Sunday, March 30, 2008

Canonized for Love: John Donne, Love Poet and Saint

One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that it's willing to confirm sainthood on an erotic poet. All right, John Donne (1572-1631) was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, and he did write many sacred poems, sermons, and essays, including the famous "No Man is an Island." But he wrote some extraordinarily sensual love poems, such as "Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, in which he compares his exploration of his lover's body to the discovery of America:

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Or take his well-known poem, "The Canonization," a one-sided argument with a someone who does not want him to carry on a love affair. He argues that after death, he and his lover will be made saints for their love:

We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love ;

Donne was born into a prominent Roman Catholic family, but his parents had managed to escape the outright persecution of Catholics. His brother Henry, however, was arrested for harboring a Catholic priest, and died in prison of the plague. Sometime after this, Donne converted to the Church of England. In his young manhood he was something of dashing young swashbuckler, according to the Wikipedia article on him: "During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel." He fought against the Spanish under the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh.

At age 25 he was appointed chief secretary to Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. But he fell in love with Egerton's niece, Anne More, and the couple secretly married in 1601. Because Egerton and More's father opposed the marriage, Donne found himself in prison, along with the priest who married them and the man who witnessed the ceremony. He was released after it was decided that the marriage was valid, and he arranged to have the other two released. But he lost his position. He signed a letter to his wife with a play on the pronunciation of his name: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-Done"

The couple struggled financially, especially as the family grew. Done made a meager living as a country lawyer, but the large family (nine of twelve children survived infancy) had to depend on the generosity of Anne's cousin. Only in 1609 was he reconciled with Anne's father, and received her dowry. Anne died in 1617 after giving birth to a stillborn baby. John was devastated. He never remarried. In his later years the turned to sacred verse, and to meditations on our mortality.

Donne's love poems, written in his younger years, were not published during his lifetime, though they circulated in manuscript form. His theme of the sacredness of love--not just the selfless agape of the New Testament, but eros, the physical, psychic, and emotional love between two people--resonates with me.

So I'm thankful that my church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church honor him as a saint, on the date of his death (his "heavenly birthday"), March 31. But I wish Anne More Donne, who inspired much of his love poetry and had to endure much pain and hardship for her love, were similarly honored.


SzélsőFa said...

I've heard about Donne, but did not know this much about him. Thank you for the nice review, and I especially like the ending paragraph about his Muse.

bart said...

thanks for this... donne was one of the poets i needed to read at school but never really understood at the time... growing up does have a positive side, i'm unlearning thing i knew and learning things i should have learned a long time ago ;-)

keep well...

Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't know this information. Thanks for sharing. Kind of cool definitely.

Peter said...

I didn't know about these more sensual love poems, either. "Elegy XIX" could have been the inspiration for Sharon Olds's "Topography":

After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York . . .

steve said...

Szelsofa--I gleaned most of the information from the Wikipedia article about him. There's a picture of him as a young man--dark, handome, and looking seductive. I'm glad you appreciated my tribute to his Muse.

Bart--I'm not sure whether I understand Donne now. A lot of his poems are what my friend Peter (see above) call "slow reads"--poems that need to be read slowly and sometimes repeatedly.

Charles--Yes, definitely.

Peter--I've read a few poems by Sharon Olds, but not that one. I wouldn't be at all surprised if "Elegy XIX" influenced her.

I see you've taken on literary analysis. It's a slow read, as usual, so it may take a while for me to digest.

twoblueday said...

To quote a famous American: "So?"

Tea N. Crumpet said...

Thank you for sharing this with us! I cried reading about these two-- and their nine kids and 12 conceptions! We have something in common!

Lisa said...

This is a great post and so timely for this month. Thank you for sharing this. I need to read more Donne now!

steve said...

Tea--Thank you. I thought of you when I read about Anne Donne's 9 children.

Lisa--Thank you. I've only scratched the surface of Donne's writing.

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Mother Superior OHR said...

Thank you so much for honouring John and Anne Donne. I have some poems for you about him and her.

God bless you!

Mother Ziggy (Sigrid) Agocsi
Mother Superior
Order of the Holy Rose

steve said...

Mother Superior--Thank you for commenting and your blessing. I enjoyed your website and reading your poems from a resurrected Anne Donne's point of view. (You might want to change the background--the poems are sometimes hard to read because of it.)