It was 1593 and John Donne was 21: tall, dark and exquisitely moustached. He was studying law at the Inns of Court in central London, and was living high. He excelled at the business of frivolity and was elected Master of the Revels, in charge of putting on pageantry and wild parties for his fellow scholars, with raucous singing and drunken dancing of the galliard. (The dance, which involved great leaps and kicks and spins, was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: she was said, even in her 50s, to dance “six or seven galliards in a morning”.) He was writing, for a group of male friends , rakish poetry that was beginning to make him known.
But as the year went on, the plague was spreading: the theaters were ordered to close, the bear-baiting to cease. In the streets officials wielded 3ft-long marshal wands, to swat at people who weren’t social distancing. Donne wrote to a friend a lament for the city’s swagger:
Now pleasure’s death our city doth possess:
Our theaters are filled with emptiness;
As lank and thin is every street and way
As a woman delivered yesterday.
If you fell ill, your house was boarded up with your whole family inside it for 20 days. The illness came on so quickly that they said a man could “dine with his friends and sup with his ancestors”. One man, the playwright Thomas Dekker wrote, “felt a plucking in his arm from him… and upon this, plucking up his sleeve, he called his wife to stay; there was no need to fetch him anything from the market; for see (quoth he) I am marked; and so showing God’s Token, he died a few minutes later. Symptoms were fast and cruel: a racing pulse was followed by buboes – hard, red plague sores, some as large as an apple. More wealthy students retreated to the countryside as the plague advanced; others, with nowhere to go, stayed in London. Donne was one such man; his brother Henry, just arrived at the Inns of Court, was another.
It had always been Donne’s job to look after Henry – his younger, more vulnerable brother. In the spring of 1593, Henry’s lodgings were raided: he had been hiding a young Catholic priest in his chambers from him. The penalty for practicing as a priest was death. Henry was thrown in jail, through which the plague was raging. Donne did not immediately visit his brother from him. He delayed just a few days – he didn’t have days. Almost as soon as he arrived in Newgate, Henry became feverish, tortured by buboes. I have died fast. He was 19 years old.
Henry’s death was to be one in a series of horrors that battered Donne’s life. Born into a family hounded for their Catholicism, he lost six children, as well as his wife, Anne, who died during childbirth at the age of 33. An attempt to be a swashbuckling privateer ended in him watching sailors leap burning into the sea to drown. He thought, relentlessly, of killing himself: he wrote the first full-length treatise on suicide in the English language. There are few poets who knew greater sorrow.
But despite or perhaps because of it, there are also few who insisted so passionately on awe. A single human soul, he wrote, is larger than the world itself: “It is too little to call Man a little world … Man [is] the giant, and the world the dwarf.” He kept insisting – in his poetry of him and later, when he became the dean of St Paul’s, in his sermons of him, and on his deathbed of him – that life is an astonishment, and it behaves us to be astonished.
If Henry’s death changed Donne, it was to make his work only more intense, more urgent, more defiantly witty. His best verse of him is a triumphant call to life: it is desire, sincerity, joke, all bound into one. It’s there, for instance, in A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning: the lovers are imagined as the two feet of a pair of mathematical compasses, joined eternally at the base:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;
And though it sits in the center,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect as it comes home.
His poetry loves the body, because Donne, unlike so many of the poets who went before him, never pretended not to have a body – “grows erect as it comes home” is a pun so obvious it might as well be a little sketch of to penis. He reveled in the real floating delight of it: he wrote in To His Mistress Going to Bed:
Full nakedness! All joys are due to you:
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys.
Donne burst out from a poetic tradition that watched him, dismayed, as he laid waste their rules and traditions. Ben Jonson wrote that Donne, “for not keeping an accent, deserved hanging.” Many other poets of the time were still playing the “my lady is a perfect dove” game. Think of Walter Raleigh writing to Queen Elizabeth:
A flower of Love’s own planting,
A pattern kept by Nature,
For Beauty, form and stature
When she would frame a darling.
Donne saw that we need more than that: words that encompass the strangeness and mad sweep of human desire, human hunger. I have summoned fleas, mathematical instruments, mythical fish, snakes, planets, kings. He chastised the sun for rising on his lover’s bed:
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
He had, he wrote, “an hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning”: a labyrinthical mind. Searching for a way to note down the majestically improbable problem of being alive, he became a wild inventor of words, a neologismist. He accounts for the first recorded use of about 340 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, including beauteousness, emancipation, enripen, fecundate and jig.
Donne is often said to be a difficult poet. But if he is difficult, it is the difficulty of someone who wants you to read harder, to pay better attention. And when you have read and reread them, the poems open – they salute you. The pleasures of Donne are akin to the pleasures of cracking a safe: there is gold inside. And besides, why should it be easy? Very little that is worth having is easy. We are not, he told us, easy: we are both a miracle and a disaster; our lives deserve pity and wonder, careful loving attention, the full untrammelled exuberance of our imagination. When you have known vast horror, and still found glory, you do not compare loves to doves. You write: “Taste whole joys.”
Donne knew what it was to be ruthlessly alone. He knew dread, and fear: and that’s why we can believe him when he tells us of their opposite, of ravishments and of love.