John Donne's Bawdy Body Devotion
When savoring the devotional worth of John Donne, the wrestling of a divided devotee spices the mix in two ways. His neo-platonistic soul seeks to flee his body, and, while seeming incongruous at first, his secular and “Holy” poems actually inform and enhance one another.
The bifurcation of Donne’s body of poems certainly received initial credence when some twenty years after his death Izak Walton published a biography of Donne which suggested that prior to becoming a clergyman Donne had written his racy, secular poems then after having taken holy orders, only wrote poems explicitly focused on “holy living and holy dying.” The problem with Walton’s view of Donne is that it can’t be corroborated. Moreover, Walton can be contradicted on various points of fact. (David Novar’s The Making of Walton’s Lives suggests that for political reasons the biographer may have fabricated the chronology and details to make Donne appear a saint after the model of Augustine, that is, “so small the boy, so great the sinner” to seminal Christian Theologian.) All of Donne’s lyrical poems were published together two years after the poet’s death. For all we know he could have written Holy Sonnet 14 “Batter My Heart, Three-personed God” the same day he wrote Elegy 19 “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” Several of his contemporaries, Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick included, were known to write both religious and quite irreligious verse simultaneously.
While reading Donne, I find it most beneficial to let the religious and secular poems speak to one another. Together in them we hear voiced the crazed pleasure and simpering pain of known sin. In the seventeenth century, men were characterized by their friends with a single adjective attached to their names. Ben Jonson was “Rare”; George Etherege, “Easy”; George Herbert, “Holy.” John Donne had two such labels, perhaps reflecting his two poetic voices. He was known as Jack the Rake and Dr. Donne, Divine. I propose a new way to appreciate the two sides of his one personality as Dr. Jack Donne, the Divine Rake.
“A Hymn to God the Father” reflects the fear of one who has known sin past and present. And, he panics, future. Will God forgive the past? “Which is my sin, though it were done before?”(2). Although the sin(s) hadn’t originated with him, nevertheless the persona acknowledges that he [re-]created it/them for himself. In spite of the dire seriousness of this self examination, there is here the first hint at playfulness on his name, that these sins were “done” earlier. Perhaps echoing Paul’s quandary of doing which he hates in Romans 7:13-20, Donne “still” runs in the sin he deplores. This persona doesn’t sound like Walton’s new saint, but rather like someone who loves God and wants to follow Him, but continues to fail in the flesh. Because when God has “done” (that is John Donne) as His loyal devotee and is “done” (that is finished) forgiving his sin, God “hast not done,” neither finished forgiving nor possessing a devotee singularly focused on Him, because the poet/priest has “more” to commit and confess.
Perhaps some of Donne’s less religious poems authenticate the poignancy of the second stanza query.
Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? And, made my sin their door? (7-8)
In the seduction poem “The Flea,” Donne’s persona suggests to a woman that because in having sex people exchange blood, and because the titular bug has bitten them both, thus mixing their bloods, it is as if they have already had sex so they might as well go ahead and have sex. In “Song: Go, and catch a falling star,” he proclaims that even if someone could find a woman “true,” he wouldn’t go meet her because she would prove “false” to “two, or three” before he got there. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests to me that the persona may wish to ease out of an intimate relationship at his convenience physically and emotionally. Donne wrote several graphic elegies and satires. It’s not impossible to imagine that he could also be self critical of his religious poems here, with their confused theologies and rampid doubts. “A Hymn to God the Father” may even indict itself and its author as leading the reader astray. The balance of time is against him: he may have shunned such sins a year or two, but he’s “wallowed in” them “a score” (9-10). He fears that God may/can not forgive such.
When thou hast d one, thou hast not done,
For I have more. (11-12)
There may be something even more complex in this at once somber and playful refrain. In the repeated done’s, Donne is obviously playing on his own name. But he had also married, against her father’s wishes, a woman named Ann More. In the hymn, the voice fears the efficacy of God’s forgiveness because he holds “more.” How is the poet’s wife the last bastion of his sin, the final test to God’s love? Does she rival the Almighty? Or are Donne’s sins with her and/or against her so egregious as to exceed the power of grace?
We can’t simply read Donne’s poems of pursuit as a biography of infidelity. He married Ann More, the niece of his boss, Sir Thomas Egerton, secretly in 1601. When the secret came out Donne lost his job and the blessing to find another one. Ann’s father, George More, refused to pay her dowry until 1609 because his daughter had married beneath her family status. The couple suffered for love, birthing twelve children and raising seven into adulthood, until Ann died in 1617. When he lost “she whom I have loved” (1), the voice of Holy Sonnet 17 declares “my good is dead” (2). So he “set” “his mind” “wholly on heavenly things,” but the sonnet reveals that even so there is a struggle to love God more than he longs for his dead wife. “[A]dmiring” her had been the “stream” that led him to their own “head,” but a “holy, thirsty dropsy melts [him] yet” (8) and he begs “more Love.” There is a “tender jealousy” in the divine-human bond that he still fears “Flesh” may extinguish (14). Jesus seems to have warned against injudiciously placing family before God (Matt. 12:46-50). Donne fears for he has “more.”
In the last stanza of “A Hymn to God the Father,” his fear becomes his sin. Believing that his sin is too great to be forgiven is an unpardonable sin. In a classically Donnean twist, the persona at last cajoles a commitment from God that Christ shall “shine” true as He has “heretofore” (in the poem as in his life), as He does now (in that moment of fearsome, inspired faith) and in the future at his “death.”
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I fear no more. (17-18)
With God’s faithfulness believed, Donne asserts his own faith in the midst of contrasting doubt. For the first time in the poem the tee in “Thou” is capitalized. God now has all of Donne. Sins of the past, present and future included. His work is finished. And so “I fear no more:” not even the rivalrous love he bears his wife.
Another poem in which our understanding is deepened by its connectivity to Donne’s secular work is Holy Sonnet 14. Here again the voice cries: “I love you and would but loved fain,” but is “captived” by his sinful self. Instead of naming and exploring his “black sin” as he does in Holy Sonnets 4 and 5, in 14 Donne simply assumes his wretchedness as tantamount to betrothal to God’s “enemy” (10). Because he finds himself in such a miserable spiritual dearth, the basic argument of the poem pleads that God not be so nice, but rather bodily abuse him as to be corrective. His complaint that God just “knock[s], breathe[s], shine[s]” remarkably resembles the meticulous care a car lover lavishes on a favorite vehicle in waxing. This is not enough to reform the recalcitrant. “[B]reak, blow, burn” he pleads (4). In order for him to stand upright, God must first throw him down (3). He is like a “usurpt town” where his reason, God’s “viceroy” in him “proves weak and untrue” (5-8).
The last image of the poem strikes the loudest. It is downright bawdy. The sinner is an unfaithful lover who pleads for redress in sexual terms. The options are widely divergent from “divorce” to “break that knot again” which succinctly supplicates for revirginization so that that miraculous chastity may then be reviolated. “Take me to you” in the context is bodily bawdy (12). These are images that Donne has not shied from in his secular poems. In this “divine” poem, they suggest the intensity of his self loathing and his desire for God. The contrasts are pointed. He won’t be free unless “enthrall[ed],” a word which in the seventeenth century held strongly oppressive sexual connotations. He won’t be pure (“chast” 14), unless God “ravish[es],” that is rapes, him. God as rapist: this is the kind of metaphysical conceit that Samuel Johnson complained characterized Donne, “heterogeneous ideas yoked together by violence.” It is hard for us to reconcile such radically incongruent concepts. Holy Sonnet 14 is a prayer that not many of us will pray both for its extreme indelicacy and it bold submissiveness to our Lord’s authority. The challenge is to give up our nice relationship to God to seek the intimacy of his vigorous love.
In what are arguably Donne's best known devotional lines, he asserts in prose:
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 PromontoryManor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s deathme, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. were, as well as if a diminishes
Earnest Hemingway, of course, took the title for his novel For Whom Bell Tolls , which ironically posits no human connectivity, from Donne’s Meditation 17 which here powerfully embraces our fatal incorporation. Fully titled this prose meditation appears in a collection of “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” where something happens in the writer’s life to stimulate musings on his relationship to God. In 17, the author, amidst what he believes to be a fatal illness, hears the death knell traditionally rung as someone passes from the living to the dead, and he wonders whether the one who is passing or past hears the bell’s toll. Musing further, Donne considers that if, in his own state of ill health, the bell is for him, which he postulates it could well be, he doesn’t recognize it as such. Therefore, it is all one. Whoever the bell tolls for, by our commonality, it is for no one we know of for sure, but for every we know as well as those we don’t.
His own physical demise is something Donne took much occasion to speculate on. Having fallen seriously ill nearly ten years before his death, even after recovering somewhat, set about the project of dying well. At least metaphorically, in his devotional works, he represents death as the ultimate elevation of soul essence over fleshly body. Slightly ironically, in one remnant of his dying years, one of very few pre-Great Fire, pre-Wren artifacts from
Donne typically views the body in antithesis to the soul. In Holy Sonnet 6, again he contemplates his own death, “my plays last scene,” when “gluttonous death, will instantly unjoint / My body, and soul” (1, 5-6). His goal that his “soul” might go “to heaven” even as his dead body “dwell[s]” “in the earth” with his sin (9-10), and ”fall[s]” “to hell” ends in direct address to God:
Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil. (13-14)
Similarly, separation of body and soul may be intimated in the beginning of Holy Sonnet 5:
I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelic spright (1-2).
Such distinctions and seeming gradations of human composition echo in Donne’s non-religious work as well. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” lovers who must be physically apart “endure” because, unlike lovers “whose soul is sense,” that is, whose relationship is based on bodily love making, their “two souls” are “one” (22, 14, 21). “The Exstacy,” the title of which etymologically means something like standing outside of, describes an all day orgy of souls joining outside of their bodies; thus, love “Interinanimates two souls” (42).
“Goodfriday, 1613, Riding West” is a dialectic of body and soul. On this day when his “soul” “bends” to the east where Christ suffered the crucifixion of his body, the persona finds himself riding and thereby facing west seemingly in cross purpose. He remembers the blood of the cross “which is, / The seat of all our souls” and the “flesh,” the apparel” of God that day, “torn” on the cross (25-28). These thoughts of great conflict are redeemed by the revelation that a back turned to Christ is ready for “corrections” in the flesh, flagellation style. To so “punish” the body is to “restore” the soul (39, 41).
Ultimately, beyond this, for Donne death to the body means life to the soul. Nowhere is this better articulated than in Holy Sonnet 10. Herein Donne mocks, (“poor Death,”) death’s false pride and might and dread. In actuality, in the poet’s view, death, which is foreshadowed in such common life experiences as “rest and sleep,” is an event of “much pleasure.” In his confidence, the persona both regrets and celebrates that “our best men” go “soonest” to death. The death of “their bones” is their “souls delivery” (8). He ridicules death as “slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desparate men” (9), whose ministers are the lessers “poison, war and sickness.” “Charms,” such sedatives and hemlock tea (“poppies”), can make us sleep as well “and better.” The rhetoric is sharp. The death of our earthly bodies is trivialized.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.