“Will the real John Donne please stand up?”
This was the question that greeted the class on the forum during our study of the works of John Donne. If you know anything about John Donne, it’s probably that his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation 17 is the text from which Ernest Hemingway got the title for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is also where we get the phrase, “No man is an island.” Meditation 17 is really where Donne’s legacy to the collective consciousness of the world comes from. However, Donne also wrote extensive poetry, both religious and secular, and this is largely where the seeming incongruity of his character emerges, as identitified in the question above.
John Donne was a metaphysical poet born in 1572 who converted to the Church of England and became a cleric toward the middle of his life. He wrote everything from love poems to sermons, much of which cannot be dated with certainty. We studied contrasting poems by Donne, including several religious poems, Meditation 17, and a satirical love poem entitled “The Flea,” which is essentially a man using metaphysics to proposition a less-than-willing lady. Needless to say, an indecent proposal isn’t in fitting with the concept of a clergyman. It can be assumed that this and other secular works were written before Donne’s conversion and entrance into the clergy, but his religious poetry retains traces of his explicit style. However, in keeping with metaphysical poetics, the sexual innuendo of his religious poetry stands for a spiritual, not physical, reality, in the vein of the biblical “bride of Christ” metaphor. Still, Donne’s versatility and seeming incongruity continues to spark debate–and puzzle first-year English students, such as I was.
So who is the real John Donne?
I think any writer, regardless of style or genre, goes through phases in their writing. If we don’t know when in John Donne’s life the different poems were written, it’s possible that he wrote in a certain style in a certain time period, changing as he went through different life experiences and perspectives. Another aspect to be considered when thinking about what an author, or anybody really, believes, is that humans are notoriously changeable, inconsistent, and sometimes irrational. A quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald states, “Writers aren’t exactly people… they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” I have no problem seeing all the writings of Donne as a reflection of the complex character that makes him a person.26 October 2016
Honestly, I think my contribution to this discussion was kind of a cop-out. It has long been speculated that, judging from those works of Donne’s that do have a date (i.e. sermons), those that didn’t have dates could be loosely organized by style, content, and tone into various eras of his life. Nothing new contributed by me there. We’re used to artists having phases; Beethoven notably had three major periods in his compositional career. And while my observation is valid that Donne, like anyone else, could not possibly have been a static character, it lacks development and complexity of expression. Allow me to remedy that now.
It is interesting to note that in successive years of English classes, John Donne’s poetry continued to come up in discussion and course content. Particularly, some selection of his religious poetry (almost any poem seemed to do) was chosen along with “The Flea” as representative of his range of style. Without having read John Donne outside of classes, I wonder if his poetry is quite so disparate as everyone wants to make it out to be, if “The Flea” is the only go-to for contrast. I feel as though this seeming difficulty reconciling his creative output is actually difficulty in reconciling his chosen vocation: the cleric writing risque love poetry. While it is true that the life of the artist must have some correlation to the art, it is usually not to the extent we instinctively want to think it does.
In the same class where I became reacquainted with John Donne, we studied John Milton. My research into Milton seemed to parallel some of the controversy around Donne. I came across an article about Milton as a Calvinist in the same volume as an article about why Milton was really an Armenian, generally regarded as being in direct opposition to Calvinism. But how could he be both? Well, judging by Milton’s writings, different researchers extrapolated and interpreted different things as representative of what must have been Milton’s view in real life. Unfortunately, an artist’s writings are seldom, if ever, representative of their real views and certainly cannot be considered to represent the entirety or the immutability of the artist’s ongoing character. It is particularly ludicrous to attach a direct real life meaning to fiction with any certainty–the very word fiction implies invention, which includes the category of untruth. Oscar Wilde writes a passionate argument for maintaining the untruth of fiction in his aptly named dialogue The Decay of Lying. Do an author’s works contain influences and elements of real life? Of course: it is, after all, coming from them in their real life. But that does not qualify it as real life, any more than a piano containing strings makes it a string instrument.
In my answer, I also neglected to expand on the most important consideration I mentioned when trying to reconcile Donne’s religion with his poetic canon. I quoted something attributed to Fitzgerald I had found on Pinterest that alludes to the most basic tenet of literary criticism: the concept of a persona. Authors are not just one person in their writings–they become various people, and sometimes must fight those other personas off when aiming to channel just one in a given work. None of these personas can be considered representative of the author without the others, and even then, it’s a ticklish business attributing any characteristics of textual personas to an author without some biographical or external evidence. Just like the first person narrative of something like The Hunger Games is not taken as representative of Suzanne Collins’ consciousness because the persona narrating is not Collins but Katniss Everdeen, so the poetry of Donne or Milton or whomsoever you wish to name cannot be taken as the writer’s voice unless the writer explicitly says it is. Suddenly, the question changes from, “How can a pious clergyman also be this unscrupulous womanizer,” to “How can a pious clergyman channel this unscrupulous womanizer?” Considering John Donne as an actor seems to me to be a more pertinent and applicable line of inquiry; he is playing a part in his poetry and therefore it does not need to completely reconcile with his real life.
Where this installment explored the untruth and persona, my next and final installment of the Online English Literature Discussion will consider what there is of truth and the real author’s presence in a work, so be on the lookout for that post forthcoming! (Which hopefully will not be as long and ramble-y as this one turned out to be.)