Isaac Oliver John Donne
Books & Manuscripts

The Risqué Allure of John Donne's Erotic Poetry

By Rowan Pelling

B ack in the 1990s when I first worked in London I had a passionate love affair with an older colleague. It was an exhilarating education in love, a devastating exercise in guilt and in due course left me as broken-hearted as I deserved. At the peak of the entanglement we met for tea at Fortnum and Mason and played a lingering game of footsie under the long white tablecloth.

When the scones were crumbs my lover presented me with an envelope. Inside was a copy of John Donne’s To His Mistress Going to Bed painstakingly hand-written in black ink on vellum. This wasn’t my first encounter with the most erotic poem in the English language, as I had spent a term being bewitched by the metaphysical poets at Oxford – but it was the most intoxicating.

Four centuries after it was first composed I defy any adult person with a beating heart to deny the raw power of the entreaty, “License my roving hands, and let them go,/ Before, behind, between, above, below.” Donne may be considered the most allusive and cerebral of poets, but the passionate urgency with which he addresses lovers in his writing is timeless.

Isn’t this what we all say to the best beloved? That we need to touch them and to have access to every intimate area of their body? That we desire above all other yearnings to feast on their naked skin? My lover’s efforts were rewarded by a night in bed in a small hotel not far from Marylebone High Street: “Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,/As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be.”

So a little shiver ran down my spine when I learned Sotheby’s are offering an exceptionally rare, hand-scribed volume of John Donne’s collected poems for sale. This exquisite volume was recently unearthed in the collection of a country house, where its significance had been overlooked for years. The immense pride and care taken in the original commission is evident in the quality of the paper and original binding, the gilt edging and the unusual fact one scribe has undertaken the entire work. This artisan’s fluent, almost calligraphic hand subtly evolves and becomes more fluid as the work progresses, suggesting gathering speed as he moves towards finishing the volume.

Sotheby’s manuscript expert Gabriel Heaton told me that the scribe was probably more used to penning legal papers. You can only begin to imagine the thrill of setting down Donne’s more taboo passages: “Off with that wiry Coronet and shew/ The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow.” Surely the writer would have felt a flush of pleasure as he inked the witty lines of The Flea (another appeal to a lover to abandon her virtue), knowing the parasite’s blood-sucking is just a metaphor for the bolder bodily invasion Donne plans: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;”.

It wouldn’t just have been the scribe’s pulse that quickened. A second hand is visible in the book, correcting small errors with casual authority (not caring that the amendments make the script appear messier) in a way that signals ownership. You can sense the patron revelling in the luxury of possession.

When the copy was made Donne’s poetry wasn’t available to the wider reading public. So the scribe would have worked from another rare pre-existing, hand-written collection of the poet’s work and perhaps consulting fellow admirer’s of Donne’s work. In other words, the scribe and his patron were part of a privileged, inner circle chain of cognoscenti, preserving a genius’s compositions for posterity.

Did they know much of the romance of John Donne’s life, you wonder? The fact he was born an outsider to a Roman Catholic family at a time when rights for Catholics were severely restricted, so he could not be awarded a degree – despite going to Oxford University from the age of 11 and later studying at Cambridge, before enlisting at Lincoln’s Inn? Donne was a known seducer in his early twenties and frittered away much of his inheritance on women, books and travel – joining English expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores in the late 1590s.

Isaac Oliver John Donne
Isaac Oliver, John Donne, 1616.

Following those adventures Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord High Keeper of England, developing a keen interest in affairs of state and eventually converting to the Protestant faith. Even so, there was a scandal when he eloped with and married Egerton’s 17-year-old niece Ann More. He briefly went to prison for the offence. More’s father eventually relented and accepted the marriage and the couple went on to have twelve children.

This is hardly the pious trajectory you’d expect of a man who eventually became Dean of St Paul’s and a noted preacher of sermons. And yet the ecstasy of that early erotic verse echoes throughout the spiritual rapture of Donne’s religious poetry.

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