Sunday, February 17, 2013

John Donne’s Erotica

February 14, 2013 - The New Yorker

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A friend, visiting my first New York apartment, noticed a collection of John Donne’s poetry on my bedside table. She nodded knowingly. Donne, she said, was the most erotic poet in English literature. I nodded back, leering unconvincingly. I had no idea what she was talking about. “It’s his control,” she said. “Reading him, you can feel what a good lover he must have been.” And here I’d thought my plan to read a Donne poem each night bespoke a lofty, serious turn of mind. Ask not for whom the earth moves.
Donne was, in fact, a rake and a bawd before he became a preacher and, in the fullness of time, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, famous for his sermons and celebrated at court. He wrote poetry throughout this checkered, picaresque career. Almost none of it was published in his lifetime. But the range of the work that survives does include not only canonical love poems like “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” but erotica also both intricate and raw.

Donne was born Roman Catholic at a bad time to be a Catholic in England. It was 1572. Queen Elizabeth was having Jesuits hanged, drawn, and quartered. Donne’s great-great-uncle was Thomas More, the author of “Utopia” and a Catholic. He was beheaded during the Reformation. Donne’s brother Henry died of the plague in prison at the age of twenty while awaiting trial for hiding a Catholic priest in his lodgings. Young John was more discreet. He went to Oxford at twelve, but left before turning sixteen to avoid a mandatory oath rejecting Catholicism. He became a law student and, according to a contemporary, “a great visitor of ladies” and “a great writer of conceited verses.” He stayed out of religious debates and sought the divine elsewhere.

From “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate, which you wear
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.

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