John Donne, relatively neglected for centuries, regained some measure of popularity in the early twentieth century, which he has not now lost. Much of the twentieth century criticism written about him is focused on his “metaphysical” style: critics generally just throw out the observation that he has both “love poems” and “religious poems” before moving on to discuss the origins, merits, and flaws of his form.
The substance of his work is, in its own way, quite as shocking and novel as his style. At least, some of his comtemporaries thought so. Henry Vaughan dismisses the love poems of Donne as “lust in robes of love.” It is hard to imagine that any American of my generation has read “The Indifferent,” a lamentation on the inconstancy of woman, in which the poet draws attention to his ability to enjoy and appreciate all different kinds of women, without being forcibly reminded of a certain not particularly sentimental popular song entitled “Mumbo Number 5.” Donne’s most famous poem, “The Flea,” is of course, a plea to a woman to “yield to him,” using a cleverly absurd a fortiori argument. Nowhere in the poem does he describe any emotions other than desire and frustration.
Actually, it is difficult to find in any of Donne’s amatory poems those sentiments normally associated with “love”: they are curiously bereft of humility, concern for the well-being of the beloved, or admiration, even of a physical kind. He has written no “sonnets to his lady’s eyebrow.” Instead, the poems are expressions of physical desire, exultation in satisfied desire, recriminations for the inconstancy of women, or musings on his own inconstancy.
Donne’s religious poems are even more unique in matter than his love poems. He is neither the first nor the last poet of lust, but the specific kind of religious feeling he expresses is very hard to find in poetic form anywhere else. If the love poems express an appetite that may be felt by a wild animal, the religious poems primarily express anxiety (and conclude with the soothing of that anxiety), feelings that may also be experienced by an animal:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it was done before?
Wilt though forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.
Throughout the religious poems, there is indeed some humility and a bit of admiration, together with much bargaining and pleading, — all of which elements are common enough in the religious experience. But nowhere does Donne round out his religion by doing what is done so beautifully by some of his contemporaries, and more fully echo the genuine love of the songs directed by David towards his Heavenly Beloved. For true love involves not only recognition, but also striving for genuine attachment and connection, in the strain of “my soul thirsts for You,” or “Oh, that my ways were correct, to keep Your laws!” As we may rebrand Donne’s love poems, and call them lust poems instead, it would also be appropriate to rename the poems directed towards God, and call them “superstition poems.” For John Donne suffered from the same unfortunate diagnosis which was given by Chesterton to another man of
artistic temperament: that fear of the mere strength of destiny and of unknown spirits, of their strength as apart from their virtue, which is the only proper siginificance of the word superstition. No man can be superstitious who loves his God, even if the God be Mumbo-Jumbo.
John Donne, unique among poets, moved through life concerned with his own pleasure and pain, loving neither God nor woman. Although he was full of information and employed a clever, “metaphysical” style, his poetry is barren of real ethical or metaphysical thought. No wonder that the moderns find the content of his poetry unremarkable.