Monday, 23 July 2012

Donne punning

I've always loved the Tom Lehrer line, ‘its a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years’. 

It was just as chastening for me to discover this morning that I’m the age John Donne was when he died. I’ve thought it through, and on balance he probably achieved more in his 59 years than I have in mine.

Not, of course, that I would in general compare myself to Donne. After all, I don’t have the slightest pretension to be thought of as a poet: whatever I write, and whatever it’s worth, it’s strictly prose not verse.

But in one respect I’m like him: I love the simple pun. My readers can attest that I take great pleasure in puns, perhaps rather more than they do. But Donne was a master where I’m a mere dabbler.

John Donne: master of the pun
Donne was a love poet and he lived his life with the intensity that informs his poems. A promising career in diplomacy beckoned when he fell in love with Anne More, niece of his then patron. Ann and John married with neither her uncle’s blessing nor, more seriously, her father’s.

Though Donne would recover his father-in-law’s goodwill eight years later, his unauthorised marriage killed his career hopes, prompting his punning remark, ‘John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone’.

He continued writing love poetry, including the magical To his mistress going to bed, with the glorious couplet:

License my roaming hands and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

It’s interesting, and not a little attractive, that the ‘mistress’ of his title was his wife.

Following Ann’s death, unsurprisingly after childbirth – when it came to eroticism within marriage they set the bar high, and had twelve children in sixteen years – Donne focused increasingly on divine themes. He wrote often of his sense of sin, and of his hope of winning God’s mercy coupled with his fear of missing it.

You don’t have to be a Christian yourself to be moved by this writing, for instance in the three verses of A Hymn to God the Father. The middle verse goes:

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

It’s better to listen to the words than to read them, because then you can't tell whether they’re saying ‘when thou hast done’ or ‘when thou hast Donne’.

And is he saying ‘have more’ or ‘have More’? It was his overwhelming love for Ann More that opened his way to great love though, he would doubtless have argued, also distracted him from its divine form.

The last verse is:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

He appeals to God to give him the light of Christ, his son, who is also his shining sun. If God will do that, then he will have Donne, and the achievement of Donne's hope will banish fear. And is that not also a fear of More? Of the object of an earthly love which might have prevented him achieving the divine love he longed for?

Now that’s the way that I’d like to pun. Sadly, though, I'm not convinced that even another 59 years on Earth could teach me how.


Anonymous said...

Well David, you can achieve More by filtering away puns like 'throwing the Euro tunnel!'

Love your blog all the same


David Beeson said...

Now hang on. That's not fair. Quoting from a later post to take a poke at this one.

Anonymous said...

"This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time."


Awoogamuffin said...

Well, what your pun-runs lack in quality relative to Donne they more than make up for in quantity and perseverance.

David Beeson said...

Ah, well, I suppose that's an aspiration like any other: make up in volume for what I lack in finesse. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Nice Merlin touch, San!