The first time I remember reading John Donne, I was in middle school and I was reading Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones. In that children's fantasy story, Donne's poem Song becomes both a curse and a series of clues for the wizard Howl, a key for deciphering his fate and the only help he has in avoiding it. The first stanza begins:
Go and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all the past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
A few weeks ago, about ten years after first reading Howl's Moving Castle, I found myself sitting in St. Paul's Cathedral, listening to a recital of experimental 20th-century French organ music. I wasn't sitting in the gorgeously frigid sanctuary, freezing my fingers off, for Olivier Messiaen; I was there because of Donne. He was the dean of the cathedral before he died and before its makeover by Sir Christopher Wren.
It was because of Donne, and his fellow English Renaissance poets, that I had boarded a plane to England to spend two weeks running around the country, visiting libraries, speaking with scholars and walking in some of the places where they lived. I was searching for inspiration and enlightenment for my senior thesis, an extensive comparative analysis of travel, home, and space in Donne's work and in the poems of Andrew Marvell.
Quotes from these poets and others crowd my laptop dashboard and collect in massive Word documents; their words surround and punctuate my thought life. Through studying these writers, I've learned about love and fear, home and hope, and the gradations of disappointment. I've learned about the mechanics of language, the fine-point needlework of vocabulary and syntax. I've learned about the relationship of reason to emotion, of the self to society, and the struggle between art and nature.
In the interlude between stumbling upon "Go and catch a falling star" as a kid and listening to experimental organ music as a semi-mature college senior, I fell in love with John Donne and the world of English Renaissance poetry. This poetry, for me, has become a series of clues to my own humanity, a key to deciphering the workings of the soul.
So my senior thesis comes out of something like an obsession; and as I talk to my fellow Wellesley thesis martyrs, it appears that obsession is a requirement for the program. Whether their topic is preschool friendship formation or conflict in the Middle East, most of my thesis friends can't have a casual conversation without mentioning a footnote, a scholar, a pain-in-the-ass chapter that refuses to be written.
I recently made a short film about some of the students who had won the Jerome A. Schiff fellowship, the same grant that funded my trip to England a few weeks ago. As I interviewed these women, I watched how each woman came alive when she talked about her project, how her eyes lit up and hands gestured to capture just how cool her thesis was, just how lucky she felt to be working on it. It made me think: This is the nirvana of academic life, the drug everyone should try in college.
Donne's Song is in some ways a nonsense poem or, as the Wizard Howl discovers, a list of impossible tasks, attempting to misogynistically prove the infidelity of beautiful women. But it is also a poem that encourages one to act, to seek, to hunt impossible creatures and find evidence of myth and magic in order to prove a point. It is a poem of creative obsession -- and one that inspires me to pursue my own.