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.

John Donne

    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.

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    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 Concerning the 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 (1779): 

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 us?
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 ride,
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 of time.

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 me.
19.    Ask for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
20.    And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

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 be
28.    To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
29.    Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
30.    This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

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 mend;
3.    That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
4.    Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
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 fain,
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 upon Emergent 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. (....)

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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.

The Pulley

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 breast."

Love (3)

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.