John Donne was the greatest non-dramatic poet of his time, and its most admired preacher. He was born in 1571, a Londoner and the son of Catholic parents. In his teens, he attended both Oxford and Cambridge, and in his early twenties studied law. In 1593 his younger brother Henry died in prison having been arrested for harbouring a Catholic priest; about this time Donne renounced his Catholic faith. He sailed with Essex to sack Cadiz and with Raleigh to hunt the Spanish treasure ships off the Azores; one of his fellow gentleman adventurers was Thomas, eldest son of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Donne became Secretary to Sir Thomas and might have built a distinguished career in public service had he not been dismissed from his post following his secret marriage to Ann More, Lady Egerton’s niece. After several years of poverty, in 1615 he joined the Anglican Church, and in 1621 became Dean of St Paul’s.

Such a bald account of Donne’s life goes nowhere near conveying the stark directness, the cleverness, or the contradictions of his writing. For a start, he is the most dramatic of non-dramatic poets. ‘The Good-morrow’ starts with casual jauntiness: you can hear the pose in the tone of voice. It is a love poem, both dismissing and celebrating the world of maps, of chemistry (‘whatever dies was not mixed equally’) and of exploration. The speaker seduces by delighting in the intricacy of his ideas. A similar tone opens ‘The Sun Rising’, though with a note of mock frustration too. The lovers are woken by the sun whom the speaker tells to get lost, to return to the workaday world. But that is to put it too simply; the complexity of the poem is that the world of court huntsmen, of kings, of exploration, has its attractions even as it is being shoved roughly aside; Donne was an ambitious man. And the ending brings unexpected tenderness: the lovers need warming, so the sun has a job to do after all.

‘The Flea’ is a wonderfully outrageous play on sexual union: the flea has sucked, and so mingled in its living walls of jet, the blood of himself and the girl. It is a wicked argument to persuade her to carry on what the flea has already started, but also in its imagery it echoes the language of the pulpit and of his Holy Sonnets. Similarly – but in reverse – ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’ uses the imagery of a love affair to describe the frustrations and sense of uselessness he feels in his relationship with God.

With the song ‘Sweetest Love I do not Go’, we come to perhaps the tenderest of the poems in this selection, though even here there is a restless wit and a need to move on, even as the poet expresses his unshakeable fidelity.

Donne was a man whose mind was never still, born a Catholic but became a leading Protestant, relentlessly ambitious but threw away his chances of worldly success by marrying for love. His poetry made him immortal, but he affected to despise it, passed it round in manuscript only and never wanted it published. He died in 1631.

Poems by John Donne

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning - John Donne - Read by Andrew Motion

The Sun Rising

Read by Adam Foulds
The Sun Rising - John Donne - Read by Adam Foulds

The Flea

Read by Adam Foulds
The Flea - John Donne - Read by Adam Foulds

The Good-morrow

Read by Adam Foulds
The Good-morrow - John Donne - Read by Adam Foulds
John Donne in the Poetry Store

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