Attention class: today we will be studying the works of 17th-century English poet John Donne. His poems are powerful, evocative and, well, downright erotic.
Like his poems, Donne’s personal life was an intricate tapestry of sexuality and spirituality.
“He was this sort of Lothario of a poet in his early days. He was writing poems about seducing his mistresses, which were no doubt handed around in the boys’ clubs at the time,” explains Anglican minister Michael Jensen on the latest episode of Eternity‘s With All Due Respect podcast.
Jensen, who studied Donne’s poetry in high school, continues: “But then he becomes a preacher and Dean of St Paul’s cathedral in London … and he writes some of the best religious poetry ever.”
“This poem also frames my own Christian life – the sense of being overtaken by God, being enthralled by him and the liberty that I’m given in him … He conquers me, but then doesn’t dissolve me in the Christian life.” — Michael Jensen
Donne grew up in a Roman Catholic household during a distinctly anti-Catholic era of English history and wrestled with faith in general, before settling into the Anglican church later in life. While the details around his conversion to Christianity are unclear, he was ordained as an Anglican deacon and priest in 1615 at the age of 43 and became Dean of St Paul’s six years later.
Interestingly, Donne’s marriage to his beloved wife Anne in 1601 helped spark the content of his famous “Holy Sonnets”, written before his ordination.
“He had a very long and passionate marriage to his wife,” Jensen explains, “and when she died, he wrote a very short, moving poem which was: ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.’ It gets me every time.”
During his lifetime, Donne’s poetry was, understandably, controversial. Almost all of his works – poems and prose – were not published while he was alive, and it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that his genius was fully recognised.
The “Donne revival” was fuelled in recent years when one of his early manuscripts – including a “scandalous academic joke” – was unearthed in the archives of Westminster Abbey in 2017, and another handwritten volume of 139 of his poems was discovered in an English country house in Suffolk last year.
Co-host of With All Due Respect, Baptist minister Megan Powell du Toit, is well qualified to explain why Donne was one of the best, since she wrote a thesis on religious poets of the 17th century.
“Because [his poetry] is not saccharine, it’s not stilted … He brings that same intensity and strength [from his earlier works] into his holy poetry,” she says.
In examining three of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” on the podcast, Powell du Toit says, “Donne takes his sexy poetry and talks about the Trinity”.
She discusses one of his most famous holy sonnets, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (noting it was, bizarrely, even mentioned in an opera about the creation of the atomic bomb): “It shows the way that God actually woos us rather than ravishes us.”
Jensen agrees, saying this “trinitarian wooing” is like “a seduction … that picks up so many biblical themes with God as the husband trying to woo Israel.”
He continues: “This poem also frames my own Christian life – the sense of being overtaken by God, being enthralled by him and the liberty that I’m given in him … He conquers me, but then doesn’t dissolve me in the Christian life.”
Powell du Toit concludes: “It’s like an experience of love, isn’t it? In that, that’s what it feels like to have freely chosen, but it also feels like … how could we have done anything else?”
Catch the full conversation, as well as Megan and Michael’s insights into “The Trinity: can you be saved if you don’t believe it?”, on episode 26 of With All Due Respect.
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