John Donne: Poems


Donne is remembered with a commemoration as a priest and poet[27] in the calendar[28] of the Church of England[29] and in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 31 March.[30]

During his lifetime several likenesses were made of the poet. The earliest was the anonymous portrait of 1594 now in the National Portrait Gallery, London which has been recently restored.[31] One of the earliest Elizabethan portraits of an author, the fashionably dressed poet is shown darkly brooding on his love. The portrait was described in Donne's will as "that picture of myne wych is taken in the shaddowes", and bequeathed by him to Robert Kerr, 1st Earl of Ancram.[32] Other paintings include a 1616 head and shoulders after Isaac Oliver, also in the National Portrait Gallery,[33] and a 1622 head and shoulders in the Victoria and Albert Museum.[34] In 1911 the young Stanley Spencer devoted a visionary painting to John Donne arriving in heaven (1911) which is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.[35]

Donne's reception until the twentieth century was influenced by the publication of his writings in the seventeenth century. Because Donne avoided publication during his life,[36] the majority of his works were brought to the press by others in the decades after his death. These publications present what Erin McCarthy calls a "teleological narrative of Donne’s growth" from young rake "Jack Donne" to reverend divine "Dr. Donne."[37] For example, while the first edition of Poems, by J. D. (1633) mingled amorous and pious verse indiscriminately, all editions after 1635 separated poems into "Songs and Sonnets" and "Divine Poems." This organization "promulgated the tale of Jack Donne’s transformation into Doctor Donne and made it the dominant way of understanding Donne’s life and work."[37]

A similar effort to justify Donne's early writings appeared in the publication of his prose. This pattern can be seen in a 1652 volume that combines texts from throughout Donne's career, including flippant works like Ignatius his Conclave and more pious writings like Essays in Divinity. In the preface, Donne's son "unifies the otherwise disparate texts around an impression of Donne’s divinity" by comparing his father's varied writing to Jesus' miracles.[38] Christ “began his first Miracle here, by turning Water into Wine, and made it his last to ascend from Earth to Heaven.”[39]

Just like Jesus, Donne first wrote “things conducing to cheerfulness & entertainment of Mankind," and later "change[d] his conversation from Men to Angels.”[39] Another figure who contributed to Donne's legacy as a rake-turned-preacher was Donne's first biographer Izaak Walton. Walton's biography separated Donne's life into two stages, comparing Donne's life to the transformation of St. Paul. Walton writes, "where [Donne] had been a Saul… in his irregular youth,” he became “a Paul, and preach[ed] salvation to his brethren.”[40]

The idea that Donne's writings reflect two distinct stages of his life remains common; however, many scholars have challenged this understanding. In 1948, Evelyn Simpson wrote, "a close study of his works... makes it clear that his was no case of dual personality. He was not a Jekyll-Hyde in Jacobean dress... There is an essential unity underlying the flagrant and manifold contradictions of his temperament."[41]

In literature

After Donne's death, a number of poetical tributes were paid to him, of which one of the principal (and most difficult to follow) was his friend Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "Elegy for Doctor Donne".[42] Posthumous editions of Donne's poems were accompanied by several "Elegies upon the Author" over the course of the next two centuries.[43] Six of these were written by fellow churchmen, others by such courtly writers as Thomas Carew, Sidney Godolphin and Endymion Porter. In 1963 came Joseph Brodsky's "The Great Elegy for John Donne".[44]

Beginning in the 20th century, several historical novels appeared taking as their subject various episodes in Donne's life. His courtship of Anne More is the subject of Elizabeth Gray Vining's Take Heed of Loving Me: A novel about John Donne (1963)[45] and Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (2010).[46] Both characters also make interspersed appearances in Mary Novik's Conceit (2007), where the main focus is on their rebellious daughter Pegge. English treatments include Garry O'Connor's Death's Duel: a novel of John Donne (2015), which deals with the poet as a young man.[47]

He also plays a significant role in Christie Dickason's The Noble Assassin (2012), a novel based on the life of Donne's patron and (the author claims) his lover, Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford.[48] Finally there is Bryan Crockett's Love's Alchemy: a John Donne Mystery (2015), in which the poet, blackmailed into service in Robert Cecil's network of spies, attempts to avert political disaster and at the same time outwit Cecil.[49]

Musical settings

There were musical settings of Donne's lyrics even during his lifetime and in the century following his death. These included Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger's ("So, so, leave off this last lamenting kisse" in his 1609 Ayres); John Cooper's ("The Message"); Henry Lawes' ("Break of Day"); John Dowland's ("Break of Day" and "To ask for all thy love");[50] and settings of "A Hymn to God the Father" by John Hilton the younger[51] and Pelham Humfrey (published 1688).[52]

After the 17th century there were no more until the start of the 20th century with Havergal Brian ("A nocturnal on St Lucy's Day", first performed in 1905), Eleanor Everest Freer ("Break of Day, published in 1905) and Walford Davies ("The Cross", 1909) among the earliest. In 1916–18, the composer Hubert Parry set Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7" ("At the round earth's imagined corners") to music in his choral work, Songs of Farewell.[53] In 1945, Benjamin Britten set nine of Donne's Holy Sonnets in his song cycle for voice and piano The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Among them is also the choral setting of "Negative Love" that opens Harmonium (1981), as well as the aria setting of "Holy Sonnet XIV" at the end of the 1st act of Doctor Atomic, both by John Adams.[54][55]

There have been settings in popular music as well. One is the version of the song "Go and Catch a Falling Star" on John Renbourn's debut album John Renbourn (1966), in which the last line is altered to "False, ere I count one, two, three".[56] On their 1992 album Duality, the English Neoclassical Dark Wave band In The Nursery used a recitation of the entirety of Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" for the track "Mecciano"[57] and an augmented version of "A Fever" for the track "Corruption."[58] Prose texts by Donne have also been set to music. In 1954, Priaulx Rainier set some in her Cycle for Declamation for solo voice.[59] In 2009, the American Jennifer Higdon composed the choral piece On the Death of the Righteous, based on Donne's sermons.[60][61] Still more recent is the Russian minimalist Anton Batagov's " I Fear No More, selected songs and meditations of John Donne" (2015).[62][63]

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