A Selection of Poetry by John Donne

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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)

a space

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. (Sonnet 10)

a space

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)

a space

’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.

Reviewed on August 28, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I went through a Donne phase in college that involved the poems and criticism. Now, all I can remember is that he wrote a poem about a flea.

    Yet another reminder of what a poor poetry reader I am.

  • I am just starting to really get into Donne. I love Sonnet 14 – I have that exact passage copied into my commonplace book! I sometimes feel fantastically stupid when I read his poems, because I just don’t know what he’s on about. But the more I read them, the more I (think I) understand.

    His sermons can be really interesting too, btw, if you have any of them handy. He has this one about Eternity that says, “And all the four Monarchies, with their thousands of years, and all the powerful Kings and all the beautiful Queens of this world, were but as a bed of flowers.” I like that.

    • I read Donne’s poems at school.I liked the challenging way he starts many of his poems e.g.
      Busie olde foole, unruly Sunne
      I wonder, by my troth…
      and always fresh in my mind the line
      Let sea discoverers to new worlds have gone
      cheeky and contemptuous but I used to be very confused.In recent months I’ve found that by trying to learn some of the poems, the process has helped to make his meaning clear.Each time I repeat the lines I seem to get a little more from the poems,appreciate his choice of words, the rhythm of the lines(or breaking of it) and his metaphors(I think they call them “conceits” and his frequent jokes.
      I would highly recommend learning one or two and see if the same thing happens for you.I find I can only remeber the lines when they have made sense of themselves otherwise I seem to be unable to retain them at all.

  • Rose City Reader, I think I wouldn’t have minded learning about Donne in college. It’s just so much harder to be motivated by myself! Yes, he wrote a poem about a flea. It’s pretty good! I understood it. I think.

    Jenny, yes, I think Donne needs to be read and reread and reread. I’ll get back to it. Just not right now.

    I’m intrigued about the sermons. I’ve read some quotations from them. Quite a good writer, I’d have to say.

    Pam, I haven’t read Neruda or Rilke yet!

  • I like Donne, his metaphysical love poetry, his sermons, the way in which while he did become a priest some of his poetry was quite heretical.

    I don’t read literary criticism on poetry but that’s more I don’t enjoy analysing poetry. I do read poetry but I’d rather read it and not read secondary material, sometimes the power and emotion of the poem is enough.

    I’m literature student but sometimes I find the constant need to analyse something slightly, well, silly. I don’t think everything has to be analysed or even should. I think people can become slightly too preoccupied in trying to find a meaning in a work, rather than just being content in reading it. For example, not a novel or poem, but The Beatles (timely) song I am the Walrus is something that people have trying to understand. It’s complete nonsense it doesn’t have a meaning…anyway I’m blabbering.

  • Damed Conjuror, I was a literature student and I loved the analysis. So when I picked up Donne, I thought I’d read it and return to the school room. I found I wasn’t interested enough: like you say, the power and emotion of the poems captured me. It’s the difference between being in school and not: now I can enjoy it *simply* for the emotions. I love that!

    I think, for me, it’s a matter of slowing down to read this. I kept putting it off because it was “hard to read”, but once I sat down and read it, I loved the poems I read!

    It seems so many people love Donne’s poetry with a passion. I need to give it passion in return, I think. Definitely poetry to revisit time and again.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  • I don’t mind analysing a text, hell, I wouldn’t be a lit. student. Although, like you said, it is nice just reading a text and not having to worry about what this mean or what that means.

    I think with poetry that the emotions, the connection that you, the reader, form with it is more important than an in-depth analysis.

  • I need help reading great poetry or Shakespeare, and need annotation. Once understood, the once just pretty words glow with new meaning and take up residence in the mind, as though they’d always been there.

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