I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
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.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.
When I was seventeen, I discovered that a close friend – let’s call her X – had just broken up with another girl (Y). Their parents had discovered they were sleeping together and, horrified, had decided to put a stop to it. X couldn’t believe how easily Y had given her up, and was devastated. Sometimes she drove to Y’s house and sat outside in her car, crying. My own love life consisting mainly of random snogs in Ritzy, I found this all incredibly romantic – the secret, doomed affair. Amongst the many details which impressed me was that fact that Y had sent X poems. X told me one of them, ‘The Good-Morrow’ by John Donne, was the most passionate love poem ever written.
A while later, X gave me a copy of ‘The Good-Morrow’. She had fallen in love with me. I was in love with Z, a lanky indie boy pining for his previous girlfriend, and could not reciprocate, however many times she told me that I was destroying her and she was failing her mock A-levels because she sat in the shower every night banging her head against the wall. Having just started writing the poems that would form my first book, ‘The Heavy-Petting Zoo’, I penned Donne-like verses for Z to read, which seemed to simultaneously attract and scare him. We went on a couple of dates which mainly consisted of him telling me how much he missed his last girlfriend; fumbled on his bed. Then, drunk and weepy one night because I couldn’t handle X’s depression, I foolishly told Z that X loved me. Weeks later he mentioned something to X, and she snogged him to prove she wasn’t lesbian.
That year we were all heartbroken.
John Donne, then, is for me intrinsically linked with all the dramas and intensities of my teenage years. As we were discovering our sexuality, X was pointing out the double-meaning of Donne’s ‘country pleasures’. As I gazed on Z playing with his band in tiny, grubby clubs, I was thinking: ‘For love all love of other sights controls, / And makes one little room an everywhere.’ Of the seven poems published in John Donne’s lifetime, only two were authorized by him, and they were instead written to be circulated in manuscript form amongst a coterie of his admirers. It seems fit that in Turton High Sixth Form in 1996 they were also circulating in handwritten form or as dog-eared photocopies; passed from lover to love-object.
‘The Good Morrow’ is considered to be one of Donne’s earliest poems, written when he was a young man studying at Lincoln’s Inn, London, in the late sixteenth century. It is full of the thrill of youthful sex – the uncharted territory of another body. When I was studying English Literature at Cambridge, a couple of years after sixth form, a tutor convinced me that it was a bawdy poem about two men rejecting count(ry), with the ‘hemispheres’ as arseholes (the letter o is used a lot, he noted) and ‘none shall slacken’ a reference to them both having penises. Reading it now I’m no longer sure, but I don’t think such an interpretation lessens it in any way. It is a poem about the wonder of finally possessing the person you love, and if it hints at the fun and filth of discovery then for me that only deepens the poem’s intimacy.
Each relationship teaches us to love better. My husband, who I met at university, looks remarkably similar to Z. When I read him the poem, my favourite lines are now: ‘If ever any beauty I did see, / Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.’