John Donne ... “...for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.”
The poet and priest John Donne (1572-1631) is best remembered today for his lines:
No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee. — John Donne, Meditation XVII
However, my choice of Christmas poem this morning is one of his lesser known poems, ‘Nativity.’
John Donne’s early career as a civil servant was hampered by his Roman Catholic leanings, then destroyed by the British aristocrat whose daughter he married against her father’s will. Like George Herbert, who featured in my choice of Christmas poem yesterday, John Donne he came to the attention of King James I. In the case of Donne, though, the king found him a prominent position in the Church of England, where he quickly earned respect for his writing.
John Donne (1572-1631) was the most outstanding of the English metaphysical poets. He was born in London to a prominent Roman Catholic family – his mother was related to Thomas More – but he became an Anglican in the 1590s. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, but he could not take a degree at either university because of his Roman Catholicism – although he would later received the degree DD from Cambridge.
He then studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London, and was expected to embark on a legal or diplomatic career. In 1598, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal, in 1598. But his secret marriage in 1601 to Egerton’s niece, Anne More, resulted in his dismissal and a brief imprisonment. When he wrote to his wife to tell her about his dismissal, he wrote after his name: “ John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” After his release, he made a meagre living as a lawyer, and also served as an MP in 1601 and again in 1614.
Donne’s principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607), La Corona (1610), from which today’s choice of poem is selected, and the prose work Biathanatos (ca 1608), which was published posthumously in 1644.
In 1615, Donne was ordained an Anglican priest and later that year he was appointed a royal chaplain. In 1621, he became Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. There he attained eminence as a preacher for his sermons, regarded by many as the most brilliant and eloquent of his time
Donne preached what was called his own funeral sermon, “Death’s Duel” just a few weeks before he died in London on 31 March 1631
Donne is a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period, his works are notable for their realistic and sensual style, and they include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons.
His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially when he is compared with his contemporaries. His masculine, ingenious style is characterised by abrupt openings, paradoxes, dislocations, argumentative structure, and “conceits” – images that yoke things seemingly unlike. These features, combined with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax, and his tough eloquence were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques.
His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of contemporary English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry was the idea of true religion, which he spent much time considering and theorising. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic poems and love poems, and is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Some of Donne’s poetry is sensual for his time – many critics attribute those verses to his years as a student. A few of his poems apparently express his love for his wife, and a number express religious sentiment using terms and imagery that are nearly as passionate as his love poems.
Rising to prominence about a generation after Shakespeare, Donne wrote at a time when “wit,” or a kind of poetic cleverness, was highly valued. He delighted in writing complicated metaphors (called “conceits”) that often make his poems exercise the mind more than the heart.
Donne also delighted in imagined “contraction” or shrinkage of space and time – a lifetime into moments, or all of the world’s empires into his lovers’ eyes.
Nowhere in his “Divine” poems is that “contraction” more poignant than in the sonnet, ‘Nativity,’ my choice of Christmas poem this morning. In this poem, the Infinite becomes small enough to be contained in the most private of all chambers. Donne also points out with charming irony that God pitied us so much that he became vulnerable enough to elicit our pity toward him.
This early poem by Donne comes, from the collection La Corona (1610). The key to its understanding lies in contrasting the opening line “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,” with the contradictory “how He/Which fills all place, yet none holds Him.”
The Nativity Donne presents here is an historical reference, a few moments in time, standing for a message which is timeless and universal. The paradox moves in both time and space.
The image of tight confinement figures often in Donne’s writings, poetical and theological, and its significance is unfolded best here: “We are all conceived in close Prison; in our Mothers wombs, we are close Prisoners all; when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of Execution, to death” (Easter Sunday 1619, Sermons, vol. 2, p. 107).
But the message of the Nativity, says Donne, is a message of purpose and direction on this path tread by endless humans across the ages: “Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sonne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebbles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinall Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumines us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion; and when he hath found them, loves them, not for the lights sake, but for the naturall and true worth of the thing it self.”
This is a “supernaturall light of faith and grace,” he writes, that made its appearance at the Nativity, but it is a light of reason that enables humankind both to understand its maker and itself (Christmas Day 1621, Sermons, vol. 3, p. 359).
Nativity by John Donne
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
Tomorrow: ‘Christ’s Nativity’ by Henry Vaughan.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
Thank you for reminding me of this poem. I first read when I was about 14, nearly 50 years ago. I taught it many times but haven't looked at it for years. It makes me feel that all is not lost in our wold when someone out there thinks of it and loves it too.
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