John Donne — A Love Affair With a Poet Long Dead

John Donne's poetry is as turbulent and evocative as this Lake Michigan surf in summertime. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall

John Donne: “[B]end your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.” Lake Michigan in summer photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

For some reason, I don’t read much poetry these days. I think I haven’t the patience to work through the words and complicated sentences and the metaphors that could mean this, but could just as easily mean that.

With poetry, the reader is often intentionally left wondering. With prose, especially nonfiction prose — an historical account, a memoir — the writer’s intentions tend to be clearer, more explicit. The writer — and the reader — get to the point directly; nobody’s time is wasted.

Maybe when I am a little older, a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more open to following along where a poet wants to lead me, maybe then I’ll turn my attention once again to the poetry that so intoxicated me as an undergraduate English major at the University of Michigan, back when I was twenty years old and in love with a man three hundred years dead, namely, the seventeenth-century poet and man of passion, John Donne.

Donne was a “libertine turned religious,” according to the comments I made in the margins of my textbook. My notes were cautious and cerebral — something I could later safely put into a term paper for all to read. My feelings, on the other hand, were not so circumspect. For me, at age 20, Donne’s poems fairly burst with yearning, 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 in the “Doctor Atomic” aria.

See what I mean?

More about poetry at “Coleman Barks and Rumi — What a Few Lines of Poetry (and a Witch) Taught Me.” More about composer John Adams at “There’s No One Right Way to Be Creative.”  





  1. As an English/Journalism major (at MSU), I also devoured poetry. These days, I lean toward the wry wit of Billy Collins — but still appreciate the classics. You’ve inspired me to start posting poetry again, for National Poetry Month (April)!


  1. […] about Doctor Atomic” at  “John Donne — A Seventeenth-Century Priest Explodes Into the Twenty-First Century.&#8221… […]

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