Book Of A Lifetime: Poems, By John Donne

In 1633, a bookseller based in a churchyard on Fleet Street issued a long-awaited collection of poetry. At that time, St Dunstan's was a hub of literary and legal chat, and given his fascination with the grave, an especially apt location for John Donne's poems to appear. It was a collection, however, which Donne had refused to grant an eager public during his lifetime. Many poems he deemed too scandalous; others seemingly too personal. He had died in 1631, aged 59, a poet of vehement love and troubled faith.

The 'Poems' are no less astonishing now than they were then. They take on many voices and pose insoluble problems to the heart and mind alike. There is no finishing them. Whether presenting a flea to a resistant mistress or berating Death, they "spring from the thought of the moment", as one particularly fine editor put it; yet they are also deeply thought-out, schematic, set like traps.

As verse, these poems broke all the rules. Donne's poetry does not fall neatly into its lines, couplets, stanzas. It comes, rather, in astounding spontaneous sprawls, which then assume patterns of fabulous consistency. In the 1630s no less than the 1930s, he was admired for his "difficulty" – his mastery of paradox, the range of his learning, the sheer oddness of his diction – as much as his provocative directness. In the longer run, this gave him a rough ride with the critics until the last hundred years. Even now he is prone to condemnation from theorists who miss his self-critical ironies.

Donne himself was ambivalent about both popularity and posterity. Early life made him cautious, as a Catholic born into Protestant suppression. After a scandalous marriage and a labour of decades to regain respectability, he ended his days as a churchman – and perhaps the most striking preacher of the time. As Dean of St Paul's, he became a well-known public figure in London, dark-featured, handsome, with a famous charm and sensitivity of manner. A needle-like statue of white marble in St Paul's commemorates him as a man of God, awaiting judgement in his shroud.

This was how he wished to be remembered, as "Dr" Donne the priest, not "Jack" Donne the gallant. Yet what truly makes his Poems the book of a lifetime – a book for a lifetime – is the way it explores and contains such extremes and contradictions. He loved variety, and his poetry reflects that. It is violent and tender, morbid yet frantically alive, carnal yet ghostly. Donne remonstrated against death, yet fantasised about burial. His world is hopelessly fragmented, yet everything in it is connected. His themes are lifelong loves as much as one-night stands, fidelity and friendship as much as conquest and betrayal.

If, as WB Yeats once said, poets offer their lives as experiments in living, then Donne's poems present one of the most thoroughgoing ever conducted; disproving all theories he tests, and usually casting doubt on his own findings. Four hundred years on, he still reads our minds.

John Stubbs's 'Reprobates' is published by Viking

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam