When I was about 75 pages into my slim, 98-page volume of John Donne’s poetry, I was bored. But then I read the last section of the book: the Divine Poems. After reading that section, I’m pretty sure I’ll be revisiting Donne’s poetry again.
I didn’t hate the beginning portion of the book; I just wasn’t all that interested. Occasionally, a poem interested me, but most of the time I just was not loving Donne’s poems, which often seemed to be well-written yet confusing love poems. I liked the writing style (I like to read it the beautifully written lines out loud) but the poems were complicated and non-interesting to me.
I decided I’d make it to the end. After all, my volume was very short (albeit with very small print). Then I wouldn’t feel bad to admit that “I just couldn’t get in to it.” But then came to the last section of the book.
I truly loved John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. There was something so personal and real about his discussions with God. I could relate on a personal spiritual level. And since I had just reread the play Wit, in which the main character discussed these poems as she prepared to die, it was emotional to read the poems.
I consider myself religious, so I related to Donne’s pleas to God for assistance and forgiveness. For example, in Sonnet 4, he calls out to his “black soul”:
Oh make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.
There were so many other lines I loved:
…here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood. (Sonnet 7)
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. (Sonnet 10)
Batter my heart, three-person’d God …
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (Sonnet 14)
’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more. (Sonnet 15)
I found myself rereading these sonnets over and over again to make sure I understood, to fully internalize what Donne was saying about his own life and his personal desires for salvation.
In the end, I think John Donne is a poet to be reread and reread. Maybe then I will understand him a little bit more. I’m pretty new to poetry, and I don’t know how to “understand” it. But I do intend to revisit some of Donne’s poetry. In fact, I’m glad the volume I have is a slim collection, even if it did still take me a long time to work my way through this time around (I kept putting it off). I will pick it up again, and I will browse through it.
Some favorite poems include “The Good-Morrow”; “The Flea”; “The Bait”; “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”; “The Will”; the sonnets included in this volume (1, 3-7, 9-10, 12-15, 17-19); and “A Hymn to God the Father” (which has a funny play on his name “thou hast done”). I admit: as I go through the volume to pick out favorites, there are a number more that jump out at me as “reread me now, please” poems, and I like them more and more with each read.
I also picked up a slim volume of (Harold Bloom edited) criticism on Donne’ poetry, but I haven’t gotten to it yet (I’ve only read the intro and the biography of John Donne). I may browse through it this weekend, but I admit I liked reading the poetry myself. I’m beginning to think reading someone else’s interpretation of a short poem takes away some of the fun. (This is coming from a former student of English who loves literary criticism!)
Do you ever read criticism to help you understand poetry? Have you read Donne?
Links of Interest:
If you have reviewed or shared thoughts on your blog about any of John Donne’s poetry, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.