When I was in eleventh grade, we read John Donne’s most famous poem, The Flea. While I enjoyed it, the author seemed like a total perv. It was many years afterwards that I found out from my mother that he became a famous priest in England, eventually becoming the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne was born a Catholic, in a time when it was not popular to be one. According to this article, “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.” His way of dealing with all the deaths and anti-Catholicism was to be very sexual, which manifested itself in his erotic poetry, examples of which can be found below and in the above article.
To His Mistress Going to Bed
by John Donne
Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie. The foe oft-times having the foe in sight, Is tired with standing though he never fight. 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. Off with that happy busk, which I envy, That still can be, and still can stand so nigh. Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals, As when from flowery meads th'hills shadow steals. Off with your wiry coronet and show The hairy diadem which on you doth grow: Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed. In such white robes heaven's angels used to be Received by men; thou, Angel, bring'st with thee A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise; and though Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know By this these Angels from an evil sprite: Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright. License my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America! my new-found-land, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned, My mine of precious stones, my empery, How blest am I in this discovering thee! To enter in these bonds is to be free; Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be, To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use Are as Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views, That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem, His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them: Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed. Themselves are mystic books, which only we (Whom their imputed grace will dignify) Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know, As liberally as to a midwife, show Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence, There is no penance due to innocence: To teach thee, I am naked first; why than, What need'st thou have more covering than a man?
Eventually Donne joined the Church of England, fell in love and married and had twelve children with his wife (seven of which survived). He starts studying religion, and according to this article, “One of the two anti-Catholic works he published, Pseudo-Martyr, earned him the favor of King James I because it argued Catholics could pledge allegiance to the king without renouncing their faith.” The one he loved in his poetry from this time period is God. He is well-known to this day for his sermons and was famous throughout the land for them.
SONNET IV of the HOLY SONNETS
O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death’s herald and champion;
Thou’rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d from prison,
But damn’d and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.