“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.
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,