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Donne, John (1572–1631) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

donne’s ann poetry contradictions

John Donne was born in London in the first half of 1572 to Catholic parents. Whether or not one agrees with John Carey’s assessment that Donne’s Catholicism and his subsequent “apostasy” constitute the primary facts of his biography, Donne’s childhood as a member of a persecuted religion certainly had lifelong consequences. His mother and other members of his family were forced to flee to the Continent to avoid persecution, and his younger brother Henry, with whom Donne had entered Oxford and presumably spent much time, was arrested for harboring a priest and died in prison in 1593 at the age of nineteen or twenty. It is impossible to know why or even when Donne shifted allegiance from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church, but it is clear that much of his young adulthood was spent immersed in the literature of religious controversy, and he later contributed to it on behalf of the Protestant position in his prose works Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave .

Nevertheless, there were other formative influences in Donne’s life besides the complications of religion. His father’s death when Donne was four and his mother’s prompt remarriage (although there is no evidence that her second husband was anything but an adequate father) may have contributed to the most obsessive theme in Donne’s poetry—the faithlessness of women (assuming that there is any biographical content in Donne’s poetry at all). Donne’s tenure at Lincoln’s Inn (1592–95) was crucial to his career as a poet because there he wrote at least the first two satires, most of the elegies, and some of the poems in Songs and Sonnets . There he also formed lifelong friendships with some of the men for whom he composed his verse epistles. Among the men he met there was Thomas Egerton, son of the Lord Keeper Egerton, into whose service Donne entered as secretary in late 1596 or early 1597.

While he was in Egerton’s employ Donne met Ann More, Lady Egerton’s niece. In late 1601 Donne secretly married the young Ann without her father’s consent. When Sir George More finally heard of the marriage, he had Donne imprisoned briefly because Ann was still a minor. He also tried unsuccessfully to have the marriage annulled, refused to provide Ann with a dowry, and persuaded Lord Egerton to dismiss Donne from his service. Whatever emotional consolations his marriage to Ann provided (and there is reason to believe they were considerable), Donne’s marriage was an unmitigated disaster for his career in public service.

The first significant break in Donne’s political exile came in 1611, when he entered the service of Sir Robert Drury, for whom he composed the two Anniversaries in honor of his deceased daughter Elizabeth. Only after much resistance did Donne finally acquiesce in King James’* advice to seek a career in the Anglican Church, and Donne was ordained 23 January 1615 and almost immediately appointed royal chaplain. On 15 August 1617, Ann Donne died at the age of thirty-three, in part, apparently worn out by continuous childbearing. Donne’s biographer R. C. Bald sees her death as “a turning point in Donne’s life,” deepening his religious vocation (328). Donne apparently took his ministerial duties very seriously during the next few years and was finally elected dean of St. Paul’s 22 November 1621, a position he held until his death 31 March 1631.

 

CRITICAL RECEPTION

John Donne himself initiated the perception of a self-division in his life and works when he drew a distinction between “Jack Donne” and “Doctor Donne.” Since then the critical response to his works has negotiated the tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes of that self-division, either to assert it as the defining element of the works or to try to heal it by discovering a more unifying vision. In his famous formulation regarding metaphysical poetry—“the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”—Samuel Johnson saw the contradictions as unresolvable. In his equally famous formulation— “there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling”—T. S. Eliot embraces the paradox, seeing it as evidence of a unified “sensibility” (though in appropriately paradoxical fashion, he reverses himself in a later essay—“in Donne there is a manifest fissure between thought and sensibility”).

In an early essay, C. S. Lewis saw Donne’s self-dividedness as a “limitation”—“Donne’s real limitation is not that he writes about , but that he writes in , a chaos of violent and transitory passions”—while Cleanth Brooks, writing at nearly the same time, saw Donne’s paradoxes as the necessary language of poetry—“Donne’s imagination seems obsessed with the problem of unity… that fusion is not logical; it apparently violates science and common sense; it welds together the discordant and the contradictory.” This discordant and contradictory Page 125  quality is, of course, the source of the notorious “difficulty” of Donne’s poetry, which inspired Ben Jonson* to declare that “Donne himself for not being understood would perish.” However, as Richard Halpern has observed, “Literary history has ironically reversed Ben Jonson’s prediction…. For the difficulty of Donne and the other metaphysical poets was what attracted figures such as Cleanth Brooks and T. S. Eliot, who saw in Donne an important precursor of the modernist aesthetic.”

More recently, however, a renewed emphasis on history and biography has sought the more unitary springs beneath the surface contradictions in Donne’s poetry. For Carey, the surface tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes in the poetry are all manifestations of the single, profound dislocation originating in Donne’s “apostasy.” For Marotti, on the other hand, what unifies the apparently competing voices of Donne’s poetry is the fact of a single, homogeneous audience of like-minded male friends. C. S. Lewis’ question of “what any sensible woman would make of such a wooing” is rendered immaterial if one concedes that there was never any wooing going on, that the poetry was self-display, a rhetorical performance. In that case the paradoxes and contradictions cease to need defense or explanation, because it is no longer an issue of what position the speaker holds but how well the speaker can hold simultaneously competing and contradictory positions. We simply learn to appreciate the performance, presumably as the original audience did.

Donner Pass: The Road to Survival [next] [back] Donnan, Elizabeth (1883?–1955) - U.S. History

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