“John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone”

As part of my project to improve my reading muscles and my background knowledge of Shakespeare’s times. this week I’ve been reading the monumental John Stubbs biography of his contemporary, the metaphysical poet John Donne.

Donne was a great favourite of my mother’s, who introduced me to a lot of English poetry in my childhood. In particular, she related to his romantic lyrics and sonnets – poems like “The Good Morrow” which, I think, reminded me of her marriage to my father. Since he died very young, this only lasted 11 years and was almost childless (they had a miscarriage a year before conceiving me, but I was born after my father’s death). It was probably not until I got to university that I discovered Donne was the Dean of St Pauls and had written a good deal of religious poetry and prose also. In fact, he tried to limit the circulation of his love poems throughout his life, afraid that they would compromise his later respectable image. He appears to have been a bit of a man-about-town in his youth.

He was also a Catholic by birth, making him a social outsider. A man of contrasts with a sincere ability to repeatedly reinvent himself, he ended his days right at the heart of the Anglican establishment. His religious views were unfashionably tolerant; he disliked extremism on both sides, both Jesuit and Puritan, and called for a church that was “catholic” with a small ‘c’ – that is, universal, modern and distinctively English.

He married scandalously and secretly for love at a time when young women were virtually the property of their families, assets to be disposed of to the highest bidder. It ruined his career and his young wife died at the age of 33, shortly after bearing their twelth and last child. Little of Ann Donne (nee More) survives other then Donne’s own portrait of her in his writings. It would be nice to imagine that they were gloriously happy together and had no regrets. To some extent, they seem to have had an unusually close and loving relationship by the standards of the time. Yet he clearly wasn’t comfortable with family life on a precarious and uncertain income, and he was frequently absent from home for lengthy periods, sometimes leaving her pregnant and not knowing for months whether she had survived her latest confinement.

All this made me reflect on the very semi-detatched marriage between Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. We were walking together in the garden of AH’s cottage a few weeks ago when my teenage daughter asked me, “Did Shakespeare love Ann Hathaway?” By modern standards, they don’t seem to have been close and for most of Shakespeare’s most productive period they saw each other perhaps no more than once or twice a year. It doesn’t sound very loving.

Yet, considering that their union had already produced three children by the time they’d been married a couple of years, had they remained a cohabiting couple, Anne could easily have produced a child a year until, like poor Ann Donne, it killed her. Obstretric practice was primitive and brutal in the 17th Century. Even the invention of forceps lay in the future – if the baby was stuck, the solution was a hook in its mouth and a gruesome tug of war. I have had two children, with modern medical care, and the process wrecked my pelvic floor. If I hadn’t had three major operations, I would now be in a wheelchair. Imagine my state if I had produced twelve, thirteen or fourteen babies.

So one is left to ponder whether a marriage based on living apart most of the time was, in fact, all that unloving after all. We assume readily that Shakespeare selfishly deserted his young family to further his fortune, but perhaps Ann also benefitted from their separate lives. Marriage would give her a status in society and, as her husband’s fame grew, a fortune and one of the best houses in Stratford. Poor Ann Donne probably had a worse time, though her situation was one that, theoretically, might be regarded as a romantic happy ending.

As for Donne, he went on to preach that it was better for a husband and wife to behave as a husband and wife, rather than a lover and his mistress. Two of his children were stillborn, the last killing his wife, and three others died in infancy. He seems to have lived to regret his romantic marriage. Yet it is his love poetry that is most frequently cited and remembered, not least by fans of DW who recognise “The Good Morrow” as a beautiful portrait of the kind of relationship they love to imagine the Doctor and Rose enjoying.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

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4 thoughts on ““John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone”

  1. Another thoughtful and interesting essay. I read a review not too long ago in the New York Review of Books of a study of Donne done by a very young academic, which the reviewer thought was full of invalid conclusions yet was written with a young man’s romantic love of romantic Donne. In the way of these reviews it discussed Donne and the critical issues with him in depth, and I learned a great deal.
    I hope you’ll continue to post your thoughts on your reading and writing as you embark on your course; I would enjoy reading them.

  2. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I believe that you should publish more about this subject, it
    may not be a taboo matter but typically people don’t speak about these issues. To the next! Best wishes!!

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