John Donne Poetry: British Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The traditional dichotomy between Jack Donne and Dr. Donne, despite John Donne’s own authority for it, is essentially false. In the seventeenth century context, the work of Donne constitutes a fundamental unity. Conventional wisdom may expect devotional poetry from a divine and feel a certain uneasiness when faced with love poetry, but such a view misses the point in two different ways. On one hand, Donne’s love poetry is philosophical in its nature and characterized by a texture of religious imagery; and on the other hand, his devotional poetry makes unexpected, bold use of erotic imagery. What Donne presents is two sides of a consistent vision of the world and of the mortality of man.

In the nineteenth century, when Donne’s poetry did occasionally attract some attention from the discerning, it was not for the lyrics but for the satires. The satirical mode seemed the most congenial use that Donne had found for his paradoxical style. This had also been the attitude of the eighteenth century, which, however, valued metrical euphony too highly to accept even the satires. In fact, Alexander Pope tried to rescue Donne for the eighteenth century by the curious expedient of “translating” his satires into verse, that is, by regularizing them. In addition to replacing Donne’s strong lines and surprising caesurae with regular meter, Pope, as Addison C. Bross has shown, puts ideas into climactic sequence, makes particulars follow generalizations, groups similar images together, and untangles syntax. In other words, he homogenizes the works.

Although Donne’s lyrics have become preferred to his satires, the satires are regarded as artistically effective in their original form, although this artistry is of a different order from that of the lyrics. Sherry Zivley has shown that the imagery of the satires works in a somewhat different way from that of the imagery of the lyrics, where diverse images simply succeed one another. With images accumulated from a similarly wide range of sources, the satires build a thematic center. N. J. C. Andreasen has gone even further, discerning in the body of the satires a thematic unity. Andreasen sees Donne as having created a single persona for the satires, one who consistently deplores the encroaching materialism of the seventeenth century.

“Kind pity chokes my spleen”

Satire 3 on religion (“Kind pity chokes my spleen”) is undoubtedly the most famous of the satires. Using related images to picture men as engaging in a kind of courtship of the truth, the poem provides a defense of moderation and of a common ground between the competing churches of the post-Reformation world. Although written in the period of Donne’s transition from the Roman Catholic Church to the Anglican, the poem rejects both of these, along with the Lutheran and the Calvinist Churches, and calls on men to put their trust in God and not in those who unjustly claim authority from God for churches of their own devising.

In addition to the fully developed satires, Donne wrote a small number of very brief epigrams. These mere witticisms are often on classical subjects and therefore without the occasional focus that turns Ben Jonson’s epigrams into genuine poetry. This is the only place where Donne makes any substantial use of classical allusion.

In his own day, Donne’s most popular poems were probably his elegies. Although the term “elegy” is applied only to a memorial poem in modern usage, Donne’s elegies derive their form from a classical tradition that uses the term, as well, for poetry of love complaint written in couplets. Generally longer than the more famous songs and sonnets, the elegies are written on the model...

(This entire section contains 5386 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of Ovid’sAmores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597). Twenty or more such poems have been attributed to Donne, but several of these are demonstrably not his. On the basis of manuscript evidence, Dame Helen Gardner has suggested that Donne intended fourteen poems to stand as a thematically unified Book of Elegies and that “The Autumnal” (elegy 9), which has a different manuscript history, and “The Dream” (elegy 10), which is not in couplets, although authentic poems by Donne, do not form a part of it.

“The Autumnal”

Elegy 9, “The Autumnal,” praises older women as more seasonable to the appetite because the uncontrollable fires of their youth have passed. There is a long tradition that this poem was specially written for Magdalen Herbert. If so, it is particularly daring since, although not a seduction poem, it is frankly erotic in its praise; inasmuch as Magdalen Herbert did take as her second husband a much younger man, however, it may be supposed that she would have appreciated the general recognition that sexual attractiveness and interest can endure and even ripen. On the other hand, the poem’s praises are not without qualification. The persona admires autumnal beauty, but he can see nothing attractive in the truly aged, whom he rejects as death’s heads from which the teeth have been scattered to various places—to the vexation of their souls since the teeth will have to be gathered together again for the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgment. Thus the poem shows Donne’s typical combination of eroticism and contemplation of mortality in a mode of grotesque humor.

“To His Mistress Going to Bed”

In elegy 19, “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” the persona enthusiastically directs his mistress in her undressing. Aroused, he uses his hands to full advantage to explore her body. In a famous passage, he compares his amazement to that of someone discovering a new land. He next directs her to bare her body to him as fully as she would to the midwife. This graphic request is followed by the poem’s closing couplet, in which the persona points out that he is naked already to show his mistress the way and thus poignantly reveals that he is only hoping for such lasciviousness from her and not already having his wanton way. Even this poem uses religious imagery—most clearly and most daringly when it advocates a woman’s baring of her body to her lover by analogy with the baring of the soul before God. In an influential explication, Clay Hunt suggests that Donne is, in fact, ridiculing the Neoplatonic school of love that could seriously advance such an analogy. If so, Donne is clearly having it both ways and making the analogy available for its own sake as well.

“The Canonization”

The songs and sonnets, as the other love poems are usually called, although no sonnets in the conventional sense are included, show an imaginative variety of verse forms. They are particularly famous for their dramatic, conversational opening lines. In addition, these poems are a great storehouse of the kind of verbal ambiguity that William Empson has shown the modern world how to admire.

In “The Canonization,” the persona justifies his love affair in explicitly sacred terms by explaining that his relationship with his beloved makes the two of them saints of love. John A. Clair has shown how the structure of “The Canonization” follows the five stages of the process of canonization in the Roman Catholic Church during the Renaissance: proof of sanctity, recognition of heroic virtue, demonstration of miracles, examination of relics and writings, and declaration of worthiness of veneration. The poem is thus addressed to a devil’s advocate who refuses to see the holiness of erotic love. It is this devil’s advocate in love who is asked to hold his tongue, in the famous first line. “The Canonization” illustrates Donne’s typical use of ambiguity as well as paradox, not as merely decorative wit, but to reveal deepest meanings. William H. Machett suggests that, for example, when the lovers in this poem become a “piece of chronicle,” the word “piece” is a triple pun meaning masterpiece, fragment, and fortress. There is also a much more obvious meaning—piece of artillery—a meaning that interacts with the title to give a richer texture to the whole poem: The poem is about not only the making of saints of love, but also the warfare between this idea and conventional notions of sex and religion. Consequently, yet another meaning of “piece” comes into play, the sexual.

“The Flea”

“The Flea” is a seduction poem. Like many of the songs and sonnets, it takes the form of a logical argument making full use of the casuistries and indeed sophistries of the dialectic of Peter Ramus. In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, the persona asks the lady to contemplate a flea he has discerned on her person. Because his blood and hers are mingled in the flea that has in succession bitten each of them, the mingling of the bloods that takes place during intercourse (as was then believed) has already occurred.

In the second stanza, the persona cautions the lady not to kill the flea. By joining their bloods, the flea has become the place of their joining in marriage, so for her to kill the flea would be to murder him and also to commit both suicide and sacrilege.

In the last stanza, the persona discovers that the lady has ignored his argument and killed the flea, but he is ready with another argument. When the lady triumphantly points out that they have survived this death of the flea, surely she is also showing how false her fears of sex are, because sex involves no greater loss of blood and no greater death. Implicit in these last lines is the traditional pun on “death,” which was the popular term for sexual climax.

The pun and the poem as a whole illustrate Donne’s characteristic mingling of the sacred and the profane. It should be noted that a love poem on the subject of the lady’s fleas was not an original idea with Donne, but the usual treatment of the subject was as an erotic fantasy. Donne’s originality is precisely in his use of the subject for dialectic and in the restraint he shows in ending the poem before the lady capitulates, in fact without indicating whether she does.

“The Ecstasy”

“The Ecstasy,” the longest of the songs and sonnets, has, for a lyric, attracted a remarkable range of divergent interpretations. The poem is about spiritual love and intermingling as the culmination of physical love, but some critics have seen the Neoplatonism, or spiritualizing of love, as quite serious, while others have insisted that it is merely a patently sophistical ploy of the persona to convince his mistress that, since they are one soul, the physical consummation of their love is harmless, appropriate, inevitable. If the critics who see “The Ecstasy” as a seduction poem are right, the conclusion is even more salacious than they have supposed, since it calls on the addressee to examine the lovers closely for the evidence of true love when they have given themselves over to their bodies—in other words, to watch them make love. In fact, the poem, like so many of Donne’s, is quite content to be theological and erotic by turns—beginning with its very title, a term used of both religious experience and sexual experience. That the perfect soul brought into being by the union of the lovers should combine the flesh and spirit eternally is an understandable religious hope and also a good sexual fantasy. In this way, the poem illustrates Donne’s philosophy of love. Although not all his poems use this theme, Donne has, in fact, a unique ability for his day to perceive love as experienced by equals.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

Another famous poem of love between equals is “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” The poem rushes through a dazzling spectrum of imagery in just the way deplored by Samuel Johnson. In addition, in the Life of Cowley, Johnson singles out the poem for his ultimate condemnation, saying that in the extended metaphor of the last three stanzas “it may be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has the better claim.” During the present century, ingenuity has once again become respectable in poetry, and modern readers come with more sympathy than Johnson did to this famous extended metaphor, or conceit, comparing lovers who have to suffer a temporary separation to a pair of pencil compasses. Even the improbability of the image—which Johnson castigated as absurdity—has been given a context by modern scholarship. W. A. Murray, for example, has shown that the circle with a dot in the center, which is inscribed by the compasses reflecting the lovers who are separated yet joined, is, in fact, the alchemical symbol for gold, mentioned elsewhere in the poem and a traditional symbol of perfection. More ingeniously, John Freccero has seen Donne’s compasses as inscribing not simply a circle but, as they close, a spiral. The spiral has some history of use in describing the motion of the planets. Because the spiral is also a conventional symbol of humanity, this spiral reading helps readers see in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” Donne’s characteristic balance of the celestial and the personal.

In fact, Donne’s inclusiveness is even wider than it is usually assumed to be. He collapses not only physical and spiritual but also male and female. Donne has the unusual perspicacity to make the persona of “Break of Day” explicitly female, and although no critic has made the point before, there is nothing to prevent seeing a similar female persona in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Such a reading has the advantage of introducing some erotic puns in the compass conceit as the man (the fixed center in this reading) harkens after his beloved as she roams and then grows erect when she returns to him. More important, such a reading makes further sense out of the image of a circle inscribed by compasses. The circle is a traditional symbol of woman, and woman’s life is traditionally completed—or, as the poem puts it, made just—with a man at the center. Because the circle is a natural sexual image for woman, in this reading, the poem illustrates the practical sex as well as the theoretical sociology behind its imagery as the lover’s firmness makes the woman’s circle taut. An objection that might be made to this reading is that the poem’s various references to parting show that it is the speaker who is going away. Although a woman of the seventeenth century would be unlikely to do extensive traveling apart from her lover (or even in his company), a woman may have to part as well as a man, and lovers might well think of themselves as roaming the world when kept apart only by the daily round of pedestrian business. There is no more reason in the poem for believing that the absent one will literally roam than for believing that this absent one will literally run.

Although Walton assigns this poem to the occasion of Donne’s trip to France with Sir Robert Drury in 1611, the apocryphal nature of Walton’s story is sufficiently indicated by the fact that it does not appear until the 1675 version of his Life of Donne. This dating would, at the least, make “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” extremely late for the songs and sonnets. Nevertheless, were the poem occasioned by Donne’s preparation to travel to France in 1611, reading it as spoken by a woman would still be appropriate, since Donne prepared for this trip by sending his wife and children to stay with relatives on the Isle of Wight several months before he was himself able to embark. In addition, a general knowledge of how poets work suggests that a lyric inspired by a specific occasion is seldom in every particular a document congruent with the poet’s actual experience. Perhaps the poem finally says that a woman can make a virtue of necessary separation as well as a man can.

“Twickham Garden”

Among the songs and sonnets are a few poems that seem to have been written for patrons. Since Twickenham is the seat of the earls of Bedford, “Twickham Garden” is assumed to have been written for Lucy, countess of Bedford. According to the poem, the garden is a refuge like Eden, but the persona admits that with him the serpent has been let in. He wishes he were instead an aphrodisiac plant or fountain more properly at home in the place. In the last stanza, he seems to become such a fountain, but he is disappointed to discover that all the lovers who visit the garden are false. The poem ends—perhaps rather curiously for a patronage poem—with the obscure paradox that the only true woman is the one whose truth is killing.

“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”

A similar depersonalization characterizes the riddling poem “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day.” While the ironies of darkness and light and of the changing movement of time (Lucy means light, but her day provides less of it than any other) would have recommended the subject to Donne anyway, it must have been an additional stimulus that this astronomically significant day was the saint’s day of one of his patrons. Clarence H. Miller, seeing the poem as unique among the songs and sonnets in describing the union with the lady as exclusively sacred without any admixture of the profane, relates the poem to the liturgy for Saint Lucy’s Day. In the body of the poem, however, the persona sees himself as the epitaph for light, as every dead thing. Finally, he becomes Saint Lucy’s Day itself—for the purpose of providing lovers with a longer nighttime for lust. Despite a certain bitterness or at least coarseness of tone, the poem is usually seen as a lament for the countess’s death (1627); the death of Donne’s wife, however, has also been suggested, although Anne More has no special association with Saint Lucy and his love for her could not have been exclusively spiritual. Richard E. Hughes has considered the occasion of the poem from a different point of view and usefully suggested that, though commemorating the countess of Bedford, the poem is not an improbably late lyric for the songs and sonnets but a lament from an earlier period for the loss of the countess’s friendship. If the tone is considered in the least charitable light, the poem might even be read as an accusation of patronage withdrawn.

Verse letters

The familiar letter came into its own as a genre during the seventeenth century, and collections even began to be published. About two hundred of Donne’s letters survive. This is a larger number than for any other figure of the English Renaissance except Francis Bacon, and Bacon’s correspondence includes many letters written in his official capacity. Because the familiar letter had only begun to surface as a genre, much of the impersonality and formality of earlier letter writing persist in Donne’s correspondence. Donne’s son was a rather casual editor, and in light of the sometimes general nature of Donne’s letters, the date and intended recipient of many remain unknown. One curiosity of this period of epistolary transition is the verse letter. Almost forty of Donne’s letters are written in verse. Some of these are true occasional poems datable from internal evidence, but many are of a more general, philosophical nature.

The most famous of the verse letters are “The Storm” and “The Calm,” the first certainly and the second probably addressed to Christopher Brooke. Traditionally, shipwrecks and other dangers of the sea are used to illustrate the unpredictability of fortune in men’s lives, but, as B. F. Nellist has shown, Donne does not follow this convention; instead, he teaches that frustration and despair are to be accepted as part of man’s lot.


While many of the verse letters seem to have been exchanged with friends as jeux d’esprit, some are attempts to influence patrons. A group of poems clearly written with an eye to patronage are the epithalamia. Among the weddings that Donne celebrated was that of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, elector of the palatinate and later briefly king of Bohemia. Donne also celebrated the wedding of the royal favorite Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, to Frances Howard, countess of Essex. Since the countess was shortly afterward convicted of murdering the essayist Sir Thomas Overbury for having stood in the way of her marriage, this epithalamion must later have been something of an embarrassment to Donne. An occasional poem for which no occasion is ascribed is the “Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn.” This is the most interesting of the epithalamia to contemporary taste. Its satiric tone, verbal crudities, and scoffing are a pleasant surprise in a genre usually characterized by reverence, even obsequiousness. The problem of what wedding could have been appropriately celebrated with such a poem has been resolved by David Novarr’s suggestion that the “Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn” was written for a mock wedding held as part of the law students’ midsummer revels.

Memorial verse

Other poems written for patrons are those usually called the epicedes and obsequies. These are eulogies for the dead—elegies in a more modern sense of the term than the one Donne seems to have in mind. Donne was one among the many poets who expressed regret at the death of Prince Henry, the hope of the dynasty.

Also in the general category of memorial verse are the two poems known as Anniversaries (An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary and Of the Progress of the Soule: The Second Anniversary), but these two poems are so unlike traditional eulogies as to defy inclusion in the genre. In their search for moments of intense feeling, the Metaphysical poets, with their love of paradox, did not often try to write long poems. Most of the attempts they did make are unsatisfactory or at least puzzling in some fundamental way. The Anniversaries are, indeed, primary texts in the study of the difficulties of the long poem in the Metaphysical mode.

Ostensibly written as memorial poems to commemorate Elizabeth Drury, who died as a child of fourteen and whom Donne had never seen, these poems range over a broad canvas of history. “Shee,” as the subject of the two poems is called, is eulogized in an extravagant fashion beyond anything in the obsequies. While O. B. Hardison has shown that these poems were not regarded as bizarre or fulsome when originally published, they were the first of Donne’s works to lose favor with the passing of time. Indeed, of An Anatomy of the World, Ben Jonson objected to Donne himself that “if it had been writ of the Virgin Marie it had been something.” Donne’s answer is reported to have been that he was describing not Elizabeth Drury specifically but the idea of woman; but this explanation has not been found wholly satisfactory. Many candidates have been suggested for Shee of the Anniversaries—from Saint Lucy and Astraea (Goddess of Justice) to the Catholic Church and Christ as Divine Logos. Two critics have suggested Queen Elizabeth, but one finds her eulogized and the other sees her as satirized, indicting in a particularly striking way the problematic nature of these difficult, knotty poems.

Hardison and, later, Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, made the case for the poems as part of a tradition of epideictic poetry—poetry of praise. In this tradition, extravagant compliments are the norm rather than the exception, and all of Donne’s individual extravagances have precedents. What such a reading leaves out of account is, on one hand, the extraordinary density of the extravagant praise in Donne’s Anniversaries and, on the other, the presence of satire, not only the possible satire of the heroine but also explicit satire in the exploration of the decay of nature that forms the subject of the poems. Marjorie Hope Nicholson sees the Anniversaries as companion poems, the first a lament for the body, the second a meditation on mortality. Louis L. Martz suggests, further, that the Anniversaries are structured meditations. Martz sees An Anatomy of the World as a mechanical application of Ignatian meditation and Of the Progress of the Soule as a more successful organic application. Meditation theory, however, fails to resolve all the interpretive difficulties. Northrop Frye’s theory that the poems are Menippean satire and Frank Manley’s that they are wisdom literature also leave unresolved difficulties.

Perhaps these interpretive difficulties are fundamentally beyond resolution. Rosalie L. Colie has usefully pointed out that, in the Anniversaries, Donne seems not to be trying to bring his disparate materials to a conventional resolution. The poems accept contradictions as part of the flux of life and should be seen within the Renaissance tradition of paradox. Donne is demonstrably a student of paradox in many of his other works. More specifically, Daniel B. Rowland has placed An Anatomy of the World in the Mannerist tradition because in it Donne succeeded in creating an unresolved tension. His purpose may be just to raise questions about the relative weight of praise and satire and about the identity of the heroine Shee. Mario Praz goes further—perhaps too far—when he sees all the work of Donne as Mannerist, as illustrative not of wit but of the dialectics of passion; Mannerism does, however, provide a useful description for what modern taste finds a strange combination of materials in the Anniversaries.

“Infinitati Sacrum”

An even more difficult long poem is an unfinished one called “Infinitati Sacrum.” This strange parable of Original Sin adapts Paracelsus’s theory of the transmigration of souls to follow through the course of subsequent history the spirit of the apple plucked by Eve. W. A. Murray has seen in this poem the beginnings of a Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). While few other readers will want to go so far, most will agree with Murray and with George Williamson that “Infinitati Sacrum” is a preliminary use of the materials and themes treated in the Anniversaries.

Donne has been called a poet of religious doubt in contrast to Herbert, a poet of religious assurance; but Herbert has real doubts in the context of his assurance, and the bold demand for salvation in audacious, even shocking language characteristic of the Holy Sonnets suggests, on the contrary, that Donne writes from a deep-seated conviction of election.

Holy Sonnets

Louis Martz, Helen Gardner, and others have shown the influence of Ignatian meditation in the Holy Sonnets. Dame Helen, in fact, by restoring the manuscript order, has been able to see in these poems a sequential meditative exercise. The sensuous language, however, suggests not so much the meditative technique of Saint Ignatius of Loyola as the technique of Saint Francis de Sales. In addition, Don M. Ricks has argued cogently that the order of the poems in the Westmorland Manuscript may suggest an Elizabethan sonnet sequence and not a meditative exercise at all.

Holy Sonnet 14 (10 in Dame Helen’s numbering), “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” has been seen by Arthur L. Clements and others as hieroglyphically illustrating the Trinity in its three-part structure. This poem opens with the striking dramatic immediacy typical of Donne’s best lyrics. Using both military and sexual imagery, Donne describes the frightening, ambivalent feelings called up by the thought of giving oneself over to God’s power and overwhelming grace. The soul is a town ruled by a usurper whom God’s viceroy, Reason, is inadequate to overthrow. The soul is also the beloved of God though betrothed to his enemy and longing for divorce. The resolution of this sonnet turns on a paradoxical sexual image as the persona says that his soul will never be chaste unless God ravishes him. A similar complex of imagery is used, though in a less startling fashion, in Holy Sonnet 2 (1), “As due by many titles I resign.”

Holy Sonnet 9 (5), “If poisonous minerals,” begins audaciously by accusing God of unfairness in the consequences He has decreed for Original Sin. In the sestet, the persona abruptly realizes that he is unworthy to dispute with God in this way and begs that his tears of guilt might form a river of forgetfulness inducing God to overlook his sins rather than actually forgiving them. Although this poem does not turn on a sexual image, it does contrast the lot of fallen man unfavorably with that of lecherous goats, who have no decree of damnation hanging over them.

Holy Sonnet 18 (2 in Dame Helen’s separately numbered group from the Westmorland Manuscript), “Show me, dear Christ, Thy spouse so bright and clear,” has some of the most shocking sexual imagery in all of religious literature. Although the tradition of using erotic imagery to describe the soul’s relationship with God has a long history, particularly in exegesis of the Song of Songs, that is helpful in understanding the other Holy Sonnets, the imagery here is of a different order. Like Satire 3, the poem is a discussion of the competing claims of the various Christian churches, but it goes well beyond the courtship imagery of the satire when it praises the Anglican Church because, like a promiscuous woman, it makes itself available to all men.

A distinctly separate series of Holy Sonnets is “La Corona.” Using paradoxes such as the fact that the Virgin is her Maker’s maker, and including extensive allusions to the divine office, this sequence of seven poems on the life of Christ has been called by Martz a rosary of sonnets, not so much because of the devotional content as because of the interlaced structure: The last line of each poem is repeated as the first line of the next. Although the ingenious patterning renders the sequence less personal than Donne’s best religious poetry, within its exquisite compass it does make a beautiful statement of the mysteries of faith.

In “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going into Germany,” Donne exaggerates the dangers of a Channel crossing to confront his mortality. Then even in the face of death, the persona pictures Christ as a jealous lover to be castigated if he withdraws his love just because it is not reciprocated; yet the persona does call for a bill of divorcement from all his lesser loves. The poem ends with the thought that, just as dark churches (being free of distractions) are best for praying, death is the best refuge from stormy seas.

“Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward” is a witty paradox built on Ramist dialectic. Forced to make a trip to the West on Good Friday, the persona feels his soul drawn to the East. Although the heavens are ordered for westward motion, he feels a contradiction even as he duplicates their motion because all Christian iconology urges him to return to the East where life began—both human life in Eden and spiritual life with the Crucifixion. He reasons that through sin he has turned his back on the Cross—but only to receive the correction that his sins merit. He hopes such flagellation will so change his appearance that he will again become recognizable to God as made in his own image. Then he will at last be able to turn and face God.

Another divine poem of witty paradox is “A Hymn to God the Father.” Punning on “Son/sun” and on his own name, Donne demands that God swear to save him. Having done so, God will at last have Donne. Because of its frankness and its very personal use of puns, this poem is not really a hymn despite its title—although it has been included in hymnals.

The chapter headings of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions as laid out in the table of contents should also be included among the divine poems. Joan Webber has made the illuminating discovery that this table of contents is a Latin poem in dactylic hexameters. This is a particularly surprising element of artistry in a work composed in such a short time and under such difficult conditions. Thus even more self-conscious than had been supposed, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions can finally be seen as an explication of the Latin poem.


John Donne World Literature Analysis