Posts Tagged ‘Batter My Heart’

Poetry: John Donne

December 20, 2014

If asked, he’s my all-time favourite poet, for his wit, mainly, and the astonishing range of his poetry, from the passionate love lyrics of his early days to the deeply religious poems by the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Sadly, I had fewer opportunities to teach his poetry than I’d have liked, because, to quote an examination board official, “he’s too difficult for today’s students”. Whilst that comment had me seething, there is some truth in it as I recall being observed by a headteacher early in my career who was somewhat astonished at my ability to deliver a crash-course in basic theology to sixth-formers… o tempora, o mores…

Donne wrote in those far-off days when any educated man could turn out a decent poem for an occasion or to a lover, in English certainly and perhaps in Latin or Greek, too. I’ve come to feel, over the years, that Donne surpasses Shakespeare as a poet (of verse, not of drama, obviously) in the breadth of his achievement and the astonishing versatility of his language. Yes, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, but Donne wrote a wide range of different lyrics. Shakespeare is in some ways more polished, Donne rougher but livelier too, and more sparkling.

There is the spectacular (sexual) energy via the direct address in such poems as The Sunne Rising and The Flea – who could imagine a lover lecturing his mistress on an insect, as a way of persuading her into bed? There is the real tenderness of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which shades delicately into a hint of sexuality at the end. And contrast the verse structures of these three poems! And then jealousy: the woman spooked in The Apparition

When it came to religion, there is the genuine doubt which sprang from an age of religious turmoil, the yearning for God, and the love for Him. The Holy Sonnets may perhaps be more sober than the love lyrics, but there is still the atonishing boldness of the direct address in Death Be Not Proud and the sexual violence of Batter My Heart. And then, the tenderness, the quietness of the Hymn To God The Father, with the subtle wit in playing with his wife’s name.

Donne wrote in the days when so many writers – perhaps Shakespeare most of all – were doing amazing things as they experimented with the versatility of the developing English language; Donne works in many examples of wit, learning, puns, metaphors and conceits to astonish his readers. His life speaks through his verse: from the would-be courtier, the lover whose real love and unconventional marriage cost him advancement to the Anglican priest searching for God and faith in such troubled times: for me the poet par excellence from the most energetic age of English literature.

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