Look at this man. Face like an axe blade, a sensualists’s mouth. What is he looking at, out of the frame ? A pretty woman ? Probably.
This is John Donne .
The shape-shifter. Born a Catholic in a time of persecution, he knew family members who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Around the time this portrait was painted, he was toying with aetheism- which was also punishable by death. Later in his life he became an Anglican and ended up Dean of St Paul’s. He was The Man Who Loved Women ( “a great frequenter of plays..and ladies” said a contemporary.) His erotic poetry is so powerful, you have the feeling he’s just jumped out of bed to write it down, leaving the girl asleep under the covers.
When he did marry, he made an unfortunate choice- the niece of his master, Sir Thomas Egerton, who did not approve. Donne was put in prison until the marriage was proved valid. They were banished to to a village in Surrey, where he scratched a living as a lawyer, working at the kitchen table as a pack of children played around his feet.
Then he began a second career….this time as an Anglican priest. In 1615 he was made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and by 1621, he was Dean of St Paul’s.
By this time, the libertine had turned into … a kind of mystic. The erotic passion of his early years had turned into something deeper. You could say that he began a love affair with God- full of joy and doubt, pleadings and exulations. His religious poetry still has the same passion and drive, intellectual toughness and theatricality- but he’s talking to, shouting at…God.
Remember that I said the two main subjects of poetry are sex and death ?
He did both, often at the same time.
Next time we’ll look at one of his sonnets. It’s tricky, contradictory, and hard to understand.
So be there.