Today in Literary History – January 22, 1572 – Poet John Donne is Born

The poet and cleric John Donne was born on or about January 22, 1572. (There is some debate about the exact day, but January 22 is the commonly accepted date by most authorities .)

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John Donne’s poetry is widely popular today and has been since the beginning of the 20th century — partly because its earthy and erotic themes, its spiritual questing and its sly wordplay, puns and paradoxes speak to our times — but its popularity has waxed and waned since his death in 1631.

During his lifetime his poetry circulated among an appreciative group of admirers and he had many wealthy and influential patrons, but by the Restoration period a generation later he had fallen out of fashion and was regarded as merely a talented verbal technician.

Samuel Johnson in the 18th century said that John Dryden (who was born the year Donne died) “confesses of himself and his contemporaries that they fall below Donne in wit; but maintains that they surpass him in poetry.”

Dryden also said that Donne “affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.”

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Today, many of Donne’s lines and phrases have entered our common consciousness:

■“I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so.”

■“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

■“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”

■“I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov’d? Were we not wean’d till then?
But suck’d n countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?
T’was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir’d, and got, ’twas but a dreame of thee.”

●“Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.”

■“Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.”

■“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…”

■“Love, built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies.”

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