Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment; how we shape that conversation is the touchstone of our ability to love in the real inhabited world.
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
by John Donne
As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls to go, Whilst some of their sad friends do say The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise, No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; ‘Twere profanation of our joys To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, Men reckon what it did, and meant; But trepidation of the spheres, Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence, because it doth remove Those things which elemented it.
The Well of Grief
by David Whyte
Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief, turning down through its black water to the place we cannot breathe, will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering, the small round coins, thrown by those who wished for something else.
Thus I alone, where all my freedom grew, In prison pine with bondage and restraint; And with remembrance of the greater grief, To banish the less, I find my chief relief.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Sonnet 8 [Set me where as the sun doth parch the green]
By Henry Howard
Set me where as the sun doth parch the green, Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice; In temperate heat where he is felt and seen; With proud people, in presence sad and wise; Set me in base, or yet in high degree, In the long night, or in the shortest day, In clear weather, or where mists thickest be, In lost youth, or when my hairs be grey; Set me in earth, in heaven, or yet in hell, In hill, in dale, or in the foaming flood; Thrall, or at large, alive where so I dwell, Sick, or in health, in ill fame or good: Yours will I be, and with that only thought Comfort myself when that my hope is nought.
“I am two fools, I know, For loving, and for saying so.”
The World’s Last Night
by John Donne
What if this present were the worlds last night?
Marke in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright,
Teares in his eyes quench the amasing light,
Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell.
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray’d forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight?
No, no; but as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign’d,
This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.
Holy Sonnet: XII
by John Donne
WHY are wee by all creatures waited on?
Why doe the prodigall elements supply
Life and food to mee, being more pure than I,
Simple, and further from corruption?
Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou bull, and bore so seelily
Dissemble weaknesses and by’one mans stroke die,
Whose whole kinde, you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe is mee, and worse than you,
You have not sinn’d, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater wonder, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue,
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tyed,
For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed.
I am as I am and so will I be But how that I am none knoweth truly, Be it evil be it well, be I bond be I free I am as I am and so will I be.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
My Galley, Charged With Forgetfulness
by Sir Thomas Wyatt
My galley, charged with forgetfulness, Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass ‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas, That is my lord, steereth with cruelness; And every oar a thought in readiness, As though that death were light in such a case. An endless wind doth tear the sail apace Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness. A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain, Hath done the weared cords great hinderance; Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance. The stars be hid that led me to this pain. Drowned is reason that should me consort, And I remain despairing of the port
Thomas Wyatt life reads like the next installment of Bridgerton, except with mostly unhappy endings. His life is so steeped in myth, rumors and innuendo in what has been passed down that generations of academics have yet to completely unravel fact from fiction. What is chronicled makes for juicy reading. Wyatt was a large athletic man, who was as comfortable in the jousting ring as in matters of court and the arts. A successful diplomat and patron of Thomas Cromwell, Wyatt ran in and out of favor with King Henry the VIII, as he pried the Catholic Church’s stranglehold from all matters of court and bloody birthed the Church of England into being. Cromwell was not so fortunate and was executed for his largely honorable service to his country. Despite rumors of romantic connections to Anne Boleyne, or because of it, Wyatt escaped multiple imprisonments and charges of treason with not only his life, but eventually his reputation and standing in court restored. But luck never seemed to run on Wyatt’s side for very long and in 1941 while on a diplomatic mission with Spain he was struck down by a fever.
Wyatt is credited with introducing the sonnet structure to English verse on whose literary accomplishments Shakespeare would use as a foundation. Wyatt’s poetry was widely circulated during his lifetime and included in anthologies following his death. Writing in a style that was personal, at times bitter and venomous, he was also deeply sentimental and romantic. Wyatt wrote of love from a complex perspective having seen and experienced its many facets. Wyatt’s poetry can run on the dark side, as betrayal was a common muse, knowing it could still a man’s heart every bit as the executioner’s ax in King Henry’s VIII court. While in prison in 1936, he wrote following Cromwell’s execution:
Sighs are my food, drink are my tears; Clinking of fetters such music would crave. Stink and close air away my life wears. Innocency is all the hope I have.
Wyatt’s contribution to the sonnet was unique in history. Wyatt’s sonnets are Petrarchian in their construction but with his own new English twist, he laid the path for Shakespeare to follow.
by John Donne
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead, And that thou thinkst thee free From all solicitation from me, Then shall my ghost come to thy bed, And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see : Then thy sick taper will begin to wink, And he, whose thou art then, being tired before, Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think Thou call’st for more, And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink : And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie, A verier ghost than I. What I will say, I will not tell thee now, Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent, I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent, Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.
Nothing is so beautiful as spring– When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.–Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Spring has sprung in Minnesota and with it the smells and sounds and sights of green and growing things. We had a gentle rain this week and grass overnight turned emerald green. On most lakes the ice is out and our world is turning phases, from solid to liquid. I am eager to get some dirt under my finger nails, rake up the detritus of winter and allow the recent rains to soak in and get the spring flowers growing.
There have been many poets who have used the sonnet form as a spiritual medium, to let their minds wander into the sublime, beyond the boundaries of human love and into the infinite. Both Donne and Hopkins used their poetry as testaments to God, but in doing so reaffirmed their very human relationship with nature and in their eyes its manifestation God’s love in nurturing all life on earth. In this way, Christianity and Buddhism share some common themes, in that we are all manifestations of God’s (Buddha’s) consciousness and yet, as Donne reminds us, it is in the forgetting, at least in the forgetting of the worst of ourselves, that we are best remembered.
I heard him call you his beloved son And saw his Spirit lighten like a dove, I thought his words must be for you alone, Knowing myself unworthy of his love. You pray in close communion with your Father, So close you say the two of you are one, I feel myself to be receding further, Fallen away and outcast and alone.
And so I come and ask you how to pray, Seeking a distant supplicant’s petition, Only to find you give your words away, As though I stood with you in your position, As though your Father were my Father too, As though I found his ‘welcome home’ in you.
Have you ever considered what poem in the English language is spoken daily more than any other? What poem has been memorized by the most people? I would place a small wager that it is The Lord’s Prayer. Malcom Guite may have considered this when he wrote a series of sonnets reflecting on The Lord’s Prayer. As beautiful as Guite’s words are, it is impossible to improve on the collective artistry of the words that have become our modern version of this poem;
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.
There is a lot going on in The Lord’s Prayer. It is the one prayer/poem that I have spoken in unison with a group of people more than any other. Yet, I always wonder how my interpretation of this poem may be similar or different from others as we say it aloud in Church?
I have always been fascinated by the start, the first sentence; “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” I learned The Lord’s Prayer prior to being confirmed as a teenager and it became anchored in my memory by saying it frequently at church. However, after saying it many times over my life, I run the risk of it becoming so rote, that the words roll off my tongue nearly without thinking. In recent years, every time I say it, I ponder a split-second on the word “art” to bring me mindfully back to the moment of what I am saying.
Like all great poetry, The Lord’s Prayer contains several uses of words in ways that are not common to our traditional or common use or understanding of those words, allowing our minds to acquire their own unique interpretation and associations around those words. I have noticed standing next to people in Church that some people replace the word “art” with “is.” In doing so, the speaker creates a straightforward relationship with a distant God that is separate from our realm and in some ways separate from ourselves, a rather traditional view of an all knowing, almighty. In starting that way it creates a theme of a distant benign relationship with a giving God throughout the rest of the poem. That is not how I have come to think of The Lord’s Prayer. As someone who has wrestled his entire adult life with the idea of who is an artist and what is achieved in the act of creating art, I look at the first sentence differently. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” means to me, that the earth and every living thing on it are God’s art in heaven. For that to be a literal reading it would require changing the word “who” to “whose.” But poetry is not intended to be read literally, rather its a way to be moved through words into a new appreciation of things that cannot be explained solely by words.
When I read or speak the first three sentences, thinking about myself as art, God’s art, not as an artist, but as an actual art form, surrounded by God’s other works of art in the biology, geology and beauty of this planet and all the people and creatures who inhabit it, it allows me to think of the planet earth as the most spectacular art gallery in the universe! Building on that thought, the rest of the sentence takes on a different meaning; ‘hallowed be thy name” becomes a reminder that my name is hallowed as a piece of God’s art, God’s signature is upon me and everything else. In this context, the word art becomes a noun whose common meaning now fits the sentence; “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance.”
My interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer affirms that each of us has more than ordinary significance. The next sentence also becomes more earthly and immediate if I drop a word – the word “in.” The third sentence then reads, “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is heaven.” Try this word play and thought process next time you need a boost in feeling a bit more beautiful. In doing so, the rest of the poem becomes an affirmation of all life here on earth through our collective glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Our Father, who(se) art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is heaven….
The Good Morrow
by John Donne
I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I Did, till we loved ? were we not wean’d till then ? But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly ? Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den ? ‘Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ; If ever any beauty I did see, Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch not one another out of fear ; For love all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ; Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ; Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ; Where can we find two better hemispheres Without sharp north, without declining west ? Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ; If our two loves be one, or thou and I Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Several poets have used the sonnet form to write testaments to their God. Of all of them I consider John Donne to be the best. His poetry is abruptly visual and passionate. It is love poetry in a religious context. But what it makes it even more remarkable, or makes it easier to understand is how heretical it was when it was written. That John Donne is remembered as a great Elizabethan poet, rather than a Catholic martyr, is either a consequence of the wealth and influence of his family or the appreciation of his talent.
Donne was born, in 1572, into a wealthy Catholic family in England. His mother was related to the martyr Sir Thomas More, and her brother, Donne’s uncle Jasper Heywood, was the head of the Jesuit mission in England. These were dangerous years to be a Catholic in England, a period of extreme persecution. Queen Elizabeth had proclaimed it high treason for a Catholic priest to be found anywhere in the realm. Catholic priests who were captured were brutally executed in a way to create fear and control by the Church of England. The punishment for Catholic martyrs was to be hanged, then taken down while still alive but incapacitated, their genitals cut off and their bowels torn out.
In 1583 Jasper Heywood was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Donne’s mother visited him. In an attempt to assist him in preparing a defense, she smuggled a fellow Jesuit, William Weston, into the Tower in disguise, taking along her twelve-year-old son as part of the plan, hoping that a child would ally the guards’ suspicions a Jesuit priest was entering.
As a teenager Donne attended Oxford. However completing a university degree was unthinkable, because it would involve renouncing Catholicism and proclaiming the Church of England’s articles of faith. Donne left Oxford before graduating and traveled abroad. In 1592 he returned and attended Lincoln’s Inn—a law college and finishing school for prosperous young men. A portrait painted at this time shows him wearing crucifix-shaped earrings, an insult to Protestants, and the painting bears a Spanish motto, Antes muerto que mudado (Sooner dead than changed)—a defiant assertion of his faith, the language as provocative as his poetry was later to be.
Donne’s poetry does not arise from an imagined peril, but instead was based on very real threats. In May 1593 his brother, Henry, one year younger, was arrested for sheltering a young Catholic priest, William Harrington. Harrington was condemned and executed as described. Henry, was found guilty of a felony for harboring a known Catholic priest, but escaped the same fate.
It is remarkable to consider how dangerous words can be. The enduring fame of Donne and enjoyment of his poetry is due in my mind to the vivid imagery and religious zeal. His poetry shares his faith, defiance, devotion and courage through his art. And no one, not even on pain of death, was going to take his faith from him.
Holy Sonnets: I am a little world made cunningly
by John Donne
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite,
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and oh both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,
Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day Didst make thy triumph over death and sin, And having harrowed hell, didst bring away Captivity thence captive, us to win: This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin, And grant that we, for whom thou diddest die, Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin, May live forever in felicity: And that thy love we weighing worthily, May likewise love thee for the same again; And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy, May love with one another entertain. So let us love, dear love, like as we ought, Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Holy Sonnets: Death Be Not Proud
by John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
“When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is a recognition of a spirtual identify.”
by John Donne
LITTLE think’st thou, poor flower,
Whom I’ve watch’d six or seven days,
And seen thy birth, and seen what every hour
Gave to thy growth, thee to this height to raise,
And now dost laugh and triumph on this bough,
Little think’st thou,
That it will freeze anon, and that I shall
To-morrow find thee fallen, or not at all.
Little think’st thou, poor heart,
That labourest yet to nestle thee,
And think’st by hovering here to get a part
In a forbidden or forbidding tree,
And hopest her stiffness by long siege to bow,
Little think’st thou
That thou to-morrow, ere the sun doth wake,
Must with the sun and me a journey take.
But thou, which lovest to be
Subtle to plague thyself, wilt say,
Alas ! if you must go, what’s that to me?
Here lies my business, and here I will stay
You go to friends, whose love and means present
To your eyes, ears, and taste, and every part ;
If then your body go, what need your heart?
Well then, stay here ; but know,
When thou hast stay’d and done thy most,
A naked thinking heart, that makes no show,
Is to a woman but a kind of ghost.
How shall she know my heart ; or having none,
Know thee for one?
Practice may make her know some other part ;
But take my word, she doth not know a heart.
Meet me in London, then,
Twenty days hence, and thou shalt see
Me fresher and more fat, by being with men,
Than if I had stay’d still with her and thee.
For God’s sake, if you can, be you so too ;
I will give you
There to another friend, whom we shall find
As glad to have my body as my mind.
I am at that stage in my relationship with my Poinsettia every year from Christmas, where I inevitably go a little too long on watering it and it starts to wilt. Poinsettia’s are like every other relationship, over water it and it gets damp feet and dies from a smothering mold. Under water it and it will hit the critical wilting point, which by definition is the stage at which no amount of watering will bring it back from the brink of death, because cells have been damaged beyond repair, the essence of the plant is gone even if a little green remains. Fortunately, I caught mine in time that it perked right up and looked happy by the end of the day, giving me a bright red smile knowing I was thinking about it.
However, I have learned over the years, that let it get to that early wilty point a couple of times and things will go down hill quick. The plant will come back vegetatively but the shine is off the bloom. Consistent, even though it be unintentional, lack of attention to watering, going just a wee bit too long of not being present with your poinsettia, will cause it to drop its top red leaves, scale back and try to hold on with buds at the bottom.
My father has poinsettias that are many years old, so careful is his watering and care for them. He has an ivy plant that is over 60 years old and several others over 30 years old. My sister called and we chatted about her approach with poinsettias. She lives in Oakland, CA and said that she throws her out in the backyard by the steps early in the new year and let’s it go feral, free to try and make it on there own. She said some don’t have the stamina and die and others make it to spring and she plants them in her garden, survival of the fittest with a minimalist approach to care and nurturing. What’s your approach to house plants? Does it mirror your approach to your romantic relationships?
I found these two poems by John Donne recently and instantly knew how I wanted to share them. Each is a remarkable poem, though the old English makes it a little more difficult to wade through. A Jet Ring Sent shows that marriage and separation are no different now than 400 years ago, in partnerships wedded in love. I read the ending, not as divorce but commitment, paraphrasing; “Circle this finger’s top, with your thumb.” What a simple beautiful way to acknowledge your wedding with your lover and the contentment of seeing a physical reminder of those vows on each other’s fingers. I read the poem as an affirmation of being attentive to your most important relationship. “Be justly proud and gladly safe, thou that dost dwell with me.” When both partners affirm that sentiment getting up from bed every morning and having a cup of tea together, you know you are in it for the long haul.
John Donne wrote some of the most beautiful religious sonnets of the past 500 years. A true man of God, who did not forsake his flesh, or his family, but lived well on this earthly plain as well.
A Jet Ring Sent
by John Donne
THOU art not so black as my heart,
Nor half so brittle as her heart, thou art;
What wouldst thou say? shall bout our properties be thee be spoke,
—Nothing more endless, nothing sooner broke.
Marriage rings are not of this stuff,
Oh, why should ought less precious, or less tough,
Figure our loves? except in thy name though has bid it say,
“–I’m cheap, and nought but fashion; fling me away.”
Yet stay with me, since thou art come,
Circle this finger’s top, which didst her thumb,
Be justly proud, and gladly safe, that thou dost dwell with me.
She that O! broke her faith, would soon break free.