Sunday poetry – John Donne

John Donne is my favourite poet so I’m going to indulge myself with two of his poems from my anthology this week. Donne is probably the most famous of the 17th century metaphysical poets & his life story is almost as remarkable as his poetry. His early life as a gentleman volunteer sailing with the Earl of Essex to Cadiz & then with Ralegh to plunder Spanish treasure ships, then secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton & disgrace when he secretly married Egerton’s niece, Ann. In later life becoming Dean of St Paul’s & was as well-known for his sermons as he had earlier been for his love poems & sonnets. The portrait above (from en.wikipedia.org) is definitely from his days as a lover & a soldier while the calm & beautiful miniature portrait by Isaac Oliver below (from elizabethan-portraits.com) is from his more serious middle age.

The first poem is the disillusioned thoughts of a lover who has discovered that his love has been unfaithful.The ending is so bitter, as if the speaker can never imagine being in love again.

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,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.


If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see, 
Ride ten thousand days and nights, 
Till age snow white hairs on thee.
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee, and swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.


If thou find’st one, let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not, i would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

The other poem is also sad but in a sweetly melancholy way. These lovers are parting but not at their desire & hopefully not forever.

Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me;
But since that I
At the last must part, ’tis best,
Thus to use myself in jest
By feigned deaths to die.


Yesternight the sun went hence,
And yet is here to-day;
He hath no desire or sense,
Nor half so short a way;
Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
More wings and spurs than he.


O how feeble is man’s power,
That if good fortune fall, 
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall;
But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o’er us to advance.


When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,
But sigh’st my soul away;
When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,
My life’s blood doth decay.
It cannot be
That thou lovest me, as thou say’st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
Thou art the best of me.


Let not thy divining heart
Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
And may thy fears fulfil.
But think that we
Are but turn’d aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be.

Last night, while I was thinking about this post, I listened to my ancient audio cassette of the divine Richard Burton reading these two poems & many others. The wonders of YouTube mean that you can listen to him too. Here are links to Richard Burton reading Sweetest Love, I do not go and Go and catch a falling star. There are lots of other readings there as well.

5 thoughts on “Sunday poetry – John Donne

  1. Do you ever read any of his sermons? He writes prose in a way that screams poet at you. If you can find a copy and you have the time, I really recommend them.

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  2. Yes, I have a Penguin volume of selected prose & lots of the sermons are there although I haven't read them recently. Always makes me think of Helene Hanff & her horror at the Modern Library “selected” prose of Donne where all her favourite passages were seperated so she couldn't read a whole sermon at once.

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  3. Susan, I agree. Richard Burton's voice is gorgeous. He could read me the phone book & I'd be enthralled. Annie, I'm surprised how often I think of HH when reading something & the voice is usually Anne Bancroft from the movie.

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