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John Donne (1572-1631) was one of the poets given the title “metaphysical” by Samuel Johnson on account of their use of clever devices and “conceits” to express meaning. However, very few of these poets (including George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan) were primarily concerned with the niceties of philosophical argument.
Donne was certainly interested in religion as a subject for poetry. For much of his life, he was torn by the conflicting currents of theological debate in England that also had profound political consequences.
He began life as a Roman Catholic but later renounced his faith and became an Anglican. For many years he could hardly have been described as a devout Christian, and his taking of holy orders in 1615 was a political and career move rather than one motivated by religious zeal. However, he became renowned as a preacher and was eventually appointed Dean of St Paul’s, a post he held from 1621 until his death in 1631.
A "Divine Poem"
Nativity forms part of his verse collection Divine Poems, published in 1607. It is one of a set of seven sonnets having the general title La Corona (The Crown). The sonnets tell the life of Christ, the first being an introductory prayer and the others being titled (in their original spelling) Annunciation, Nativitie, Temple, Crucifying, Resurrection, and Ascention. The “metaphysical conceit” is that the last line of each sonnet is repeated as the first line of the next, thus linking them all together as a single work and indicating how each part of Christ’s life was essential to his earthly mission. The final line of the seventh sonnet is also the first line of the first, so a circle is completed.
The sonnet form used by Donne is basically that of the Petrarchan sonnet, with the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines (the octet) being ABBAABBA. However, Donne was not consistent in his scheme for the sestets of the seven sonnets, alternating between CDDCEE and CDCDEE (although the sixth and seventh sonnets are both CDCDEE). “Nativity” is one of three of the sonnets to have the CDDCEE pattern.
“Nativity” is as follows:
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Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
The sonnet begins as a commentary on the basic Christian theology of Christ as God taking on the form of a human, “immensity” becoming as weak as is needed to enter the human world. The lines are addressed to Mary, who had also been addressed in the previous sonnet. There are references to “no room at the inn”, the visit of the Magi (“stars and wise men”), and the succeeding “Massacre of the Innocents” when, according to the story told by St Matthew, King Herod ordered all new-born children to be killed so that no rival to his throne could appear. Donne is neither the first not the last writer on the Nativity to conflate the stories of Matthew and Luke and assume that the wise men visited Jesus in a manger, the latter detail only being mentioned by Luke.
The sestet of the sonnet follows poetical tradition by setting off on a different tack, in that Donne now addresses himself (“my soul”) to pose the question of the ultimate mystery of the Nativity, but in terms of a paradox that requires the pity of God for mankind to be revealed in a form that invites pity in the other direction.
In the final couplet Donne talks about going with Jesus to Egypt, which is how the account by Matthew ends as the means by which the Holy Family would escape “Herod’s jealous general doome”. It thus becomes apparent that the address to “my soul” is also applied to the unnamed Joseph. This is made clearer in the next sonnet, where the final line of “Nativity” becomes the first line of “Temple” and is followed by “Joseph turn back”. However, we can read in the sestet of “Nativity” a message that Donne sees himself as Joseph, the ordinary mortal who is caught up in extraordinary events, and the archtype of mankind for the benefit of whom the Nativity has occurred. By seeing the event through Joseph’s eyes, and thus inviting the reader to do the same (“with thy faith’s eyes”), both he and the reader become intimately involved in the birth of Christ and are not just distant observers from another era.
“Nativity” is outwardly a very simple poem, but when it is seen in its context, and other interpretations are brought to bear upon it, it becomes a far more powerful fourteen lines that convey much deeper meanings. The poem is therefore typical of much of John Donne’s poetical output, of which second and third readings are always advisable.
Liz Westwood from UK on September 13, 2019:
This takes me back many years to my study of John Donne. I agree with your assessment. It takes several readings to grasp what he is saying through his poetry.
Shawindi Silva from Sri lanka on September 11, 2019:
a very useful article, THANK YOU !!!!