Example poetry

John Donne and the poetry of seduction

John Donne, 1572 -1631. English poet and cleric.After a miniature by Isaac Oliver. From Impressions of English Literature, published 1944. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images).

BOOKS furnish a room. And they also supply the people, as author Emma Smith pointed out on start the week Monday morning (Radio 4).

“We use books to buttress our identities, to project the image of ourselves that we want world to see,” she said, recalling all those Zoom meetings we’ve seen where the books have been prominently in the background over the past two years.

But there is nothing new about this. Smith, whose new book, Portable Magic is subtitled A History of Books and their Readers, cited the example of the “dreadful” Lady Anne Clifford in the 17th century.

“She painted herself with a full library of books that were important to her,” Smith explained. “Each one is tagged, and that tells us something about where they’ve been, who they want to be associated with. And that also tells us something about his story. She danced as a girl in one of Queen Anne’s masks in Whitehall and she has these texts by Ben Jonson in her library… It’s a wonderful snapshot of where she’s been and how she wants to introduce herself.

I don’t know what my books say about me. Other than I either have too much money (hah!) or too much time (the only lesson you learn as you get older is that time is not infinite).

No one needs so many books, I tell myself regularly. And yet they are there. I’m proud of myself if I manage to go a whole week without buying another one.

But then why wouldn’t you like books? One of the themes for Monday’s Start the Week was the book as a physical object and how beautiful bloody things are these days. Books as fetish objects, in other words.

It was perhaps a somewhat tenuous connection with the other theme of the program, which was the poetry and life of John Donne. That said, Donne knew all about the physique. At one point, Kirsty Wark put on her best Aunt May voice to talk about how “lewd” Donne’s poetry could be, before quoting lines from one of her most lewd. To his lying mistress: “License my wandering hands and let them go…”

As Smith suggested, that’s exactly why we still read it, of course, and not, say, Philip Sidney, “because they give us an image of a Renaissance that’s just sexier, more physical, less romanticized and clichéd than the poetry that followed. Petrarch, I suppose.

In this sense, Donne is just one in a long, long line of Renaissance poets, Pre-Raphaelite painters and 1960s rock stars who used their art as a technique of seduction.

There was a little more to him than that, however. Donne was also a religious shapeshifter, a rather lousy diplomat, and, it seems, a bit of a rock star preacher. Worth a Netflix TV series then, surely. If only for the scene in which Donne’s mother carries the head of the Catholic martyr Thomas More in her purse.

The poet’s later biographer, Katherine Rundell, told Wark that this particular story was likely an urban myth. A lie in other words. There have been a few this week. Usually accompanied by an obsequious Tory MP defending the Chancellor and the Chancellor next door from getting caught up in one (at least) on Partygate. None of them came out very well.

In contrast, two women who had lost loved ones during the pandemic pretty much held on as they described what they went through during the pandemic on Hello Scotland (Radio Scotland) Wednesday.

“I feel guilty every day,” said one, heartbreaking.

But we know who the real culprits are in this story.

To listen to: La Réunion, Radio 4, Monday, 11 a.m. It’s now been almost 10 years since the 2012 Olympics and Kirsty Wark reflects (again) on the opening ceremony with those who attended.


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