Karen Swallow Prior tells us in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, that it was poet John Donne who taught her about marriage.
If you’re not familiar with the English poet John Donne (1572-1631), you will at elast have heard of some of his more famous liens and poems – “Death be not proud;” “No man is an island;” and “Ask not for whom the bells toll; they toll for thee.”
Born to a Catholic family when being Catholic could be a dangerous thing, Donne converted to Anglicanism after this brother died in his prison for his faith. Donne attended Oxford and Cambridge. He was appointed private Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, falling in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne, and secretly married her. Egerton, when he found out, was not pleased; he had Donne briefly imprisoned and provided no dowry.
Eventually Egerton accepted the marriage, and Donne eventually found himself running in royal circles. King James I told him to become an Anglican priest, which he did, and served as royal chaplain until the King’s death. In 1621, Donne was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne’s poetry (and he wrote a considerable amount of it) is considered among the best of the metaphysical poets, a group that included George Herbert and Andrew Marvell.
Donne was deeply in love with his wife. They had 12 children; she died in childbirth at 33. He had written a fair amount of love poetry to her, and some of fairly erotic, but he never wrote another love poem after her death. And he never remarried. Their marriage was an expression of their faith, and that expression included spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical love.
Prior’s reference to the marriage ceremony in The Book of Common Prayer, which Donne would have been intimately familiar with, reminded me of something I did in my novels. I found a facsimile of the 1928 version while we were on vacation in Williamsburg a few years ago, and I read it cover to cover. A chunk of Dancing Priest that didn’t make it into print was the wedding ceremony for Michael and Sarah, the two main characters; it followed the Book of Common Prayer ceremony almost exactly.
True confession: I used elements of Donne’s life in the character of Michael Kent.
Come August, my wife and I will have been married 40 years. We have children and grandchildren. We manage to hide (most of) our gray hair. We have been times of plenty and times of need, fat years and lean years, good times and bad, hard times and easy times. We have been through life, and we are still going through life.
We’ve now been married longer than my own parents, and almost as long as her parents. We have lived with each other longer than we have lived with anyone else, including our parents and our children. I love my wife as much as I did when we married. No, that’s wrong. I love my wife more than I did when we were married. I can say that only because of the grace of God. God has blessed us in our marriage.
His blessing hasn’t meant our marriage would be easy. But it did mean it would be true, and lasting fort however long we’re physically alive, and even after that. And it meant that we would be bound together as one.
Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” was written to his wife, not when she had died, but when he was leaving on a trip. And I understand it.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No."
So let us melt, and make no noise,No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we, by a love so much refinedThat our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two soAs stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;
And though it in the center sit,Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
We’ve been reading Booked at The High Calling, and today is the final discussion. It’s a marvelous book, totally delightful in so many ways, and I highly recommend it. If you love great literature, Booked will take you back to high school and college. You can read the final posting at The High Calling.