- He thought often of sin, and miserable failure, and suicide. He believed us unique in our capacity to ruin ourselves: ‘Nothing but man,9 of all envenomed things,/Doth work upon itself with inborn sting’. He was a man who walked so often in darkness that it became for him a daily commute.
- His poetry is wildly delighted and captivated by the body — though broken, though doomed to decay — and by the ways in which thinking fast and hard were a sensual joy akin to sex. He kicked aside the Petrarchan traditions of idealised, sanitised desire: he joyfully brought the body to collide with the soul. He wrote: ‘one might almost say10 her body thought.’
- ‘be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.’
- Donne’s imagination offers us a form of body armour. His work is protection against the slipshod and the half-baked, against anti-intellectualism, against those who try to sell you their money-ridden vision of sex and love. He is protection against those who would tell you to narrow yourself, to follow fashion in your mode of thought.
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- ‘Dark texts’,22 he wrote to a friend, ‘need notes’ — and it is possible to see his whole body of work as offering us a note on ourselves.
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- But for Donne, divergence from the accent and peculiar breaks in form contain the very stamp of what he meant: they were never aimless. The world was harsh and he needed a harsh language.
- Donne did not want to sound like other poets. Human experience exceeds our capacity to either explain or express it: Donne knew it, and so he invented new words and new forms to try. He created new rhythms in poetry: Jonson said that Donne, ‘for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging’. He was an inventor of words, a neologismist. He accounts for the first recorded use in the Oxford English Dictionary of around 340 words in the English language.
- It seemed to clarify his sense of the necessity of seizing control of your own self and own fate. He told a friend in a verse letter in the 1590s: ‘be then thine own home,5 and in thyself dwell.’