1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Donne

Anna Brownell Jameson, "Story of Dr. Donne and his Wife" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 327-38.



My next instance of conjugal poetry is taken from the literary history of our own country, and founded on as true and touching a piece of romance as ever was taken from the page of real life.

Dr. Donne, once so celebrated as a writer, now so neglected, is more interesting for his matrimonial history, and for one little poem addressed to his wife, than for all his learned, metaphysical, and theological productions. As a poet, it is probable that even readers of poetry know little of him, except from the lines at the bottom of the pages in Pope's version, or rather translation, of his Satires, the very recollection of which is enough to "set one's ears on edge," and verify Coleridge's witty and imitative couplet,—

Donne — whose muse on dromedary trots,—
Twists iron pokers into true love knots.

It is this inconceivable harshness of versification, which has caused Donne to be so little read, except by those who make our old poetry their study. One of these critics has truly observed, that "there is scarce a writer in our language who has so thoroughly mixed up the good and the bad together." What is good, is the result of truth, of passion, of a strong mind, and a brilliant wit; what is bad, is the effect of a most perverse taste, and total want of harmony. No sooner has he kindled the fancy with a splendid thought, than it is as instantly quenched in a cloud of cold and obscure conceits; no sooner has he touched the heart with a feeling or sentiment, true to nature and powerfully expressed, than we are chilled or disgusted by pedantry or coarseness.

The events of Donne's various life, and the romantic love he inspired and felt, make us recur to his works, with an interest and a curiosity, which, while they give a value to every beauty we can discover, render his faults more glaring — more provoking — more intolerable.

In his youth he lavished a considerable fortune in dissipation, in travelling, and, it may be added, in the acquisition of great and various learning. He then entered the service of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, as secretary. Under the same roof resided Lady Ellesmere's niece, Anne Moore, a lovely and amiable woman. She was about nineteen, and Donne was about thirty, handsome, lively, and polished by travel and study. They met constantly, and the result was a mutual attachment of the most ardent and romantic character. As they were continually together, and always in the presence of watchful relations, ("ambushed around with household spies," as he expresses it,) it could not long be concealed. "The friends of both parties," says Walton, "used much diligence and many arguments to kill or cool their affections for each other, but in vain;" and the lady's father, Sir George Moore, "knowing prevention to be the best part of wisdom," came lip to town in all haste, and carried off his daughter into the country. But his preventive wisdom came too late; the lovers had been secretly married three weeks before.

This precipitate step was perhaps excusable, from the known violence and sternness of Sir George's character. His daughter was well aware that his consent would never be voluntary; she preferred marrying without it, to marrying against it; and trusted to obtain his forgiveness when there was no remedy; — a common mode of reasoning, I believe, in such cases. Never perhaps was a youthful error of this description more bitterly punished — more deeply expiated — and so little repented of!

The earl of Northumberland undertook to break the matter to Sir George, to reason with him on the subject; and to represent the excellent qualities of his son-in-law, and the duty of forgiveness, as a wise man, a father, and Christian. His intention was benevolent, and we have reason to regret that his speech or letter has not been preserved; for (such is human inconsistency!) this very Earl of Northumberland never could forgive his own daughter a similar disobedience, but followed it with his curse, which he was with difficulty prevailed on to retract. His mediation failed: Sir George, on learning that his precautions came too late, burst into a transport of rage, the effect of which resembled insanity. He had sufficient interest in the arbitrary court of James, to procure the imprisonment of Donne and the witnesses of his daughter's marriage; and he insisted that his brother-in-law should dismiss the young man from his office, — his only support. Lord Ellesmere yielded with extreme reluctance, saying, "he parted with such a friend and such a secretary, as were: a fitter servant for a King." Donne, in sending this news to his wife, signs his name with the quaint oddity, which was so characteristic of his mind, — "John Donne, Anne Donne, — undone": and undone they truly were. As soon as he was released he claimed his wife; but it was many months before they were allowed to meet.

Have we for this kept guard, like spy o'er spy?
Had correspondence whilst the foe stood by?
Stolen (more to sweeten them) our many blisses
Of meetings, conference, embracements, kisses?
Shadow'd with negligence our best respects?
Varied our language through all dialects
Of becks, winks, looks; and often under boards,
Spoke dialogues, with our feet far from our words?
And after all this passed purgatory,
Must sad divorce make us the vulgar story?

At length this unkind father in some degree relented; he suffered his daughter and her husband to live together, but he refused to contribute to their support; and they were reduced to the greatest distress. Donne had nothing. "His wife had been curiously and plentifully educated; both their natures generous, accustomed to confer, not to receive courtesies;" and when he looked on her who was to be the partner of his lot, he was filled with such sadness and apprehension as he could never have felt for himself alone.

In this situation they were invited into the house of a generous kinsman, (Sir Francis Woolley,) who maintained them and their increasing family for several years, "to their mutual content" and undiminished friendship. Volumes could not say more in praise of both than this singular connection to bestow favors, so long continued and of such magnitude, with a grace which made them sit lightly on those who received them, and to preserve, under the weight of such obligation, dignity, independence, and happiness, bespeaks uncommon greatness of spirit and goodness of heart and temper on all sides.

This close and domestic intimacy was dissolved only by the death of Sir Francis, who had previously procured a kind of reconcilement with the father of Mrs. Donne, and an allowance of about eighty pounds a year. They fell again into debt, and into misery; and "doubtless," says old Walton, with a quaint, yet eloquent simplicity, "their marriage had been attended with a heavy repentance, if God had not blessed them with so mutual and cordial affections, as, in the midst of their sufferings, made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly than the banquets of dull and low-spirited people." We find in some of Donne's letters, the most heart-rending pictures of family distress, mingled with the tenderest touches of devoted affection for his amiable wife. "I write," he says, "from the fireside in my parlor, and in the noise of three gamesome children, and by the side of her, whom, because I have transplanted into a wretched fortune, I must labor to disguise that from her by all such honest devices, as giving her my company and discourse," &c. &c.

And in another letter he describes himself, with all his family sick, his wife stupefied by her own and her children's sufferings, without money to purchase medicine,—"and if God should ease us with burials, I know not how to perform even that; but I flatter myself that I am dying too, for I cannot waste faster than by such griefs. — From my hospital. JOHN DONNE."

This is the language of despair; but love was stronger than despair, and supported this affectionate couple through all their trials. Add to mutual love the spirit of high honor and conscious desert; for in the midst of this sad, and almost sordid misery and penury, Donne, whose talents his contemporaries acknowledged with admiration, refused to take orders and accept a benefice, from a scruple of conscience, on account of the irregular life he had led in his youthful years.

But in their extremity, Providence raised them up another munificent friend. Sir Robert Drury received the whole family into his house, treated Donne with the most cordial respect and affection, and some time afterwards invited him to accompany him abroad.

Donne had been married to his wife seven years, during which they had suffered every variety of wretchedness, except the greatest of all, — that of being separated. The idea of this first parting was beyond her fortitude; she said, her "divining soul boded her some ill in his absence," and with tears she entreated him not to leave her. Her affectionate husband yielded; but Sir Robert Drury was urgent and would not be refused. Donne represented to his wife all that honor and gratitude required of him; and she, too really tender, and too devoted to be selfish and unreasonable, yielded with "an unwilling willingness;" yet, womanlike, she thought she could not bear a pain she had never tried, and was seized with the romantic idea of following him in the disguise of a page. In a delicate and amiable woman, and a mother, it could have been but a momentary thought, suggested in the frenzy of anguish. It inspired, however, the following beautiful dissuasion, which her husband addressed to her.

By our first strange and fatal interview;
By all desires which thereof did ensue;
By our long-striving hopes; by that remorse
Which my words' masculine persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts which spies and rivals threaten'd me,—
I calmly beg: but by thy father's wrath,
By all pains which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee; — and all the oaths which I
And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy,
I here unswear, and overswear them thus:
Thou shalt not love by means so dangerous.
Temper, O fair Love! Love's impetuous rage;
Be my true mistress, not my feigned page.
I'll go, and by thy kind leave, leave behind
Thee, only worthy to nurse in my mind
Thirst to come back. O! if thou die before,
My soul from other lands to thee shall soar:
Thy (else almighty) beauty cannot move
Rage from the seas, not thy love teach them love,
Nor tame wild Boreas' harshness: thou hast read
How roughly he in pieces shivered
Fair Orithea, whom he swore he loved.
Fall ill or good, 'tis madness to have proved
Dangers unurg'd: feed on this flattery,
That absent lovers one in th' other be.
Dissemble nothing, — not a boy, — nor change
Thy body's habit nor mind: be not strange
To thyself only: all will spy in thy face
A blushing, womanly, discovering grace.
When I am gone dream me some happiness,
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess:
Nor praise nor dispraise me; nor bless nor curse
Openly love's force; nor in bed fright thy nurse
With midnight startings, crying out, Oh! oh!
Nurse, oh! my love is slain! I saw him go
O'er the white Alps alone; I saw him, I,
Assailed, ta'en, fight, stabb'd, bleed, fall, and die:
Augur me better chance, except dread Jove
Think it enough for me to have had thy love.

I would not have the heart of one who could read these lines, and think only of their rugged style, and faults of taste and expression. The superior power of truth and sentiment have immortalized this little poem, and the occasion which gave it birth. The wife and husband parted, and he left with her another little poem, which he calls a "Valediction, forbidding to mourn."

When Donne was at Paris, and still suffering under the grief of this separation, he saw, or fancied he saw, the apparition of his wife pass through the room in which he sat, her hair dishevelled and hanging down upon her shoulders, her face pale and mournful, and carrying in her arms a dead infant. Sir Robert Drury found him a few minutes afterwards in such a state of horror, and his mind so impressed with the reality of this vision, that an express was immediately sent off to England, to inquire after the health of Mrs. Donne. She had been seized, after the departure of her husband, with a premature confinement; had been at the point of death; but was then out of danger, and recovering.

This incident has been related by all Donne's biographers, by some with infinite solemnity, by others with sneering incredulity. I can speak from experience, of the power of the imagination to impress us with a palpable sense of what is not, and cannot be; and it seems to me that, in a man of Donne's ardent, melancholy temperament, brooding day and night on the one sad idea, a high state of nervous excitement is sufficient to account for this impression, without having recourse to supernatural agency, or absolute disbelief.

Donne, after several years of study, was prevailed on to enter holy orders; and about four years afterwards, his amiable wife died in her twelfth confinement. His grief was so overwhelming, that his old friend Walton thinks it necessary thus to apologize for him: "Nor is it hard to think (being that passions may be both changed and heightened by accidents,) but that the abundant affection which was once betwixt him and her, who had so long been the delight of his eyes and the companion of his youth; her, with whom he had divided so many pleasant sorrows and contented fears, as common people are not capable of, should be changed into a commensurable grief." He roused himself at length to his duties; and preaching his first sermon at St. Clement's Church, in the Strand, where his beloved wife lay buried, he took for his text, Jer. iii. v. 1: "Lo! I am the man that hath seen affliction;" and sent all his congregation home in tears.

Among Donne's earlier poetry may be distinguished the following little song, which has so much more harmony and elegance than his other pieces, that it is scarcely a fair specimen of his style. It was long popular, and I can remember, when a child, hearing it sung to very beautiful music.

Send home my long stray'd eyes to me,
Which, oh! too long have dwelt on thee!
But if from thee they've learnt such ill,
Such forced fashions
And false passions,
That they be
Made by thee
Fit for no good sight — keep them still!

Send home my harmless heart again,
Which no unworthy thought could stain!
But if it hath been taught by thine
To make jestings
Of protestings,
To forget both
Its word and troth,
Keep it still — 'tis none of mine!

Perhaps it may interest some readers to add, that Donne's famous lines, which have been quoted ad infinitum,—

The pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
Ye might have almost said her body thought!

were not written on his wife, but on Elizabeth Drury, the only daughter of his patron and friend, Sir Robert Drury. She was the richest heiress in England, the wealth of her father being considered almost incalculable; and this, added to her singular beauty, and extraordinary talents and acquirements, rendered her so popularly interesting, that she was considered a fit match for Henry, Prince of Wales. She died in her sixteenth year.

Dr. Donne and his wife were maternal ancestors of the poet Cowper.