Was John Donne the Cole Porter of his time?

The discovery that Donne's poems were set to popular music suggests he was, says Ian Irvine. And now he's making a musical comeback
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John Donne's reputation has had its ups and downs. Today, we think of him as the leading "metaphysical" poet - and the description seems neutral. But when the term was first coined it was meant to be abusive: John Dryden said that Donne "affects the metaphysics" and meant he though the poems wilfully arcane. Samuel Johnson blasted the "whole race of metaphysical poets": "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased."

John Donne's reputation has had its ups and downs. Today, we think of him as the leading "metaphysical" poet - and the description seems neutral. But when the term was first coined it was meant to be abusive: John Dryden said that Donne "affects the metaphysics" and meant he though the poems wilfully arcane. Samuel Johnson blasted the "whole race of metaphysical poets": "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased."

Even after the revival of interest in Donne in the last century, sparked by a fine edition of the poems by Professor Grierson, and the support of TS Eliot and Dylan Thomas, there remained a sense that his work was too difficult ever to be popular. The idea grew that Donne had been a "cabinet" poet, without wide appeal, read in his own time only by a select coterie of friends.

This view is now being forcefully questioned by Jonathan Holmes, a lecturer in English and drama at the University of London. "For some time it has been known that some of Donne's work was set to music by his contemporaries, but this aspect of his work has never been explored in depth. I became intrigued by the idea of this supposedly inward-looking poetry being performed as song for all and sundry to hear, so I began investigating this angle. The results were surprising. Almost all of Donne's public output prior to his taking orders consists of songs."

By searching music manuscripts in the British Library and the Bodleian in Oxford, Holmes found 10 settings of Donne's verse made by some of the leading English composers of his day, including John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco and William Corkine. These songs, which would usually have been performed in the home, were the popular music of the day. (This was a time, for example, when every barber shop had a cittern - a lute-like instrument - lying around for the use of its customers while they were waiting to be shaved.)

The implication of this is that Donne's work was, in fact, widely known in his lifetime and that, far from keeping his verses only for private circulation, he deliberately wrote throughout his career with the intention of his words being set to music.

Holmes says that "songwriting in this sense was a new profession. The idea of a composer sitting down and writing a series of thematically or musically linked songs for publication (not unlike today's albums) came about in the 1590s, when Donne was in his twenties." Through those last few years of Elizabeth I's reign until the death of James I in 1625, several composers of genius perfected the English lute-song for an accompanied solo voice. It was born out of the great Elizabethan heritage of lyric verse and was supremely concerned with the fullest expression of the words.

These collections of lute-songs were published as books, but since they were expensive many people made copies for their own use (Holmes draws the parallel with burning a disc after downloading it from the web rather than buying a CD). The fact that the same setting of Donne turns up in several copies implies that these were popular, as does the fact that one of his poems, "The Break of Day", was set three times in the same year by three different composers - cover versions, as it were.

So who were Donne's fans, eager enough to copy his works out by hand? Without exception, all the copies discovered by Holmes were made by young gentlewomen and the voice is always a soprano. This is interesting, not least because Donne has suffered at the hands of feminist critics, who deplore his apparent mysogyny. The critic Stevie Davies claimed that the mistress-figures in his poems are "game to be flushed out and killed; a mindless piece of flesh without individuality, whose feelings are expressly not to be taken into account." Yet the most popular and most copied setting found by Holmes, "The Break of Day", is spoken by a woman, complaining when her lover rises too early from her bed. Is this empowerment or internalisation of an oppressor's standards?

Holmes plans to argue his new approach to Donne as popular lyricist in a book that will appear in 2007, but in the meantime there is an opportunity next month to hear the evidence for ourselves. Eight of the Donne settings can be heard in a concert at St Paul's Cathedral (where Donne served as Dean from 1621 until his death in 1631). The musical performances, by the sopranos Emma Kirkby and Carolyn Sampson, the lutenist Matthew Wadsworth and The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers, will be accompanied by readings from Donne's poetry and prose by Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter, Imogen Stubbs, Alan Rickman and Mark Rylance. (Proceeds will go to aid reconstruction in areas affected by the Tsunami.)

Then we can all judge if Donne was, as Holmes claims for him, "almost the Cole Porter of his time."

The John Donne Celebration will be held at St Paul's Cathedral, London EC4, on 9 June at 7.30pm (0870 534 4444; www.ticketmaster.co.uk)

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