John Donne Page
Thoughts on Some Writings
1. A Holy Sonnet
The writings of John Donne appeal to me most strongly in an emotional way. Although he was very strong intellectually, the power of his poetry transcends reason, going straight to the heart. In this "Holy Sonnet" he reveals his spiritual struggle to us, describing the war in his soul. He carries us along with him in this psalm-like prayer as he escalates the symbolic intensity, culminating in a last couplet as memorable as it is paradoxical.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to
break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I
love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you,
imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
chaste, except you ravish me.
John Donne, 1633.
2. No Man is an Island
Donne's most widely known passage is this meditation upon the sickness and death of a neighbor. I turned to it for comfort, inspiration and exhortation on the Friday following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. As I watched the memorial service broadcast from the National Cathedral in Washington, the tolling of the bells impressed it upon my heart.
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.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as
though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from
the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an
excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any
man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and
ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in
bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his
treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the
nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer
and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to
death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of
no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and
applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take
mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my
God, who is our only security. From "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions", Part
3. Benediction from "Death's Duel
This benediction (or "good saying") shot like an arrow into my soul the first time I read it. Because it closed the last sermon he ever preached before his final sickness and death, it became the benediction of the message that represented his very life. The admonitions contained in it may be graphic and repulsive to the ears of some, but to me they invite the hearer to a spiritual reality that is beyond metaphor and simile, deeper than intellect and emotion. John Donne invites us into the very Kingdom of God and not only that, he invites us to enter through the door: the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ crucified.
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.
I hope you enjoyed my comments. I am indebted to my good friend Rob Frazier for some helpful editing. God bless you as you continue your search.
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Statue of John Donne, Crypt of Westminster Abbey. Photo by my old friend, Jim Trombly.