John Donne's Early Poetry

Early Poetry

Donne's earliest poems showed a brilliant knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers, yet stand out due to their intellectual sophistication and striking imagery. His images of sickness, vomit, manure, and plague assisted in the creation of a strongly satiric world populated by all the fools and knaves of England. His third satire, however, deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. Donne argued that it was better carefully to examine one's religious convictions than blindly to follow any established tradition, for none would be saved at the Final Judgment by claiming:

"A Harry, or a Martin taught [them] this."

Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being compared to sex. In Elegy XIX, "To His Mistress Going to Bed," he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII he compared the gap between his lover's breasts to the Hellespont. Donne did not publish these poems, although he did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.

Because love-poetry was very fashionable at that time, there are different opinions about whether the passionate love poems Donne wrote are addressed to his wife Anne, but it seems likely. She spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing, so they evidently had a strong physical relationship. On 15 August 1617 his wife died five days after giving birth to a still-born baby, their twelfth child in sixteen years of marriage. Donne mourned her deeply, including writing the 17th Holy Sonnet. He never remarried; this was quite unusual for the time, especially as he had a large family to bring up.

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