Featured Poem: Present in Absence by John Donne

This week’s Featured Poem is a selection from John Donne, considered to be the founder of the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century. Donne’s style was known for its vibrancy, inventiveness and paradoxes, one of which is set up in the very title of this poem – how can we think of ‘absence’ as ‘present’, and how does time ‘settle’ and also ‘tarry’?

Donne’s poetry was revived in the 20th centrury by poets including W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, influencing many of the modernists of the era. Ahead of our latest course looking at the works of Eliot, it’s worth bearing in mind the verse of the man he deemed to ‘possess a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.

Present in Absence

Absence, hear thou my protestation
Against thy strength,
Distance, and length;
Do what thou canst for alteration:
For hearts of truest mettle
Absence doth join, and Time doth settle.

Who loves a mistress of such quality,
His mind hath found
Affection’s ground
Beyond time, place, and all mortality.
To hearts that cannot vary
Absence is present, Time doth tarry.

My senses want their outward motion
Which now within
Reason doth win,
Redoubled by her secret notion:
Like rich men that take pleasure
In hiding more than handling treasure.

By absence this good means I gain,
That I can catch her,
Where none can watch her,
In some close corner of my brain:
There I embrace and kiss her;
And so enjoy her and none miss her.

John Donne

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