John Donne (1572-1631) is one of the most important and influential poets in the English language. He is widely regarded as the first metaphysical poet, whose work combined then-contemporary developments in astronomy and cosmology to create a new poetic language with which poets could describe love, relationships, and a host of emotions.
Below, we select and introduce some of the best, and best-known, quotations from John Donne’s work. Many of these quotations are from his poetic oeuvre, though we’ll begin with a couple of quotations not from Donne’s poetry but from his prose writings, which are also highly lyrical and contain a similar concentration of thought and feeling.
‘No man is an island’.
Although this sentiment is often attributed to John Donne’s poetry (when it’s linked back to him at all), it’s actually a quotation from a series of prose works he completed late in his life.
In 1623, he fell ill with a fever and, while he recovered, he wrote the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a series of prose writings split into three parts: ‘Meditations’, ‘Expostulations to God’, and ‘Prayers’. The line ‘No man is an island’ appears in this work, and expresses the notion that nobody can live their life completely separated from their fellow human beings: we are all part of a wider entity, whether we might call that ‘society’ or just ‘the human race’.
‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.
And this quotation is from the same section of Donne’s prose writings that gave us ‘No man is an island’. Donne concludes his meditation on death by reminding us that every death is, in a sense, our own, since it reminds us that we are mortal and that one day, the funeral bell will toll to announce our demise, too:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls.’
This is from one of Donne’s verse epistles: a poem written as a letter to someone. ‘To Sir Henry Wotton’ begins with Donne pointing out that letters are more powerful at bringing two people together than kisses because they allow two people to speak to each other, despite the distance between them:
Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak. This ease controls
The tediousness of my life; but for these
I could ideate nothing which could please,
But I should wither in one day and pass
To a bottle of hay, that am a lock of grass.
‘I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I / Did, till we lov’d?’
So begins ‘The Good-Morrow’, one of Donne’s best-known poems. The lyric is a wonderful celebration of two lovers who are feel that their lives really did begin when they found each other.
‘Go, and catch a falling star’.
These are the opening words to ‘Song’, a poem in which Donne issues a series of impossible challenges before asserting that the most impossible task of all is to find a woman who is beautiful but also faithful. There’s a ring of misogyny to the poem, but the sequence of demands is where the true poetry of ‘Song’ resides.
‘For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love’.
These words begin ‘The Canonization’, one of Donne’s best-known poems. This poem is, like ‘The Good-Morrow’, another lyric expressing the sentiment that two lovers have something the rest of the world will never have: they have their love for each other, which is greater than anyone else’s.
As opening lines go, this is daringly bold and direct for a Renaissance poem.
‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this’.
One of Donne’s most widely studied poems is ‘The Flea’, in which Donne tries to seduce his would-be lover into going to bed with them. Since the flea has already bitten both of them, they already share blood, in a way, since the flea contains a part of both of them. A cheeky but wonderfully elegant overture.
‘Busy old fool, unruly Sun, why dost thou thus’.
And here’s another bold opening line from the king of bold opening lines. Here, in ‘The Sun Rising’, Donne addresses the sun, not to praise it – as many previous poets had done – but to chide it for shining in through the window and disturbing the poet and his lover as they lounge around in bed together, hiding away from the outside world.
‘Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy’.
The next two quotations are from ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, another seduction poem in which Donne endeavours to persuade his mistress to undress for him. The poem might be regarded as the most eloquent striptease in all of English literature.
‘O my America! my new-found-land’.
The ‘New World’ of the Americas was still truly new when Donne was writing: Columbus’ famous voyage was only a century before, and it was in Elizabeth’s reign, towards the end of the sixteenth century, that the earliest American colonies were established by the English. This quotation from ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ likens the woman’s body, revealed to the poet’s sight, to this wonderful new land that has been discovered.
‘Death, be not proud’.
In his later life, Donne disowned his dissolute youth and embraced the Church of England, later becoming a priest, and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. This is one of the ‘Holy Sonnets’ he wrote following his conversion.
In this quotation, Death is personified as a male braggart, like a soldier boasting of all the men he’s slain – but Donne goes on to argue why Death should not be proud of his many conquests.
‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the greatest John Donne lines with another opening line from one of his Holy Sonnets. These poems, whilst religious in subject, often contain the same passionate feeling that we find in his earlier love lyrics, and this poem is no exception.
Donne calls for God to batter down his defences and save him from himself – with God being ‘three-person’d’ in reference to the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.