John Donne was a devout churchman as well as a brilliant poet. Today, moderns often assume that the two do not go together; but Donne was a complete man, able to celebrate both human and divine love.
Donne’s poetry is purposely complicated with extraordinary imagery, drawn from science, philosophy, religion, politics and economics. Such “conceits,” as they were called, are challenges to the reader to think about the content–and delights to those readers who recognize the wit of the comparisons.
Enjoy the following sample of Donne’s lyrics.
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Me thinks I lied all winter, when I swore,
My love was infinite, if spring make’it more.
But if this medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixt of all stuffs, paining soul, or sense,
And of the Sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no Mistress but their Muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.
And yet no greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament,
Stars by the Sun are not enlarg’d, but shown.
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From loves awakened root do bud out now.
If, as in water stir’d more circles be
Produc’d by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For, they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.
To what a cumbersome unwieldiness
And burdenous corpulence my love had grown,
But that I did, to make it less,
And keep it in proportion,
Give it a diet, made it feed upon
That which love worst endures, discretion.
Above one sigh a day I’allow’d him not,
Of which my fortune, and my faults had part;
And if sometimes by stealth he got
A she sigh from my mistress’ heart,
And thought to feast on that, I let him see
‘Twas neither very sound, nor meant to me.
If he wrung from me’a tear, I brin’d it so
With scorn or shame, that him it nourish’d not;
If he suck’d hers, I let him know
‘Twas not a tear, which he had got,
His drink was counterfeit, as was his meat;
For, eyes which roll towards all, weep not, but sweat.
What ever he would dictate, I writ that,
But burnt my letters; When she writ to me,
And that that favor made him fat,
I said, if any title be
Convey’d by this, Ah, what doth it avail,
To be the fortieth name in an entail?
Thus I reclaim’d my buzzard love, to fly
At what, and when, and how, and where I choose;
Now negligent of sport I lie,
And now as other Fawkners use,
I spring a mistress, swear, write, sigh and weep:
And the game kill’d, or lost, go talk, and sleep.
The Sun Rising
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why doest thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lover’s seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys, and sour prentices,
Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to morrow late, tell me,
Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those Kings whom thou sawst yesterday,
And thou shall hear, All here in one bed lay.
She’s all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honor’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.
Thou sun art half as happy’as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.
When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
(For graves have learn’d that woman head,
To be to more than one a bed)
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?
If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mis-devotion doth command,
Then he, that digs us up, will bring
Us to the bishop, and the king,
To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men;
And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.
First, we lov’d well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we lov’d, nor why;
Difference of sex no more we knew
Than our guardian angels do;
Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals
Which nature, injur’d by late law, sets free;
These miracles we did, but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.
Now thou hast lov’d me one whole day.
To morrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou Antedate some new made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons, which we were?
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,
So lovers contracts, images of those,
Bind but ‘til sleep, death’s image, then unloose?
Or, your own end to Justify,
For having purpos’d change, and falsehood; you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these scrapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by to morrow, I may think so too.
Death Be Not Proud
Death be not proud, though some have calléd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with Poison, War, and Sickness dwell;
And poppy and charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.