The Earlier 17th Century
When Queen Elizabeth
died in 1603, her distant cousin King James VI of Scotland
was called south to inherit the throne. His family name was Stuart.
His son Charles duly followed him when he died in 1625.
Both kings believed that as monarchs they had absolute
God-given rights. They tried to ignore the old English
constitutional law that obliged the king to rule “in Parliament”.
According to several centuries of tradition, no king could impose
taxes, make new laws, or raise an army
without the consent of Parliament, which included an elected
House of Commons as well as the House of Lords. As
a result, the Stuarts lost the affection of their subjects and the
royal court became an extravagant private spectacle. In 1603, the
king’s service still offered many possible jobs for ambitious
young men like John Donne, but within a few years that
changed and modern, business-oriented ideas of society began to
take over among the citizens of London.
Born in 1572 in London, John Donne lost
his father when he was 4 and his mother was obliged to
remarry at once. She was the grandaughter of Sir
Thomas More’s sister and two of her brothers were Catholic
priests. After the Pope declared in 1570 that Elizabeth was
not the legitimate queen of England, Catholics were suspected of
being potential traitors, priests were seen as agents of an enemy
power. Donne grew up in this Catholic milieu, where people
struggled to remain faithful to the Church while showing
themselves to be loyal subjects of the queen. After the
Armada in 1588, this became even more difficult.
Donne’s father had been a highly respected
citizen, his first step-father was a well-known medical doctor. He
grew up eager to become a powerful and respected citizen too, but
he soon realized that being a Catholic was by now a very serious
obstacle. Since his family had no land, no wealth, he turned to
the Inns of Court (law school) in London where rich young
men and poor but ambitious young men mingled and useful
connections could be made. Like many of his fellow-students, Donne
enjoyed plays, entertainments, and he cultivated his verbal
talents by composing poems as a way of making others notice him.
for a full account of the life and works of Ben Jonson)
Donne was born within a year of Ben Jonson,
and both wrote poetry that turns away from the mannered, rather
old-fashioned styles of the Elizabethan age. Donne was precocious,
and his sensual, Ovidian Elegies and epigrams as well as other
poems were almost certainly written in the 1590s, not long after
Shakespeare’s sonnets. Yet they sound very different. Donne
follows and develops the use of “conceits” that was admired
all over Europe, especially in Italy. The “conceit” is an
artificial image that demands thought, that is unexpected
and causes the reader to pause for reflection before provoking an
admiring response when its aptness is recognized. Donne's
complicated use of such images inspired the Restoration writer and
critic John Dryden (1631 - 1700) to write in his essay Discourse
Original and Progress of Satire (1693): "he affects the
metaphysics . . . and perplexes the minds of the fair sex
with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their
hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love." Later, Samuel
Johnson (1709 - 1784) developed Dryden's ideas in his life
of Abraham Cowley (1618 - 1667) in Lives of the Poets
The metaphysical poets were
men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole
endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead
of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such
verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear;
for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to
be verses by counting the syllables. (. . . .) Their
thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not
obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from
wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what
perverseness of industry they were ever found. But wit,
abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more
rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia
concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of
occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus
defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous
ideas are yoked by violence together, nature and art are
ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their
learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader
commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he
sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
These quotations are the source of the idea that there was a
"school" (group) of "Metaphysical Poets" led by Donne. It is
a mistaken idea, but certainly several poets of the earlier 17th
century used rather "baroque" images to introduce a new
energy into their poetry. They were much admired by Ezra Pound
and T. S. Eliot in the 1920s, as they formulated their
vision of Modernism, in which poetry should be difficult.
Donne probably wrote his poems for a closed circle of
sophisticated, high-class young men. It is impossible to know when
any given poem was written. Some of his poems are conventionally
libertine, declaring that faithfulness in love is wrong. Some are
anti-feminist, insisting that women are always unfaithful. Others
are wooing poems, urging the female to accept a sexual
relationship. A few are intensely positive in their affirmation of
ecstatic mutual love. There is no way of telling how “sincere” or
“personal” any poem was. They were not published in
printed form until 1633, after Donne’s death in 1631,
yet it is clear that he valued them and had prepared a collection
for future publication.
By 1600, Donne had got a very promising job in
the household of a very powerful lord, Sir Thomas Egerton. But
early in 1601 he secretly married Anne More, the young
niece of Lady Egerton, who was living in the house. He was
socially inferior, she was only 17 while he was nearing 30. He
lost his job and the trust of his employer, though he kept the
affection of some of his friends who helped him financially. Later
Donne became a famous churchman and preacher, and was Dean
of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1621 until he died in
1631. He wrote religious poems which betray considerable emotional
strain and express doubts about his salvation, doubts which the
poem strives to overcome.
The Sun Rising
1. Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
2. Why dost thou thus
3. Through windows, and through curtains call on
4. Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?
5. Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
6. Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,
7. Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will
8. Call country ants to harvest offices;
9. Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
10. Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags
11. Thy beams, so reverend, and strong
12. Why shouldst thou think?
13. I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,
14. But that I would not lose her sight so long:
15. If her eyes have not blinded thine,
16. Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
17. Whether both the India's of spice and Mine
18. Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with
19. Ask for those Kings whom thou saw'st
20. And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed
21. She is all States, and all Princes, I,
22. Nothing else is.
23. Princes do but play us; compar'd to this,
24. All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
25. Thou sun art half as happy as we,
26. In that the world's contracted thus;
27. Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties
28. To warm the world, that's done in warming
29. Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
30. This bed thy center is, these walls, thy
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
1. As virtuous men pass mildly away,
2. And whisper to their souls to go,
3. Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
4. The breath goes now, and some say, No;
5. So let us melt, and make no noise,
6. No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
7. 'Twere profanation of our joys
8. To tell the laity our love.
9. Moving of th'earth brings harms and fears,
10. Men reckon what it did and meant;
11. But trepidation of the spheres,
12. Though greater far, is innocent.
13. Dull sublunary lovers' love
14. (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
15. Absence, because it doth remove T
16. hose things which elemented it.
17. But we, by a love so much refined
18. That our selves know not what it is,
19. Inter-assured of the mind,
20. Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
21. Our two souls therefore, which are one,
22. Though I must go, endure not yet
23. A breach, but an expansion,
24. Like gold to airy thinness beat.
25. If they be two, they are so
26. As stiff twin compasses are two;
27. Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
28. To move, but doth, if th'other do.
29. And though it in the centre sit,
30. Yet when the other far doth roam,
31. It leans and hearkens after it,
32. And grows erect, as that comes home.
33. Such wilt thou be to me, who must
34. Like th'other foot, obliquely run;
35. Thy firmness makes my circle just,
36. And makes me end where I begun.
Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God
1. Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
2. As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to
3. That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and
4. Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me
5. I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
6. Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
7. Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
8. But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
9. Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd
10. But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
11. Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
12. Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
13. Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
14. Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The starting point of John Donne's Meditation 17 in his Devotions
Occasions (1624), written after he had recovered from a
serious illness, is the experience of hearing the church
bell ring to announce that someone in the neighborhood is dying.
The sick man wonders for a moment if the bell is not ringing for
him. From there Donne passes to a characteristically unexpected
image of Heaven as a library:
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls
may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and
perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that
they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to
toll for me, and I know not that!
The church is catholic, universal, so are all
her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes
a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby
connected to that Head which is my Head too, and ingrafted into
that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that
action concerns me: all mankind is of one Author and is one
volume; when one man dies, one chapter is, not torn out of the
book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter
must be so translated. God employs several translators; some
pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war,
some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his
hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that
library where every book shall lie open to one another.
(....) No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod
be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,as well as if a
promontory were,as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of
thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am
involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. (....)
(Click here for a full account of
the drama of the Jacobean and Caroline period)
(Click here for a
full account of 17th-century lyric poets from Herbert to
George Herbert (1593 - 1633)
Twenty years younger than John Donne, Herbert spent much of his
life at the university of Cambridge. His mother and elder brother
were closer to John Donne than he was. A devout Christian, Herbert
did not become a priest until 1630, but from 1626 he was
responsible for a parish in Huntingdonshire. It was not far from Little
Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar and his brothers with their
families had recently established a new kind of pious community,
not unlike a monastery, with regular prayers, community service,
and study. The community enjoyed the support of the king, who
visited it (he was a pious and moral-living man). In
April 1630, Herbert became rector (parish priest) of Bemerton, a
small rural village near Salisbury. He was ordained priest in
September 1630 and served humbly the simple people of that remote
village until he died of tuberculosis in 1633. Herbert often visited Little Gidding and was
extremely close to its founder. Just before he died, he sent the
manuscript of his poems to Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to decide
whether to publish them or burn them. On
receiving the manuscript containing Herbert's poems, Ferrar read
them with deep emotion and immediately had them published.
They formed a small book entitled The Temple. He is
often considered to be the first truly "Anglican" poet;
some of his poems were later turned into hymns.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
"Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span."
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow'd, then wisdom, honour, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
"For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
"Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.