It’s been wonderful having various members of our choir contribute to this blog and give us a more in depth look into the pieces we are currently rehearsing for our concerts! Please enjoy this piece on John Donne, a poet who we are featuring in our upcoming concerts, written by CAE alto and board member, Elizabeth Madsen. And don’t forget that tickets to these concerts, as well as season tickets are currently on sale on our website, so secure yours today!
At our October concerts the Choral Arts Ensemble (CAE) will perform “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”, a poem by John Donne (pronounced “Done” or “dun”), set to music by Williametta Spencer. At one of our recent rehearsals, we were chuckling about the tongue-twister nature of the first line of the song (“At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”) [It is actually easier to sing this line than to speak it without music.]. One of my fellow Altos asked me whether I know John Donne. I have read and enjoyed his poetry, so I decided to delve deeper into Mr. Donne’s background and writing. I soon discovered that this would be a daunting task. Consequently, this post simply points out some interesting facts about Donne’s life and writing.
“At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” is Donne’s Holly Sonnet VII (entire Sonnet is below). Later in his life, Donne’s writings became somewhat gloomy, focusing on death and religion. In Donne’s time, it was generally accepted that the earth was round, although the Roman Catholic Church was late to accept this. However, if the earth were flat or square, like a huge flat map, then it would have corners. On Judgment Day, the Angels will sit at those corners, blowing their trumpets to summon all the dead (the “numberlesse infinities of soules”) to arise. Donne apparently worried about his fate on Judgment Day. The Sonnet asks God to leave Donne on earth (“on this lowly ground”) a bit longer to “Teach mee how to repent” so that he could get into heaven.
John Donne was born in London in 1572 and died in London in 1631. During his life, he pursued many endeavors, including law student, diplomat, member of Parliament, courtier, writer, and preacher. He did not particularly care to be known as a poet, although as life would have it, he became revered as one of the greatest English poets. After all, we are still reading and singing his poetry almost four hundred years after he died. Donne is especially well known for his love poems that he wrote early in his life. One of my personal favorites is The Good-Morrow (poem is below). I have recently learned that one of CAE’s Altos had this poem read at her wedding [so romantic!].
Donne lived in a highly turbulent time in English history, greatly influenced by the English Reformation. King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1533 so that he could divorce his Spanish first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry subsequently created the Anglican Church, or Church of England. Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England from 1558 to 1603, and she outlawed Roman Catholicism. John Donne lived during part of Elizabeth’s reign. He and his family were “recusant” Roman Catholics because they refused to attend services of the Church of England. Although he studied at Oxford and Cambridge, John Donne could not earn a degree without taking an oath to the Queen and the Reformed Church. Donne’s brother, Henry, was imprisoned for harboring a Catholic priest, and Henry died in prison of the bubonic plague. Despite John’s Roman Catholic upbringing, in 1621 he became the Dean of the Anglican St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 1601 Donne married for love, in secret, against the wishes of his own family and that of his bride, Anne More. Their clandestine marriage ruined Donne’s career in the English government, and John and Anne lived in poverty for much of their sixteen-year marriage. Sadly, the marriage ended when Anne died giving birth to their twelfth child. Anne was a descendant of Sir Thomas More, who was one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and a very famous philosopher and scholar.
One of Donne’s most famous poems during his time was The Flea (see poem below). As mundane as a poem with this name might sound, it actually refers to the much more fascinating subject of human seduction. Fleas and seduction? I recommend you read the poem to see if you can make the connection.
You have probably heard the expressions “no man is an island”, or “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee”. These are from John Donne’s Meditation XVII. “Catch a falling star” is from Donne’s poem called Song (first verse below).
If you are interested in learning more about John Donne and the exciting times in which he lived, I suggest the following sources as starting places:
- John Donne, The Reformed Soul, a Biography, by John Stubbs, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London (2006)
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, John Donne, 2013
- The Laurel Poetry Series, DONNE, edited by Richard Wilbur, Dell Publishing Company (1962)
- John Donne, Selected Poems, The Orion Publishing Company (2010)
- Great English Poets, John Donne, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc./Publishers (1988)
HOLY SONNET VII
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattered bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whome warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold god and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of Thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground.
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if Thou hadst seal’d my pardon, with Thy blood.
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we lov’d? were we not wean’d till then,
But suck’d on country pleasure, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If every any beauty I did see,
Which I desir’d, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
What ever dies, was not mixt equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, has thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself, nor me the weaker now;
‘Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
SONG (first verse)
Go, and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.