Saturday, March 31, 2007

John Donne, Poet and Priest

I was in my last year at school, preparing for A levels, when we began work on the "Metaphysical Poets". Some people found them dull, quaint or obscure, but I loved them from the first moment that I read

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,

Tell me, where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,

Or to keep off envies stinging,

And find
What winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

Something in the writing of these self-consciously "clever" men roused a response in me that was quite different from any other poetry at that point. Later, theirs was to become "my" period, in which I immersed myself in both undergraduate and post-grad years, so that I was no longer deterred by obscurities but recognised the realities to which the words pointed.
George Lukas talks of the metaphysicals "looking beyond the palpable" and "attempting to erase one's own image from the mirror in front so that it should reflect the not-now and not-here" - which sounds rather sacramental and priestly from maybe there was another dimension in their appeal to me even then..

Certainly, one of my first and most treasured experiences of God's love came to me while reading John Donne's "Hymne to God the Father" on the day that my own father died. I blogged about it 2 years ago, but only included one verse of the poem. So today, when the Anglican Church gives thanks for the life and work of John Donne, I want to share with you the whole thing. Reading that last verse takes me straight to the railway carriage near Pevensey Bay where God met and held me and promised that all would be well.

A Hymne To God The Father John Donne

Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne; through which I runne,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I have wonne
Others to sinne? and, made my sinne their doore?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne
A yeare, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne
My last thred, I shall perish on the shore;
But sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I feare no more.


Caroline said...

Hi Kathryn
I feel your passion. Mine has always been possibly less instantly accessible - my enthusiasm has been for Chaucer since we first encountered his work at A level. I even forced my college to find a tutor to supervise my dissertation on Troilus & Crisseyde - it ended up being the Principal of the college!

marcella said...

I'm out of my depth with John Donne and find Chaucer more accessible (OK I cheat and use parallel texts) but thank you for posting the poem and encouraging me to try reading him again.