August 20, 2011

An Epithalamion

John Donne has long been among my favourite poets. In the context of seventeenth century English literature, he (along with George Herbert, another Anglican parishoner) provides a nice counterbalance to Milton's tepid relationship to the body.

Indeed, it seemed quite natural that I should turn to Donne's poetry after being asked to select and read something "poetic" at a friend's wedding. But selecting a poem from Donne's corpus turned out to be quite difficult; if it's not about death or sex, it's about frustrated desire--not the kind of thing you want to read at the wedding of one of your best friends. After poring through an anthology of Donne's poetry, this epithalamion, or marriage song, turned out to be my best option. Not only does it locate love in the life/death of St. Valentine; it's also full of understated Christian allegory. Although it was a little bit awkward to read (maybe I should have just gone with something by e.e. cummings), I thought it quite fitting for an outdoor wedding. I guess I'm on a bird kick.

Below, I've posted what I ended up reading. Follow the link for the last several stanzas.


by John Donne

HAIL Bishop Valentine, whose day this is ;
         All the air is thy diocese,
         And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners ;
         Thou marriest every year
The lyric lark, and the grave whispering dove,
The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher ;
         Thou makest the blackbird speed as soon,
As doth the goldfinch, or the halcyon ;
The husband cock looks out, and straight is sped,
And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.
This day more cheerfully than ever shine ;
This day, which might enflame thyself, old Valentine.

Till now, thou warmd'st with multiplying loves
         Two larks, two sparrows, or two doves ;
         All that is nothing unto this ;
For thou this day couplest two phoenixes ;
         Thou makst a taper see
What the sun never saw, and what the ark
—Which was of fouls and beasts the cage and park—
Did not contain, one bed contains, through thee ;
         Two phoenixes, whose joined breasts
Are unto one another mutual nests,
Where motion kindles such fires as shall give
Young phoenixes, and yet the old shall live ;
Whose love and courage never shall decline,
But make the whole year through, thy day, O Valentine.

No comments:

Post a Comment