Friday, August 24, 2007

I Stumble Over John Donne

Among the many authors whom I have never read is John Donne. I mention this more in the nature of a confession than as a boast. It would not be accurate to say that I have read no Donne at all, because many quotations from his work are quite familiar to me. I must have met them in other works or in anthologies of poetry and suchlike.

And of course I knew that Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night liked Donne, so I’d always meant to get around to reading him someday. (One of my little hobbies is reading books mentioned in, or read by the characters of, my favorite novels. I can think of no other good reason for reading Pilgrim’s Progress than that it was a favorite of the March girls in Little Women!)

Anyway, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne is now sitting on my stack of Books to Read Soon, and the way it happened is this:

I was shelving in the literature section and opened the book at random. My eye fell upon poem #2 in a series of seven Holy Sonnets.


Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which alwayes is All every where,
Which cannot sinne, and yet all sinnes must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot chuse but die,
Loe, faithfull Virgin, yeelds himselfe to lye
In prison, in thy wombe; and though he there
Can take no sinne, nor thou give, yet he’will weare
Taken from thence, flesh, which deaths force may trie
Ere by the spheares time was created, thou
Wast in his mind, who is thy Sonne, and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceive’d; yea thou art now
Thy Makers maker, and thy Fathers mother;
Thou’hast light in darke; and shutst in little roome,
Immensity cloystered in thy deare womb.
Well, this simply blew me away -- that he should be able to encapsulate the immensity of the Incarnation in this short little poem as well as the consequent sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

So I turned to the book’s intro to relieve my ignorance about the author. (I really don’t know how I managed to graduate as an English major while yet remaining innocent of so many well known writers.) I read that he came of a Roman Catholic family which clung to its faith despite persecution. (His mother was a grand-neice of St. Thomas More.) Many of his closer relatives were exiled or executed for religious reasons. Donne’s first teachers were Jesuits. He later studied at Oxford and Cambridge but could not obtain a degree since he could not take the required Oath of Supremacy. Alas, he eventually went over to the Church of England, though I guess no one knows the precise reason. He wrote two anti-Catholic polemics in 1610 and 1611 and became a C of E clergyman in 1615. It must have improved his financial situation which was pretty dire. Poor fellow.

But I’ve now put him at the top of my To Read pile because he has again nabbed my attention.

Last night my son and I were rewatching the movie version of 84 Charing Cross Road. (It is, by the way, a remarkably good adaptation of a book which, being a series of letters, must have been very difficult to dramatize.) At one point Helene, who has been gifted with a copy of the same Modern Library collection of John Donne that I have, decides to read aloud one of his sermons. This exact scene is not in the book, but thanks to Google, I’ve been able to copy the quotation:
All mankind is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is torn out of the book and translated into a better language. And every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators. Some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But God's hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to another.
Is that not a wonderful image? Is it any surprise that Catholic Biblophagist must now sit down and read this fellow?


Anonymous said...

Wait until you read some of his sermons. Ordinarily sermon-reading is not on anyone's hot list, but he can be quite witty--even funny--and his psychological insight can be breathtakingly sharp.

(he was not on any of my college reading lists either. What could they do with Donne, who couldn't possibly shoehorned into being a secret existentialist
any more than Milton, thus they were not, you know, "relevant". I discovered these guys through reading the Inklings.)

Sherwood said...

Ooops--Smith here. Blast these window and signin thingies anyway! Keelhaul 'em all!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

My college wasn't into the whole "relevant" thing, so it was probably my own fault that I never really took a class that required reading Donne. However, I did take a class in Milton. Your comment caused me to take down the copy of his Collected Poems and Major Prose which was our textbook. All my little notes in the margins are now perfectly incomprehensible.

Darwin said...

Oddly enough, a copy of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose snagged me at the public library a while back (and I have the fines to prove it, since I forgot to renew it for a few days) and so last night I found myself opening it at random in the sermon section to this one on the line "He loved them to the end". Which I quite liked

Speaking of 84 Charing Cross Road, I keep wanting to find the BBC movie of it that Hanff talks about in Q's Legacy, as opposed to the American one with Anthony Hopkins that's normally available here. I wonder if it's at all possible to dig up the other one anywhere.