During the last three weeks of August each year the choir take a break from evensong and in its place we do something different. In 2019 we had a short form of compline, each featuring a speaker sharing something of a poet of their choice and ending by reading one of their poems. This is the reflection which I prepared for that occasion at St Mary’s Diss, on the 11th of August 2019.
How can I stand up and speak about poetry when in truth poems speak for themselves? It seems that poetry has a mysterious quality to it which means that people either appreciate it, or they don’t. Even when they appreciate it they run the risk when they talk about it of trying to explain it; whether that be through technical examination of meter and forms of rhyme or by defending their intellectual prowess and demonstrating that they do in fact understand the many allusions and subtle references within the verse. These are all well and good but I vividly remember the conversation in my English class where a teacher had carefully explained some clever aspect of a Seamus Heaney poem and one boy blurted out: “But Miss, did he mean for that to be like that or did it just happen when he wrote it?”
A sentiment I’m sure many of us can appreciate.
Nevertheless, I do love poetry even if my love of poetry often means I hold it at arm’s length. Poetry which resonates is poetry which has soul, which is somehow greater than the sum of its parts and which also somehow connects with our hearts in our own particular circumstances. I tend to fear that if I should poke and prod it too firmly, it shall collapse from a glimpse of meaning into mere words on a page.
As such, I tend to scavenge poems as a magpie, flitting here and there until I find something shiny which catches my eye. And catch my 19 year old eye did one particular poem. It would turn out to be by John Donne and was my introduction to a group of poets which are often referred to as the Metaphysical Poets We’re talking Vaughn, Herbert, Marvell and so on. 17th Century poets, each with distinct styles yet who, as TS Elliot described it, wrote in such a way as to combine the intellectual and the emotional in order to explore, or complain about, themes of love, religion, sex and even science.
Donne is often considered one of the most prominent of these. While popular with friends and patrons in his day, he was largely forgotten about until Elliot and Yeats in the 1920s rediscovered and repopularised him. Another favourite poet of mine, Ben Jonson, described Donne as “the first poet in the world in some things”.
Allow me to briefly sketch his life before we turn to the poems. He was born in 1572 to Roman Catholic parents in a time when Catholicism was illegal in England. Despite being well educated, at both oxford and cambridge, he didn’t graduate because his catholicism prevent him from taking the Oath of Supremacy, an oath of allegiance to the King as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. He lived off of his inheritance and the support of friends while travelling and womanising. He became a diplomat, but his career was ended by secretly marrying Anne More against her parents wishes, for which they were put in jail until he could prove they were married legally. After 16 years of marriage his wife died in the days following the stillbirth of their 12th child, and only seven of them would survive beyond the age of ten. These losses greatly affected him.
Donne also served as an MP for Brackley and then Taunton and in 1615 King James urged him to take Holy Orders. Reluctantly, he eventually said yes and was ordained and served as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. In addition to his poetry, he gained a reputation for being a skilled preacher. He died following a prolonged, yet unknown, illness. A couple of weeks before he died he got up from his bed to preach his now best known sermon – Death’s Duel.
His life was therefore one which had a wealth of different experiences and he engaged with a multitude of themes throughout his poetry.
My 19 year old eye was caught first by a poem entitled “To his mistress Going to Bed’, which vividly and excessively depicts an angelic woman being undressed to ‘Full nakedness”, with his roving hands ‘blest in discovering thee’. Erotic as it is, each line is filled with references to various myths and legends, to empires and the new found lands of the Americas. This wasn’t just evocative sensationalism, it’s intellectually playful as well.
And that intrigued me and led me into more of his poems, such as his infamous Flea. Yet my favourites were those he wrote towards the end of his life, as an Anglican Priest. A selection of these are known as the Holy Sonnets, and in them Donne wrestles with his own sinfulness, his concern for true faith, for the true religion and that God might truly and actually love him. In one he concludes:
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
There’s a strength, and perhaps a desperation, to his words. At times, they seem almost like prayers to ward off doubt. At other times, they possess a confidence in the resurrection which enables him to mock death itself:
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so… one short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.”
The poem to which I keep on returning is not actually a sonnet, but is from this period towards the end of his life. It’s called “Hymn to God, My God, in my Sickness”, and in it we encounter a rich reflection on illness and being close to death which is all at once emotionally aware, instinctively intellectual and, ultimately, theologically hopeful.
And so I end by letting it speak for itself.
Hymn to God, My God, in my Sickness.
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,
I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”