A Lecture upon the Shadow

A Lecture upon the Shadow

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A Lecture upon the Shadow

Image by Pickersgill Reef
by John Donne

STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now ’tis not so.

That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.

Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O! love’s day is short, if love decay.

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.

John Donne, poet

Image by lisby1
John Donne (pronounced /ˈdʌn/ "dunn"; 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English Jacobean poet, preacher and a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period. His works are notable for their realistic and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially as compared to those of his contemporaries.

Despite his great education and poetic talents, he lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. In 1615 he became an Anglican priest and, in 1621, was appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

John Donne was born on Bread Street in London, England, into a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal in England.[3] Donne was the third of six children. His father, also named John Donne, was of Welsh descent, and a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London. Donne’s father was a respected Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention out of fear of being persecuted for his religious faith.[4] [5] Donne’s father died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their children.[5] Elizabeth Heywood, also from a noted Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Jasper Heywood, the translator and Jesuit. She was a great-niece of the Catholic martyr Thomas More.[6] This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne’s closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons.[7] Despite the obvious dangers, Donne’s family arranged for his education by the Jesuits, which gave him a deep knowledge of his religion that equipped him for the ideological religious conflicts of his time.[6] Donne’s mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after Donne’s father died. In 1577, his mother died, followed by two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, in 1581.

Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years.[8] He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates.[6] In 1591 he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court[6], where he held the office of Master of the Revels.[3] His brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, whom Henry betrayed under torture.[3] Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, and then was subjected to live disembowelment.[3] Henry Donne died in Newgate prison of bubonic plague, leading John Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.[5]

During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel.[4] [6] Although there is no record detailing precisely where he traveled, it is known that he traveled across Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cádiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe.[1] [5] [9] According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1640:
“ … he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages. ”

By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking.[9] He was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton’s London home, York House, Strand close to the Palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social centre in England.

During the next four years he fell in love with Egerton’s niece Anne More, and they were married just before Christmas [3] in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison, along with the priest who married them and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proven valid, and soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when he wrote to his wife to tell her about losing his post, he wrote after his name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife’s dowry.

Following his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey.[6] Over the next few years he scraped a meagre living as a lawyer, depending on his wife’s cousin Sir Francis Wolly to house him, his wife, and their children. Since Anne Donne had a baby almost every year, this was a very generous gesture. Though he practiced law and worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton, he was in a state of constant financial insecurity, with a growing family to provide for.[6]

Anne bore him 12 children in 16 years of marriage (including two stillbirths – their eighth and then in 1617 their last child); indeed, she spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing. The 10 surviving children were named Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (after Donne’s patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret and Elizabeth. Francis, Nicholas and Mary died before they were ten. In a state of despair, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time Donne wrote, but did not publish, Biathanatos, his defense of suicide.[7] His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, including writing the 17th Holy Sonnet.[6] He never remarried; this was quite unusual for the time, especially as he had a large family to bring up.

Donne’s earliest poems showed a developed knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers. His images of sickness, vomit, manure, and plague assisted in the creation of a strongly satiric world populated by all the fools and knaves of England. His third satire, however, deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. He argued that it was better to examine carefully one’s religious convictions than blindly to follow any established tradition, for none would be saved at the Final Judgment, by claiming "A Harry, or a Martin taught [them] this."[7]

Donne’s early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being compared to sex.[9] In Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII, he compared the gap between his lover’s breasts to the Hellespont.[9] Donne did not publish these poems, although he did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.

Donne was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley in 1602, but this was not a paid position and Donne struggled to provide for his family, relying heavily upon rich friends.[6] The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave him a means to seek patronage and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially Sir Robert Drury, who came to be Donne’s chief patron in 1610.[9] Donne wrote the two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul, (1612), for Drury. While historians are not certain as to the precise reasons for which Donne left the Catholic Church, he was certainly in communication with the King, James I of England, and in 1610 and 1611 he wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave.[6] Although James was pleased with Donne’s work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders.[5] Although Donne was at first reluctant, feeling unworthy of a clerical career, he finally acceded to the King’s wishes and in 1615 was ordained into the Church of England.[9]

Donne became a Royal Chaplain in late 1615, Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge University in 1618.[6] Later in 1618 he became chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620.[6] In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul’s, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England and one he held until his death in 1631. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. It was in late November and early December of 1623 that he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by the seven-day relapsing fever. During his convalescence he wrote a series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness that were published as a book in 1624 under the title of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Meditation XVII later became well known for its phrase "for whom the bell tolls" and the statement that "no man is an island". In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a Royal Chaplain to Charles I.[6] He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death’s Duel sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.

It is thought that his final illness was stomach cancer. He died on 31 March 1631 having published many poems in his lifetime; but having left a body of work fiercely engaged with the emotional and intellectual conflicts of his age. John Donne is buried in St Paul’s, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself.

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