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May 21

An introduction to John Donne and his poetry

John Donne is probably not known as well as William Shakespeare, William Blake and a lot of other English poets, and yet he has written many of the most famous lines and poems in the English language.

 

John DonneBorn in 1572, Donne’s father died when he was very young, and most of his sisters died before he even got to university. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he was in constant danger from the Protestant regime enforced by Queen Elizabeth.

 

He married for love, to a woman of a different social standing, and suffered because of it.

 

Despite all this, overriding themes of his work were love, religion and his contemplations of mankind as a whole, epitomised by one of his most famous verses:

 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

 

Reasons to try reading John Donne:

  • Short stanzas and poems, all rhyming impeccably.
  • Famous works about love, religion and human nature.
  • Relatively simple and comprehensible language.

 

Here is one of the best illustrations of the qualities above:

 

Valediction: A Forbidding Morning

 

“As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“The breath goes now,” and some say, “No,”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.”

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