The first time I read John Donne felt like love at first sight. I was smitten by his Olde English language, by his passion, by his metaphor, by his daring to explore spiritual purity and rape in a single poetical line. Reading his poetry took my 19-year-old mind in directions it had never before gone. I don't remember much else about that Introduction to English Literature class, but I am grateful for every minute we spent in the metaphysical realms of this poetical great's work.
John Donne was born in London in 1572, the third of six children. His father died when he was four years old, and he lost three other siblings before he was ten. His mother was a great-niece of the Catholic martyr Thomas More. In fact, many of Donne's closer relatives were executed for religious reasons. His brother Henry was arrested for harbouring a Catholic priest and died in prison as a result of bubonic plague. This event, it is said, lead Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith. In his early forties, Donne converted to Anglicanism and became an ordained chaplain in the Church of England. Much of his later poetry reflects his deeply held religious beliefs.
Donne is considered one of the most profound metaphysical poets to put quill to parchment. His mastery of the metaphysical conceit, or an extended metaphor that combines two vastly different ideas into a single idea by use of vivid imagery, is displayed in many of his works ranging from erotic love poems to emotional explorations of faith. But, like many great artists and writers, his skill was not noticed until after his death in March 1631. Most of his poems and sermons were published posthumously. Still, his work impacted future literature greats, including Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Merton. Both men derived titles for their works from passages in Donne's "Meditation XVII." Perhaps you know them:
* 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.
* No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Beautiful, no? I leave you with the poem that first grabbed me, in both English and Italian (thanks to a friend who bought me a book of John Donne poetry in Italy). Poetry is so grand in such a romantic language.
Holy Sonnet XIV
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, 'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make mee new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you, 'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
Sonetti Sacri XIV
Sfascia il mio cuore. Dio in tre persone! Per ora
tu solo bussi, aliti, risplendi
e tenti di emendare. Ma perche io sorga e regga,
tu rovesciami e piega la tua forza
a spezzarmi, ad esplodermi, bruciarmi e farmi nuovo.
Userpata cietta, dovuta ad altri, io mi provo
a farti entrare, ma ahi! senza fortuna.
La ragione, in me tuo vicere,
mi dovrebbe difendere ma e
prigioniera e si mostra molle o infida.
Pure teneramente io t'amo e vorrei essere
riamato. Ma fui promesso al tuo nemico.
Divorziami, disciolgli, spezza il nodo,
rapiscimi, imprigionami: se tu
non m'incateni non saro mai libero,
casto mai se tu non mi violenti.