GodsBigBlog: John Donne — A Seventeenth Century Priest and Poet Explodes into the Twenty-First Century

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I was twenty years old and I was in love. The object of my affection? A man three hundred years dead: a seventeenth century poet and a man of passion, John Donne. 

Donne was a ”libertine turned religious,” according to the comments I made in the margins of my textbook that year as an English major at the University of Michigan. My notes were cautious and cerebral — something I could later safely put into a term paper for all to read. My feelings were not so circumspect. For me, as a twenty-year-old, Donne’s poems fairly burst with yearning, both spiritual and erotic.

This poem, one of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” was my favorite:

Batter my heart, three personed God; for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy:

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


Two years later, I graduated from college and eventually took up writing and reading journalism. Nothing steamy. No John Donne. Mostly stuff that I could clip from the newspaper and send home to my mother. I forgot all about John Donne . . . Until a few years ago, when I attended John Adam’s opera, “Doctor Atomic,” during its 2005 premiere season.

It turned out that both  John Adams, the composer, and Robert Oppenheimer,  the theoretical physicist who became known as the father of the atomic bomb, shared my enthusiasm for Donne. Adams set the poem to music for “Doctor Atomic,” putting the words in Oppenheimer’s mouth as the physicist anguished over the enormity of the bomb he was building.

Listen as a seventeenth century metaphysical poet explodes into the twenty-first century.

I’m wondering: If this is a poem of a soul longing to be freed, what are the chains that bind it?

© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall

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© 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Barbara Falconer Newhall. and www.GodsBigBlog.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog's author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Barbara Falconer Newhall and www.GodBigBlog.com with appropriate and specifc direction to the original content. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA. The Psalms are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Material originally published and copyrighted by the Oakland Tribune is posted here by permission. WordPress theme adapted from Thematic Theme Framework