canvas or the page or the keyboard with the kind of brisk precise exactness of people who had not the time, patience or temperament for half-measures.

With Donne in particular we are especially fortunate. He left us love poems and religious poems, satires that jolt impatiently through the sights and sounds of the city streets, elegies of youthful scorn, furtive midnight debauchery, and gleeful obscenity; the carelessly elegant prose of the letters, and the poise, balance and weight of his sermons, that ‘massive music’ which sounded through the churches of London for just over fifteen years.[48] The different forms in which Donne wrote are important, as are the rhetorical traditions which surrounded him. But the influence of these as constraining factors on his independence or originality can be exaggerated: at times critics appear to claim that neither Donne nor anyone else could say anything new at all.[49] By contrast, Ben Jonson – though himself far from uncritical – was ready to recognise Donne as ‘the first poet in the world in some things’. Jonson also said that ‘Donne for not keeping accent deserved hanging’; and that ‘for not being understood [he] would perish’.[50] The first comment, on the oft-noted lack of smoothness in Donne’s versification, has a wider range of implications than might at first appear. And the second, for some decades, almost seemed to have come true. Recent critical views of Donne are incorporated into the next six chapters. I will close the present one by briefly examining how different ages understood, or sometimes failed to understand, Donne’s poetry.



[1] We cannot be absolutely certain where Donne was in 1588 – a biographical obscurity which may itself be linked to the delicate religious situation of the period. A few months’ study at Cambridge is the inference of Donne’s biographer, R.C. Bald (John Donne: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 46).

[2] Gosse, I, 104-5. I will be giving dates and addressees for letters only where precisely relevant to the context of citation. Dates in square brackets are Gosse’s hypotheses.

[3] Gosse, II, 59-60.

[4] ‘Andrew Marvell’ (1921), in Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1976), p. 293.

[5] For the varying reliability of Walton (1593-1683) see, for example, Bald, Donne, pp. 11-15.

[6] Gosse, I, 168-9; italics mine.

[7] Bald, Donne, p. 58.

[8] Bald, Donne, pp. 42-3.

[9] Pseudo-Martyr (1610), p. 46.

[10] See ‘Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility’, English Literary Renaissance, 19 (1989), 305-323, pp. 309-11.

[11] Bald, Donne, p. 63.

[12] Engraving by William Marshall, 1591 (see Bald, Donne, p. 54).

[13] See John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 23.

[14] For further discussion of this picture, see Dennis Flynn, John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility (Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995), pp. 2-5.

[15] Flynn, Donne, 1995, p. 4.

[16] On the low graduation rate, see Kenneth Charlton, Education in Renaissance England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 137.

[17] Bald, Donne, p. 55.

[18] Sermons IX, 325, VIII, 323. Cf. also Poems, pp. 213, 214.

[19] Satire 4, Poems, p. 169. Cochineal was used for making scarlet dye, and thus implies rouge.

[20] Satire 1, Poems, p. 155.

[21] Bald, Donne, p. 63.

[22] Bald, Donne, p. 63.

[23] Donne sailed with anti-Spanish raids to Cadiz, Faro, Corunna, and Ferrol in June and July 1596, and to the Azores in 1597 (see Bald, Donne, pp. 80-92).

[24] The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

[25] The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Macmillan, 1988), ix.

[26] Bald, Donne, p. 26.

[27] Pseudo-Martyr, B2v, cited in Bald, Donne, p. 39.

[28] Flynn’s claim (Donne, 1995, pp. 4-5), that even in the early 1590s Donne had powerful aristocratic and courtly connections, cannot easily be squared with the clearly real social and financial hardships Donne suffered after 1601.

[29] Gosse, I, 114-15.

[30] Gosse  I,  219.

[31] Bald, Donne, pp. 148-54.

[32] Bald, Donne, p. 158.

[33] Gosse, I, 208-9.

[34] On periods of poetic composition, see The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets: John Donne, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), li-lviii.

[35] Gosse, II, 215, [March 1625].

[36] Gosse, I, 219, [1609].

[37] Gosse, I, 190-1, September 1608.

[38] See, for example, Gosse, I, 263.

[39] See Gosse, I, 207-8.

[40] Gosse, II, 45. Gosse’s dating here is not certain.

[41] Elizabeth was buried on 17 December, and it seems likely that Donne was commissioned before the year was out.

[42] Notes of Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, January 1619 (London: Shakespeare Society, 1842), p. 3.

[43] Gosse, II, 41-2.

[44] The phrase ‘to have the wall’ was once a common expression, denoting someone sufficiently aggressive to force you to the outer side of the road as they passed you.

[45] For valuable studies of poverty in the Renaissance, see Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe, trans. David Gentilcore (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989); William C. Carroll, Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[46] See A History of St. Paul’s Cathedral, ed. W.R. Matthews and W.M. Atkins (London: Phoenix House, 1957), pp. 108-9, 150.

[47] For a recent guide to the minutest details of London life, see also Liza Picard, Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London (Orion, 2003).

[48] Eliot, Essays, p. 291. Although the phrase refers to Donne’s poetry, it is arguably better suited to his sermons.

[49] For the more conservative viewpoint, see Winfried Schleiner, The Imagery of John Donne’s Sermons (Providence: Brown University Press, 1970), p. 80. For the argument in favour of Donne’s genuine originality, see Carey, Donne, p. 1. While Peter McCullough’s recent essay, ‘Donne as Preacher’, is a valuable scholarly introduction to this area, it also seems to overly restrict the ways in which Donne’s sermons can be read (see The Cambridge Companion to John Donne, ed. Achsah Guibbory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 167-182, p. 169).

[50] Conversations, p. 3.