Claire Miller Colombo: Donne by Love – April 6, 2016


Today’s readings call us into a great and beautiful alignment with God—a symmetry, a coincidence, a perfect rhyme. Just as Wisdom is “a reflection of the eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God” (Wisdom 7:26) and just as the “Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19)—so are we called to see and synchronize our lives and selves with the motions and gestures of God.

As a Paschal people, though, we know that lining up with God is a messy and broken process. We know that our creaturely desires sometimes run aslant of our heart’s deepest longings. But our faith also tells us that alignment with God happens through, not in spite of, the flesh.

The life and works of the so-called metaphysical poet John Donne remind of this, as well. For Donne, life was all kinds of love: first, the love of self and of women; next, the love of one woman; and, finally, the love of God. Comingled with all these loves was a deep love of words. God’s project with Donne, it seems, was to dilate the poet’s sense of self and love and word until all selves and loves and words were done up in the divine.

The young Jack Donne was rakish and ambitious. His two greatest desires were an important position in the queen’s court, and an important position in a mistress’s bed. Donne advanced both these agendas methodically. After studying at Oxford and Cambridge, he returned to London to read law. He spent his mornings poring over philosophy books, his afternoons calling on the ladies, and his evenings at the theater. Eventually, he became the secretary of an insider at court, and was poised for a brilliant career.

But then Donne’s appetites got the better of him. While working his way into the court, he had also been wiling his way into the chamber of Anne More, the teenaged niece of his boss, whom he married clandestinely with the help of some buddies. This was a major no-no. When the liaison was exposed, Donne was fired, arrested, and thrown in jail.

It was during his brief imprisonment that Donne penned his shortest poem ever: John Donne / Anne Donne / Undone.

And he had come undone. Though the couple remained married and in love until Anne’s early death, Donne had destroyed his career and become social anathema. He spent years struggling to support his growing family. Finally, he grudgingly pursued the only mildly respectable career path that remained—a career in the church. He was ordained in 1615 and later named Dean of St. Paul’s, a post he held until his death. At St. Paul’s he became hugely popular for his passionate, theatrical sermons, which drew great crowds to the cathedral pews.

While life was having its way with Donne, Donne was all the while having his way with words. The many poems he produced are dense, paradoxical, and metaphorical, full of tensions and attractions and seductions between humans and humans and between humans and God. They give evidence that Donne’s undoing had caught his attention, that it had schooled him in a way his formal education could not. They give evidence that being undone of our own agendas, through the loving lessons of our fleshly selves, is the only way to be done up in God.

Consider his poem “The Bait,” a send-up of a pastoral love poem by Donne’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe. The poem is at once mucky and meta, earthy and ethereal. It begins with a conventional come-on: “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.” As the poem unspools, however, things grow disorienting; they shift and swim and merge. The speaker, who first plays fisherman, finds instead that he’s the one who’s “hooked,” not by the “coarse hands” or “silk flies” that other fishers use, but by the very being of the mysterious Other—”for thou thyself,” the speaker reels, “art thine own bait.” And isn’t this the way it works in love? We go fishing for one thing, and are found, to our own surprise, by another. The ego who goes looking is dismantled, undone by love.

But as we see in Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” to be undone by love is really to be done by it—to let it stretch you and make you whole. Donne wrote this poem during an absence from his wife, and in it figures separation as a kind of death that expands our being rather than contracts it. Instead of grieving our fate loudly and publicly, the speaker urges, “Let us melt, and make no noise,” for unlike those “dull sublunary lovers” whose joining is merely physical, “we by a love so much refined, / That our selves know not what it is, / Inter-assuréd of the mind, / Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.” A larger love holds us, he means to say, and we know that it does, and in so being held we care less that we cannot hold. He goes on to argue that the separation of true lovers is a kind of synchronized opening out, like that of the legs of a compass—the kind you use in geometry class. When one leg is planted and the other leg rotates, so does the planted leg turn in tandem, and from this motion a perfect circle is inscribed. So, says the speaker, is our love. “Such wilt thou be to me, who must, / Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; / Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun.”

With these concluding words, the circumference of the poem itself expands. Who exactly is this departed speaker? Is it Jack the lover, John the poet—or the alpha and omega himself, he who ends where he begins, he who runs the circle of justice only while planted in the Father, while turning as the Father turns?

“A Hymn to God the Father,” shows how we humans are drawn kicking and screaming into this divine orbit. Like a doomed lover in Dante’s second circle of hell, God chases the speaker with his forgiveness, but never quite quickly enough. “Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, / Which was my sin, though it were done before?” Donne asks. “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more”—more self, more sin, more words. After a couple of rounds of this, Donne admits his gravest sin of all—a fear of death, of losing self, of being all un-Donne. But if God swears, he says, that when Donne dies, God’s Son shall shine eternal, God will “have done,” and Donne will be, at last, undone. God will have perfectly inscribed the poet himself—the fleshly, fearful man who only comes to God in flesh and fear.

As only we can, too. God doesn’t leave us alone. God fleshes for us and fishes for us. God chases us round and round. God calls us again and again to seek God’s face. The great circle of the passion of Christ, the great circle of the passions of our own lives, is nothing less than a great fleshly seduction into self-same synchronicity with God.

That our eyes may be opened to see that this is so, we ask you, Lord. Amen.